Will Iraq make Russell Feingold the new Howard Dean?

By

On a Friday night in late September, dozens of Democratic activists
filled a slightly dingy American Legion Hall in Epping, New
Hampshire. It had been less than a year since the last presidential
election, but, in the Granite State, the 2008 campaign was already
sputtering to life. And so, as people sat at long folding tables at
the Rockingham County Democratic Committee Eleanor Roosevelt
Covered Dish Dinner, picking at potluck offerings of varying
edibility, a Democratic activist named John Rauh took the podium to
prime them for their guest--Russell Feingold, a Democratic senator
from Wisconsin. First, Rauh explained, "As a member of the Foreign
Relations Committee, and subsequently in the full Senate, Russ
voted against the war in Iraq." At this, the crowd, filled with
bitter opponents of the war, burst into rousing applause. Then Rauh
noted that Feingold had recently "voted with the majority" to
confirm John Roberts as chief justice of the Supreme Court. "You may
or may not agree with that. But I suggest that it indicates the
deep degree of independence within his soul as he ponders leading
this nation as a United States senator," Rauh said. Now the hall
was silent; if people agreed with this interpretation, they didn't
feel moved to say so. "Finally, as you reflect on Russ as a leader,
be aware that he was the only member of the United States Senate to
vote against the Patriot Act," he said. At this, the hall exploded
into a long standing ovation.This thundering ovation was one of many moments during Feingold's
toe- dipping New Hampshire visit that illustrated this relatively
obscure senator's rising political fortunes. Feingold's appearances
drew large crowds of voters yearning for a Democrat who would speak
out and stand on principle, who would risk career suicide to cast a
lonely, unpopular vote. And, in Feingold, they had found their man.
Here was a Democrat who unequivocally opposed the Iraq war and has
proposed a specific timetable to withdraw U.S. troops. Such
Democrats are in short supply. Feingold may emerge as the only 2008
Democratic candidate who voted against the Iraq war: Hillary
Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, Joe Biden, and Evan Bayh all
supported the 2002 war resolution, while governors Tom Vilsack of
Iowa and Mark Warner of Virginia are hawkish-sounding centrists.
Wesley Clark might credibly challenge Feingold's antiwar mantle, but
even he was famously inconsistent about Iraq in 2004.

For many of these New Hampshire Democrats, Feingold and his fearless
approach reminded them of their last true love: Howard Dean. When
Feingold appeared on a Manchester-area radio show, one man called
in and said, "I think I'm hearing Howard Dean." After Feingold's
speech in Epping, a Democrat in the audience named Kevin Bowe
suggested to me that "he's clearly positioned to get that Howard
Dean thing going." Meanwhile, on the Huffington Post blog--one of
many liberal websites to celebrate Feingold of late--the leftist
icon Tom Hayden recently asked, "Is Russ Feingold the Next Howard
Dean?"

This is great news for a man clearly interested in running for
president in 2008--and an ulcer-maker for the current presumed
Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton. But the Dean-Feingold
comparison has its limits. Dean almost always told liberals what
they wanted to hear. Feingold, by contrast, has a track record of
quirky independence that routinely alienates his ideological
allies. His career is riddled with positions--from backing Roberts
to supporting campaign finance reform to defending Bill Clinton's
impeachment trial--that leave other Democrats wanting to wring his
neck. His unpredictable political style "can be very annoying
sometimes," says David Newby, a Feingold ally who is president of
the Wisconsin afl-cio. Dean was never so complicated. At the
moment, however, Feingold's future may hinge on one simple word:
Iraq.

Last month, Cindy Sheehan, the bereaved mother crusading against the
Iraq war, posted an open letter on the website of left-wing
filmmaker Michael Moore. Her latest target wasn't the man she
staked out last summer--George W. Bush-- but the new villain of the
antiwar left: Hillary Clinton. Sheehan's letter excoriated Clinton
for backing the Iraq war and for her refusal to call for a speedy
withdrawal of U.S. troops. "That sounds like Rush Limbaugh to me.
That doesn't sound like an opposition party leader speaking,"
Sheehan wrote. "I think [Clinton] is a political animal who
believes she has to be a war hawk to keep up with the big boys."

One Democratic strategist told me he thinks Clinton's problem is not
ideology but authenticity--a sense among people like Sheehan that
Clinton's positions are based more on politics than principle.
Authenticity will never be a problem for Feingold. To the extent
he's known outside of Washington, it's for standing on principle.
And no issue has symbolized this like his opposition to the Iraq
war. That was clear when Feingold visited a Service Employees
International Union (seiu) office earlier that Friday for an
informal roundtable with about a dozen key party activists,
including union leaders, local politicians, and state party
officials. In the parking lot, several cars still bore Dean bumper
stickers. (Tellingly, I saw no Kerry signage.) As people grabbed
chocolate-chip cookies and apples, Kathy Sullivan, the state
party's executive director, hit all the key notes from Feingold's
bio: Harvard Law. Rhodes Scholar. Campaign finance reformer. Then
she looked up from her notes and got to what may have been the real
reason people were there. "He's especially interesting," she added,
"because he's really led the way on the position that I think
Democrats should have on the Iraq war."

It's hard to say how Iraq will look once intense primary campaigning
begins in late 2007. But it's safe to assume that the war will
shape the campaign's early dynamics. Indeed, Feingold's Iraq
position is already causing friction between Clinton and the left.
According to The Village Voice, in late September, a group of 30
New York antiwar activists wrangled a meeting with a Clinton
legislative aide. The purpose of the meeting was to "pressure" the
aide to embrace a Senate resolution setting an exit
timetable--Feingold's resolution, that is.

Feingold seems aware that he's onto a good thing, politically. In
New Hampshire and in a series of Senate speeches, he has regularly
reiterated his opposition to the war, his frustration with
Democrats who aren't speaking out, and his call for a withdrawal
timeline. At the seiu roundtable, he was eager to steer the
discussion along these lines. "How deep is the sentiment here in
New Hampshire about Iraq?" Feingold asked.

Paul Hodes, a party activist who is running for Congress, spoke up.
"In our base, the sentiment I hear is very strong for `get out
now.' That's what I'm hearing from people as I go around the
state," Hodes said. "I was in Littleton last night. The message was
very strong, saying, as Democrats, `Iraq was a mistake, and get out
right now.'"

Feingold has not called for the United States to get out of Iraq
"right now. " But he is the only major congressional Democrat to
set a specific withdrawal timetable. The impetus for his proposal
was a trip he took to Iraq in February with a small Senate
delegation that included, of all people, Hillary Clinton. Feingold
had never visited Iraq before, and he was appalled by what he saw
there. "We couldn't stay overnight in Iraq," he said recently. "We
couldn't drive from the airport to the Green Zone. When we went to
the Green Zone, the helicopters had to go just over the palm trees
so they wouldn't get shot down. We never got to go out to see the
rest of Baghdad, because they couldn't take us out safely. We wore
flak jackets and helmets in the Green Zone. And people are worried
about chaos if we leave?"

Conditions in Iraq are certainly nasty. But Feingold has long
harbored wariness about U.S. military action. When Republicans
forced a 1995 Senate vote to cut off funding for U.S. military
forces in Bosnia, for instance, he was the sole Democrat to join 21
conservatives in support of the resolution. As other Democrats
waxed idealistic about human rights, Feingold fretted about Vietnam
parallels and worried that "our attempting to police the world
threatens our own national security." By 1997, he was fighting to
cut off funding for military operations in Bosnia and to begin an
early withdrawal of U.S. forces. "What they haven't done is define
a concrete exit strategy for our American troops," he said at the
time. "This administration needs to sit down and work with Congress
to map out a specific schedule for bringing our troops home, or
they will be there for a very, very long time." Likewise, Feingold
cast just one of three Democratic `no' votes against the 1999
Kosovo bombing campaign. "It's a compelling notion that the
American government has an obligation to stop brutality and
genocide. I can't dispute that," he told the Milwaukee
Journal-Sentinel in March of 1999. "But how can we be acting in
Bosnia and Kosovo and not Rwanda, or Sudan, or East Timor, or even
Tibet?" Feingold even told me that, during the 2000 presidential
campaign, "I liked some of the things George W. Bush said about
nation-building."

When it came to Iraq, Feingold concluded in the wake of his trip
there that the occupation was doing more harm than good--both to
the future of Iraq and to America's global national security
interests. He soon began urging the Bush administration to offer a
more detailed exit strategy. On August 18, he went a step further,
delivering a speech in Marquette, Wisconsin, setting December 31,
2006, as the target date for the withdrawal of all American troops
from Iraq. Feingold stresses that his deadline comes "with
flexibility," a caveat that some critics say renders it close to
meaningless. But that's almost beside the point. What is most
significant is the way Feingold, as he himself says, "broke a
taboo." Previously, no other mainstream congressional Democrat had
proposed an Iraq exit strategy. Fearful of being called weak or
taking a position that could consign Iraq to chaos, even liberals
in the House have generally held their tongues.

Feingold's speech was an instant hit across the liberal blogosphere.
Already a minor hero for his lonely vote against the Patriot Act,
Feingold was suddenly hailed as a Democratic savior for 2008 at
major "netroots" sites like Daily Kos and MyDD. In particular, the
blog crowd loved the way Feingold's critique of the war displayed
his "spine." Some argued Feingold's bravery, in and of itself, was
at least as important as his substantive position. "I think many
Americans are less attracted by ideas and positions on the issues
and more attracted by backbone, tenacity, and the ability to stand
up for beliefs," wrote one commenter at MyDD. The notion was also
echoed by David Sirota, a former House staffer turned liberal
blogger, who argued in one dispatch that Feingold "continues to
courageously take on the Washington, D.C. Democratic Establishment
and its weak-kneed fear of taking any sort of serious stand on
Iraq. Be sure not to miss that profile in courage, Sen. Joe Biden,
as he provides a perfect example of why the public believes
Democrats stand for nothing. Feingold, by contrast, seems to
understand the need for his party to take strong stands--especially
on the most pressing national security/foreign policy issue facing
our country right now." Even when Feingold was walking down a
Manchester, New Hampshire, street, a stranger walked up to him to
declare, "You're a man of courage!"

Almost immediately after his speech, Feingold's numbers began
climbing in monthly online straw polls staged by MyDD and Daily
Kos. Such polls aren't exactly the Iowa caucuses, of course. But
they're still good barometers of sentiment within the crowd that
helped turn Dean from protest candidate to near- nominee. Clark,
who is still surprisingly popular, routinely wins these polls. But
Feingold now places second nearly every time--and his numbers are
growing. In an October straw poll, he won 23 percent of the vote
compared with Clark's 31 percent. His next closest rival was last
year's vice presidential nominee, John Edwards, at a mere 12
percent. Hillary Clinton polled just 7 percent.

That suggests Feingold is capturing the high-octane Internet power
that fueled the Dean phenomenon. But much of what these bloggers
know about him is based on his votes on Iraq and the Patriot Act.
The rest of his career might surprise them.

Throughout his weekend in New Hampshire, one question dogged
Feingold like a nagging cough: Why did you vote for John Roberts?
The question came up twice during a listening session Feingold held
at Dartmouth College in Hanover. Overall, it was a welcoming crowd;
one organizer called the turnout--around 130 people early on a
Saturday morning--"truly astounding." But Roberts was the fly in
the ointment. Arguing that "his jurisprudence led to the decision
in" Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the 2004 Supreme Court case ruling on the
rights of suspected terrorist detainees, one questioner (among
three who mentioned Roberts) asked with a touch of indignation, "Is
it acceptable that the judiciary is going to accept my country's
systemic use of torture and violation of habeas corpus? And, if
that's unacceptable, how can we suggest that John Roberts is
mainstream?"

While Clinton struggles with questions about her authenticity,
Feingold will likely be forced to answer questions about his sense
of "principle." Throughout his Senate career, Feingold has taken
stances that leave fellow Democrats befuddled and angry. Often
that's thanks to his fixation on the integrity of the political
process--which he sometimes values above his partisan and even
ideological imperatives. Unlike Democrats eager to torment Bush at
every possible turn, for instance, Feingold believes the Senate
should defer to a president's choice of nominees. Thus, he
infuriated liberals in 2001 by voting for the confirmation of John
Ashcroft as attorney general. And, at a time when other potential
2008 contenders--even moderates like Indiana's Bayh--said they
couldn't bring themselves to vote for Roberts, Feingold did, saying
Roberts was well-credentialed and the best Democrats could expect
from Bush.

Feingold's emphasis on process flows from the Wisconsin Progressive
tradition--exemplified by the state's political icon, "Fighting" Bob
La Folette- -which battled to reform the political system. He was
raised in a middle-class Wisconsin town, tutored in politics by a
lawyer father who ran unsuccessfully for local offices as a
Progressive and who taught him, as Feingold once told a local
paper, "that honest and decent politics is an honorable
profession." Feingold idolized John F. Kennedy as a boy and spoke
openly about his own political aspirations. After college at the
University of Wisconsin, followed by a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford
and Harvard Law School, he became a white- collar lawyer until he
ran for the Wisconsin state legislature and won. When he first ran
for U.S. Senate in 1992, his focus was tellingly process-oriented:
Feingold posted a list of campaign pledges on his garage door, which
included pledges to attend every vote, maintain his Wisconsin
residence, and refuse pay raises and most out-of-state campaign
donations.

In Washington, Feingold has maintained his processorientation--to
the frequent dismay of his fellow Democrats. The most obvious
example is his relentless advocacy of major campaign finance reform
in the late '90s and early '00s. When he teamed up with John McCain
to pass new campaign finance restrictions a few years ago, many
Democratic party officials felt near-panic over the legislation's
ban on "soft money" fund-raising by the national parties, a cash
stream that was far more important to Democrats than to
Republicans. (McCain-Feingold's long-term effects are still
uncertain, though the rise of Internet fund-raising has spared
Democrats for now.) But Feingold didn't care: This is a man who
demanded that the Democratic party stop running ads in support of
his own 1998 Senate campaign because he opposed soft money-funded
ads in principle. "Get the hell out of my state with those things,"
he said at the time. "It was kind of frustrating," says his friend
Newby of the afl-cio.

Within the Senate, some Democrats see Feingold as less a noble
reformer and more a holier-than-thou prig. He once tried,
unsuccessfully, to bar members of Congress from making personal use
of frequent-flier miles earned on their official travels. He is
totally ascetic about the influence of lobbyists and has fought to
ban lobbyist gifts for lawmakers. He also requires his own staff to
observe stricter limits than Senate rules dictate, forbidding them
from accepting the most token gifts from outsiders. Even junior
aides--including interns--are prohibited from snacking and drinking
at the countless Capitol Hill receptions held by various trade
associations and happily mobbed by hundreds of Hill staffers.

On its own, this would be enough to give Feingold a hall-monitor
reputation. ("He's like the kid in class who tattles on everyone
else," says one Democratic Hill aide turned lobbyist.) But maybe
nothing annoys Feingold's colleagues as much as his fights against
annual cost-of-living raises granted to senators. Such raises now
kick in automatically by law, but Feingold has tried to change
that, and he routinely battles to force an invariably embarrassing
Senate debate--and recorded vote--on them. "It's not my favorite
time of year in the Senate," Feingold concedes. (Although Feingold
is a pauper by Senate standards, he refuses pay raises and donates
anything over his

$162,100 starting salary for deficit reduction--more than $50,000 so
far.)

Maybe the ultimate Feingold heresy came during the 1998-1999 Clinton
impeachment fight. When Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West
Virginia offered a resolution to dismiss the charges against the
president, every Democrat voted for the resolution but one:
Feingold. Again, the issue was process. Feingold argued that
Republicans deserved a chance to make their case and put it to a
vote and that the Byrd resolution would "in appearance, and in fact,
improperly short-circuit this trial" and "call the fairness of the
process into question." The vote was a disaster among his
Democratic constituents, according to the Wisconsin Democratic
Party chairwoman, who told The Washington Post: "We're getting a
lot of very upset people calling. ... Elderly people crying, other
people yelling.... They're just mad as hell." Feingold ultimately
voted against impeachment. But watching him explain his interim
vote promises to amuse. One adviser to a potential 2008 rival said
he could envision cutting a "Feingold favored impeachment" ad.
That's hardly a winning position with the Democratic base--not to
mention a touchy debating point on a stage with Hillary Clinton.

Nevertheless, in New Hampshire, Feingold rarely missed a chance to
slam his fellow Washington Democrats for mounting a timid
opposition to the GOP. "We, as Democrats, have to provide a genuine
alternative to the Republican Party," he said in Epping. "We cannot
just be what I like to call Republican lite. That will not work."
At various points, I heard Feingold denounce Democrats as being
"too timid" on Iraq, complain that they provided votes to pass a GOP
energy bill this summer, and even boast that he was the only Senate
Democrat to criticize the "Gang of 14" compromise that averted the
Senate "nuclear option" showdown this spring. (Feingold said the
compromise conceded too much to the Republicans.) It was a striking
echo of Dean's vow to represent "the Democratic wing of the
Democratic party"--made all the more impressive coming from a man
who has to work every day with the same Capitol Hill Democrats he
was bashing.

All of which makes Feingold something of a loner in the Senate.
Although respected for his intellect and integrity, Feingold
"doesn't have any friends" in the chamber, according to one veteran
Democratic aide. It may even be fair to say he has a few enemies.
For example, Feingold told me that, in the heat of one pay-raise
debate a few years ago, one of his colleagues marched up to him.
"Feingold," the senator said, "if we go into Iraq, we're strapping
you onto the first missile!"

Back in New Hampshire, it was early on Saturday morning, and the
only thing Feingold was strapped to was the seat of a rented van.
Cruising down the highway from Manchester to Dartmouth, Feingold
held court with a handful of reporters. He was impressive in close
quarters: a quick and clear thinker with less of a tendency to
drone on than the average senator (including a certain recent
Democratic presidential nominee). Reminiscing about his Rhodes
scholar days--playing squash with Tom Friedman, talking sports with
future NFL quarterback Pat Haden--Feingold had a certain
goody-two-shoes quality. (Though he grew surprisingly animated when
reminded that Dartmouth had been the fictionalized setting for
Animal House. It turns out Feingold can quote readily from some of
the movie's more obscure scenes.)

On the drive, Feingold chose to emphasize a surprising theme.
Although he's a rising star today for his antiwar position, he made
a point of talking about his party's standing on national security
issues. "I think Democrats bankrupt their credibility if they
cannot say there is no room for trying to understand Al Qaeda. The
idea that you would negotiate [with terrorists] is unacceptable."
He continued, speaking in the steady and reasoned voice of the
litigator he once was: "If we are not perceived as strong and able
to deal with international threats, we won't win. I do agree with
some of those more conservative Democrats who say we need to do
this. I just don't buy their argument about Iraq."

Feingold was clearly driving home a calculated talking
point--perhaps one intended to compensate for his markedly dovish
record on military action in the '90s. But, in that sense, it
showed him to be savvier than your typical one- note antiwar
candidate. Certainly, Feingold has been thinking about what it
takes to run a national campaign; in one conversation, he made an
offhand reference to an obscure detail in The Making of the
President, 1960.

But this kind of independent streak, especially when it doesn't
match liberal activists' ideological principles, can be a
liability. After his speech in Epping, during which he insisted
that Democrats must "show passion for American national security"
and make it clear that, "if there are people out there who want to
kill us, we should stop them first," a few activists complained to
reporters afterward that he had sounded too "hawkish."

Episodes like these raise the question of whether Democratic
activists really are yearning for a candidate who stands up for
what he "believes"-- whether, as that one commenter at MyDD
suggested, bravery is more important than ideology. The flak
Feingold has taken over his less predictable opinions-- on Roberts
or on a tough national security policy, for instance--suggests this
may not be the case at all.

What's more, Feingold may soon lose his monopoly on the out-of-Iraq
mantle. "The ground is about to shift on this thing, and Democrats
and Republicans alike are going to be advocating bringing the
troops home," said an aide to one potential 2008 Democrat. John
Kerry recently called for the withdrawal of 20, 000 U.S. troops
after the Iraqi elections in December, and former Senate Democratic
Leader Tom Daschle has proposed withdrawal by December 2007.

For now, however, Feingold is the best hope that antiwar liberals
have. Even if some pro-war candidates echo his themes, they can't
change their original vote for invading Iraq. Feingold can also
credibly say he launched the withdrawal debate. And his lonely
opposition to the Patriot Act is forever fixed in liberal lore.
Yes, his presidential dreams face obstacles: He's Jewish. He has
been divorced twice. He's not about to rouse the "Democratic wing
of the Democratic party" with a primal scream. But, in reality, his
odds of winning the Democratic nomination are slim anyway. What
Feingold can do is make life miserable for the other Democrats who
seek it. Dean didn't defeat Kerry, after all. But he was the
proximate cause for Kerry's vote against the

$87 billion war appropriations bill--a vote that haunted Kerry in
the general election. In 2008, perhaps Feingold will play the role
of Dean to Clinton's Kerry, battering her image and dragging her
further left than she can afford to go. A couple of years from now,
in other words, it may be Hillary Clinton who wants to strap Russ
Feingold onto a missile.

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