Russ for Us? The Ambivalent Political Identity of Russ Feingold

Russ Feingold, who represented Wisconsin for three terms in the Senate before losing to Ron Johnson in 2010, announced yesterday that he will run for his old seat in 2016. This announcement was predictably greeted with progressive joy. But Feingold’s legacy and possible future as a liberal hero are complicated. At the heart of his political identity are two sets of competing ideas.

We can clearly see the first in the response from liberal activists and more establishment types – Feingold is an important progressive figure. In The Atlantic, Russell Berman wrote that “Feingold was (Elizabeth) Warren before Warren,” comparing their populist economic values. Yet as revered as Feingold is on the left, his political identity also stretches into “independent maverick” territory. In his announcement yesterday, he highlighted his intentions to “bring back to the U.S. Senate strong independence, bipartisanship and honesty.” His signature legislative accomplishment, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, or McCain-Feingold, was probably closer to Democratic preferences than Republicans’, but a big part of the hype was the cross-aisle cooperation between the two senators. Feingold also broke with his party to vote for George W. Bush’s first Attorney General, John Ashcroft, whose conservative views on a wide range of issues rankled liberals. And the vote against the PATRIOT Act in 2001, now depicted as an act of ideological purity, was hardly party discipline in context. All the other Senate Democrats supported the bill. Feingold’s dual role as a liberal icon and as an independent voice on issues like campaign finance and civil liberties, which sometimes jump party lines, worked well sometimes, and they fit especially well with the politics of the Bush years. Feingold’s campaign for his third term in 2004 was well-timed in this regard. Can this balance survive the party dynamics that have built up during the Obama years?

The second tension is directly related to the first. In emphasizing his independence, Feingold has stressed his commitment to representing Wisconsin. This is hardly groundbreaking for a member of Congress. But it does challenge the increasing nationalization of Congressional politics. In previous Senate elections, Feingold has refused independent expenditures on his behalf – even from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, promising instead to rely mostly on donations from within the state. The nationalization of the 2010 races also worked against Feingold, who, despite efforts to be a party maverick, was swept up in the wave of opposition to Obama, the Democratic Party, and the status quo. The 2010 loss points to the depth and stakes of his dilemma. His loss of credibility as an independent voice appears to have contributed to his defeat. It’s not entirely clear that Feingold was the one who changed; rather, the political circumstances changed. It’s much harder to strike balance between being an independent and being a loyal Democrat, and between representing your state and representing your party, when a liberal Democrat is in the White House.

What does it all mean? First, conditions appear to have shifted some more since Feingold’s departure from the Senate, with the two parties becoming more sorted on issues and polarization becoming more affective, cultural, and generally nasty (although there exists some debate among experts about the exact nature of party divisions). It seems like a reasonable hypothesis that the changes in politics since 2010 have made it more difficult to balance an identity as both a liberal and an independent. Second, the 2016 Congressional races might, paradoxically, be less intensely nationalized than the 2010 midterms. I’m not sure if anyone has measured this precisely, but when presidential candidates are actually on the ballot, perhaps they don’t seep into the Congressional races as much. Feingold may also try to make the race about Wisconsin issues and about representing the state, which may work to his benefit if he can pull it off. But it remains to be seen whether this kind of campaign can evade the larger picture of partisan politics.

For a Senator who has built his profile as an independent voice, Feingold’s delicate identity balance has actually depended a great deal on the political environment. The really interesting question is not so much whether he can defeat Johnson in a 2016 rematch, but whether he can adapt his lefty maverick persona to the post-Obama world.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.