My day with Russ: A future president? Maybe, maybe not

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Written By Sean Scallon

Before any high school wrestling tournament there is always a seeding meeting. They usually take a half-hour to an hour at most, depending how feisty the coaches are to getting their kids the best possible seeds in the tournament (some can go even longer if they are too feisty.)

So while seeding meeting at the wrestling tournament I was covering that Saturday became a miniature U.S. Senate chamber, debating whether a 9-20 record at one weigh class really meant such a wrestler could do well in a lower class, I shunted off to another end of a big home-ec, multipurpose room at Neillsville High School in Neillsville, Wisconsin with the local paper in hand to have a breakfast of orange juice and whatever doughnuts were leftover after the coaches had gone through them. After a few minutes of reading, I found that a real U.S. Senator was in town.

“U.S. Senator Russ Feingold will be in Neillsville for his annual Clark County listening session at 2:30 p.m. at the county courthouse.”

How perfect! Just as the wrestling tournament is winding down, I can slip over to the courthouse and judge for myself whether Russ Feingold is Presidential material for myself.

Like a lot of Wisconsin counties, Clark’s courthouse is a newer, 1960’s style building right next to the castle-like old courthouse (which is on the national historic register). Aside from aesthetics and the maze-like corridors one had to go through to find the county board meeting room, this would be the perfect place to judge a potential Feingold presidential campaign, no pun intended. After all, Clark is usually considered a Republican County (although not as solidly as once was because there are several Democrats holding county offices and Bush II only won here by a 1,000 votes) but Feingold carried it in his re-election bid and if he could win here in this rural, primarily dairy farming county being, in a sense, a Dane County (Madison) liberal, could he not do at least as well nationwide?

The meeting lasted about an hour and I left disappointed because I wasn’t sure. It was crowed inside the county boardroom, but not packed and I wondered if the make-up of the crowd wasn’t mostly local Democrats anyway. There were only a couple of hostile questioners (“You make me sick!” one old man said to him after he explained his position on gay-marriage.) and most questions were pointed barbs in the direction of the Bush II Administration. The recent wire-tapping issue, health care, education and the war in Iraq and some questions of dairy policy were the main topics of concern for the audience and no one there spoke in favor on anything the Administration was doing on these questions.

These county meetings, or listening session as the Feingold’s people call them, are why he gets re-elected (he ran six points ahead of Kerry in Wisconsin against a very conservative opponent). It’s because, as one lady said “You’re so accessible as a senator.” Wisconsinites like that in their politicians and Feingold, in his plain, blue casual dress shirt, didn’t look like a high and mighty U.S. Senator. But did he look like a President? That’s where the rub comes in.

For you see, we have so puffed up the office of the President, given him titles like “Leader of the Free World.” made occasions like the State of the Union address such rituals that it limits the potential occupants to the job in this day and age. Voters want someone who they can envision being a President because in many ways he’s going to be an influence in their lives whether they like it or not, even if it’s only on the TV screen. Those who don’t measure up to that image are the first ones cut. And those Presidents who try to play down the image and the ruffles and flourishes of the office get hammered by the Washington establishment, who’s own importance is based on the Imperial Presidency. Thus, when Jimmy Carter appeared on TV in a cardigan sweater looking like Mr. Rogers to talk about the energy crisis, he was ridiculed to no end. Likewise, Bill Clinton’s bid to create a populist presidency complete with trips to McDonald’s, ended when Time magazine put small image of Clinton on its front cover underneath the large-point title “The Incredible Shrinking Presidency.” Even Washington liberals don’t like a president who doesn’t act like a president, although the Constitution and the Founding Fathers never meant to invest so much power and stature to the office. It just sort evolved that way. And once you become a President, you lose that accessibility thanks to that Praetorian Guard known as the Secret Service. Feingold would lose a lot of what makes him an effective politician and Senator just by being President.

And that’s where Feingold gets hurt. He’s great in these small group sessions (even the hostile questioner thanked him for showing up in Clark County) and people respect him because he’s willing to say he disagrees with them and call it even rather than trying to talk down, equivocate or try to get them on his side. It’s perfect for the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, which is all about convincing small groups to support you. But a national campaign requires a lot more, like money, charisma, powerful organization and that sense of inevitability about your chances of winning. That’s what Hilary Clinton has in spades and would make Feingold still a long shot for even for his own party’s nomination. Feingold would have to win big early to damage all those assets Clinton has and even then he still would be a long shot. For you see, the very campaign finance reforms he’s championed hurts insurgent candidacies like his (although internet funding mitigates this somewhat). Eugene McCarthy’s insurgent campaign in 1968 was basically funded by about five wealthy people in New York. That’s against the law today. How does he keep going when the initial money runs out?

There’s also a lack of a narrative to him, or least so far I can tell. All good presidential campaigns are really good stories or movies that people either buy into or not. If you can’t tell your story or have none, you don’t win, period. Recently there’s been good pieces written by paleoconservative on liberal insurgents like Bill Kauffman’s about George McGovern in the American Conservative and Joe Sobran about Eugene McCarthy in Chronicles. These were liberals with conservative sheens to them. McGovern was a bomber pilot in World War II, a small businessman and raised five children in South Dakota. McCarthy studied philosophy from German Benedictine monks at St. John’s College in Minnesota and taught there as well. In own words to Teddy White in Making of the President 1968 he was “born in a small town of 500 population in the Midwest (Watkins, Minnesota). My mother’s family were farmers, my father was a small businessman. I know small-town life and I know big city life. I represented St. Paul in Congress. I’m at home with farmers on Main Street, labor and Wall Street.”

While Feingold grew-up in the blue-collar town on Janesville, Wisconsin, he’s basically been a lawyer and a politician his whole life. Rhodes Scholar, UW-Madison grad and Harvard Law Phi Beta Kappa, his resume reads like any other liberal politician. He represented a suburb of Madison (Middleton) in the state senate. I don’t sense a dynamism about him that would attract people of different background nor a compelling life story to attract others.

And yet he should run, if only because Democrat Party needs a robust primary campaign on the issues to define what it to people who aren’t sure any more. Besides the “we need to be more liberal mantra” you can see a theme developing in a Feingold candidacy on several issue. The war, and Feingold’s consistent opposition to the Patriot Act is on facet of that. But when asked about the gay marriage issue, Feingold’s basic response was “It doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t hurt me.” That’s a basic libertarian position. You could see on many issues a coalition of say, pro-green, liberal and libertarian stances from gay marriage, to medical marijuana, to the Patriot Act that could very well make Feingold the anti-government candidate in 2008 and his Republican opponent the pro-big government candidate. It’s something, if realized, could alter American politics fundamentally.

But again, it’s hard to say just from that one meeting what to make of a potential Feingold candidacy. I came expecting to see a defining moment, something that could catch my eye, my ear and my mind to say “Yep, he can do it,” and didn’t find it. Perhaps I was expecting too much, but it’s those little moments that can lead to so much more in politics. Maybe it will come in another listening session, in even-more Republican Calumet County or Dodge County. Hopefully someone from Feingold campaign will be smart enough to film it so others can see what Wisconsinites already see in him that will at least give him a chance with the rest of the nation.


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