Monday, June 05, 2006

Feingold and "firm principles"

Senator Russ Feingold's interview with Chris Cillizza and Dan Balz was posted on the WaPo today. In it Feingold hits on one issue that has haunted the Dems since Jimmy Carter - that they are a party of vaccilators - 'professional politicians' perpetually with their fingers in the air and with the moral backbone of an octopus.
Let's start with a broad question about the Democratic Party. There's all this talk about what ails the Democratic Party. What do you think the party's situation is these days and what needs to be done about it.


...There is this deep sense, especially in the base of the party, that we don't have firm principles or that if we have firm principles, we're not stating them firmly. And it is amazing to hear people, almost as if they've had the same script, saying we are tired of Democrats looking weak.

So that appears to be the conviction. I don't think people are as concerned about what the exact issues are as this feeling that we don't act like we are ready to govern this country both domestically and also especially ... standing up to the White House with regard to the mistakes and abuses of the post-9/11 era.

So that's what I hear. I'm convinced it is accurate.
I'm convinced that Russ is right on target on this issue. As a college instructor of political science who has worked on the campaign trail, I can't tell you how much people crave politicians to be straight with them. I've had it expressed to me many times by various people that they would prefer a candidate with strong, heartfelt convictions - even if some of those convictions differ from the voter's own - rather than a candidate who appears deceptive about their views, willing to to pander to everyone - in short, one who is indecisive, a 'waffler,' a 'flip-flopper.'

I've read on blogs where people wonder why Bush never gets tagged as a flip-flopper, most recently with regard to the turnabout in negotiations with Iran. Part of any full answer would naturally have to take into account the biases of the press, but even more importantly I think is the fact that Bush does articulate strongly held beliefs in strong language (regardless of what he really thinks on such issues). Given what we 'know' about Bush, any deviation from such beliefs then appears as a statesman-like act.

Contrast that with the caricature of the 'dithering Dems' that has grown up over the past 30 years and epitomized by Carter's malaise speech on the one hand and Kerry's 'I voted for it before I voted against it' on the other. This lack of fortitude is one of the reasons why people have doubts about the Dems when it comes to foreign policy. It is not just the policy themselves, but the behavior of the candidates that sets the tone, as documented by Josh Marshall in his Bitch-Slap theory of presidential politics (Someone who can't fight for himself certainly can't fight for you).

Chris Cillizza, who also wrote up a summary of the interview and of Feingold's career and prospects, notes up front that dithering indecisiveness is not something one has to worry about when it comes to Russ:
"Cautious" is not a word that comes to mind when writing about Russ Feingold.

The Wisconsin senator was the first member of his party to propose a timeline for withdrawing American troops from Iraq last fall, and when news broke about the Bush administration's domestic eavesdropping campaign, Feingold introduced a resolution to censure the president for violating U.S. law.

Political suicide, says the Democratic political establishment. Phooey, responds Feingold.

"I've heard these pundits, they are people that are paid by Democrats, many of them were in the Clinton administration, these are paid political pundits and paid political consultants who make their living coming up [to] the Capitol and telling the Democratic leadership this is a loser," Feingold says. "It is bad advice. It is advice we got in 2002 and 2004. And we lost because we were perceived as unable to take the tough stands that are needed to change the course in the fight against terrorism."

That's Russ Feingold at his finest. An anti-politician contemplating a run for the highest political office in the country....
Whether a Democrat is liberal with a capital 'L' or moderate is not so much the issue here; after all, Dean was no flaming liberal but he was willing to fight back for his beliefs.

[Of course, Dean was later labeled as 'too liberal,' but as we know, that has more to do with his willingness to 'Crash the Gates' and stand up to the Dem Establishment than any actual issue of ideology. BTW both the interview and summary go into how Feingold's style differs from Dean's and what he learned from Dean's flame-out.]

What is more important is that a candidate can articulate their beliefs clearly and strongly. This is key for reaching people who are not ideological themselves but who are not comfortable with 'politics as usual' either. Reaching these voters by consistently standing for our core beliefs - whether considered liberal or simply common sense - is as important for rebranding the Dem party as building a 50 state organization.