Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold is not a very good politician. He doesn’t raise money particularly well — he was outspent three to one in his original 1992 Senate victory. He tends to vote his conscience at politically inopportune moments — witness his lone vote against the PATRIOT Act after Sept. 11 or his opposition to the Iraq war. His opposition to earmarks means that his home state is unlikely to get federal funding for pet projects anytime soon; there are no “bridges to nowhere” or big digs in Wisconsin’s immediate future.
Why am I writing about Feingold when he’s not up for re-election until 2010? Because I hope the upcoming election means that Feingold won’t have to be nearly alone in the legislative branch when he follows his conscience instead of the money, when he has the courage to make the unpopular choice if he thinks it’s the right one. This country needs more politicians who keep their campaign promises to refuse to accept a pay raise during their time in office, as Feingold has for the 14 years he’s been in the Senate. This country needs politicians from both sides of the aisle who place their own values above party loyalty.
In America, astute politicians generally win elections. Look at Bill Clinton. He was a good enough politician — a charismatic personality who raised money well — that he made America almost forget about the whole Monica issue in 1996. Today’s Senate is full of good politicians, from Barack Obama of Illinois to John Thune of South Dakota, who in 2004 defeated a sitting minority leader for the first time in recent memory. Thanks to Karl Rove and the Democratic Leadership Council, candidates have plenty of outside support in close races. But that support comes at a price.
Good politicians don’t always make good leaders or good policy-makers. Today’s political culture has created an environment that forces our elected officials to be concerned with fundraising for their next election from the day they take office. They become as indebted to lobbyists and PACs as they do to their own constituents. Faced with a choice between reading a piece of legislation being rushed to a vote or calling potential big donors, too many representatives may be choosing the latter. Plenty of senators have acknowledged voting for the PATRIOT Act before having a chance to read it in its entirety.
This brings me back to Russ Feingold. He wasn’t afraid to admit that the lack of protection for civil liberties in the bill made him nervous, even though his vote could have been politically suicidal. He opposed the Iraq war before being antiwar was politically beneficial. He’ll never raise as much money as the people he’s running against — but he’ll keep his independence from the lobbyists who want to buy his votes.
I don’t agree with all of Russ Feingold’s positions. I think his bipartisan campaign-finance bill (ironically) gave too much power to PACs and may have been a violation of free speech. But even when I disagree with one of Feingold’s votes, I know without hesitation that his political position comes straight from his own principles and not from the mouth of a special-interest group promising to fund his campaign. I wish I could have such confidence in the rest of our representatives. I wish the Senate had fewer good politicians and more good human beings — men and women who might not be the most charming or the most electable, but who never sacrifice their principles.
I hope the new Congress has one or two more Russ Feingolds. Political courage is not a partisan virtue; there are good people in politics in both parties. I want to see them in the Senate and the House, showing up on Capitol Hill every day thinking not of the next election cycle but of what they can do to make America better.
Xan White is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.