The quiet force in campaign-finance fight
The Wisconsin Democrat may get fewer headlines than McCain, but he could become an even bigger star.
Sen. Russell Feingold (D) has been sitting quietly listening to himself speak for about 30 seconds, when his eyes roll upward with a self-mocking sarcasm. He's just taped the Democratic response to President Bush's weekly radio address, calling on the president to support campaign-finance reform, and he's noticing a few fumbled lines on the playback.Skip to next paragraph
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"Well, it's early," he says with a smile. It's only 8 in the morning, but Senator Feingold has been at the office for some time already. After this, he is off to a meeting of 10 senators to plot strategy - and then on to the Senate floor for yet another day of debate.
"My life has been like 'Groundhog Day' lately," he says. "Get up, have breakfast, go to the floor, have lunch, go back to the floor, have dinner, go to bed, get up, and do it all again."
It has been a week of long days and late nights for the junior senator from Wisconsin, who is the less-known sponsor of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill. But the potential payoff - reforming the way money is donated in politics - is worth the long hours, he says. He's "just happy to be a part of the effort."
If all goes as planned, this week the bill he and Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) have drafted and redrafted is finally going to a vote on the Senate floor. And though it is usually Senator McCain who gets the headlines, the stakes may actually be higher for Feingold, who jokingly calls himself "John McCain's little brother."
Democrats' rising star
McCain the war hero lends a celebrity sheen to campaign-finance reform, but at 64, some feel his moment in American politics was the 2000 campaign, particularly since he is unlikely to challenge Mr. Bush in 2004. But the 48-year-old Feingold, a former Rhodes Scholar and self-described progressive, has a more open road ahead of him.
Of all the rising stars in the Democratic Party, Feingold is one of the most unlikely. As his party moves to the center, trying to learn from Bill Clinton's ability to triangulate between left and right, Feingold takes pride in holding to the left's more liberal traditions.
"I am a descendent of this political tradition, and I'm just trying to keep it alive," he says.
The senator's personal hero and political benchmark is not John Kennedy or even Franklin Roosevelt, but "Fighting Bob" LaFollette, the progressive Wisconsin governor and senator from the early 20th century. LaFollette, a Republican union supporter and staunch opponent of World War I, was respected among his colleagues and has been judged kindly by history, but in his lifetime he marginalized himself politically by being unwilling to bend. In 1924, LaFollette ran for president as an independent, his own party no longer wanting him.
"Here's the thing," says Feingold, pointing to a portrait of LaFollette outside the Senate chamber. "You have to decide whether it's more important to stay in the building and compromise and get things accomplished, or whether it's more important to drive a point through."