Russ Feingold interview

by Matthew Rothschild

The Progressive magazine, May 2002


Six days after George W. Bush signed the first major campaign finance bill in a generation, I drove out to the home office of Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin. The interview took place in a conference room lined with framed maps of Wisconsin showing Feingold's "listening sessions," which he holds year after year in county after county. His executive assistant, Nancy Mitchell, who has been with him for twenty-three years, greeted me and sat in for the interview.

Feingold entered wearing a gray suit with a white shirt and a gray, black, and white tie that matched his cropped hair. We exchanged pleasantries. He asked about my wife, Jean, a supporter of his who went to school with him at Janesville Craig High School; forty miles south of Madison. Jean's father and Feingold's dad were friends. Both were attorneys. Both were members of the Progressive Party. Both ran, unsuccessfully, for district attorney at one point in their careers.

"My parents violated the traditional rule that you're not supposed to talk about two things at the dinner table, religion and politics," he told me, by way of explaining his childhood interest in politics. "That was sort of my trademark in grade school. I was the guy who knew a lot about politics."

Feingold's father was also an acquaintance of Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson. "I introduced him in the seventh grade to Marshall Junior High students," Feingold recalled. "A terrifying moment."

He told me he heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1966. "My heroes were Martin Luther King, John Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy," he said. "They were all assassinated by the time I was fifteen." Following his older brother's lead, he opposed the Vietnam War, a position he still adheres to.

Feingold was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992 after sneaking through as the lesser-known candidate in a tight three-way Democratic primary. In 1998, he barely won reelection after he refused to accept soft money.

I asked him about his Presidential aspirations, as well as campaign finance, the conservative drift of the Democratic Party, and the raging conflict in the Middle East.

A champion high school debater, Feingold seemed to enjoy the give and take.

Q Are you planning on running for President?

Senator Russ Feingold: I have not said that I would never run. I have not said that I for sure won't run in 2004. But I'm not really likely to do it. I'm not really planning on it. My hope is to probably run for reelection and serve another six years.

Q: But you seem to be putting a toe in with your travels to campuses and to important primary states.

Feingold: That wasn't the reason I did it. I was asked by students from Brown University when I spoke there. They said we really like what you're doing, and we'd like you to run for President, but in any event would you be willing to go to some larger campuses and speak? And I said yes. I find that exciting, because I find that students are very strong on my issues, stronger than anyone: anti-death penalty, anti-racial profiling, campaign finance reform, questioning the anti-terrorism bill. And what I did do was to indicate that I want to see a more progressive Democratic ticket. I'm not happy with the Democratic Leadership Council's dominance of the party. And although I'm unlikely to be the person, I want Wisconsin's progressivism to influence the ticket. And we'll do better as a party if we do. We'll have more energy. We'll have a broader tent.

Q: Why is the DLC dominating?

Feingold: I think it's because the Democratic Party decided that corporatizing was a way to help with fundraising, especially in an era of soft money. It allowed the Democratic Party, in their view, to blunt some of the issues, like trade, that were causing problems with, frankly, the larger moneyed interests. And the ultimate example of that was the coronation of Gore in Los Angeles. That convention was a corporate trade show. It was nothing like the Democratic conventions of the past. So I see the DLC as, to some extent, taking the soul away from the Democratic Party. And I see the DLC as having sold American workers down the river. I oppose GATT, and NAFTA, and all the things Clinton and Gore were for. When we lose our commitment to opposing something as manifestly wrong as the death penalty, I'm very uncomfortable with that.

Q: Can a progressive get the nomination?

Feingold: I think so. What it would require is somebody who had a lot of students and young people involved, traditional progressives, labor people, women. There is a coalition there. I think it can happen. The conventional wisdom is that you'll do well in Iowa and New Hampshire, but then you're going to get it somewhere else. That's not what I felt in North Carolina. That's not what I felt in Texas in Austin. That's not what I felt in Michigan in Ann Arbor. And I know those are the more liberal parts. But let's face it: Those are the places that have a lot of influence in the primaries. So I think it's untrue that a genuinely progressive candidate couldn't win the nomination. It would depend in part on whether labor leaders decided they had to go with the DLC candidate or if they'll fight for their members and go with someone who has a more progressive trade policy.

This is a time of great anxiety, and that's tragic. But it means it's a time of real political change that can, in theory, occur. And we should seize the moment.

Q: Many progressive issues are popular ones, like the minimum wage and health care.

Feingold: I do think there would be a receptivity to somebody who campaigned in a straightforward, cohesive way, supporting an increase in the minimum wage, being for universal health care for all Americans, and opposing trade agreements like NAFTA.

Health care is still the number-one issue out there. Someone who seizes it, I think, will do very well in an election. Let's face it: Clinton's two big issues were the middle class tax cut, which he dropped, wisely, at the time to help reduce the deficit, and health care. That's what he ran on.

Q: Well, that and DLC things like supporting capital punishment and ending welfare.

Feingold: Right. But his main themes that he mentioned in every speech were health care and a middle class tax cut. I didn't even agree with the middle class tax cut. I was for deficit reduction.

Q: I think you're wrong on deficit reduction, by the way. I don't believe deficit reduction is a central issue. The government can operate at a deficit, and it's just false to say the government is going to go bankrupt.

Feingold: I think it's a mistake from the point of view of our economy and also as far as gaining credibility with the American people if we don't try to avoid deficits. Whatever organization you are with, whether it's an environmental group, right-to-life group, Communist Party, you all are going to have to pay the bills. You establish a base-line credibility with people when you show them that whatever your ideology you will take care of their dollars in a businesslike way. I believe that is part of Wisconsin progressivism being tight with a dollar and being careful about being irresponsible with expenditures.

Q: How do you restrain Pentagon spending post-September 11?

Feingold: It was hard enough to oppose these things before September 11. Now it's even tougher. And somehow it has to be controlled.

Q: What turned the tide on McCain-Feingold?

Feingold: I'm pretty sure it was the election year 2000. We defeated five of the most hell-bent opponents of campaign finance reform.

Q: So it wasn't so much Enron?

Feingold: Well, I think we were on the one-yard line and we gave the ball to Ron Dayne [Wisconsin's Heisman Trophy-winning fullback]. McCain always said it will take scandal after scandal. We introduced the bill in 1995. What happened in '96? The awful elections, where the soft money system was exploited by Bill Clinton especially, and we got Chinese money and the Indonesian gardener and the Lincoln bedroom and all that stuff. That's 1996 and '97. Then you have the Clinton pardons. So Enron was sort of the last straw.

Q: What's the impact going to be of the new law?

Feingold: It'll have modest impact. The most significant impact is what it does in terms of the integrity of the legislative process and the executive process, as opposed to what it does for campaigns. But to remove this unheard of process in the 1990s, where members of Congress are being pushed and shoved every Tuesday to ask for $100,000, $500,000, a million dollars from corporations, unions, and individuals, this was never allowed in American history. And it was completely corrupt. As bad as it was before, it had become completely out of control. That will be ended. They'll have to go back to trying to prep the process with $1,000 and $2,000 contributions, which is much harder to do.

Q: To me, the new law doesn't solve the basic problem, which is politicians are still going to ask the richest Americans to finance their campaigns. Who can give $1,000 or $2,000 to a single candidate? Who can give a total of $95,000 to candidates over a two-year cycle? Your basic constituent can't whip out that kind of check.

Feingold: I agree. My ideal system would be public financing. My second choice would probably be $100 per person. For me, it was worth it to get rid of unlimited contributions. It was worth it to acknowledge a little bit the argument that $1,000 twenty-five years ago was much more than $2,000 today. It was necessary in order to plug this soft money hole. But it's regrettable. That's why I want to move on to public financing.

Q: And how do we get there?

Feingold: Very aggressively. It's working in Arizona. It's working in Maine. To me this is no time to be timid about it. I've even heard McCain say things that were a little more favorable about public financing. He used to be death on it. And because he's seen the logic of it, I'm hopeful.

Q: You were the lone Senator to oppose the USA Patriot Act. How would you describe Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's reaction to you?

Feingold: Fairly brutal. I want to thank Tom Daschle on campaign finance reform. He really came around and helped us move it through. I had a reverse experience on the USA Patriot Act. When the original Ashcroft anti-terrorism bill came in, they wanted us to pass it two days later. I thought this thing was going to be greatly improved. They did get rid of a couple of provisions, like looking into educational records. But there were still twelve or thirteen very disturbing things, and I thought, OK, we'll take care of this. But then something happened in the Senate, and I think the Democratic leadership was complicit in this. Suddenly, the bottom fell out. I was told that a unanimous consent agreement was being offered with no amendments and no debate. They asked me to give unanimous consent. I refused. The Majority Leader came to the floor and spoke very sternly to me, in front of his staff and my staff, saying, you can't do this, the whole thing will fall apart. I said, what do you mean it'll fall apart, they want to pass this, too. I said, I refuse to consent. He was on the belligerent side for Tom Daschle. And everybody said they were surprised at his remarks. Reporters thought it was so unlike him. And it is unlike him.

One of the interesting stories in this-and this is one that a lot of progressives don't want to hear, but it's the truth-is that John Ashcroft gave me a call and said, what are your concerns? And I told him my concerns about the computer stuff and sneak and peek searches. He said, you know, I think you might be right. The White House overruled him, which is a fundamental point here. Anyone who wants to focus their fire on Ashcroft is missing the point. This is the Bush Administration. Ashcroft is its instrument.

What happened in the Senate was that even though the Attorney General was going to allow these changes to make it moderately better, the Administration insisted, and Daschle went along with pushing this through. I finally got to offer the amendments late at night, and I got up there and I made my arguments. And a lot of Senators came around to me, who, of course, voted for the bill, and said, you know, I think you're right. Then Daschle comes out and says, I want you to vote against this amendment and all the other Feingold amendments; don't even consider the merits. This was one of the most fundamental pieces of legislation relating to the Bill of Rights in the history of our country! It was a low point for me in terms of being a Democrat and somebody who believes in civil liberties.

Q: Any regrets on your Ashcroft vote?

Feingold: No. It was the right vote. When the President picks someone who is his ideological soul mate, that's his right, in my reading of "advise and consent." I do think, though, the more you get up the ladder, when someone is no longer accountable to the President, and more importantly, will stay in office after the President, the standard gets tougher and tougher.

Q: You mean for judges?

Feingold: Well, first, independent commissioners. People whose terms go for five years or longer, like FCC commissioners. That's a higher standard. Then district judges, who are appointed for a lifetime but can be overruled. Then Court of Appeals judges. They're not the highest level, but they're almost the final word. And then, of course, the Supreme Court.

Q: What do you make of Bush's suggestion that the next phase of the war is Iraq? Is that a wise thing? Is it justified under the authorization of force?

Feingold: No. It is not justified in my view, and it's not within the context of what we've passed. And I question whether or not this is the right time to take action in Iraq. There is widespread support throughout the world for getting rid of Hussein. I know this from having been in Africa, in Tanzania, in Kenya, in Mozambique, a month ago, and talking to people who are Islamic, who have no sympathy for Saddam Hussein but who warned that the reaction in the Islamic world, even in the parts of the Islamic world that are not particularly extreme, could be very negative. We have to consider the impact of taking this action on our other efforts against terrorism. And so I would suggest before we go on, that we have Congressional debate, under Article I of the Constitution, the Declaration of War provisions, and that the War Powers Act needs to be invoked. The American people have to be invited into the discussion. So I feel strongly that what I voted for in September was not an authorization for Iraq. There needs to be a separate authorization. And I don't know where I come down. It depends on what's presented. The mere raising of the name of Saddam Hussein is not a full argument.

Q: What about the current crisis in Israel and Palestine, which just seems so despairing? What is your position?

Feingold: Well, I have long believed that Israel should seek to give up the so-called Occupied Territories in return for security, and that a Palestinian state should be established. I have felt that way all my life. I think it is unreasonable to ask the Israelis to do this in a context where there is no guarantee at all that suicide bombers will be controlled. Even though Ariel

Sharon would've been my last choice for prime minister, I do agree with his spokesman who said given what has happened in the last few weeks that Israel is, in fact, on the front line of terrorism. I think that is true. But that doesn't mean that the Palestinian people themselves don't deserve self-determination and a state. They do. So the tragedy right now is that the people who are running the show are the very conservative elements in Israel along with the scariest people on the Palestinian side who, quite frankly, are big fans of bin Laden.

Q: There is absolutely no defense for these suicide bombings. But I have to believe that Sharon isn't helping anyone's cause by attacking Arafat the way he is.

Feingold: I don't know what he thinks he's accomplishing by this image of Arafat holed up in this building. I don't get it. If there is some rationale, I'd love to hear it. I don't think it's helpful.

Q: And the Israeli military seems to be taking steps that are going to sow resentment among Palestinians for another generation.

Feingold: That's true. But they're in a terrible dilemma. I don't know how you explain to your families that you're going to sit back and twiddle your thumbs while suicide bombers strap bombs to themselves and kill your kids. Who would put up with that?

I believe that the Israelis and the Palestinians, by and large, want peace, they each want their own country, and they want to get along, and they are going to get along. I know it sounds unbelievable, but I know enough about this, having been there, that these are sophisticated people. It's not like in Pakistan, where people have been told about Jews for a thousand years but don't know any. The Palestinians know the Jews. And the Jews know the Palestinians. And they know they're not really different. And they know they are from the same background. And they know if they coordinated that they could be an economic success and a real basis for a rebirth in the Middle East.

Q: What's your interest in Africa? You've been there several times.

Feingold: When I was elected to the Senate, Majority Leader Mitchell called me and told me I wouldn't be getting my first choice, the Judiciary Committee. He told me you could have Armed Services, Commerce, Banking, or Foreign Relations. So, I thought, how many people get to be a Senator? Do what you want to do. And I had always wanted to be on the Foreign Relations Committee. So I said I'd like to go on to Foreign Relations. And I talked to committee staffers, and they said I'd probably be stuck with the Africa subcommittee. And I said, that's all I ever need to know. If a huge portion of humanity that has been so subjugated and treated so poorly throughout human history is getting stuck with somebody, I'm going on that subcommittee and I'm never getting off. If we give attention to tragedies only in Europe but not in Africa, we have a double standard in our foreign policy. That has been one of my strongest convictions as a Senator-and we need to change that. All Americans have a new challenge that has never existed before in American history: We have to become engaged with the rest of the world. I would not have said that so clearly on September 10. But now there's no doubt: It is the challenge for the future. We cannot be the city over here on the hill and expect to be safe.

Q: A lot of people don't know of your involvement in this range of issues. They know you solely as the second name on the McCain-Feingold bill. Does that trouble you?

Feingold: No. Look, I've been very fortunate. The day I walked out of my house in Middleton and walked down the street and said, "Hi, my name is Russ Feingold? I grew up in Janesville, and I live with my family in Middleton," nobody even knew who I was. For me to be involved in these issues is an incredible honor. If this a problem, give me more problems, because I'm doing exactly what I've always wanted to do.

Q: The New Republic has lampooned you as being Mr. Over Earnest.

Feingold: That was the only article I've ever seen like that, and it wasn't very nice. Most people say I'm serious but affable, but I don't know what the story was there. It was all unnamed sources. I don't worry too much about what people think about my image, but I think I am pretty polite. My colleagues say I am a gentleman in my dealings with them, even when I disagree. I am difficult because I won't back off on things like the pay raise and the anti-terrorism bill. I'm not a go-along kind of guy. I do respect the institution. I do respect my colleagues. But I didn't go to Washington to make friends. That's not where my friends are.

Q: What do you do for fun?

Feingold: I like to swim, and to stay in some kind of shape. I love to golf. I hate to admit that in The Progressive magazine, but I'm a bit obsessed with golf. It's really pretty bad. I've been seen all over town golfing, so I can't hide it very well.

Q. What about this Springsteen fascination your wife has?

Feingold: It's a problem. It's hard to be third after Bruce Springsteen and Brett Favre. I'm happy to be third. I figure if you have to be third after those two guys, it's not so bad.

Q: Have you gone to some of his concerts with her?

Feingold: Oh, yes. And I believe that Bruce Springsteen is terrific, but I don't think he's God. That's the only real disagreement between me and my wife. Music is really fun, and it is something that my wife and I like to share.

Q: Do you see life after politics?

Feingold: Yes. And if it happens to me by choice, or by the decision of the people of Wisconsin, I'm going to enjoy my life a great deal. I don't know what I'd do, but there are so many books to read, so many golf courses to play, so many dollars to make so I can pay the bills. So being a judge, or a professor, or a lawyer . . .

Q: Are you the poorest man in the Senate?

Feingold: Yes, quite clearly.

Q: But you've lived your dream.

Feingold: Exactly. I've done what I've always wanted to do. But as one Senator said, just because you're doing what you've always wanted to do, it doesn't mean you have to do it forever. And it's very taxing in terms of the travel, the running around. I'm young and I'm fortunate to be in good health, although I do get tired. Sometimes my wife refers to me as Mr. Excitement because of the number of naps it takes to keep this going.

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