Russ Feingold is running for president. Not officially, not formally, but he is running.
He has begun speaking in the appropriate places, talking to the appropriate people and winking and nodding as his political supporters post advertisements of his availability on the appropriate Web sites. And while some armchair pundits have suggested that the decision he and his wife have made to divorce will kill his national prospects, the fact is that the small percentage of Americans who get all exercised about marital issues was never going to back Feingold anyway - just as they wouldn't vote for former President Ronald Reagan, former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich or other divorced pols.
So the Feingold for President campaign is a going proposition. Now, the challenge is to forge the themes that will make it viable.
If Feingold is smart - and it should be accepted by now that the man who has beaten political expectations in three U.S. Senate contests is smart - he will maintain his maverick ways. He should not run a campaign that borrows from the failed catalog of policies and platitudes that has diminished and derailed so many previous progressive candidacies for the presidency.
To begin to compete with more prominent and politically connected contenders for the Democratic nomination in 2008, Feingold will need to find new ground on which to stand. He will need to excite the imaginations not just of the circle of liberal Democrats who have already been excited by his anti-war and anti-corporate votes. To do that, he needs to go to his place of greatest strength: the memory of his lonely vote against the Patriot Act.
That vote, in the fall of 2001, was supposed to spell his political doom. Instead, it marked Feingold as the most courageous and consistent defender of the Bill of Rights.
It is from that position that he should run for the presidency.
America is ripe for a renewal of the commitment to founding principles. Indeed, after eight years of listening to George W. Bush prattle on about human rights and liberty - while undermining both - American voters will be ready for a leader who understands and values the real thing.
There is a model for such a campaign playing out right now, in this spring's campaign against Bush's closest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The May 5 British election will feature a competition involving three major parties: Blair's Labor Party, the Conservative Party of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her successors, and the smaller but increasingly viable Liberal Democrat Party. The Liberal Democrats are making freedom a central tenet of their campaign against Labor and the Conservatives, both of which have backed assaults on basic liberties that mirror those implemented by the Bush administration over the past four years. A headline in London's Guardian newspaper says it all: "Lib Dems to fight on freedom platform."
In announcing his party's freedom platform - a series of commitments to protect civil liberties in Britain - Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy declared, "There is an important division emerging here in British politics - which supercedes the old language of left or right. It is a division between 'liberal' and 'illiberal'; between those whose instinct in dealing with complex problems is authoritarian, and those who seek an effective balance between our rights, responsibilities and security."
The insurgent party leader's "clarion call for liberty" speech struck a note that has been too long lost from the American political discourse - or what passes for discourse in presidential campaigns.
"We are lucky in this country to live in a democratic and free society," Kennedy declared. "We have a tradition of free speech and a right to protest. We are proud of our legal system based on the right to a fair trial - on the principle of habeas corpus. We have a tradition of providing safety for those fleeing persecution. These are principles which we have fought for and which we treasure. They are part of the fabric of our nation. They must be defended."
Great Britain's Charles Kennedy is articulate, and wise in his approach to the issues. But he is no match for America's Russ Feingold, the scholar and defender of the Constitution. And a clarion call for liberty will always be heard more clearly in the land that revolted against British colonialism than on the home ground of empire.
Just as Tom Paine, an Englishman who cared more for freedom than the whims of King George III, taught the American revolutionaries of another time a lesson in revolution, so Charles Kennedy's campaign offers Russ Feingold a lesson in how to seek the presidency of the United States in 2008. He must do so as a tribune of the liberties lost during eight years of rule by the new King George.
© 2005 Capital Times