In an age of American politics where unanimity has trumped independence, Senator Russ Feingold has distinguished himself as a political maverick or an independent, depending on your view of the political landscape. Feingold was the sole voice of dissension in the passage of the 2001 Patriot Act, his protest against the destruction of civil liberties in post-9/11 America. Feingold has been active in pushing intervention in the Sudan and the Balkans but has been against preemptive action in Iraq. Feingold’s liberal stances on gay marriage, civil liberties, and campaign finance reform are mixed with a unique (to Democrats) attempt to balance budgets and reduce government waste. These distinctions, a series of speeches in early primary states, and Feingold’s similarity to fellow presidential aspirant John McCain have drawn the liberal Democratic senator into the 2008 presidential race.
Russ Feingold was born in Janesville, Wisconsin, and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he graduated with honors in 1975. Feingold was a Rhodes Scholar, attending the University of Oxford in 1977 and earned a BA before going to Harvard Law School and earning a law degree in 1979. Feingold was a Wisconsin state senator from 1982 to 1992 and his political career included working as part of the “Bowtie Brigade” for the election of Illinois Senator Paul Simon as president in 1988. Feingold upset Republican Bob Kasten in 1992, partly because of his strong campaign promises (a contract with Wisconsinites) and partly because of his entertaining campaign commercials. After a narrow victory in 1998 over Mark Neumann in a particularly vicious campaign, Feingold was able to win a third Senate term in 2004 with a dozen point victory over Republican Tim Michels. One of the trademarks of Feingold’s three terms in office is his commitment to attending public meetings, or “listening sessions,” in every county in Wisconsin each year of his term. Another has been his candor and his mixture of liberal and conservative policies to make him an unpredictable character in the eyes of the stodgy two party system.
Recently, Feingold has raised two controversial issues in the public sphere: a censure of President George W. Bush over NSA wire taps and Feingold’s promotion of gay marriage nationally. His attempt to swing Democratic support behind admonishing President Bush was unsuccessful largely because the Democrats have tried to play deal maker, rather than rabble rouser, with the majority Republicans. His recent support for the legalization of gay marriage in the United States makes him only the fifth U.S. senator to support the bill, including Democratic luminary Ted Kennedy and liberal Republican Lincoln Chaffee. These recent maverick moves by Feingold has made him a favorite of the grassroots supporters but has made him the scorn of a more conservative Democratic leadership. While Howard Dean, the liberal firebrand of 2004, may be the Democratic National Committee Chairman, the Democrats will probably not risk a strong chance at regaining Washington D.C. by taking a flyer on Feingold. This is unfortunate, however, because the Democrats have had a good record with dark horse candidates (i.e. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton) and should consider Feingold as a viable option. His mixture of progressive social policies and priggish economic stances would make an interesting combination in the 2008 presidential race.