Just a year ago, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) was disregarded, even by some in his own party, as a bleeding-heart liberal defeatist for his stance on the Iraq War.
Now he hangs out with the “in” crowd.
Almost two years ago Feingold first floated the idea of setting a date by which all troops in Iraq should be redeployed. Few of his colleagues supported him.
This week the Senate will vote on an amendment that would force President Bush to severely limit the mission of U.S. forces in Iraq and extricate many of them from the war-torn country by April 30, 2008.
The proposal — advocated by Democratic heavyweight Sens. Carl Levin (Mich.) and Jack Reed (R.I.) — is nearly identical in scope to the amendment Feingold and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) offered last June. And it is the centerpiece of the Democrats’ strategy to reinvigorate the Iraq debate during consideration of the Defense Department authorization bill this week.
Fully aware of the irony, Feingold noted that Levin and Reed were the biggest critics when he and Kerry took their amendment, which drew just 13 votes, to the floor.
By contrast, Levin-Reed might come closer than Senate Democrats ever have before to getting the 60 votes necessary to avoid a filibuster.
“Instead of saying, ‘Hey, where’s my name’ [on the legislation], I’m happy,” Feingold said in an interview Thursday. “I learned the lesson from [former Senate Majority Leader] Bob Dole [R-Kan.], that the less you care about getting mentioned, the more you get done.”
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) enabled Feingold’s transformation from outside agitator to key policymaker by inviting Feingold, an Assistant Majority Whip, to attend the weekly leadership meetings starting at the beginning of 2005.
Then Reid convened an “Iraq War council” last June, “designed to reflect the Caucus as a whole” and advise him on how the party should move forward, said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.
In addition to Feingold and Reid, the group includes Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph Biden (Del.) and Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.), Levin, Reed and Kerry.
Feingold praised Reid for tapping Members with such divergent views.
“By bringing me in, he brought someone others might have thought was hard to handle,” Feingold acknowledged.
While many Senate Democrats said the party’s conversion to a hard timeline for withdrawal happened organically and as a reaction to constituents’ concerns, they acknowledged that Feingold’s influence on the evolution of the debate has been significant.
“Senator Feingold has had a tremendous impact because he’s been both resolute in his beliefs and also understanding of the need to bring the rest of the group along,” said Schumer, who also is chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
“I’m not sure we would have reached the point we’re at today without his leadership,” Durbin concurred. “It’s fair to say that the major provisions of Levin-Reed reflect Russ Feingold’s position of a year ago.”
Indeed, several Senate Democrats said Feingold’s strength during the various Iraq War debates came from his understanding of how far the rest of the Caucus was willing to go.
“He was very thoughtful about having to build what we can,” Kerry said, adding that he and Feingold understand that “Pyrrhic votes don’t get you anywhere.”
In April, Reid joined Feingold in introducing legislation that would redeploy all troops by March 31, 2008, and then cut off war funding — a bold move on Reid’s part.
With Levin-Reed’s real prospect of garnering more than 51 votes — the Democrats’ high-water mark — Feingold decided to hold off on offering Feingold-Reid until debate on the Defense Department spending bill begins later this summer.
“He’s given that up now in the interest of being thoughtful and cooperative,” Kerry said.
Feingold said the party’s shift on Iraq “started way too slow for my taste.”
About a year ago Reid told Feingold that he “was getting there” when it came to embracing Feingold’s plan. “I told him: ‘I want you to get there as soon as possible,’” Feingold recalled with a chuckle.
That day finally came last spring after Reid again visited wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Feingold said. Ever since, the two have “been working hand-in-glove,” he said.
“People don’t realize what an unsung hero Reid is on trying to end this,” Feingold added.
Manley said Reid “appreciates” Feingold’s contributions to the debate, calling him “a very forceful and articulate advocate of getting troops out of Iraq.”
But it’s not as if Democrats who split with Feingold in the past on Iraq are second-guessing themselves now that they have moved closer to his original position.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who remains undecided about the Levin-Reed proposal, said his recent advocacy of at least forcing a change in the U.S. mission in Iraq, if not a firm deadline for bringing troops home, came more from the “fatigue factor of the American people” after four and half years of a war that has appeared to produce few positive results for either Americans or Iraqis.
“That was eventually going to send [the debate] this way, unless there had been a major victory,” Nelson said. He added that while “Feingold has had some influence … people maybe thought that he was premature in his position.”
Feingold is not stalking the Senate halls waiting to tell colleagues: “I told you so,” he said.
“People know I was right,” but that is not the point, Feingold said. “This isn’t any issue; it’s the biggest mistake in my lifetime.”
Feingold said anyone in tune with the public sentiment had to rethink his or her position.
“I feel I had a real impact out there, not because of me, but because [the Democratic Senators running for president] are out there hearing what the people are saying.
“They were slow to come on board because they were listening to the consultants instead of the people.”