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Living in the Real World
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton was livid. Her face turned red and her angry words were aimed directly at Russ Feingold, the junior senator from Wisconsin. "You're not living in the real world," she told him in front of about twenty of their Democratic Senate colleagues at a closed-door strategy meeting in the Senate's elegantly appointed LBJ Room highlighted by nineteenth-century frescoes.
It was Thursday, July 19, 2002, four months after President George W. Bush had signed into law the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation, the first major reform of federal campaign laws since 1974. That earlier reform was triggered by Watergate-related big-money scandals. Two decades later, the fund-raising scandals associated with Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign had added fuel to the fire for new reforms. Access to the Clinton White House, and to the president himself, had been for sale. Big-money Clinton contributors were eligible for White House coffees. Even bigger contributors got to stay overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom, or share a ride with the president on Air Force One. All of this was at least unseemly if not illegal. But what was unquestionably illegal were large foreign campaign contributions that poured into the Clinton reelection campaign from China and elsewhere. In the words of Johnny Chung, who got caught in the foreign money scheme: "I see the White House is like a subway: you have to put in coins to open the gates."
The Watergate reforms of 1974 were intended to outlaw unlimited campaign contributions from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals. And for a time, they did. But a loophole emerged by 1988, thanks to creative thinking by campaign operatives and a compliant Federal Election Commission. The fundraising rules had changed. And while Bill Clinton and his friend Terry McAuliffe, the man with the golden touch who became chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2001, did not invent the practice of collecting six-figure campaign checks, they elevated it, so to speak, to near-perfection.
This had become the "real world" for Democrats: the party of the people, of Jefferson and Jackson, had become dependent on wealthy contributors for its electoral successes -- such as they were. Although Bill Clinton was elected twice, he received less than 50 percent of the vote each time, and his party lost control of both the Senate and the House, the House for the first time in some forty years.
By 2002, the real-world Democratic Party was addicted to soft money, the Washington jargon for unlimited, largely unregulated campaign contributions reminiscent of the Watergate era. In fact, the national Democratic Party had become virtually as successful raising money from fat cats as the Republican Party. Surprisingly, the big fund-raising disparity that gave Republicans the money advantage at election time was among small donors. Over many years, the Democratic Party leadership had gotten lazy; it lacked imagination and a vision that could appeal to ordinary Democratic-leaning citizens. Instead of inspiring and mobilizing them, the party's influential Washington leaders -- lawyer-lobbyists, campaign consultants and senior members of Congress -- decided the easiest path to political success led to the doors of wealthy donors, including those in the corporate world. If this strategy sometimes required changing the Democratic Party's policy and message and moving to the political right, then that is what they would do. It was a strategy that Russ Feingold and other dissenting Democrats began to call scornfully "Republican Lite." On a range of important issues for Feingold, from international trade agreements to corporate power to health care, he felt the Democratic Party's capacity to offer sharp, compelling policy alternatives had been compromised again and again because the party's candidates had become so dependent on corporate lobbyists and their clients for campaign contributions.
Feingold's passion for reform had led him to join forces with the Republican John McCain to pass campaign finance reform legislation. Feingold believed so strongly in changing the system -- he called it "legalized bribery" -- that he risked his Senate seat in 1998 by following a self-imposed ban on soft money that gave his challenger a big fund-raising advantage. Many observers thought he had made a fatal mistake. On election day, John McCain called Feingold from Arizona. Win or lose, McCain said, he wanted to let his friend know how proud he was of him. Feingold, detecting that McCain had heard some bad news about his prospects, said: "Don't worry. We're going to win this thing."
On election night, when the final votes were tallied, Feingold had won by more than 35,000. He quickly became a hero to a broad range of political observers. New York Times conservative columnist William Safire wrote, "Idealism lives. The Democratic victory that did my heart good" was Feingold's. "That new Don Quixote demonstrated how a campaign finance reformer could win by running against soft money and practicing what he preached." A Washington Post editorial said that "the country owes Feingold for a welcome lesson and his personal example."
But the Democratic Party establishment in Washington was not impressed. It thought Feingold needlessly risked losing a Democratic seat. And, later, Democratic strategists believed the new McCain-Feingold law was going to be a disaster for the party. So, on July 19 in the LBJ Room, Hillary Clinton and a Democratic Party lawyer began exploring how they could persuade the Federal Election Commission to adopt regulations that, in effect, would gut provisions of the new law and keep the soft-money pipeline flowing to Democrats. Feingold had objected. He said it was a troubling display in a party that supposedly stood for reform. That is when Hillary Clinton told him: "You're not living in the real world." He was surprised and taken off guard by her remarks. He remembers saying to himself, "Stay cool, and everything will work out just fine." Feingold responded to Clinton: "Senator, I do live in the real world, and I'm doing just fine in it."
News of the Clinton-Feingold exchange became public, and the following week, in a New York Times editorial titled, "Hillary Clinton's 'Real World,'" she was excoriated for her interest in joining forces with "the troglodytes on the Federal Election Commission who would love to poke all sorts of crippling loopholes in the nation's brand-new campaign finance law." In a final shot at Clinton's "real world" attack on Feingold, the Times said: "Americans prefer the world of Senator Feingold. It is also the law of the land."
The disagreement between Russ Feingold and Hillary Clinton symbolizes a critical divide in the Democratic Party -- and the divide is about much more than how to fund campaigns. Fundamentally, it is between those who believe the modern Democratic Party should become the party of bold ideas and reform, and those who think it should continue to play it safe and, with rare exceptions, accept the status quo. On foreign policy and national security, the divide is between those Democrats who opposed the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq, as Feingold did, and those who are fearful of challenging the Republican Party's reckless policies and lapel-pin patriotism. On civil liberties in post-September 11 America, the divide is between those Democrats who are loud-and-clear critics of the Bush administration's expansion of executive power, and those who are near-voiceless in the face of the administration's disregard of the rule of law and democratic traditions.
Russ Feingold caught my attention because he represents the progressive side of the Democratic divide more clearly and authentically than any successful politician on the national stage. His roots run deep into the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century, a period personified by two men, Theodore Roosevelt and Wisconsin's legendary governor and later U.S. senator, Robert M. La Follette.
While Roosevelt is one of John McCain's heroes, La Follette is Feingold's role model. On Feingold's late-night tours of the U.S. Capitol that he conducts for old friends who visit him in Washington, one of his highlights is a stop in the Senate Reception Room, where there are portraits of the five greatest senators of the republic's first 150 years selected by a commission created by then-senator John F. Kennedy. One is La Follette. He was called "Fighting Bob" not least because he battled tirelessly against big-money interests of his own Republican party in pursuit of honest, effective government and policies that improved the lives of millions of ordinary Americans. And not surprisingly, La Follette was much more popular with ordinary Americans than he was with his party's establishment leaders.
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After Feingold's celebrated 1998 reelection victory, I began observing him more closely when I periodically returned to Wisconsin, where I grew up. I tried to see Feingold either giving a speech or at one of his listening sessions. When he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992, he made a promise to hold these sessions in each of the state's seventy-two counties every year. I have attended nearly fifty, maybe more than anybody except for Feingold and his staff. It was in these intimate gatherings, typically in small, rural towns all over the state -- Bayfield, Coon Valley, Blanchardville -- that I began to get a sense of the man.
Small-town America is familiar and fond territory for Feingold. He grew up in Janesville, a blue-collar and agricultural town in Rock County, which had long been a Republican stronghold in southeastern Wisconsin. At these listening sessions, he sounded very much like one of the local civic leaders, and not like the Rhodes Scholar and Harvard Law School graduate that he is.
Russ Feingold is fifty-four years old, still a young man for a senator in the first half of his third term. With a little political luck and good health, he may only be at the midpoint of a long Senate career. So, on the one hand, with his career still unfolding, a definitive biography is premature. On the other hand, Feingold's story is important because he represents the kind of courageous leadership that is so urgently needed in these troubling times.
I began interviewing Feingold well before he was reelected to a third term in 2004. Although he has been generous with his time, this is not an authorized biography. I have examined the public record, interviewed his siblings, friends and foes, journalists and other impartial observers. I hope that I have given him a fair shake -- and, in the process, I hope that I have used his story to encourage others -- public officials and ordinary citizens alike -- to act on their idealism and take risks to transform the "real world" into the kind of world that we would like it to be. Copyright © 2007 by Sanford D. Horwitt