Feingold-Johnson debate, 10/12/10, via postcrescent.com
To be honest, it’s rare that a political debate is even mildly interesting.
But last night’s showdown between Senator Russ Feingold and challenger Ron Johnson was just that — and for about fifteen riveting minutes towards the end of the debate, it was electrifying.
The debate was the second one between Feingold and Johnson. The debate format this time allowed for more give and take between the two — which turned out to be a distinct disadvantage for the Republican candidate, who seemed befuddled at times by Feingold’s sharp questioning. I’ve added my transcript  of selected excerpts to an ongoing record and have posted that online.
Johnson was ready with prepared statements about deficits he blamed on Democrats, and about health care reform he wished had been done piecemeal if at all. While I think Feingold made a lot more sense on those issues, I didn’t sense that he was finding major openings in Johnson’s armor, or overcoming the Republican’s formidable “folksy millionaire” appeal: a kind of kinder, gentler Ross Perot.
But around the thirty-eighth minute, Johnson — ahead in the polls, with millions of his own money at his disposal, and millions more fighting his battles for him via Americans for Progress ads and the like –suddenly felt a need to land a sharp jab in the midst of a discussion about Afghanistan. By my scoring, he shouldn’t have:
Johnson (38:58): I would like to ask you, why didn’t you vote — you were one of I think only 25 Senators who refused to vote for the resolution to condemning your supporting group, Moveon.org, when they placed I thought a very shameful ad in the New York Times that talked about General Petraeus. Why didn’t you vote to condemn that act?
Feingold: I’ll tell you why: because I support freedom of speech. I don’t think senators should be sitting around spending time condemning people’s comments. We should be working on the deficit, we should be working on jobs. So I’m not going to vote for any resolution that wastes our time by trying to chill the speech of anybody. That’s not the job we have to do in the Senate, that is against freedom.
Johnson: Doesn’t show a great deal of support for our troops.
Feingold: I don’t think our troops want us sitting around all day passing resolutions going ‘hey, he said that’ and you know the next day we’ve got to pass a resolution about what Rush Limbaugh said. That’s all we’d ever do, Ron. This is serious work we do in the Senate. Standing around monitoring these people on the extremes is not what we should be doing.
Round to Feingold. But more than that, the exchange set up the candidate responses to the question of the evening — possibly the question of the election, possibly the question of the foreseeable future:
Glen Moberg (46:32): According to critics, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ‘Citizens United’ decision has opened the floodgates to unlimited amounts of cash being spent on negative campaign advertising by rich special interests, which under the decision don’t even have to reveal their identities. How dangerous do you think this is for democracy? Will this decision allow foreign governments or even terrorist groups to secretly fund campaign ads. Should we work to overturn this Citizens United decision, this Supreme Court decision? If so, how, and what if anything should we do to keep big money from anonymous sources from influencing election outcomes?
Feingold’s response was succinct and eloquent:
It’s easily one of the worst decisions in the history of the Supreme Court. It says that every one of you (pointing to audience) is in the same position as corporations, that corporations have the same political rights as you do.
And the results of this are being seen in this election. There are millions of dollars being spent by out of state groups on ads against me, and I have not seen any ads on my behalf, and I don’t want any ads like that. They are hidden, you don’t know who’s paying for them, there may well be foreign money involved. It is the destruction of our political process. The founders of this country did not believe that corporations were the same as the rest of us. We can pass legislation to try to require some disclosure of this information, which of course I’ve supported in a bill called the DISCLOSE Act.
But fundamentally we do need to overturn it, we’re going to have to get one justice who realizes that this decision was completely wrong. Otherwise our democracy is going to be completely submerged by the very powerful corporate interests that already dominate Washington. It’s only going to get worse.
Johnson, by contrast, thought there was nothing much wrong.
Johnson: I think campaign finance reform should be pretty simple: I’d be for total transparency, and immediate or at least very rapid reporting on the Internet. We have the capability of doing that. That’s what we need.
And then he said this:
We don’t need to assault our individual rights to free speech. That’s what really I believe what the McCain-Feingold, I call it the Incumbent Protection Act because that’s what it did. The intention of that was to supposedly clean up campaign finance, make it more accountable. What it’s done, it’s pushed money outside the political process. It’s pushed money into these 527 groups like MoveOn.org, where there is no accountability, there is no transparency. We have no idea who’s funding these ads. […] (emphases added)
Not that that really bothered him, as Feingold was soon to point out.
So once corporations are concerned, limiting their campaign expenditures would mean individual free speech is under assault. But when MoveOn runs a juvenile ad (“General Betray Us”) — saints preserve us! That’s shameful, dangerous talk that needs to be censured as soon as possible.
The moderator, Glenn Moberg, followed up with a question why there was such a disparity in favor of Republican candidates with the flood of outside ads. The debate was now in “open format” by prior agreement — and Feingold moved in:
Feingold (49:57): Well I’ll tell you, Mr. Johnson just refused to answer the question about Citizens United and I’ll tell you why: because he already endorsed it, he’s all for it. He is benefiting tremendously in this campaign from millions of dollars of these ads, and I am not and I don’t want to be. You say you don’t want them? Will you call on them to stop?
Johnson: I have no control over that.
Feingold: Will you ask them to stop?
Johnson: That’s, that’s part of the problem you have no control over the process…
Feingold: Will you ask them to stop?
Johnson: That’s their right to free speech. (Laughter)
Feingold: Will you ask them to stop? That’s your right to free speech, to say to them ‘stop.’
Johnson: People have a right to free speech Senator Feingold.
Feingold: Will you ask them to stop?
Johnson: People have a right to free speech.
Feingold: And the answer is no. So here we are in Wisconsin, we’re here in Wisconsin and we want to have our own election and a guy who wants to be your U.S. senator will not simply use his free speech to to say will you please stop. That’s how you should use your free speech.
Johnson: To answer your (points to Moberg) question, I agree with people saying the reason there’s being more money spent on the Republican side is there’s a great deal of dissatisfaction with what’s happened over the last 18 months, 2 years. People are concerned. People are very concerned about the total out of control spending and debt. They’re concerned, and that’s why they’re putting their money where their concern is, and that is their right and they should have that freedom.
Feinberg: The oil companies, the insurance companies, the mining companies, they are all very concerned. And they are hiding behind these ads because we finally are going to get some control over them, and he’s hiding behind ads that are nasty attack ads from out of state and he refuses to call on them to stop. That is a direct attack on Wisconsin’s political tradition of home-based campaigns.
Johnson: Senator Feingold it is individuals that are concerned about what’s happening to their country and they have a right to send their money to a particular group that agrees with their position. And those groups have a right to run ads. That’s their freedom. I’m not going to take that freedom away. You seem to want to do that. That’s what some of the thrust of the McCain-Feingold would be. You want to be able to select who can have free speech, and who doesn’t want to have free speech.
Feingold: I want everybody to have free speech, but I want them to be able to – you said, you ought to disclose, you haven’t even called on them to disclose. You just said you’re for disclosure, you won’t even call on them to disclose.
Johnson: I’d be happy to have them disclose.
Feingold: Well then why don’t you ask them to do it?
Johnson: Disclose. (Feingold smiles, crowd applauds.)
Johnson: I want, I want…
Feingold: Good. Let’s see. Let’s see. Frankly, I’m pretty sure you know darn well who’s doing this.
Johnson: It’s your law Senator.
Feingold: No it isn’t my law, Ron. This has nothing to do with the McCain-Feingold law.
[end of this part of debate, at 52:25]
For anyone with a stake in what free speech will really mean in the decades ahead, this was a Lincoln-Douglass debate for the 21st century.
To Ron Johnson, the free speech of corporations is sacrosanct, while the free speech of advocacy groups funded twenty bucks at a time by regular Americans is something he feels he can censure. Either position is wrong — together, they’re disastrous.
Feingold, by contrast, is sounding the alarm bells for our democracy — about to be submerged beneath tsunamis of corporate cash. He’s right.
So was Lincoln, once upon a time, when he debated Stephen Douglass about the most fundamental issue of that time. And yet he lost the election. And yet he also ultimately led the country through the abyss of that issue and the war it brought about.
Russ Feingold is trailing Johnson in the polls, thanks in no small part to well financed ad campaigns and superbly fertilized “grass sod” groups; I hate to think it, but the odds are not good he’ll pull this one out — though this debate should surely help, and a lot more can happen between now and Election Day.
But even if it doesn’t, I don’t plan to count Feingold out. We need his voice — to get us out of Afghanistan, to roll back the national security state, to get our economy back on track, to work for single payer health care. And to fix our democracy. One thing I think we can count on is that Feingold will stick to his convictions and his principles no matter what. That’s what we need — and the Senate isn’t the only place to make that happen. So is the White House.
PS: Meanwhile, support Russ Feingold’s campaign!  Don’t worry: your contributions are reported, it’s all above board.
UPDATE, 10/12: Great news — Feingold’s pollster reports Feingold and Johnson are basically tied among “definite voters” , and the momentum is in Feingold’s favor. Every donation helps!