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Tuesday, November 02, 2010  

Muscles for Russell, 1992-2010

There will be plenty of disappointments for liberals to sift through tomorrow and in the days to come, and I hope not to spend undue time weeping in my beer over most of them. Politics is a tough, unpredictable, and unlovely business, and getting too sentimental about it is dangerous both to one's sanity and one's effectiveness as a political actor, however trivial. I am going to take a moment, however, to note with genuine sadness the end of a remarkable Senate career tonight.

Early on in the 1992 primary campaign, I remember reading a newspaper poll that had Russ Feingold running a distant third against two other candidates, one a well-known congressman and the other a self-funding millionaire. I didn't know anything about the guy, but I seem to remember one of my parents saying he was a good guy with no chance to pull it out. Yet pull it out he did, in one of those races that is a textbook example of the political-science concept of campaign effects. He went on to vanquish two-term chair-warmer Bob Kasten, whose only notable achievement in his political career was knocking off the great Gaylord Nelson. When we saw Russ take the stage at the county Democrats' victory party on November 8, 1992, it was if possible a greater thrill than Clinton's win.

Russ went on to be a truly rare bird in the Senate, a solid progressive with a proud and often difficult independent streak. Truth be told, while he had passionate admirers among Wisconsin liberals (I was insanely proud to cast my first general election ballot, absentee, for him in 1998), he was not a notably effective legislator when it came to big issues. His time to shine, and the age of his career that will be remembered as long as anyone cares about the decrepit history of the U.S. Senate, came only during the Bush years. From his lonely, redeeming vote against the USA PATRIOT Act (remember, it was an acronym, as if to trumpet its awfulness) to his hard, brutally knowledgeable grilling of appointees to the Supreme Court, he was the only serious and consistent friend of civil liberties in the Senate. Like a lot of liberals, I had my gripes with Russ over his mugwumpery and his self-damaging sanctimoniousness, but on that front he was worth more than a row of Dick Durbins and Chuck Schumers. The last decade of his career was a testament to the idea that a single voice, disciplined, intelligent, and enduring, could mean more than all the flipped vote switches in the world.

And like Nelson before him, he was beaten by a nonentity, who will be remembered only by virtue of the man he replaced. Ron Johnson seems to have given as much thought to the business of being a senator as I give to ordering a cheeseburger, his only platform a lot of hand-waving about spending cuts to be named later. Yet this hardly makes him an embarrassment by the standards of the body he is about to enter (Tom Coburn, the unlamented Evan Bayh) or even the state he is about to represent (Joe McCarthy). Russ has always known, like every successful progressive in American political history, that the folks back home aren't voting for membership in the history books. There's a median voter in every race, and the politician's job is to go after that voter, not disdain them. Winning isn't everything, but you have to do it. It's our loss that he, and we, didn't.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:47 PM
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