Comparing Hillary Clinton to Russ Feingold, Whose Record Is Better?

Reuters

Imagine for a moment that it's October 2016.

If you're a liberal or progressive, what would you say, during the last days of the campaign, if the Republican nominee for president was a big Iraq War supporter; voted for the Patriot Act; opposed gay marriage for years, reversing course only in 2013; and took hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs? Meanwhile, your candidate opposed the Iraq War, just like Barack Obama; voted against the Patriot Act; was an early supporter of gay marriage; and credibly decried the insidious influence that Big Finance has on politics?

Be honest. You'd characterize the Republican as a homophobic warmonger with idiotic foreign-policy judgment who'd likely act as Wall Street's stooge if elected president.

Wouldn't you?

With that in mind: Hillary Clinton spent eight years in the Senate starting on January 3, 2001. Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin was her colleague the entire time. Let us compare their records to see who would be a better standard-bearer for the Democratic Party today. On many occasions, they voted together. But when they differed on big questions, Feingold avoided many significant errors in judgment that Clinton made, took stands that were vindicated by subsequent events, and adopted positions that better align with Democrats today. It is substantively indefensible that she is now the favorite in the party.

The Iraq War

Without reading a key intelligence report, Clinton favored the invasion of Iraq, and trusted George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Don Rumsfeld to wage that war. As a result, 5,000 American soldiers lost their lives. Many thousands more were (and remain) seriously wounded. The war will ultimately cost $6 trillion.

Feingold opposed the Iraq War, arguing that Bush must "do better than the shoddy piecing together of flimsy evidence that contradicts the very briefings we've received by various agencies ..." He also worried about an occupation:

Mr. President, we need an honest assessment of the commitment required of America. If the right way to address this threat is through internationally-supported military action in Iraq ... we will need to take action to ensure stability in Iraq. This could be very costly and time consuming, could involve the occupation—the occupation, Mr. President, of a Middle Eastern country .... Consider the regional implications of that scenario, the unrest in moderate states, calls for action against American interests, the difficulty of bringing stability to Iraq so we can extricate ourselves in the midst of regional turmoil. Mr. President, we need much more information about how we propose to proceed so that we can weigh the costs and benefits to our national security. 

In 2005, Clinton erroneously claimed that the insurgency was failing. That same year, Feingold was pushing to bring the troops home as soon as possible. On the most consequential foreign policy judgment call in a generation, Clinton was catastrophically wrong, while Feingold was right and prescient in his warnings.

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The Patriot Act 

Clinton voted for the Patriot Act, along with every other U.S. senator save one: Russ Feingold. He explained on the Senate floor that his first and abiding reaction to 9/11 was a solemn resolve to stop and defeat the terrorists responsible for it. "But I also quickly realized that two cautions were necessary, and I raised them on the Senate floor the day after the attacks," he explained to his colleagues. "The first caution was that we must continue to respect our Constitution and protect our civil liberties in the wake of the attacks ... we must examine every item that is proposed in response to these events to be sure we are not rewarding these terrorists and weakening ourselves by giving up the cherished freedoms that they seek to destroy. The second caution I issued was a warning against the mistreatment of Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, South Asians, or others."

Feingold went on to express prescient concerns about what the legislation would permit. At one point, for example, he declared himself "very troubled by the broad expansion of government power under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act." In later years, he would warn specifically about Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which would be used to facilitate mass surveillance. Unlike Clinton, he would also vote against the reauthorization of the bill. 

Gay Marriage

Feingold declared his support for marriage equality in 2006. "Obviously, it's a very difficult issue and evokes a lot of emotions," he told the Washington Post. "I think it's something ultimately that people throughout the country will accept ..." Years earlier in 1996, Feingold was in a minority of legislators who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, which Bill Clinton signed into law. Hillary Clinton didn't declare her support for same-sex marriage until 2013.

The Death Penalty

Hillary Clinton favors it. In fact, when she ran for Senate in 2000, "She went out of her way to note her support for the death penalty, welfare restrictions and a balanced budget." That same year, Feingold was calling for a national moratorium on the death penalty as part of his longtime crusade to abolish the practice. Texas most likely executed an innocent man in 2004. 

* * *

These days, Feingold is a college professor and a U.S. envoy to a war-torn region of Africa. He is not taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from Goldman Sachs. On the other hand ...

Hillary Clinton's shift from declaimer of Big Finance shenanigans to collaborator with Goldman—the firm has donated between $250,000 and $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation—prompts an obvious question: Can the former secretary of state cultivate populist cred while hobnobbing with Goldman and pocketing money from it and other Wall Street firms? Last year, she gave two paid speeches to Goldman Sachs audiences. (Her customary fee is $200,000 a speech.)

Democrats can tell themselves it's inevitable that their nominee will be a Patriot Act-supporting, mass-surveillance-enabling hawk who opposed gay marriage throughout the years when it mattered most, still favors the death penalty, and would re-enter the White House having cozied up particularly close to Big Finance.

That doesn't say much for their party. 

There are obviously a lot of HRC votes that most Democrats like very much. But it's hard to think of many that weren't also supported by Feingold, along with many other Democrats who got Iraq, the Patriot Act, and gay marriage right. If Clinton is elected president and mistakenly favors another war of choice that costs trillions and kills thousands of Americans, Democrats can't say they weren't warned.

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.


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