Real Maverick Confronts One Word, Plastics: Margaret Carlson

Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin is not among those members of Congress to have “gone Washington.” He’s as Wisconsin as the Green Bay Packers, walleyes, cheeseheads and chocolate bacon on a stick.

When he ran in 1992, defeating Republican incumbent Bob Kasten after dispatching two wealthy Democrats in the primary, Feingold posted five promises on his garage door that, 18 years later, could serve as the manifesto for this election season’s crop of angry outsiders.

Feingold pledged to live and send his children to public school in Wisconsin, reject any pay raise, visit each of the state’s 72 counties every year and rely on in-state contributions for the bulk of his fundraising. To reduce the influence of money in politics, he joined with Republican John McCain, back when the Arizona senator was still copping to being a maverick, on the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law.

Feingold stuck to his promises and gave every sign of becoming Senator for Life, following a quirky path in the tradition of the Progressive Movement leader Robert La Follette. He is David against the Goliath of organized special interests. He casts unpopular votes against popular spending programs such as the prescription-drug benefit for seniors. He opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, the war against Iraq, deregulating banks and, nine years later, bailing them out.

A study by a Harvard University fellow, cited in a recent article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, found that Feingold’s voting behavior deviated from prevailing left-right patterns more dramatically than any other senator in seven of the nine sessions of Congress in which he has served.

2004 Re-election

This was just fine with the Wisconsin electorate, which granted him a third term in 2004 with 55 percent of the vote. For much of this year, he seemed to be one politician who needn’t worry about the tsunami of disgust aimed at incumbents.

Then along came Ron Johnson, a quiet businessman who became wealthy manufacturing plastics. (Fill in your own joke from “The Graduate.”) A political neophyte, Johnson was lured to the Tea Party last fall when organizers of a rally needed a businessman to join Joe the Plumber on stage.

Johnson spoke of the rise of a socialist, European-style state that would diminish America’s place in the world. He demonized Obamacare for a government takeover of the best health-care system in the world, the one that made it possible for two skilled doctors to save the life of his daughter, Carrie, born with a congenital heart defect.

Outside In

The Little Carrie speech ricocheted around the state after being picked up by conservative talk radio. A candidate was born. Willing to spend his considerable savings on a challenge, Johnson turned Feingold into a Washington insider basking in power while Badger State voters lost their jobs, their houses and their life savings.

By highlighting Feingold’s vote for the economic stimulus of 2009, Johnson appealed to nervous independents who have joined angry conservatives in an obsession with spending --never mind the economists who agree that extra government spending was essential to save the country from a depression.

By the “I’m not a witch” standards of many of this year’s challengers, Johnson looks positively statesmanlike, even as he displays more attitude than positions.

He can sound like an audio-books version of “Atlas Shrugged.” He recites jeremiads about government incursions into our lives, the decline of property rights and high taxation. He expresses general admiration for Republican Representative Paul Ryan’s free-market Roadmap for America’s Future without specifying which of its many painful cuts he would embrace. He’s been vague since attributing global warming to sunspots.

Ahead in Polls

Johnson is ahead by about 7 points in recent polls as he threatens to take out a politician as anti-establishment as they get.

Feingold needs to excite hard-core Democrats if he’s to gain a fourth term. So why, when President Barack Obama visited the state that fell hard for him in 2008, did Feingold have pressing business elsewhere?

Yesterday, Feingold found himself available to appear with the Democrats’ most valuable asset, first lady Michelle Obama, who steered clear of issues at a fundraiser in Milwaukee in favor of Mother-in-Chief bromides: “My children are the center of my world. My hopes for their future are at the heart of every single thing I do. And that’s really why I’m here today.”

That, and to drag a wounded senator back to Washington -- although short of personally escorting voters to the polls, there’s little she can do to get Democrats excited.

Business First

Feingold and other endangered Democrats face the oddest of coalitions. Working-class voters most damaged by corporate America have made common cause with new, faux populists to demand tax cuts for the wealthy, the continued under-regulation of corporations such as BP Plc and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and the repeal of Obama’s health-system overhaul so that insurers can decide who will and won’t get care. What’s best for business is best for America.

Those are mere details at a time when voters seem willing to send clowns to Washington just to put some new faces in the circus.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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