Reising Issues

John Koenig

During the fall 2004 U.S. senatorial election, UW-Eau Claire hosted a debate between Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Tim Michels, the Republican construction company owner who had defeated a state senator and a prominent businessman in the Republican primary. Throngs of students, university employees and Eau Claire residents poured onto campus to see the debate, a spectacle that could be summed up in one word: embarrassing.

For Michels, that is. The audience was receptive when he came out and introduced himself, but his control of the stage ended there.

When Feingold appeared moments later, a roaring cheer surged throughout the crowd, reverberating off the walls of Zorn Arena and ushering the senator on stage with a level of enthusiasm that demonstrated he was the clear favorite. That wasn’t surprising, since Feingold generally appeals to liberals and civil libertarians, making a college campus his home turf.

But Feingold’s appearance that night illustrated a lot more than simple acclaim among liberals. It demonstrated his approach to important issues facing our nation and served as foreshadowing of his bold actions in recent weeks.

While Michels recited his list of prepared statements on the Patriot Act and revealed his automatic support of the president, Feingold offered intelligent yet common-sense arguments in favor of protecting Americans’ rights and liberties and holding our government accountable for its actions, even with security and the war on terror being important national priorities.

His argument in favor of protecting Americans’ rights and liberties, which he has touted consistently since 9/11, transcends simple partisan political leanings and may be an indication that he has the potential to galvanize a large segment of society, moving past his representation of what some consider the liberal fringe.

Now, with Feingold advocating his ideas more actively in recent weeks, Democrats should consider rallying behind him if they want to cast off the image of division, uncertainty and weakness that has tainted their party for several years now. The problem is Democrats in Congress seem to be more alarmed than motivated.

On March 13, Feingold called on Senate to censure President Bush, a measure that would officially and formally scold him for authorizing warrantless wire-tapping within the United States, which Feingold contends is illegal, according to news reports.

A Newsweek poll found that only 42 percent of Americans surveyed supported censuring, while 50 percent opposed it. But 60 percent of respondents who considered themselves to be Democrats favored censuring – a number that constitutes a much higher proportion than the two senators who rallied behind Feingold’s call from the beginning.

Republicans accused Feingold of political posturing as he considers a bid for the presidency in 2008, while Democrats said taking strong action before an official congressional investigation would be imprudent.

But Feingold’s outspoken desire to protect Americans’ rights and liberties dates back much too far for his recent action to simply be a political stunt or a rash, thoughtless decision.

Feingold was also one of the only senators who fought adamantly against renewing the Patriot Act, saying the reforms Congress enacted were superficial and did little to remedy the injustices the act allows for.

And let’s not forget that he was in the minority of legislators who opposed the war in Iraq, referring to it as a diversion from the war on terrorism, at a time when many Democrats hesitated to do so with blind patriotism at the height of its popularity.

In the 2004 presidential election, the Republican Party’s strategy to mobilize its base worked. People favored Bush’s clear, resolute message, even if they didn’t completely agree with it. Feingold could express an equally resolute – and perhaps more sound – stance for a party that hasn’t seen its views successfully expressed and supported since 9/11.

Now, with Bush’s approval ratings slipping, Democrats have a chance to gain some ground in the mid-terms. But that momentum will not automatically translate into enough support to win the presidency in 2008, and Democratic popularity has depended on Republicans making mistakes for
too long.

That’s not to say all of Feingold’s ideas or political inclinations are infallible or that he is a standout candidate for president or pointman of the Democratic Party. But regardless of Feingold’s politics or popularity within the party structure, there is no denying that he is exhibiting the strength and resolve that Democrats have lacked for so long.

The last presidential election showed that in politics it’s not only what you say, it’s how you say it. Feingold is saying it pretty well, and Democrats should join him.

Brian Reisinger is a junior print journalism major and editorial editor of The Spectator. Reising Issues is a weekly column that appears every Thursday.