(don’t worry, it’s not Joe Lieberman)
Josh recently wrote about Joe Lieberman and his obnoxious but courageous stands on principle, and I’d like to present the story of maverick voting at a different angle about another Senator who is also famous for voting on principle while maintaining, and even increasing, his political capital. No, I’m not talking about John McCain. I’m referring to his buddy, my favorite current Senator, Russ Feingold (D-WI).
His backstory, for which I rely completely on Wikipedia, is utterly charming. In his first Senate campaign, he promised to keep his children enrolled in public schools in Middleton, Wisconsin; and rely on Wisconsin citizens for the majority of his campaign donations. In 1998 he capped his campaign spending at $3.8 million, $1 for each Wisconsin resident. In 2004, he raised $11 million, but records showed that over 90% came from individuals, the average contribution was $60 (though I’d like to know the median), and the majority, again, came from Wisconsin residents. He holds town hall “Listening Sessions” in each county of his state, every year. He once demonstrated in a TV spot that he had no skeletons in his closet by… showing video footage of his closet.
Despite having impeccable liberal credentials, Senator Feingold is also a self-styled maverick who hangs out with John McCain and is, more importantly, unafraid to vote against his party. He recently voted against a $1.1 trillion federal spending package–one of only three democrats to do so. He also voted against the Women’s Health Amendment to the healthcare bill that would require insurance companies to offer free mammograms and other preventive services to women. He voted “on principle” in each case, because he believes in the urgency of controlling spending and reducing the national debt. Both, and perhaps more clearly the latter, were politically damaging and complete lost-causes–both bills passed with or without his support. Yet he is also famous for making the ultimate votes against public opinion in a losing cause–he was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act and one of only 21 Democrats who voted against Bush’s war in Iraq.
To bring out the old yarn, a democracy succeeds because there is a competitive marketplace for the best ideas, and a plethora of ideas to choose from; change and competition can only exist when there are those willing to defy convention, buck the often irrational and shortsighted public bronco, and espouse their educated, considered, and sometimes minority principles. If we hoped for lawmakers to vote with public opinion all of the time, then we might as well get rid of representative democracy and start thinking of ways to accurately poll people instantaneously on every issue. Especially in a legislative setting where unanimity counts for no extra points and no one remembers tomorrow whether a vote is 61-39 or 62-38, I embrace the legislator who cares more about right and wrong than how he or she will perform in the next election. As Josh points out, too often are votes determined by a callous calculation of personal or local constituent benefit. Of course, the final judge is history. Mavericks like Sarah Palin and Joe Lieberman and now John McCain may be marginalized because they may have chosen positions that will eventually prove them foolish, and they could rightly be voted out of office as a result (and because of their inconsistency). But as Feingold’s record with Iraq and the Patriot Act shows, sometimes history can reveal the lone dissenter to be the one-eyed king. I happen to agree with some of Feingold’s politics, and more importantly I respect his intellectual honesty and political integrity, just as many supported the refreshing independence McCain 2000.
Keep fighting the good fight, Senator, and keep voting with your principles.