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Being right isn't enough

By Dylan Matthews
Russ Feingold
Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) (Joe Koshollek/AP)

The past week has seen a good number of liberal appreciations of Russ Feingold, so I was glad to see Neil Sinhababu point out that his legislative style, while pleasing to liberals, often didn't accomplish much:

He joined the GOP in filibustering financial reform because he thought it should've been tougher on banks. What eventually happened? Well, Democrats needed an additional vote to break the filibuster, so they got Scott Brown to turn against the filibuster in exchange for an $18 billion giveaway to banks, mostly in his state. The net effect of Feingold's filibuster was giving $18 billion to banks. This is the sort of thing that anybody with more tactical sense than a popsicle would recognize and then go along with the bill.

Jonathan Bernstein made similar points before the election. The basic problem seems to be that any individual senator or representative looking out for his or her legacy has a stronger incentive to showboat than to work hard on legislation. If people remember Russ Feingold 50 years from now, it will be either because of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill or because of his attempt to censure President Bush in 2007. One of those took years of negotiations with varying congressional leaders and two presidential administrations to come to fruition. The other took an afternoon. If you're a senator with limited time but a desire for a legacy, which of those options is more attractive?

Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.

By Dylan Matthews  | November 8, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
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Or, you could remember him for being the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act in 2001. One of 28 senators who voted against the Iraq War resolution in 2002. The co-sponsor of the 2002 National Death Penalty Moratorium Act. A leading advocate for universal health care, fair trade, stronger environmental protections, ending the abuse of government power through warrant-less wire-tapping, a committed opponent of wasteful government spending (in fact, he returned more than $70,000 in pay raises because he promised never to accept a pay raise when he was first elected to office) and a man of principle above and beyond party loyalty, expediency, or personal ambition.

Mr. Matthews, your comments remind me of a line by Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt's play "A Man for All Seasons":

"I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties they lead their country by a short route to chaos."

To blame Senator Feingold for standing up for his belief that the bill was too generous to Wall Street (a belief shared by the vast majority of Americans located outside of D.C.) because a man with less principle was willing to offer a price for his vote isn't a criticism of Senator Feingold. It's the highest praise you could offer.

Posted by: besmit02 | November 8, 2010 12:11 PM | Report abuse

besmit02, this goes to Ezra's column about the time to talk about big ideas vs. legislating. Staking out ideal positions is a great and important thing to do early on when discussing an issue. You bring the issue to the attention of voters, make your case, etc. When it comes time to actual legislating, however, you're going to have to accept that you don't get to legislate like a king, and your ideal solution isn't going to make it to the end of the process. Thinking the financial reform bill wasn't liberal enough is fine, but the version he wanted is still in his head while a worse version became reality and law.

Also, keep in mind that we're talking about a procedural vote, which required the concessions to Scott Brown. If Feingold disliked the financial reform bill he could have allowed it to proceed to a vote but voted against it and we'd have a better law today.

Posted by: MosBen | November 8, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Feingold is also wrong blaming outside special interest money for his loss. He spent more than Johnson, and the outside money didn't come into the state until AFTER the polls came out showing Feingold running 10-12 points behind Johnson. Feingold couldn't get above a 46% approval rating for a year -- long before anyone had ever heard of Ron Johnson. So it's clear the problem was Feingold, and he really should stop blaming others.

Posted by: cougar49 | November 8, 2010 1:19 PM | Report abuse

I take MosBen's point about the procedural vs actual vote, and I guess that's fair enough. But the overall logic behind the original post here seems pretty bad. Democrats got around Feingold's principled opposition to a financial 'reform' bill that did nothing of the kind by giving $18 billion to banks, and that's the fault of...Feingold? That's just absurd. The fact that Democrats would do that to get such a weak, bank-friendly bill passed really just bears out Feingold's point, which was that neither Democrats nor Republicans had any intention of writing a bill that really reformed the financial system. To claim that the 'net effect' of Feingold's opposition was an $18 billion giveaway to banks is like saying that the 'net effect' of Barack Obama's winning the 2008 election was the rise of the Tea Party and unprecedented Republican obstructionism and that, therefore, Obama never should have run. I don't think we'll be seeing that post anytime soon.

Posted by: andrewbaron78 | November 8, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

"He joined the GOP in filibustering financial reform because he thought it should've been tougher on banks. What eventually happened? Well, Democrats needed an additional vote to break the filibuster, so they got Scott Brown to turn against the filibuster in exchange for an $18 billion giveaway to banks, mostly in his state. The net effect of Feingold's filibuster was giving $18 billion to banks."

Ummmm, or the Democrats *could* have made the reform tougher on banks and gotten Feingold's vote.

This is *far* more an indictment of Democrats than Feingold. If they needed one vote, why was it Brown's instead of Feingold's?

This the sort of thing that any Democrat with more tactical sense than a popsicle would recognize -- and then go along with Feingold.

Sadly, no.

Posted by: dpurp | November 8, 2010 3:01 PM | Report abuse

dpurp, that assumes that Brown was as much to the right of where the bill was as Fiengold was to its left. That is to say, that it was no cheaper to get Brown onboard than to get Fiengold, and I haven't seen any evidence of that. Furthermore, the actual history showed that making the concession to Brown lost exactly zero votes that were there before the concession. It's entirely possible that getting Fiengold onboard would have cost more votes than Brown's, which is presumably why they went with trying to get Brown. Getting him meant a bill passed; getting Fiengold might well have meant passing no bill at all.

Posted by: MosBen | November 8, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

First off, MosBen, it's "Feingold". Second, you seem to be weighing the costs and benefits in a slightly odd way. Senator Feingold made it pretty clear that his vote was tied to re-establishing the Glass-Steagall Act. He co-sponsored an amendment that would do just that, but was never allowed to bring it for a vote.

His opposition was pretty clearly based on his judgment that nothing in the proposed legislation would prevent the recurrence of another financial crisis. He voted against closure because, on principle, he felt that the bill didn't make any real substantive change to our financial system.

The White House knew what it would take to get his vote, but opted to pursue a side payment to Scott Brown rather than attempt to incorporate his amendment. It seems odd to me to criticize someone for taking a principled stand on the grounds that such things are "grandstanding".

Not pushing for a new Glass-Steagall type regulation was a major decision by President Obama to water down the bill. I imagine you believe it was because the votes just weren't there for anything better. I believe the Obama administration had absolutely no interest in making the bill tougher. I guess we'll have to wait for the political post-mortem to be written before we know which of us is right.

Posted by: besmit02 | November 8, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

Ezra reminds me of that old saying, "he understands the price of everything and the value of nothing." Wish I could have come up with something a bit more original, but that seems to best sum up his valueless analysis.
Feingold is one of very few Democrats in competitive races who supported the President's health initiative during this past campaign. It probably cost him votes.
I contrast that John McCain who groveled before the right wing tea party people to win renomination. Feingold is the only recent public figure I can recall who has clearly put principle ahead of his own personal interests or political survival. This was most on display in his 1996 reelection race when he refused to accept outside PAC money despite being heavily outspent by a well endowed Republican opponent who almost beat him because of this disparity. That is character and courage. Feingold will be missed by many, Mr. Klein's tawdry analysis, notwithstanding.

understood just how precarious the survival of our Democracy has become

Posted by: bird-1 | November 8, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

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