Will Russ Feingold Stand Alone Again?

Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold. AP

Dotty Lynch is CBSNews.com's Political Points columnist. E-mail your questions and comments to Political Points.

Russ Feingold is used to being alone. He is the one in the 99 to 1 vote in the Senate against the Patriot Act in 2001 and the lone Democrat to vote against dismissing impeachment charges against President Clinton in 1999.

On Monday Feingold introduced a resolution to censure President Bush for his "actions in authorizing the illegal wiretapping program and then misleading the country about the existence and legality of the program." He says the resolution is "an appropriate and responsible step for Congress to take in response to the president's undermining of the separation of powers and ignoring the rule of law."

There was an immediate outcry from Republicans. The Republican National Committee called it "Feingold's Folly" and accused the Democrats of "playing politics with the most important issue facing the American people" and sending "the wrong message to our enemies ...."

On Monday Vice President Cheney encouraged boos for Feingold at a fundraiser in Feingold's home state of Wisconsin and dared other Democrats to support the resolution.

"The outrageous proposition that we ought to protect our enemies' ability to communicate as it plots against America poses a key test of our Democratic leaders," he said. "Do they support the extreme and counterproductive antics of a few or do they support a lawful program vital to the security of this nation?"

The outcry from Republicans was matched by the sound of silence from the Democrats. On Sunday Sen. Carl Levin, who is a serious player when it comes to intelligence, said they should wait until the investigation was completed, and on Monday Sens. Reid and Lieberman hemmed and hawed and said they hadn't had time to read the resolution. When pressed, Lieberman said he thought they should "try to find a solution instead." Democrats hung together on the faux security issue of the Dubai stewardship of the ports, but on real national security issues, they get nervous.

Juliette Kayyem, a former Clinton administration official and expert on terrorism and homeland security who is now at Harvard's Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs says that Feingold's resolution should be taken seriously.

"There is an element of politics in it but the president has violated a federal statute and therefore a move to censure has some merit." Kayyem says, "The president has to know there are consequences to his actions."

Kayyem also says that censure may be a particularly appropriate measure falling between accepting the president's actions and impeaching him.

The polls say that Americans are with the president on national security and are willing to sacrifice some civil liberties to make sure terrorism is checked. The CBS News-New York Times poll on the wiretapping issue conducted in late February found Americans divided on the use of wiretapping and whether the president had the authority to authorize it without a warrant. Most Democrats believe the issue is a loser for them and prefer to steer the conversation to domestic issues.

Feingold earned his reputation as a maverick the hard way by often being the skunk at the party picnic. And once again he is out there. He is from the most purple of states, Wisconsin, but he was reelected in 2004 running with a 100 percent rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action.

Feingold has carved out two big issues which happen to be front and center right now -- ethics in government and privacy. As he begins a serious exploration of the 2008 Democratic Presidential nomination, his bona fides on lobbying and campaign finance reform cannot be questioned.

He has also been a consistent critic of the war in Iraq. He voted against the resolution authorizing the president to use force in Iraq and was the first senator to urge a withdrawal timetable for the troops. And although he voted for John Roberts for Supreme Court and is a moderate on some fiscal issues, he is clearly to the left of most of the Democratic primary field.

For years he has been in the shadow of his co-sponsor of the Campaign Finance Reform Act and has stood waiting his turn at press conferences where reporters begged the charismatic John McCain for just one more great sound-bite.

As Democrats flirt with Mark Warner and Evan Bayh and think that going right and cautious is the way to win back the White House, Feingold has demonstrated his independence and courage once again.

Howard Dean says that Americans are hungering for authenticity and historically Democratic caucus and primary voters tend to tilt left. If Feingold gets into the race maybe McCain-Feingold will become McCain v Feingold in 2008.

By Dotty Lynch
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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