Sunday, November 7, 2010

Russ Feingold, Good And Bad

The big reason I'll miss Russ Feingold is the same as it is for most other Democrats. He was a fairly reliable vote in favor of good stuff and against bad stuff. His votes against the Patriot Act and the Iraq War are the shining examples that set him apart from a lot of his colleagues.

It's sad to see him lose to a rich right-winger. Not knowing anything about our bench in Wisconsin, I'm interested in seeing whether he wants to run for Herb Kohl's seat in 2012 in the event that the then-77-years-old Kohl decides to call it quits, just because he's won statewide in Wisconsin before and maybe he'd have a good shot at winning again.

There's a downside to this, though. One vote is only one vote. If I'm going to lose a vote and bad stuff is going to pass or good stuff won't, it doesn't matter that much whether I lose 99-1 or 100-0. What I want is somebody who'll be successful in using influence to bring other Senators along to the good side. I'd even take somebody who'd go over and vote for the bad stuff in exchange for a concession that'd make it significantly less bad. (This wouldn't have been possible in the Patriot Act case, as far as I can tell. It's more plausible in the Iraq War case, because of the chance to pass the Levin amendment or get Biden-Lugar rather than the eventual disastrous Lieberman Iraq War Resolution.) And this is where there isn't a whole lot to say for Feingold -- I try to get as much detail as I can on who's doing what behind the scenes, and I can't recall ever reading something and thinking, "whoa, there's Russ Feingold doing something useful."

At the worst end of the spectrum, I remember when Feingold introduced a resolution to censure President Bush for warrantless wiretapping a few years ago. Feingold immediately went on cable TV (Fox News no less) calling out not only Bush, but the weak and ineffectual Democrats who wouldn't get behind his resolution. The whole affair caught Harry Reid entirely by surprise -- Feingold hadn't even given his caucus any advance notice that the resolution was coming. If you didn't dig into the behind-the-scenes details, you might've been overjoyed with him, and a lot of the Democratic Party faithful were. But stunts like this aren't actually the way you pass legislation through the Senate, or block opposing legislation, or get your colleagues to see things your way, or actually accomplish anything useful.

More recently, he's done plenty of things that should have earned him more scorn from progressive activists. He joined the GOP in filibustering financial reform because he thought it should've been tougher on banks. What eventually happened? Well, Democrats needed an additional vote to break the filibuster, so they got Scott Brown to turn against the filibuster in exchange for an $18 billion giveaway to banks, mostly in his state. The net effect of Feingold's filibuster was giving $18 billion to banks. This is the sort of thing that anybody with more tactical sense than a popsicle would recognize and then go along with the bill.

He does plain weird stuff sometimes. Back when they were trying to impeach Bill Clinton, he was the only Democrat who voted against the motion to just dismiss the impeachment proceedings. If he was casting a cowardly vote to drive up his own poll numbers before re-election, well, that's a good reason! I'd rather have him do that than give Republicans any edge over him. But if he can do that, I'd also like him to apply that sort of calculating attitude to the things he does in the Senate.

My big complaint about him recently is that he seems to be on the wrong side of filibuster reform. Feingold is on the list of Democrats who are leaning against the measure. By making it harder to change laws, the filibuster entrenches old prejudices and sticks us with primitive social welfare programs instead of the well-funded ones you see in European countries. If you're really going to be a progressive Democrat, vote to change the processes in ways that allow progressives to succeed.

So I can't really get on board with all the Feingold love I'm seeing from other people. He was unusually good in some respects, but unusually bad in others. All in all he was an okay Democratic Senator, and it's a real shame that he lost his race to a rich plastic products manufacturer who loves Atlas Shrugged.
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