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Out in Left Field

By Russ Smith | Posted 3/22/2006

There’s a reason why the men and women who live and work in Washington are often referred to as the “permanent government.” This Beltway industry is immense, including the majority of elected and appointed officials, journalists, lobbyists, lawyers, special interest groups, pollsters, and consultants. The names may change from decade to decade, but the operating strategy is always the same, regardless of divergent political views: Don’t rock the boat.

That’s why Wisconsin’s Sen. Russell Feingold has pissed off so many of his fellow Democrats in the past 10 days.

The slim possibility of Feingold winning the presidency in 2008 is distressing, since it’s clear he’d gut George W. Bush’s foreign policy, oppose free trade, support affirmative action, and further regulate campaign financing and raise taxes. Nevertheless, I admire Feingold for adhering to his principles, though I find the criticism of his proposal to censure Bush for the administration’s allegedly illegal electronic surveillance program after Sept. 11 simply mind-boggling.

It must be pointed out that Feingold is an odd duck in Washington. Although he’s one of the most outspoken left-wing senators—the lone voice of dissent on the USA Patriot Act of 2001—he also voted for the confirmation of both former Attorney General John Ashcroft and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

I happen to believe that his crusade for the First Amendment-shattering campaign finance “reform” was horribly misguided, but at least he practices what he preaches, taking no money during his campaigns from special interests, eschewing perks like corporate jets and lobbyist junkets. Feingold plays by his own rules and, unlike media teddy bear John McCain, really is an authentic maverick.

Democrats groaned when Feingold announced his censure plan on a Sunday morning talk show, fearing this news would dominate the ever-changing news cycle, and give Bush and the Republicans a breather from Dubai, Katrina, Iraq, and Jack Abramoff. Who needs a flamethrower, a renegade? seemed to be the nearly unanimous opinion of Feingold’s colleagues, even if many would privately relish a Bush censure or impeachment proceedings.

Feingold has a better sense of humor than most of the worrywarts who are saying sanctions against Bush are too much, too soon. (Why that is, I have no clue: Several polls show that, at least right now, almost half the country, mainly Democrats, back the measure.) At a press conference in D.C. on March 16, Feingold took a jab at the grandstanding New York Sen. Charles Schumer, most recently in the spotlight for his shameful demagoguery on the scuttled Dubai transaction. Feingold said: “Well, I’m struck by the fact that, when Senator Schumer has an issue, he holds a press conference every 10 minutes. . . . And I love him.”

Also missing in action on Feingold’s move were the “old liberal lion” Ted Kennedy, the charismatic Barack Obama, John Kerry, senate hopeful Ben Cardin, and the Machiavellian Hillary Clinton. Even The New York Times, whose editorial board is increasingly shrill, paranoid, and deceitful whenever it comments on Bush, couldn’t muster support for Feingold’s resolution.

The paper’s March 17 lead editorial read:

    We understand the frustration that led Senator Russell Feingold to introduce a measure that would censure President Bush for authorizing warrantless spying on Americans. It’s galling to watch from the outside as the Republicans and most Democrats refuse time and again to hold Mr. Bush accountable for the lawlessness and incompetence of his administration. Actually sitting among that cowardly crew must be maddening. Still, the censure proposal is a bad idea.

Instead, the Times is in favor of another “bipartisan” investigation into the surveillance, probably for two reasons. One, it would prolong the coverage on Bush’s spying, distracting Americans from the president’s economic performance, once compared to Herbert Hoover’s, that has unemployment under 5 percent. Two, when the time comes for the total destruction of Bush, the Times wants to lead the charge.

The New Republic’s Ryan Lizza, an unapologetic liberal, went further than the Times, denouncing Feingold as a craven politician, accusing him of extreme self-interest, saying that his resolution was a naked ploy to tap the “netroots” cash machine (which it has done), instead of playing ball with the Democratic leadership and trying to win back Congress. Writing on March 17, Lizza said: “So the partisans on the left cheering Feingold appear to have both the policy and the politics wrong. Censure is meaningless. Changing the FISA law is the way to address Bush’s overreach. . . . What an ass.”

Bush’s popularity is at an all-time low and is ripe for exploitation. In addition, since when is a Democrat (or Republican) an “ass” for taking a controversial stand? I guess in this case it depends on what Democrat you’re supporting for president three years from now. The Democratic half of the “permanent government” recoils at the thought of a Feingold-McCain race in ‘08. In fact, such an election would give voters the clearest choice in decades.

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