MyDD Conversation with Russ Feingold
by Jonathan Singer, Wed May 17, 2006 at 09:56:29 AM EDT
On Thursday and Friday of last week, I was fortunate enough to speak with Wisconsin Senator Russell Feingold, a potential presidential candidate in 2008 -- the first of what we hope to be many MyDD interviews with serious potential candidates for the Democratic nomination over the next two years.
Senator Feingold and I touched on a number of issues during our conversation, which you can listen to here (an 11.6 megabyte .mp3) or read below. The topics included the CIA, censure, Iraq, 2006, 2008 and the Senator's message to the progressive blogosphere.
Jonathan Singer: General Michael Hayden, President Bush's pick to head the CIA, seemed to be unaware of the term "probable cause" in the Fourth Amendment during an appearance at the National Press Club in January. Is he fit to serve as chief of the CIA?
Russell Feingold:Well, he certainly has certain technical experience qualifications. But yes, if it is in fact true that he does not even understand the role of the Fourth Amendment and probable cause, that sort of ties in with my leading concern about his nomination: that he was a participant in and party to this illegal wiretapping program, which anybody - lawyer or not - should have understood was against the law and required specific authorization from the so-called Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court.
So I wouldn't base it simply on the basis of the possibility that he didn't know what probable cause was, but I have got to hear some reasonable explanation why he would go forward with a program that he should have known to be illegal before I could support his nomination.
Singer: Although this is not an issue that should be based upon popular opinion but rather ascertainable facts, polling indicates that between 40 and 46 percent of Americans support your proposal for censure of the President on the grounds of the domestic spying program, his support of that program. So why have so few other Democrats in Congress signed on to your plan?
Feingold: Well it's a sad day for America and the Democratic Party when our leaders and our top people can't even stand up to obvious illegality and wrongdoing by this administration.
The administration has done a poor job of running this country and they've done, I think, an incompetent job in the fight against terrorism, but they have succeeded in one thing, and they're very good at one thing, and that is at intimidating many Democrats into not speaking their mind and their beliefs and standing up to this attack on our constitution.
Perhaps the increased revelations of other practices that appear to be coming out will cause people to think again, that censure is a very modest approach and, in fact, if we don't do something like that, what will anyone, including a Democrat leader, say they did to acknowledge the fact that the President broke the law. At this point, there appears to be no answer other than my modest proposal to censure the President and simply pass a resolution indicating we disapprove of this.
Singer: Moving on to the issue of Iraq, which is also tied into the national security debate, of course, there are a fair deal of Americans who have turned against the war at this point but still are skeptical of pulling out for reasons that if America pulls out people are unsure of what would be left in Iraq in the aftermath. What would you say to assuage, to lessen these concerns given your support of withdrawing American troops from Iraq?
Feingold: Well it's certainly understandable that people would be edgy about this, especially if they haven't had a chance to see the situation in Iraq directly as I have on two occasions.
Colin Powell said, "If you break it, you own it." And I think a lot of Americans understandably feel responsibility to not just leave the Iraqis high and dry, and I agree with that. That's not what I proposed. What I proposed was to have our military mission redeployed, to not have the 140,000 ground troops there. We could continue helping train the police and army, and we could have special operations forces in the regions, and continue to go after Al Qaeda and Al Zarqawi type operatives.
But the idea of having our ground troops there, I think, has a tendency to inflame the insurgents, put our people at risk, and it allows fanatics to say that the United States is trying to occupy Iraq.
When you're there, you realize the situation is already almost completely chaotic, both in Baghdad and in many other parts of the country. So the notion that somehow our leaving would lead to a civil war doesn't recognize the reality on the ground, which is that, in many ways, is what's going on now, and that, I think, our presence there, do to no fault of our troops, tends to inflame rather than reduce the violence.
Singer: Let me ask you just a couple quick domestic policy questions because we're a little limited on time this morning. The President and the Republican Party seem to be intent on shifting the debate towards judges right now. Social issues seem to be, at least in their minds, a strong point for them with their base, which they are losing. What do you think of this tactic? Is it good for America? And should the Senate agree to putting on some of the more conservative members on to the courts?
Feingold: It shouldn't be based on ideology, it should be based on whether people are actually qualified and are people that belong in a lifetime appointment.
But yes, the switch in emphasis is an example of people having gone to the well too many times. They tried that last year and it doesn't work. Because the American people, of course, care about their judiciary, but what is first on people's minds is getting the fight on terrorism right and not having us caught in a no-win situation in Iraq. They also want us to spend real time on guaranteeing healthcare for Americans, alternative energy sources and job creation or not losing jobs.
So trying to completely switch the subject away from both the international and domestic issues that people care about most is a sign that they are desperate. And it's not going to work, because the American people are getting ready to vote in the fall. They want people to lead this country who are not just competent - which they don't have right now - but people who actually are committed to working on the problems that are of greatest concern to the American people.
So I think change is coming. I think it will be significant - as long as Democrats have the courage to stand up and talk about real solutions and not just try to run out the clock by the end of the year.
Singer: Well today, as you know, there are fewer Democratic Senators than any point since Herbert Hoover was President.
Feingold: I certainly know that.
Singer: Can you talk about some of the steps that you are taking to try to change the makeup of the United States Congress?
Feingold: As you know, I've been working extremely hard since I was fortunate enough to be reelected, both in Wisconsin and around the country, to try to elect Democrats - and especially progressive Democrats - so we can have the majority in both Houses and so that we can have a majority that will not make mistakes like the Senate did when it was in Democratic majority of helping to pass the Iraq resolution.
And I've done this all over the country. I was just in Austin, Texas for a guy named John Courage. I've been to Vail, Colorado on this. I've been to suburban Philadelphia, been to Alabama, Tennessee, just recently in Iowa working for several Congressional candidates there who could change the makeup of the House. So I am actively campaigning for people who will act differently, who will be standup Democrats, not just people who will come along and let the White House intimidate them.
Singer: Let's move on to the topic of 2008. Would you like to see an America with your friend John McCain as President?
Feingold: Well I think America could do a lot worse. Obviously I am a Democrat, hoping a Democrat will be elected in 2008. But I have a very high regard for Senator McCain has been one of the better experiences of my professional life.
Singer: Talking about your potential candidacy, there has been a lot of talk about that. In 2004, at least four of the Democrats running for President had been divorced in the past, yet it was not a topic of discussion. However, during this campaign, people seem to be talking a lot about the fact that you yourself are divorced and that may be a hamper on your potential campaign. Do you think that's a fair criticism?
Feingold: You know I'm just going to leave that up to people. If they really want to take that into account in who they want to be a President or officeholder, that's their business. I think it's completely irrelevant.
I'm certainly proud of my life and my personal life, as well. There have been some setbacks, but I think everybody has had those. And it has not affected doing my job nor do I think it would affect my doing another job. Up to people, though, how they want to treat that. It's not for me to tell them how to think about something like that.
Singer: Now let's talk about one of the things that put you on the national stage this year, and obviously that was bringing up the notion of censuring the President. While a great deal of Americans seem to support the measure, it also seems an even larger amount of Americans seem to think it was just a political ploy. Was it? Or do you have deep seated beliefs behind that?
Feingold: Well, obviously it wasn't a political ploy, and I think most of the people asked in a poll like that don't know who I am. Anybody who knows who I am knows that this is the kind of thing I have been doing throughout my career when I think something's wrong, especially with lawbreaking or possible lawbreaking.
I was the only Democrat to vote to hear the evidence in the Clinton impeachment trial. I was one of the first two Democrats to call for an independent counsel when there were concerns about Democrat President Clinton's campaign finance practices. So I think anybody who really knows me knows that not only was this not political but I would have done this if a Democrat President was making such outrageous assertions about executive power as George Bush is doing.
So I feel very good about where this is moving. Now, with these most recent revelations, I think a number of people are embarrassed that they were so critical of the censure resolution, because it's obviously a very moderate thing to do. If we don't at least censure the President, we're just going to have a big hole on the history page when people say, "All of these members of Congress said the President broke the law with illegal wiretapping but they didn't even criticize the President for it, they didn't even pass a resolution about it." So that's what I'm trying to do, and I think every day it looks stronger and better to people as an appropriate step to take. So I'm extremely pleased with the way it's going.
Singer: Final question before I let you go. If there's one message you'd like to send to the progressive blogosphere, the many readers in the progressive blogosphere, what would that be?
Feingold: That those who are progressives and want the Democrats to stand up strongly for their positions are not only doing the right thing for America but they are also helping to move the Democratic Party in the right direction, politically. So it's a win-win situation and they should not allow those who are the pundits and consultants in Washington to intimidate them out of their convictions because their convictions are the right convictions.
Singer: Terrific. Well thank you for your time.
Feingold: Thank you. I appreciate all the time.
[THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.]