Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin)
Interview With The Fix's Chris Cillizza and The Post's Dan Balz

Monday, June 5, 2006 7:25 AM

washingtonpost.com's Chris Cillizza and Washington Post reporter Dan Balz interviewed Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) on May 24 as part of an ongoing series of conversations with potential 2008 presidential candidates. A transcript of the interview is below:

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.

SEN. FEINGOLD: Well, people are not just thirsty to win. They are tired of losing. It goes beyond that. And I have checked this everywhere a person can check it. I go to every one of Wisconsin's 72 counties every year and hold a town meeting. And pretty soon, it will be my 1,000th listening session.

I've been to about 14 different states across the country, including the deep southern states like Alabama and Florida ... . There is one central theme. People said the same thing. They said when are you guys going to start standing up?

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.

And is there a listing of what they really want action on? Or where they really want confrontation with the president?

Well, yes. I mean the first thing is they are feeling really abused by the fact that not only did this White House bring us into this Iraq war under false pretenses, not only did they not anticipate or plan for things not going well, but even when it was clear that things hadn't gone well, that they refused to be honest about the problems and then to try and deal with it.

People in the Democratic Party are appalled at the weakness of the Democratic response to that. In addition, people are angry that the White House appears to be taking an extreme view of executive power. They believe that the White House is trying to use this terrorist situation, as serious as it is, to take advantage of the traditional separation of powers and checks and balances that the founders of our country set up.

And we suspect it came to light with the growing opposition to many provisions of the U.S.A. Patriot Act. And it came to a head, of course, with the revelation of the illegal wiretapping program where people are saying, you know, you can't just let this guy get away with asserting that he can override congressional laws.

So on that side of the equation, people are passionate. When I went to Iowa, I like to kid around saying that given the positions I have taken, I think I could have been a piece of Swiss cheese and got a lot of cheers and applause. It was the positions that I was taking, the positions I have taken, that people are saying why don't other people take these stands against the administration in a positive way, in a position sense? Why is there this meekness? Why is there this timidity is what I always hear.

Howard Dean got a lot of similar responses in 2003 for a similar kind of message of taking on the president. In the end, it turned out that that wasn't as big a part of the Democratic Party as it appeared at the time. Do you have a sense that this is a substantial part of the Democratic Party you are hearing from? Or a sense that it is responsive to the kind of things you've been talking about?

Oh, I think it goes way beyond not only a certain slice of the Democratic Party. I mean it goes well beyond the Democratic Party. I think it goes into many independents, many Republicans I've talked to. I really see it as very different than what Howard Dean was talking about. He took some very good positions. In fact, they were positions that reflected my votes -- my vote against the Iraq War, my vote against the Patriot Act, my vote against NAFTA and GATT.

But what people are looking for is a general approach that is not necessarily confrontational but one that shows that we are strong, that we've got bold ideas, for example guaranteed health care for all Americans, combined with a willingness to be straightforward and take on the White House where appropriate.

So it is not a question of being oppositional or negative. It is saying, "Look, if we took over the Congress or if we took over the White House, we would do a better, more strategic job of fighting terrorism," for example. So it is not just negative. It's not just raising hell.

It's about showing that you are ready to govern in a rational and better way. And I think if we don't convey that, then it will be not just a narrow slice of the Democratic Party. It will be just a very narrow slice of people asking for a confident, thoughtful approach to governing. Otherwise people will stick with Republicans, as bad as they are.

Your speech at the National Press Club last month had a lot of these themes in it. How much have you talked to your colleagues in the Senate and other Democratic elected officials about these things? How much are you talking and what kind of response are you getting from them?

I try every opportunity I can. I've spoken at our [Senate Democratic] caucuses, our closed caucuses on Tuesdays. Recently when General Hayden's appointment was coming up, I got up and I said, "Look, you know, clearly this guy has got a lot of ability but everybody should realize that this is a moment for Democrats to decide whether we are going to stand up to this presidential polygram."

So I did it publicly. What I've been amazed by is the number of senators that have come up to me after the Washington pundits and the press immediately announced minutes after I introduced the censure resolution, they announced that it wasn't going anywhere.

You know I've been a legislator for 24 years. You usually don't know in 15 minutes whether something is going somewhere or not. What happened was I really have a line up of senators waiting to talk to me in the Senate chambers. ... Plus everywhere I go people are saying, "Why aren't you with Feingold's censure resolution?"

So this has led to a number of private conversations. In some cases, it has led to people endorsing the bill. Tom Harkin came on the bill right away. Barbara Boxer joined it. John Kerry has cosponsored the bill formally.

So this is a gradual process. I mean censuring a president is a big deal. And you don't do it in minutes. But what I'm finding is that by quietly pointing out to people that if we just leave a blank hole on the pages of history concerning this presidential power grab, that will really be a shame on us as Democrats and as Americans that we didn't stand up to this.

So I think that the people are beginning to realize there has to be some accountability and certainly our constituents in the base of our party believe that it would be a terrible failure if we didn't do it. So I am reaching out.

But it is a slow process. And it works best when they have been home. And they have heard their constituents say, you know, why aren't you supporting Senator Feingold on censure?

What about on withdrawal of troops from Iraq? You have not gotten a substantial amount of support from your colleagues here.

This has been a up and down story -- not all down. It started very slow last year when I became the first senator to propose a timetable. But we did have a pretty good period there in October and November where we did have 40 senators vote for something that I helped draft, which was less than my own proposal but essentially talking about the need for a timetable to bring the troops home. We did get 40 senators to vote for that.

Unfortunately, and this is what I was talking about at the Press Club, people seemed to go back into what I'd call the foxhole after we went home for recess in December. And the president started saying well, you're not supporting the troops. You are not being patriotic.

But the sad thing is that people haven't returned to challenge this. In fact it is incredible to me that this situation continues to fester in Iraq. And the Democrats are not every day talking about the need to have a different strategy. So I think people would love to support the idea of a timetable. But they have allowed themselves to become intimidated into thinking that that word or some other variation is somehow a thing that the American people would be appalled by.

In fact, the American people overwhelmingly, if you really talk to them, think it is time, as they like to say it, for the boys and girls to come home. Or at least be redeployed. That is almost a consensus view in America now.

I mean even on Fox News now they're not really defending the war. You know you used to have all the generals and all their people, now they are just saying well, you know, if we take off, there will be a civil war.

But America knows that this was a strategic mistake. America knows we have to regroup and refocus on the real fight against terrorism. So I don't understand why Democrats are so meek about basically associating themselves with the number one issue in America which is to find a way to end our huge military involvement in Iraq.

Do you think that the party will nominate somebody in 2008 who supported the war and the use-of-force resolution in 2002?

It may end up with only choices of people who did support the war. You know it depends on who runs. I mean at this point ... I guess I'm on a list of ... 12 people who might run. As far as I know, I'm the only one that opposed the war on that whole list. So it will be interesting.

I think it is possible. And who knows? I may end up supporting somebody whether I run and lose or if I don't run, I may support someone who in the beginning supported the war. But it will matter to me how that person handles this issue.

To simply stand there and say you know we just need to go a little longer or put the right move in the fight against terrorism, anyone who says that really is refusing to look at reality. This clearly was one of the worst strategic mistakes in the history of American foreign policy. And a real setback in the fight against al Qaeda. ... and we need to be honest about that. You know, in World War II,there were times after Pearl Harbor when people weren't all that optimistic. There was great worry and concern.

We need to acknowledge that we have some issues here and that we need to regroup and fight the fight against terrorism. So whoever our candidate is has to be very clear that this was an error and that we need to regroup and get it right.

It sounds like you are somewhat surprised that -- certainly that as it relates to the war -- that your colleagues have not been more supportive of your line. Were you surprised that there isn't more outcry in Washington or in the country at large over privacy concerns, the Patriot Act, NSA wiretapping?

I see this very differently. I see enormous support. I see polls that show the support. I see 400 communities in America passing resolutions testing the Patriot Act and asking for changes. ... When the censure resolution came out, everybody said nobody is for it. Almost every single poll showed over 40 percent of the American people supporting it. And, in some cases, a plurality or a majority supporting it.

I think it is simply untrue that people out there aren't concerned about it. You've got to look how questions are phrased. If the question is phrased do you support wiretapping terrorists, which is basically the way they phrase it sometimes, of course ... I'd say yes. Of course I would. It should be done legally though. And so when it is phrased in a way that I think is reasonable, people do agree with it.

A lot of polls also show that when people are asked, "Would you mind if your calls were listened to?" a surprisingly large percentage say no.

I don't know what those percentages are. But I'll be honest with you, the fact that anyone would say that surprises me. That's not the way Wisconsin people think. I have had a couple of people say that to me.

But the idea that, you know, I've got nothing to hide and go ahead and listen to my phone calls, I really think that goes against just about everything that we, as Americans, believe in as individuals and people that believe in our own privacy. That's what the Constitution is about.

So they're not willing to go out on any limb you want. If the American people are going to come to the conclusion that go ahead, listen to all my conversations, put on a tape recording of what I said to my child yesterday, if that's what they want, so be it. But I don't believe it. I don't believe Americans want that at all. I believe they think it is outrageous and that there will be accountability for it.

Do you think it will hurt the Democrats in the midterm elections not to have a kind of clear consensus position on Iraq?

Definitely. I think people ... thought we were going to win in 2000. People thought we were going to win in 2002. People thought we were going to win in 2004. I think in each case, it was either the inertia that people didn't want to change the president in the middle of a war or concerns that Democrats weren't ready to handle these difficult antiterrorism issues.

If we don't show that we have a strong vision of how to complete that mission, bring the troops home, and refocus in a positive way in the fight against terrorism, I'm afraid people will once again by default, you know, hedge it and maybe allow Republicans to stay in power.

Maybe we would win one House back, ... but then I worry what the impact would be in the 2008 election when it is desperately important that we elect a Democratic president. So I am concerned about it. I think we are drifting completely on the Iraq issue right now. We should be endorsing a reasonable approach for a timetable to bring the troops home or at least redeploy them by the end of 2006. I think it would find great favor with the American people.

Why is there no interest to try to do that? When I talked to Nancy Pelosi late last year and again earlier this year, her view was war is too important to have a party position on it, that it is an individual lawmaker's choice.

I mean look, I haven't inured to the party's position on it. And the party's position has been not to be for a timetable generally speaking. ... I have taken a different view. I think it would be a good thing to try to get consensus not only with Democrats but with some Republicans who I think are open to this at least in theory.

But the problem for all these folks is that they let themselves believe that somehow ... even though [the Republicans] aren't governing this country properly and even though they have bungled Iraq, that whenever they bring out the fear factor saying you don't support the troops or you are not patriotic, they just run.

They just say well, you know -- and I've heard it. 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. "You can't do a timetable. You can't talk about censure. You can't talk about illegal wiretapping. What you just have to talk about is domestic issues or sort of just talk about homeland security in the sense of port security."

This is the advice. I've heard it given. It is bad advice. It is advice that 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 course in the fight against terrorism.

So it is a Washington problem of people listening not to their constituents but of listening to the paid political operatives who run this town.

Some Democrats are using the phraseology of "we stand for making 2006 a year of significant transition in Iraq." What does that mean? And why did Democrats seize on that as the way to say we have a policy in Iraq?

Well, sadly, it's a rather a milquetoast way to say what I've been trying to say which is that ... it is time to bring the troops out of there. But, you know, we don't want to say the magic words "withdrawal" or "timetable" or "redeploy." So it is a way to kind of say that without really saying that. In other words, you are trying to have your cake and eat it, too.

This is very serious business. This is life and death for people that are there. And if something isn't working, we need to bring them out unless it is absolutely essential that they stay. For Democrats to only talk about transition, I think is a sign of weakness. And one thing the Republicans have taught us, the words do matter. The way you say things do matter.

What I see too often among the Democratic consultants is they try to find some kind of a fluff way to have it all. That reminds me of the Clinton health care package where it came in with strong language but by the end there were so many compromises. We didn't want anybody mad at us.

Well, the Republicans showed in 1994 you can have a lot of people mad at you. But if you show you believe in something, gee, you might get to control the House for 12 years, the Senate for all but 18 months in 12 years, and have George Bush be president.

It doesn't work to try to be, as others have said, and I may have said first -- I don't know who said it first -- "Republican light." We have to be distinct and be proud of our positions. And we have to state them -- all I can say is we may have bold positions but you can't just have bold positions. You have to state them boldly as well. You can't sort of have a strong position but then say but we are going to use very soft language to convey it because it doesn't get through.

I've heard a lot of people say -- privately and publicly -- that "Sen. Feingold makes a great candidate ... says what a lot of people are thinking. But governing is about compromise, and we're not sure that he has a compromising bone in his body." How do you answer that?

You know, I don't like blowing my horn. But I think it is fair to say that I'm one of the most experienced legislators in the United States right now. I have been a legislator for almost 25 years, [since] I was 29 years old. I know exactly when to hold them and when to fold them. I've done it hundreds of times, one of the most famous legislation probably of the last 20 years in America, the name that is most associated with major legislation.

... If you think McCain-Feingold is what I wanted it to be in the beginning, that was an excruciating eight-year process of compromise. On occasion, I said to John McCain, "I feel like my arm has been chopped off." It was a very tough process.

We started out with a bill that had to do with public finance -- or free television time and all these other limitations. We ended up with something very important, a bill on soft money. So I would argue I might have more experience with political compromise than just about any other member of the Senate.

The same thing goes for Iraq. You know I proposed my timetable. I wanted us to have an explicit timetable for the end of 2006. Ask Harry Reid how I performed in the group with [Sen. Christopher Dodd] and others. We met for several weeks. The comment I got which I was pleased about was I was very constructive. I ended up agreeing to something that did get 40 votes.

It was not as strong as I wanted, but I thought it was a good move in the right direction. I have absolute confidence that when the moment is right, that I can make the compromises. And I think I am pretty experienced at it at this point. I'm getting older and I have done a few things.

When you say you are for universal health care, what is your strategy?

The strategy that I have been trying to vet with a lot of different groups, the Heritage Foundation and others, is that we should require a health care guarantee for all Americans but that we should let individual states have a lot of flexibility in how they do it.

In other words, come up with plans that would be approved by the federal government. So there might be a state, let's say Hawaii, that might want to do a single plan. In Wisconsin, we have a labor/management proposal out that would cover 95 percent of the people in the state under employment status with help from the state. And then the other five percent under my vision maybe the federal government would pick up the tab for those people -- Medicaid people and others.

Another way it might be done is the state may say look, we are going to do all this and we are going to provide some funds but you, the federal government, you pick up catastrophic costs. So I think it could be done in this way. Maybe some states would want to combine their forces. I think they should reward states financially if they use good prevention in health approaches that are demonstrated to work as a carrot.

We are going to begin this, and I'm intending to introduce a bill to do this -- just to propose legislation that would do this and allow three or four states to apply as pilot states to do this. We're getting wonderful response from the business community, from the health care professionals, and others. I think it is going to take an American-style approach to guaranteed health care coverage for all Americans. That's the vision that I'm working on. It's very complicated but I do think that people will find it much more appealing than a British or Canadian-type approach.

And what are the other domestic issues that really move you?

The issue of jobs, the fact that we have lost tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs in Wisconsin and the upper Midwest in recent years I think, in large part, because of trade agreements that were not properly negotiated. They're not sufficiently protective of American jobs and foreign jobs -- jobs of the people in the other countries and their workers' rights.

That has to stop. We should have defeated CAFTA. We should defeat other agreements that, I think, are not properly negotiated. And there are really very few issues that are more important than -- in fact no other issue is more important than the devastation this has caused in many traditional communities in Wisconsin.

We need to have workforce training programs very substantially beefed up to make sure that all the states are working to train people so that when opportunities come, they are ready for them.

You know the other issue that comes up all the time at these town meetings that I do? It's no surprise now, but I want to say that this comes up in my state not just when the gas prices are high but all the time. People don't understand why we don't have a real alternative energy program. They know this is the real win-win situation of all times.

If we go with biodiesel, if we go with ethanol, if we go with fuel cells, if we go with renewable energy portfolios, if we go with wind energy, if we put resources behind it, they know you can get away from dependence on a number of countries that are not necessarily our best friends, that it would be great for the environment, and it would be great for jobs.

The other day I got to visit a biodiesel plant that was just beginning outside of a place called Mauston, Wisconsin, whose Main Street is not doing very well right now. And these folks were so excited from a business development point of view about this use of soybeans and what it could mean but it also was great for the agricultural people in the community and, of course, the environmental community is very excited about it.

So if I were to tell Democrats what should I focus on in my speeches, well, you should eventually get to the issue of accountability and the Iraq War and the whole international issue. You have to. You have to be strong on that. But any speech that does not include health care guarantee for all Americans, doing something differently about protecting American jobs and independence from foreign oil, those three are absolutely central.

Are you saying that protectionism is the answer?

No, not protectionism. Having good trade agreements that are balanced, that are fair, that have some real requirements in the countries that are effected. For example on CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, there is some language in there about how those countries had to adhere to labor standards but no enforcement.

And there needs to be enforcement. They have to be genuine agreements. We do want to sell to those markets. Even my strongest pro-labor people, the machinists were in here the other day, they said we want to be in the China market. We want to be able to sell our product in China. But we don't want agreements that handicap us or basically just pave the way for the Chinese to take away all our jobs.

So it is definitely not protectionism. It is fair trade. It is reasonable trade.

Can you give us a sense of where you are in terms of exploring a presidential run in 2008?

I am so involved with my work in the Senate and representing Wisconsin and frankly getting around the country trying to elect progressives. I spent the weekend trying to help Maria Cantwell hopefully get reelected in Washington. I am just immersed in that. I'm excited about it. This is a historic year.

And at the end of this, I want to see what happens with the Congress and talk to my friends and my supporters and see if it makes sense for me to make a run. I would have to feel that I really could do the job well. I would have to feel that I could actually win it for the Democrats. I sure don't want to get the nomination and not win.

And I would have to, from a personal point of view, make sure it is the right thing for me. So I'm going to take up those considerations after the election.

You said some time ago that you weren't sure that you could do the job. Are you feeling any more confident about that now?

Well, you know, I think anybody that is sure they can do the job has probably got a little bit too big of an opinion of themselves. I think I am more prepared than I was in the past.

The combination of my work on the Foreign Relations Committee and now my new appointment on the Intelligence Committee, which has been very intensive, I think has given me much more confidence that I could work with the military people, the intelligence people that I would be working with if I ended up ever in that office.

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