My Favorite Senator

(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.

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5 thoughts on “My Favorite Senator

  1. I think that one of the areas that you and Josh are ignoring is the importance of party solidarity. This is my stream of thought, thought.

    While voting your conscience sounds awesome in the abstract, doing so often undermines the ability of your party to do anything. I contend that being part of a party signifies that you believe that the majority of the time that party has good policies. You receive benefits from being in the party and you also have obligations. One of those obligations is to support pieces of legislation proposed by your party that are popular with your party’s constituency–the country. While you can, and should take principled stances on something you find absolutely abhorrent (e.g., Patriot act), a committment to reduce the national debt shouldn’t qualify as such a thing. Thus, while I think Russ deserves credit for taking principled stances against Republican legislation, I do not think he deserves credit for undermining party loyalty by voting down popular democratic bills. In the long run, a system that encourages individual’s to vote their conscience on all party proposed legislation undermines the ability of the party to do anything. Thus, even if Russ convinced Harry Reid of the merits of his educated minority view X, other party members (who believe the majority uneducated view) will feel no compulsion to pass it.

  2. This may be a repeat, I think the internet ate my comment. This will also be much much shorter, as I have studying to go do.

    Basically, you guys are ignoring the interest of the party. By joining a party you accept an obligation to support your party’s legislation. While it is ok to vote against a measure that you find abhorrent, I don’t think it is good to take a principled stance against something proposed by your party that you just disagree with. Doing so undermines the ability of the party to pass any meaningful legislation. Thus, even when Russ impresses Reid with his minority educated view, he won’t be able to get it passed, if other Democrats who hold the Majority view on the issue feel no obligation to vote for the bill as Democrats. If you feel like your party constantly proposes legislation you dislike, then the proper solution is to leave. People are fed up with the democrats inability to maintain party unity; a crucial aspect of party loyalty is deferring to the party unless you think they are horribly, horribly wrong. Now I agree that it is even worse to vote against a party submitted bill just because it might hurt you in a local election, but that doesn’t mean that voting your principles is automatically good. To a certain extent, for the marketplace of ideas to be meaningful, people have to actually implement those ideas, which requires voting for things you don’t agree with.

  3. That’s a fair point, Ryne. I agree that legislators must, and should, often make compromises to pass good (but not great) legislation, or else nothing would get done (though we are presupposing that legislation passing/change is usually better than the status quo). As you acknowledge though, there are cases where the party is “horribly, horribly wrong” and my point is that perhaps it doesn’t take an absolute worst decision ever to justify splitting from your party, perhaps the bar should be set lower at a “bad” or “very bad” decision. I also want to clarify that voting for principles isn’t necessarily contrary to your party’s or constituents’ interests–just their short-term interests. As in the Feingold example, the long-term interest of the party and the voters were to reject both the Patriot Act and an expensive quagmire of a war. People today agree with Feingold, even if they didn’t a few years ago. Perhaps people tomorrow will agree with Feingold’s voting, even if they don’t today. I think the idea of how to balance long-term vs. short-term interests is something worth revisiting, perhaps in a future post.

  4. One of the more interesting things you could also consider in a subsequent post is the increasingly alarmist and hyperbolic (some would say batshit crazy) WAY people vote for or against a bill. This type of behavior is encouraged by the partisan nature of today’s mainstream media, blogs, etc. For example, see debates where Representative A) says this healthcare bill will bankrupt america and Representative B) says not passing the healthcare bill is like supporting slavery.

    I find the majority of these “principled stances” to be entirely politically calculated. I don’t quite know what effect that has on your point, but I feel like it could alter the calculus in some way.

    It also might be worth considering what the effect of this type of behavior will have on upcoming elections. While I enjoy the skewering of jackass politicians on the daily show for their crazy thoughts and hypocrisy, presumably they are talking like that because it will attract voters. And, well, that scares me!

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