By Matthew Rothschild on November 03, 2010

Progressives across Wisconsin, and across the country, are feeling crushed by the defeat of Sen. Russ Feingold, one of the finest Senators ever to represent the Badger state.

Feingold lost 52-47 to Ron Johnson, a wealthy plastics manufacturer with no political experience.

The old rules of politics no longer apply.

You can win every debate, as Feingold did.

You can get practically every newspaper endorsement in the state, as Feingold did, including some very conservative ones.

You can be a loyal and dutiful servant of your constituents, coming home every weekend and visiting every county every year, as Feingold did.

And you can still lose.

One reason is money, and the hideous Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, which opened the floodgates.

“Common Cause of Wisconsin estimated the total spent at $40 million to $45 million for the senate race, a record amount. Outside groups spent about $5 million, most of that on ads opposing Feingold,” according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

How ironic it is that Feingold, who more than any other Senator tried to limit the poisonous influence of corporate money in politics, succumbed to that very disease.

Feingold also has Barack Obama to thank for his defeat.

Obama failed to deliver the change he promised, failed to deliver the jobs he promised, and cozied up to Wall Street, so voters across the country took it out on Democrats with a vengeance.

For instance, the AP ran a story about a Wisconsinite opposing Feingold because she said he voted for the bank bailout. When the reporter informed her that Feingold actually voted against the bank bailout, that didn’t change her mind. She responded that the Democrats still spent too much.

Poor Feingold. More than most Democrats, he was a deficit hawk, but that counted for nothing on Tuesday.

Johnson ran a brilliant, vacuous campaign, with soft, gauzy commercials and an “aw, shucks” regular guy appeal.

He drummed into voters’ minds that Feingold’s first name was “career” and middle name was “politician.”

And he stood in front of gorgeous Wisconsin scenery in ad after ad, and talked about the need to cut spending and to bring a businessman’s perspective—not another lawyers’ perspective—to D.C.

Feingold’s ads, by contrast, were often ineffective, and he refused to go as negative as he could have, and he told liberal outside interest groups not to advertise for him.

As a result, voters didn’t hear often enough, for instance, that Johnson thinks man-made global warming is “lunacy,” that Johnson opposes extending unemployment insurance because he doesn’t want people to have an incentive not to work. Most crucially, we didn’t hear at all that Johnson actually testified before the state legislature earlier this year on the side of the employers of pedophiles! Johnson wanted to limit the financial awards that victims of pedophiles could get from those employers. He sided against the victims, and most candidates would have hammered him for that. Feingold gave him a pass.

Now Feingold leaves with his dignity and his principles intact.

I didn’t agree with Russ Feingold on everything.

He was too much of a deficit hawk for me.

And his reflexive defense of Israeli government policies toward the Palestinians was at odds with his otherwise stellar human rights record.

But he was a fantastic Senator.

You won’t find a smarter, more diligent, more independent, more courageous person in that chamber.

He was the reincarnation of Fighting Bob La Follette, but with shorter hair.

He was the only Senator to vote against the USA Patriot Act, and his speech against it could have come right out of La Follette’s mouth.

Said Feingold: “There is no doubt that if we lived in a police state, it would be easier to catch the terrorists. . . . But that wouldn’t be a country in which we would want to live, and it wouldn’t be a country for which we could, in good conscience, ask our young people to fight and die. In short, that country wouldn’t be America.”

He was the only Democratic Senator to vote against the financial reform law because he said, rightly, that it didn’t do enough to prevent another banking crisis.

He led the fight against destructive trade deals like NAFTA.

He opposed the Iraq War.

He voted against the deregulation of Wall Street and the repeal of Glass-Steagall.

He fought for media reform.

He railed against the malignancy of corporate power, stressing, as La Follette did, that it is destroying not only our economy but also our democracy.

Now Russ Feingold is gone.

And Wisconsin is a less proud place to live in today.

If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story "Why Jon Stewart’s Speech Left Me Cold."

Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter

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Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
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Love someone who does not deserve it. 
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Say that the leaves are harvested 
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Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
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Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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