On a number of key issues -- the Iraq war, surveillance, criminal justice and same-sex marriage, among others -- Republicans and Democrats alike are rushing to calibrate their policy positions with public opinion that has become more progressive, and answer for controversial past votes. As former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) showed last week, some politicians are having a harder go of it than others.
Much rarer though are nationally prominent politicians in either party who supported the current consensus on controversial issues before it was popular -- and have the votes to prove it.
If there is one person who comes close, it may just be former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis). Feingold, who lost his bid for a fourth Senate term in 2010 to Republican Ron Johnson, recently announced that he will be running to reclaim his old seat in 2016.
Below is a list of Feingold’s votes that were controversial at the time, but now reflect widely held views in both parties:
The 1994 Crime Bill
The 1994 crime bill, officially called the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, imposed tougher sentences and provided more funding for police and prisons. It gave Democrats, including then-President Bill Clinton, the opportunity to show they could be tough on crime.
Recently though, as mass incarceration has replaced crime as a national concern, the 1994 crime bill has been subject to increasing criticism. Even Clinton has said that the crime bill went too far, and contributed to the preponderance of young men of color in prison.
At the time of the law’s passage though, Feingold was the only Democrat in the Senate to vote against the law. (Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby voted against it, too, but just a few months later switched to the Republican Party.) In a speech explaining his decision to vote against the law, Feingold cited as his chief reasons “the absurd extension of the death penalty” and “the dangerous trend toward the federalization of law enforcement." Feingold argued the death penalty was used disproportionately against people of color, a conclusion for which there is ample evidence. (Watch the conclusion of the speech on C-SPAN here.)
The Patriot Act
There are few important votes in recent legislative history as lopsided as the one that passed the Patriot Act into law. Feingold was the only senator to vote against it.
In a speech on the Senate floor explaining why he planned to vote against the Patriot Act, Feingold specifically denounced Section 215 of the law, which provided the legal basis for the mass surveillance of Americans. At the time of the law’s passage, Section 215 was known as the “library provision,” since the greatest fear it evoked was that the government would use it to spy on Americans’ reading habits. Feingold presciently called Section 215 a “truly breathtaking expansion of police power.”
Fast-forward to 2015 and the Patriot Act has lost much of its political backing. Section 215, in particular, is on life support. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has vowed to do "everything humanly possible" -- including filibuster -- to allow Section 215 to expire. In April 2015, Sens. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced The USA Freedom Act, a law that would end bulk data collection. The Republican-controlled House already passed a similar law.
The Iraq War
Jeb Bush unleashed a feeding frenzy from his likely peers in the Republican presidential field when he seemed to suggest that he still would have gone to war in Iraq. He has since said that he would not have gone to war if he'd had the information we have now.
The near-unanimity among Republican presidential candidates that the Iraq war was a mistake represents a tidal change in American politics since the war began. When Congress passed a law authorizing President George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq, only 23 senators voted against it.
Feingold was one of them. In a speech at the time, Feingold predicted that the war would hinder U.S. attempts to fight terrorism.
“I am concerned that the president is pushing us into a mistaken and counterproductive course of action,” Feingold said. “Instead of this war being crucial on the war on terrorism, I fear it could have the opposite effect.”
Same-Sex Marriage and Gay Rights
In 1996, Feingold was one of 14 senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act. Feingold “evolved” on same-sex marriage long before other Democrats, confirming his support for marriage equality in 2006. At the time, Feingold was spoken of as a possible 2008 presidential candidate. The Washington Post noted that the position would “put him to the left of many likely rivals.”
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