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September 18, 2005

Why Russ Could Win

Shakes here, doing the salon thing with a follow-up to Neil’s post on Why Hillary Will Lose. I agree whole-heartedly with Neil’s assessment of Hillary, and his conclusions. Americans on the Left and the Right, any who aren’t blind ideologues, have a natural distaste for disingenuous rhetoric clearly designed to appeal to a crowd they haven’t previously; it’s the worst kind of artificial politicking, that which helps no one but (ostensibly) the person who’s doing it. If you need any evidence, try to find anyone who enthusiastically supported Hillary’s devolution into culture vulturism to take on the makers of Grand Theft Auto.

That said, I’m not sure that Russ Feingold’s liberalism will have as limited appeal as it might seem at first blush. It’s true that Feingold is now ranked the most liberal Senator (tied with Boxer) in the Senate, which would likely be, under typical circumstances, a liability. But with the opportunity having presented itself to hold accountable not just the Bush administration, but the conservative agenda, for many of the massive government failures we’ve seen lately, the game has changed a bit. Whether the Dems will exploit that opportunity in the same way the Lefty blogosphere managed to do quite effectively is, of course, a another story altogether, but if they can, the time for being brave enough to juxtapose the conservative agenda with a clear liberal alternative might have come.

It’s also useful to consider what the big referendum issues are likely to be in 2008 (which I will preface with the caveat that things might change; one never knows). But if, as we can at this point rightly expect, the Iraq War, the GWOT, and associated legislation to be key issues, Feingold’s going to have a lot less semantic gymnastics to do than some of his likely competitors. He voted against the war, and in a twist on the thorn in Kerry’s side, voted for the $87 billion once the war was underway; something tells me he’ll have an easier time explaining why he didn’t support the war, but did support the troops once they were there, than Kerry had trying to justify his votes in reverse. As support for the war wanes, someone who never supported it in the first place may find himself nicely positioned in 2008.

Feingold was also the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act, another increasingly unpopular bit of Bush administration crapola, and suddenly a vote that might once have simply looked “liberal,” might instead be seen as having integrity—something that “unprincipled opportunists” who fight for the muddy middle will toil to counter.

During the spate of confirmation hearings directly after Bush’s inauguration, Feingold was criticized (and rightly so) for voting for Rice, even after giving a statement questioning her credentials. It was probably a bad vote, but by 2008, I doubt it will be much of an issue, and his only conceivable challengers who could claim otherwise are Kerry, who won’t be redeemed from other troubles by a no-vote on Condi, and Evan Bayh, who has a centrism problem similar to Hillary’s. (Feingold did vote no on Gonzales, for whatever it’s worth, and I think, again, by 2008, it won’t be worth much at all.)

Feingold may have other problems, in areas that shouldn’t matter, but might nonetheless. He’s twice-divorced (or will finalize his second divorce soon), and so when 2008 rolls around, he’ll either be thrice-married or a bachelor, either of which, if history accurately informs, are likely to be exploited by a GOP opponent who knows s/he can’t win on issues. He’s also Jewish, and I’ve no firm feeling about whether that would make a dime’s worth of difference to anyone besides bigoted dicks who would never vote for him, anyway, but it’s an unknown similar to that which would face a female or black candidate, or anyone who would be the first of anything—the question mark of American bigotry that hums beneath the surface in things that go unsaid. Neither of these potential issues have anything to do with whether he’d make a good president, which of course makes them perfect fodder for GOP-machine campaign tactics.

Leaving that aside, I’m unconvinced Feingold’s liberalism itself will be a liability in 2008. When one of the loudest complaints about Dems is that it’s unclear where they stand on things, a candidate with a firm vision (who’s a good speaker to boot) may answer that complaint quite handily. Liberalism isn’t a dirty word, and it needs no apology, which the Dems seem to have forgotten, but perhaps they’re willing to change course, unlike some other politicians I could mention.

September 18, 2005 | Permalink

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» Russ, Russ, he's our man from Common Sense
Ezra has a post on why Sen. Russ Feingold's liberalism may not be so much of a liability come 2008. I would like to echo the high points: It’s also useful to consider what the big referendum issues are likely [Read More]

Tracked on Sep 18, 2005 8:02:30 PM

» Russ, Russ, he's our man from Common Sense
Shakespeare's Sister has a post on why Sen. Russ Feingold's liberalism may not be so much of a liability come 2008. I would like to echo the high points: It’s also useful to consider what the big referendum issues are [Read More]

Tracked on Sep 18, 2005 9:24:05 PM

Comments

Feingold's no vote on Iraq may indeed help him, but it won't matter. You mention the key issues that the Republican machine will successfully use against him: his liberal reputation and his two divorces. Rush Limbaugh et al will have a field day bashing him as a Michael Moore clone. As for the divorces, we're not that far from the era in which one divorce was enough to kill a candidacy. Reagan was able to overcome that, mostly because his second marriage was obviously solid. Even if Feingold is in a successful third marriage by the time he runs, the family-values crowd will be all over the two divorces. Again, that swing group that the Dems need is persuaded by gut feelings and images, not by policies, and they're not going to be comfortable with a candidate with a troubled family life.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD | Sep 18, 2005 2:17:09 PM

Another plus that Feingold has going for him is that Republicans vote for him here in Wisconsin. I know that may seem strange since he is liberal, but Wisconsinites see him as a straight shooter who fights for what is right for Wisconsin and the country.

People want someone to vote FOR, and too many democrats run on platforms that say, "I'm not the other guy, don't vote for him", like Kerry. You don't really get a sense of what they are actually for, just that they think they aren't as bad as the other guy. I wish more Democrats would take note of Feingold's success, it's because he takes stands that take courage that we here in Wisconsin vote for him. He definitely isn't Republican-lite.

Posted by: Donna | Sep 18, 2005 3:00:57 PM

that swing group that the Dems need is persuaded by gut feelings and images, not by policies

I wonder if there's a sense among certain swing voters, however, of "we're onto you" in general with the GOP. It's probably unreasonably optimistic of me, but there is a chance that part of the Bush legacy will be generating some healthy cynicism for such tactics.

Posted by: Shakespeare's Sister | Sep 18, 2005 3:38:12 PM

I think Feingold's main problem is lack of name recognition. There needs to be a lot of effort between now and 2007 to raise his profile, and get him defined out there (even "bachelor Playboy" could work for him if he defines it on his own terms), or it's a replay of past party mistakes. This is part of wanting it in a serious way, and I'm not sure Feingold does. Even with more name value, I'm still not convinced that Feingold's liberalism and heartland hometown are enough to overcome what will be a bruising Dem primary season and an ugly general campaign. And I think Shakes is rushing things to say "now that we've gotten Hillary out of the way, here's the good alternative." That's not how this works. Hillary's not that easily dismissed, and one clear challenger is not likely to emerge for some time.

Posted by: weboy | Sep 18, 2005 3:57:02 PM

I hope Shakes is right about the swing voters, but I'm skeptical. The Republicans have much more control of the media than the Dems do, and they're much better at image manipulation. Also, we're talking here about appeals to people's emotions, not to rationality. People can be vaguely aware that they're being manipulated, but still respond. On a different subject, didn't you mean that Feingold voted FOR Rice, not against her? If so, as you say, it probably won't matter (the people who'd be most offended would be the ones most likely to support Feingold anyway, for other reasons, and thus likely to forgive him). On the other hand, I'm still trying to figure out why Rice' utterly incompetent work as the NSC Chair was rewarded with a promotion. On the other hand, she's actually done some decent work at State, and her influence with Bush (something Powell never had) has been useful.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD | Sep 18, 2005 4:11:39 PM

I think Feingold could win the general election. I think though that with the partisan divisions that exist today, there's a much wider range of Democrats who could win (including Hillary Clinton), and Russ is in the range. He's telegenic. He doesn't have that mad-liberal Ted Kennedy look. He doesn't tend to hyperbole when he speaks which is (IMO) a big voter turn-off. He'd need a smart campaign that new how to counter the "out of the mainstream" charges thrown at him. And those against-the-war, for-the-funding votes will help him.

Honestly, unless he were to run a horrible campaign against his opponent, I think Feingold's bigger problem would be in the primary rather than the general election. But I hope he runs. He'll liven things up a lot and put good issues on the table.

Posted by: tlaura | Sep 18, 2005 5:36:15 PM

I lived through McGovern, etc. Finegold will be marginalized by the MSM. He will not win the primary, but could ensure that Hillary Clinton wins.

Posted by: Judy | Sep 18, 2005 6:45:56 PM

On a different subject, didn't you mean that Feingold voted FOR Rice, not against her?

Yes, I did, Rebecca. Fixed, thank you.

I think Shakes is rushing things to say "now that we've gotten Hillary out of the way, here's the good alternative."

That's not what I was saying. I was simply explaining why I thought Russ was a contender.

Posted by: Shakespeare's Sister | Sep 18, 2005 8:09:47 PM

Russ is a contender and Hillary is a danger. Others are out. Do not forget Edwards, as the issue of poverty post-Katrina will be central in 2008:
http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2005/09/have-you-not-learned-yet-never.html

Posted by: coturnix | Sep 18, 2005 10:51:19 PM

As a Wisconsinite who had the pleasure of casting his first vote ever for Feingold in his 1998 re-election campaign, I can tell you that he has an ability to connect with swing voters and even Republicans (in 2004, Kerry won Wisconin by the smallest margin in the country, while Feingold coasted to victory with a fat margin). He is also notoriously good with the media: his commericals are always the best in the race. He won the 1992 Democratic primary as a looooong shot because the top two contenders went after each other in a brutal mud-slinging campaign, and Feingold put together a funny, self-deprecating series of commericals. In 1998, when Mitch McConnell targeted Feingold for defeat and he was getting hit hard for his opposition to the "partial-birth" abortion ban, he put on an add in which he just looked into the camera and said "I think abortion should be rare, safe and legal" and he ended up squeaking by. In '04, his opponent, a former Marine, put on an add criticizing Feingold's opposition to the Patriot Act (it even featured a swarthy Middle Eastern-type looking furtively at a nuclear plant through binoculars!). He came back with an ad featuring veterans of every war from WWII to Iraq saying they were glad that Feingold voted to protect the freedom they fought for.

The gist of this is that not only does Feingold have the advantages of a squeaky-clean ethical image and a principled, consistent record, he's also extremely savvy, and not likely to make the same sort of tone deaf mistakes that dogged the Gore and Kerry campaigns.

Posted by: Matt_C | Sep 19, 2005 12:55:47 AM

Thanks for that, Matt!

You know, I'm finding that people who like Feingold really, really like Feingold - which reminds me of Dean.

Posted by: Shakespeare's Sister | Sep 19, 2005 10:19:53 AM

You're right we really do like him. In fact I wrote and called his office to beg him to run for president in 2004. I got a nice letter back thanking me but that he wasn't interested in a presidential run and was gearing up for the senate reelection campaign.

I had Kerry, Feingold, and Bryan Kennedy signs out on my lawn during the election. The Kerry signs got stolen, and the Kennedy signs were stolen once, but they left the Feingold signs alone. I thought it was interesting that Rethuglican morons would let any Dem signs stand.

Posted by: Donna | Sep 19, 2005 11:22:42 AM

I'm a big Feingold supporter; if he enters the race, I'll be right there with him. That said, I am concerned about a few things. The Jewishness will be an issue, and not just with bigots who wouldn't vote for him anyway. They way it will work is the GOP will paint him as an out-of-touch elitist, who doesn't understand the concerns of everyday Americans. How do I know? Because that's what they say about all of our candidates, regardless of how accurate it is. Kerry fed into that perception with his lifestyle; I think Russ' Jewishness will make it stick, in spite of the fact that it couldn't be further from the truth. A lot of voters, particularly the unaffiliated, don't make decisions based on issues, but their perceptions of the candidate's personality, and whether he is "one of us", particularly for President. His Jewishness might make people feel on an unconscious level that he is not "one of us", without them ever thinking a genuinely anti-Semitic thought. So that's one concern.

The other is the death penalty. It tends not to be a big issue, because it has broad support on both sides of the aisle. But not if Russ got the nomination, because he's against it, and has called for a nationwide moratorium. This is something the GOP could make a big deal about, especially in the context of terrorism. I can already see the ads: "Russ Feingold opposes the death penalty for Osama Bin Laden!" It's something I think he could weather, but only if he sticks to his guns. Rove goes after the opposition's strengths not their weaknesses, so if Russ reverses himself, or even moderates his stance in the face of political pressures, he'll be portrayed as another Hillary/Kerry-style opportunist, in stark contrast to the actual facts.

Posted by: Greg | Sep 19, 2005 5:37:24 PM

Kerry is against the death penalty and it hardly came up at all during the campaign.

As for the elitist charge, the fact that Feingold is one of the least wealthy, if not THE least wealthy, members of the Senate should blunt the argument. The Jewishness might cause problems, but not insurmountable ones, in my view.

Posted by: Matt_C | Sep 19, 2005 10:31:54 PM

I hope Feingold doesn't remarry too soon. In fact, I hope he uses the swinging bachelor thing for all its worth, since it neutralizes one of the GOP's most powerful weapons, which is making the Democratic candidate look effete. Bill Clinton avoided this by being such a notorious womanizer (See Digby for much more on this.) Russ could do the same thing, if he doesn't remarry right away.

And yes, I'm as sad as anyone that it's gotten to this point, but seriously, the sooner we let go of the unsupportable idea that policy has anything whatsoever to do with electability, the better off we will be. And while I think Feingold would make a great President, I honestly don't care who the nominee is in 2008, so long as he/she can put on a decent fucking dog-and-pony show. To my mind, that requirement immediately disqualifies Clinton, Bayh, Biden, and Kerry.

Posted by: Thad | Sep 19, 2005 11:57:59 PM

Disqualify Clinton, Bayh, Biden and Kerry? Where do I fill out the paperwork for that?

Posted by: Matt_C | Sep 20, 2005 1:02:49 AM

Umm, do you have any polls to back up the claim that the patriot act is unpopular? Did you know that most Americans have a positive view of Hillary? Feingold isn't exactly cleaning up in Wisconsin. 6%, 1%, 11% are not fantastic numbers, even in a swing state.

Don't get me wrong - Feingold is #1 on my list. But this analysis is shoddy.

Posted by: Drew Miller | Sep 20, 2005 3:32:45 AM

I don't think the Patriot act is necessarily unpopular, but I absolutely don't believe that "HE VOTED AGAINST THE PATRIOT ACT!" is an effective charge against Feingold: the support for it is too ambivilent for that.

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