Civil libertarians and war opponents coped Wednesday with the realization that Tuesday’s Republican coup had cost them their most outspoken voice in Congress: Wisconsin’s junior senator, Democrat Russ Feingold.
In a remarkable turn of fortune, the 57-year-old Mr. Feingold lost his bid for a fourth term to his Republican opponent, 55-year-old businessman and political novice Ron Johnson. Mr. Feingold, who received 47 percent of the vote compared with Mr. Johnson’s 52 percent, had been considered relatively safe for much of the year - certainly more so than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada and freshman Michael Bennet in Colorado - but after winning the GOP primary, Mr. Johnson quickly built a significant and lasting lead in the polls.
While Mr. Feingold took unapologetically left-wing positions on a range of issues - from same-sex marriage to capital punishment to health care - it was national security issues on which he most distinguished himself during the George W. Bush era.
Civil libertarians still hail him for casting the Senate’s lone ‘nay’ vote on the Patriot Act in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
“Sen. Feingold’s loss is a tremendous blow to our work in the Senate because he’s been such a stand-up guy on almost each and every civil liberties issue that’s come into public view,” said Michael Macleod-Ball, Washington legislative office chief of staff for the American Civil Liberties Union. “He was a key player on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) fights of the past two years. He was a key guy helping us to try to move the End Racial Profiling Act.
“It’s hard to replace him,” he said. “There’s no denying that.”
Mr. Feingold also become a darling of the anti-war left, strongly opposing the Iraq war and the recent surge in Afghanistan. In both wars, he introduced multiple pieces of legislation seeking to establish withdrawal timetables. His efforts earned him Republican hawks’ enmity, at times tempered with grudging respect.
“Feingold had a really atrocious record on war-on-terror and national security issues, but at least had the courage of his convictions on them,” said GOP operative Michael Goldfarb. “He was straightforward about his desire to see terrorists brought to U.S. soil and for retreat and defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fortunately, Wisconsin voters took a different view.”
Mr. Feingold toyed with, but ultimately decided against, a 2008 presidential run. But his unapologetic liberalism had caused some on the left, who have been disenchanted with Mr. Obama’s relative hawkishness - not to mention his perceived sellouts on some domestic issues - to hope that he might mount a left-wing challenge to the president in 2012.
Such speculation lit up the blogosphere and Twitter on Tuesday night, when Mr. Feingold ended his concession speech with the words, “It’s on to the next fight, it’s on to the next battle, it’s on to 2012, and it is on to our next adventure - forward!”
“I would chalk up any Beltway chatter about Russ running against President Obama as simply Washington getting wee-wee’d up on the first day of new election cycle that is two years away,” Mr. Kraus reportedly said.
With Mr. Feingold apparently returning to private life, then, some have begun asking who - if anybody - might fill his shoes in the Senate, particularly as the war in Afghanistan prepares to re-enter the public debate with the upcoming December review and next summer’s scheduled drawdown of troops.
“It will be interesting to see whether any individual senator chooses to take the same path that Sen. Feingold took, which was really to chart his own path and often be a lone voice in opposition,” said Ken Gude, national security analyst at the Center for American Progress.
“Maybe [Minnesota Democratic Sen.] Al Franken eventually steps up, but he doesn’t have the gravitas yet for it,” said Steven Clemons, founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. “But the guy who’s really stepping up as a constructive critic is [Massachusetts Democratic Sen.] John Kerry. John Kerry’s becoming more and more of a substantial counterweight to White House positions on these things.
“But he’s not going to be the same as Russ Feingold, and he’s going to triangulate more than Russ Feingold,” Mr. Clemons added. “Feingold was a purist. And at least for the Democrats, I think the age of purism is over.”