A relaxed Russ Feingold made news when he had lunch with a small group of bloggers on an overcast Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles. Stepping outside the usual stereotype of a politician, he picked up the check. And he pointedly distinguished himself from those he characterized as "foxhole Democrats" who run scared from Republican intimidation tactics.
"They're not very good at running the country," he said of the GOP, "but they're brilliant at intimidating Democrats." As for his fellow Democratic contenders for the 2008 nomination, he suggested that many of them are still dominated by fear of a Rovian attack on their patriotism or national security credentials.
Feingold argued that reluctance to be baited on national security cost Democrats the Presidency in 2004, and that "most Democrats don't know how to talk straight to the American people about what they believe."
"They all listen to the same small group of consultants," Feingold said. "Those consultants would've told me that my career was finished in Wisconsin after I voted against the Patriot Act. And I was re-elected by a wider margin than before."
"That's why my team doesn't feed me that bull," Feingold said with a sweep of his arm to indicate his two aides at the table. "So I carried Wisconsin by 300,000 votes while Kerry carried it by 10,000. I won 27 counties that went for George Bush.
"Just tell people what you believe," said Feingold. "They may or may not agree with you, but they'll respect you."
At first, Feingold was low key in response to Brad Friedman's question about why he didn't inform fellow Democratic Senators that he planned to introduce a censure resolution. "Lots of things get introduced without telling everybody," he commented. "Why am I held to a different standard?"
When pressed, he opened a little. "They would have had their attacks ready if I'd given them warning," he said. Who would have had attacks ready? he was asked. Other Democrats? "Yes. There are a lot of 'foxhole Democrats' out there ready to run and hide at the first sign of Republican intimidation. They think the only way to protect themselves is by running to the right."
I asked Feingold about the danger of a new war starting in Iran, and his answer was measured. "We must never take any option off the table," he said, "because the danger is real. But we need to make every effort to negotiate, and it doesn't look like that's being done."
With that he and his aides paid the check, stood up, and left. He had eaten nothing and only sipped mineral water. "Aren't you going to eat?" I asked him. "Don't worry about me," he said. "I'll be fine."
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