Taking his campaign to censure President Bush to Brooklyn this week, Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin — who may be the next Jewish candidate for the White House — called on “the weak of heart in Washington” to join his cause.
Support thus far has been underwhelming. Only two other senators, both fellow Democrats, have backed Feingold’s resolution to reprimand the president for authorizing wiretaps in anti-terrorism surveillance without federal warrants “and then misleading the country about the existence and legality of the program.”
Most scurried for cover when Feingold asked for their support. Republicans have responded with scorn. But members of Kolot Chayeinu, a progressive and nondenominational Brooklyn congregation, are clearly among the 42 percent of Americans — 20 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats — who support the idea, according to a Newsweek poll.
The congregation on Saturday night honored Feingold for “speaking truth to power” at a dinner to which he had been invited several months before his call for censure.
In his remarks, Feingold invoked his childhood rabbi, Manfred Swarsensky, who often sermonized that the Ten Commandments “are not the 10 suggestions.” Feingold said he applied the same dogmatic standard to the Constitution.
“My friends, the 10 provisions of the Bill of Rights are also not the 10 suggestions,” he said, drawing sustained applause from the audience at Prospect Hall in Brooklyn Heights.
Feingold said he had introduced the censure resolution only after sessions of the judiciary committee on the wiretaps were concluded with no action pending.
“[Some] senators were saying this program is probably illegal, so we better make it legal,” said Feingold. “I realized it was the end of the line, nobody wanted to talk about the fact that the president broke the law, a situation that I believe is right in the strike zone of what the founding fathers believed were high crimes and misdemeanors.”
In response to the notion that the 9-11 terrorist attack necessitates stronger domestic security measures like warrant-free domestic espionage, Feingold said “9-11 was a history-changing event, and stopping those who [perpetrated] that attack has to be one of our top priorities. … But I also believe, as important as that is, that the Bill of Rights and Constitution were not repealed on 9-11.”
Only Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Barbara Boxer of California have backed Feingold’s censure resolution.
Feingold said he hoped his recognition by the Brooklyn congregation would send a message to “those who are weak of heart in Washington that it’s all right to put your foot in the water and support this thing. The people will be behind you.”
The congregation’s rabbi, Ellen Lippmann, said Feingold had been invited “months ago” in recognition of “his being a Jewish senator who has taken a number of stands we find admirable, such as the vote against the Iraq war and for campaign finance reform.”
Feingold, perhaps best known as co-author of the 2002 McCain-Feingold bipartisan campaign finance reform act, told the audience of his childhood in Jamesville, Wisc., which then had 10 Jewish families.
“We were a very Jewish family, observed the holidays,” he said, noting that his parents flouted the adage that neither religion nor politics should be discussed at the dinner table. “They ended up with a daughter who is the first woman rabbi in Wisconsin and a United States senator.”
Feingold’s sister, Dena, is the spiritual leader at Temple Beth Hillel in Kenosha, Wisc.
In an interview before his remarks, Feingold said the censure resolution had nothing to do with his political ambitions.
“It’s irrelevant to whether I run for president,” he said. “I would have done this if it was a Democrat president doing this. When [Bill] Clinton was president, I was the only Democrat to vote to hear the evidence in the impeachment trial. I was one of the first Democrats to call for a special prosecutor concerning the president’s campaign finance problems [in 1996].
“It’s too important for me to think about it politically. This is about the rule of law.”
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said “Feingold is doing this out of principle, but also with an eye to the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. Many Democratic activists will love him for this, and maybe even vote for him.”
But there could be a cost.“At the same time, he’s pushing himself into the far-left corner of the party,” Sabato said. “Democrats don’t want a protest candidate in ’08, they want a winner after eight years in the wilderness.”
Feingold, who was elected to a third term in 2004, insists he won’t give serious consideration to a presidential bid until after this November’s midterm elections.
“I haven’t figured that out yet,” he told The Jewish Week. “I’ve been so busy with issues in the Senate.”
But he quickly added that “we need an independent, progressive president. … I’ll either consider doing it myself or supporting someone else.”
A “Russ For President” Web site is already active on the Internet. But its director, Ilya Sherman, said in an e-mail Tuesday, “Due to FEC rules, RussForPresident.com is not endorsed by, affiliated with or in any way associated with the senator, but the senator’s office is aware of its existence.”
Sherman said the site averages “10,000 hits a day” and has “helped spawn over a dozen individual state sites in support of Senator Feingold’s candidacy in 2008.”
Asked if America was ready for a Jewish president, Feingold said that when Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut ran for vice president in 2000, “his Jewishness was a plus.”
“I’ve had a very good experience in my state with people knowing I am Jewish and not focusing on that in a negative way. I believe the people of this country are ready to elect a woman, an African American, a Latino or a Jew. We are ready for that historic moment,” he said.
“The nature of the country is very diverse now and I believe it can happen. Whether it be someone like me, now that’s another question.”
Washington correspondent James D. Besser contributed to this report.