Former U.S. senator Russ Feingold

The former senator and author of While America Sleeps explains why he feels the U.S. has “gone to sleep on international issues” and offers his prediction on the outcome of the presidential campaign.

During his time as Wisconsin’s U.S. senator (1993-2011), Russ Feingold was an advocate for reducing pork barrel spending and corporate welfare and co-sponsored campaign finance reform legislation. Since leaving public office, the Rhodes Scholar and Harvard-trained lawyer has taught at Marquette University Law School and at Stanford and founded Progressives United, an organization focused on opposing corporate dominance. Feingold is also a recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award and author of While America Sleeps, which looks at institutional failures since 9/11.


Tavis: Russ Feingold served in the U.S. Senate from 18 years from the great state of Wisconsin. His courageous career included the distinction of being the only member of the Senate to vote against the PATRIOT Act and one of only 23 senators to vote against the war in Iraq.

He’s out now with a timely new book called, “While America Sleeps: A Wake-Up Call for the Post 9/11 Era.” Senator Feingold, an honor always, sir, to have you on this program.

Russ Feingold: Good to be on. You were in Wisconsin right at the end of the election and kind of froze ourselves there for the Farm Aid.

Tavis: Yeah, we did.

Feingold: (Unintelligible) at Miller Park. (Laughs)

Tavis: We had a good time, though.

Feingold: Yeah, it was great.

Tavis: We had a good time. It’s good to have you in L.A., though, where it’s a little bit warm.

Feingold: It is warmer; it’s a little bit warmer.

Tavis: Glad to have you here. Let me go right to the text, first of all. When you say “While America Sleeps,” let me start by asking what’s happening while we’re sleeping? What are we missing while we’re sleeping?

Feingold: Thanks, Tavis. Yeah, the book is called “While America Sleeps” because it’s my sense that after 9/11 we all kind of thought, wait a minute – how did this happen to us? How come we didn’t see the signals? Over the course of the 10 years I think we’ve pulled back and stopped looking at the signal.

I’ll just give you an example of what’s happening with al Qaeda itself. Al Qaeda’s not done. We got Osama bin Laden, but look what’s happening in Yemen right now. There’s still a lot of activity there. You go just 20 miles over the Strait of Mandeb into Africa and you’ve got al-Shabaab, an al Qaeda chapter in Somalia.

You go up to northern Africa; you’ve got a group called al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. That’s a group that was originally Algerians who were doing similar things.

You go down to Nigeria, there’s a group called Boko Haram who sure look to me like a group. They’re using similar tactics to al Qaeda. Maybe they’re affiliated, maybe they’re not, but they’re pulling off explosions and now hitting Western targets, and I’m thinking, how are we doing this again, where we don’t sort of pick up on the signals?

We’re thinking about everything else, we’re thinking about going to Iran for a warn now on top of all this, but we aren’t even done with the specific task that we had to do on 9/11, not to mention not doing a very good job of keeping track of the rest of the world.

We’re thinking about what’s going on here. We’ve got a rough economy, but we have to walk and chew gum at the same time and I think we’ve gone to sleep on international issues, in large part.

Tavis: To your point now about international issues, your former colleague, John McCain, and we’ll talk about McCain-Feingold and the undoing of it in this conversation, I suspect – at least I know I hope we do – but John McCain has now called for U.S.-led air strikes on Syria. Your thoughts about that?

Feingold: Well, one of the things I talk about in “While America Sleeps” is our tendency during the 10 past years to only invade a country and stay there forever rather than having sort of a calibrated or careful approach.

So we go into Afghanistan and we know Bin Laden’s not even there anymore and we stay there forever. We go into Iraq, where we shouldn’t have gone, I call it the “in for a penny, in for a pound” strategy, where you do the whole deal.

President Obama got it right in Libya, in my view. He didn’t do the ground troops. He didn’t do everything. He realized that Qaddafi was sort of slipping, and so he worked with the international community, he made sure that the rebels had some air cover.

These same principles can be applied to Syria. Now, Lindsey Gramm and McCain a few days ago said, “Well, let’s arm the rebels.” I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad idea. Maybe air cover or air strikes is also a good idea.

What I don’t think is a good idea is invading Syria, either internationally or the United States, because we get into that sort of a trap. So I’m not sure it’s the right answer, but it’s on the table, because we’ve got to get rid of Assad. What he’s doing there is criminal.

Even the Arab League is dying to get him out of there, and Syria used to be one of their key players. I think this guy’s got to go, but a more calibrated approach where we don’t put troops on the ground from the United States and stay there forever is the best way to go.

Tavis: Since you raised Iran, President Obama, of course, this week has met with Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House and much is, of course, still being discussed at their meeting. But what’s your sense of the position, the tack, that the president has taken at this moment, and furthermore, your sense of what ultimately is going to happen with Iran where we’re concerned and where Israel is concerned?

Feingold: I think President Obama’s doing a pretty good job of trying to prevent a rush to war. He’s in the middle of a reelection fight and the Republicans; again, they basically don’t want to talk about foreign policy generally because President Obama’s done a pretty good job. He’s gotten some of the key terrorists.

All they want to do is to try to say, “Iran, Iran, Iran.” Put him in a box, saying that Obama’s not willing to go to war with regard to Iran. But the president said it right in the State of the Union – all options are on the table. Okay, so what does that mean?

Well, it means that military is possible. We may have to do it, but it’s not necessary in all scenarios. Same thing for Israel. Look, if Israel determines that the only way it can survive is to make the move, I understand. I would even support it.

But I think what the president is hoping and he’s hoping to accomplish is avoiding that, and this again goes back to the idea of my book, in “While America Sleeps.” It’s not just about Iran and isolation. It’s not just about nuclear power.

Iran has relationships with all kinds of other countries in the world – China, Russia, Indonesia. Their relationship with those countries matters to them. Those countries know that our bottom line is to make sure they don’t get a nuclear weapon, and I agree with that.

We need to use all those levers, increase the pressure, increase the sanctions, and every expert I’ve heard says the sanctions are beginning to work. Iran’s not like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It’s complicated. There are many different power centers there. It’s not just the ayatollah; it’s not just President Ahmadinejad. There are different ways to influence Iran other than the idea of an invasion.

So I think the president’s using a much more mature approach, and I bet in the end he gets this done without having us have to go to war.

Tavis: Since we’re flying around the globe at the moment, you mentioned Russia, so thank you for the lead-in. So Putin has been overwhelmingly reelected in Russia. I don’t know that we expect anything different, but your read on what that means for our relationship with Russia going forward, because Obama and Putin haven’t always gotten along so well.

Feingold: Well, I think you have to take a realistic view of Putin and of Russia, and again, this is another theme from my book, which is how do we maintain attention to different places at the same time? We have a tendency to say it’s either al Qaeda or it’s Iran or it’s Russia, and somehow we have to think about the fact that Russia is a very important country.

There’s a tendency on the park of Americans, all of us, to say, hey, the Cold War is over, the Soviet Union is gone, we don’t have to worry about these guys again. We always have to be worried about them, we always have to be concerned about them, and we have to be well-informed.

Putin, he’s a complicated guy, and he may not love the way that we’ve been talking about him, but we have no choice but to urge Russia to move forward toward a democracy rather than a more authoritarian nationalist country that is a threat.

So we need to engage Russia as individuals. I don’t think enough Americans are going over there to engage them publicly. We need to make sure that we show Russia the respect that we consider it an important country. That’s a very sensitive thing to the Russians, if we act like they don’t matter anymore.

They do matter, and we need to understand that Putin is a very critical figure in this world.

Tavis: You have been critical of President Obama at times on various matters. We’ll get to some of that in this conversation. But you obviously also support him. You want to see him be reelected, and you’ve said that publicly. All right.

But a moment ago you said that Republicans have not really engaged him on foreign policy because he’s had some foreign policy successes. Let me play devil’s advocate and challenge you on that.

Maybe Republicans haven’t challenged him on foreign policy because he ain’t done a whole lot on foreign policy they disagree with. He’s dropped more drones in Pakistan than George Bush did. I could do this all night; I don’t have time for it. You know where I’m going, you’re the expert here.

But what about the notion that maybe they haven’t engaged him on foreign policy because it’s on domestic policy where they disagree, but on foreign policy, in many respects, and you know this, he’s continued the Bush legacy.

Feingold: I’d say that’s half of the story, is that they’re, of course, glad that he got Osama bin Laden. They don’t want to admit it. They’re glad that he got al-Awlaki; they’re glad that Qadhafi’s gone. They tried to kind of pick at him on that.

The truth is he’s got a terrific record of going after these folks, and of course they don’t have problems with even excesses of the tactics, whether it be drones or indefinite detention.

Tavis: Precisely.

Feingold: On the right side of the thing.

Tavis: Right.

Feingold: But there’s a left side of this thing, if you will. He’s been a great president already with regard to reaching out to the rest of the world in a positive way that George Bush didn’t do. Going to Cairo and making that speech to the Arab and Muslim world.

Going to India, one of the most important countries in the world, not only for our relationship with India but with the Islamic world, because it’s such a significant Islamic population.

Going to Indonesia, the largest Islamic country in the world, the fourth largest country in the world in population.

What he’s done is presented a very positive face of America in Europe and especially in those places where we didn’t have such a great reputation. That is the side that the Republicans aren’t comfortable with, because they want to pretend that somehow we can be in a bunker mentality here.

President Obama understands that a critical part of his presidency, and I think what’s going to make him a great president by the end of his second term, is that he is going to change our reputation in the world in a huge way, because people really believe that he understands and he feels that the whole world matters.

So in many ways, his view tracks what I’m saying in this book, “While America Sleeps,” which is he gets it that it’s all the world. It’s not just today, it’s Afghanistan, oh, gee, whatever happened to Vietnam? He has a global vision, and we need that in a president.

The Republicans are embarrassed that they don’t have that, and they’re just nipping away at him, and how do you call him soft on terror? So they’re kind of in a tough position. They don’t want to talk about that.

Tavis: You argue in the text, as we have discussed in this conversation, that we can’t sleep on these important foreign policy questions because we’re so focused on this domestic race. You’re right – we’ve got to eat and chew gum at the same time – I mean walk and chew gum, I should say; not eat it. Walk and chew gum at the same time.

Feingold: That’s better. (Laughter)

Tavis: (Unintelligible) swallow it.

Feingold: Yeah, that might not be so good. (Laughter)

Tavis: Exactly. I take your point. But tell me why it is that you believe that the president, if you believe this, will get any credit for those foreign policy successes? Again, you can’t congratulate him on it if you’re running against him, because you’re not trying to pat the guy on the back. He was successful in these areas if you call assassinating these people successful. Some of us don’t.

But by that standard, he’s been successful, so how do they run against him on foreign policy? Does he get any credit for his foreign policy successes?

Feingold: Well, at some point they don’t look very credible if they just ignore foreign policy because they won’t admit he’s done a good job on many aspects of that, and as you say, they won’t attack him on the left.

One of the comparisons I make in the book is we used to have an attitude in this country that when it came to foreign policy we kind of put the politics a little bit to the side. So when John Kennedy went to Berlin and said, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” both sides said that’s a good thing.

When Richard Nixon went to China, that was an historic thing, and it was in an election year, I believe. Even though I wanted to defeat Nixon, we were thrilled that he had done that.

When Reagan, who I certainly was not a fan of, went and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, take down this wall,” we put the politics aside and we said, “Well, that’s what a president’s supposed to do.” We still think he should be defeated for other reasons, but the Republicans destroy any credibility they have at all when they pretend that a president doesn’t have much to do with international policy and they could do it better.

So I think they’re going to have to come up with a narrative that acknowledges that the president’s been a strong president on international policy, but then perhaps find some ways to say where they do it better. Just carping about him or ignoring it strikes me as making them look kind of weak and not ready to be president.

Tavis: It’s impossible to talk to Russ Feingold and not talk about McCain-Feingold, the most comprehensive to date campaign finance reform on the books in this country that got completely obliterated, essentially by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision.

Now we’ve seen Mr. Obama do a 180 on it; he’s all in. Republicans clearly are all in. I know you’ve been disappointed by this and you’ve said so publicly, but tell me more about the long-term damage that’s going to be done by these super-PACs and our embrace of them, politically.

Feingold: Well, John McCain and I worked on McCain-Feingold for so many years that one of John’s favorite jokes was that people in Wisconsin thought my first name was McCain. (Laughter) Maybe that was true.

It’s interesting, Tavis, because you just repeated something that a lot of people believe – that McCain-Feingold is gone. It’s not.

Here’s the weird thing – McCain-Feingold’s the only thing that’s left, but it doesn’t do the job completely. When we passed McCain –

Tavis: Before you go forward, fair to say – I take your point, it’s not gone. Fair to say that what Citizens did was to gut it?

Feingold: Not gut it.

Tavis: Okay.

Feingold: Gut the entire system.

Tavis: Got it, okay. Fair enough.

Feingold: It’s sort of like this – you build a foundation, okay? You get all these bricks on it, and then you put the McCain-Feingold on top of it. Then somebody comes along and destroys all the bricks under it and all you’ve got left is one solid brick.

So what’s the brick that we took care of? It’s still the law. We passed a law that said that you can’t give unlimited campaign contributions from corporation of unions to the political parties. It used to be called “soft money.” Members of Congress were raising that money. We turned that into a federal crime. So what I like to say is if anybody knows any member of Congress that’s doing that, that bunk that Duke Cunningham used to be in is ready.

Tavis: Yeah.

Feingold: But that’s only one part of the problem. So what the Supreme Court did was completely gut the system that’s been in place for many, many years. In fact, we had a system in 2006 and 2008 that was much better, because McCain-Feingold was in place. There weren’t these unlimited contributions, and corporations and unions couldn’t do it directly from their own treasuries yet.

So what did people do? They went to democracy. They went to actually, especially Internet contributions, small checks from college students or older people who couldn’t even get out of their house.

As I think I heard somebody saying a few minutes ago, people knocked on doors. People volunteered. It isn’t just about money. So we actually had a pretty good system in place, and my theory, Tavis, is that the right was so concerned and corporations were so concerned about the way that President Obama won the election and the enthusiasm of the average citizen that they basically saw the face of democracy and they were terrified.

So they engineered this decision, Citizens United, which what did it do? It didn’t overturn McCain-Feingold; it overturned the 1907 Tillman Act that Teddy Roosevelt signed that said that corporations couldn’t use their treasuries for campaigns.

When you buy toothpaste or detergent or gas, that is now used for the first time in your lifetime or my lifetime to support candidates in so-called “independent ads.” Same thing for unions. They overturned that part of Taft-Hartley, which in 1947 said unions couldn’t use mandatory union due treasuries for political campaigning.

So they basically opened this huge spigot under the ridiculous notion that this is really independent expenditures, and we all know the people who run these super-PACs are former political aides to the people that are running. So it’s kind of made a joke of the system.

So your bottom line point is completely accurate – it has gutted the system. What do we do to change it? We’ve got to overturn the decision. We’ve got to reelect President Obama, we’ve got to get lucky and get a couple of appointments for the Supreme Court during his second term, and all we need is to have one of the people that voted yes to not be on the court and to have President Obama appoint somebody with an open mind.

Any good lawyer with an open mind is going to vote to overturn this thing, but that’s a complicated deal. We have to do that.

Tavis: I had on this program last night Joe Scarborough. So Scarborough’s on the right, obviously Russ Feingold is on the left, and yet both of you believe that all we have to do to fix campaign finance reform is to get Obama reelected.

I challenge that only because not because I disrespect him, not even because I necessarily disagree. I just want to be convinced that a guy who has done a 180 on this, a guy who quite frankly has been hypocritical, frankly, on this issue, will get serious about it once he gets reelected.

I don’t know that I believe that. I want to believe that, but tell me why I should, given the track record.

Feingold: Well, that’s a very fair comment, and let me be clear, I did not say that everything would be changed by reelecting him. I only said that our chance to overturn Citizens United –

Tavis: Right, it’s a starting point.

Feingold: Because he’s the only guy that gets to pick Supreme Court.

Tavis: That’s right.

Feingold: But it isn’t sufficient, and I do worry tremendously that anyone who uses a system to get elected usually doesn’t want to change it right away.

Tavis: That’s how it works in Washington.

Feingold: So I’m a co-chair of the Obama campaign, and they called me and warned me and said, “Look, we’re going to do this, you’re not going to like it.” I said, “I don’t like it,” and I said, “It’s a dumb thing to do, because it undercuts the enthusiasm of your candidate, and the other thing is what you do is you’re going to have an awful lot of pressure from people saying, hey, look, it worked before, let’s keep this system.”

I think Barack Obama will do something different. I think he’ll come in; I think this keeps him up at night. He’s a good man. He’s an honest guy. He’s been convinced wrongly by a bunch of political aides that he needs to do this. I think that’s wrong. But I also think it kills him that this system’s in place.

It goes – he and I worked on campaign stuff all the time when he was in the Senate. He was a sincere advocate, and he needs to come out and demand fixing the presidential funding system that exists, come out for public financing of campaigns, obviously advocate the overturning of Citizens United.

We need to get rid of the Federal Elections Commission. It’s a joke. It doesn’t enforce the law. So there’s a bunch of things he can propose, and I hope he makes it one of his top items next January.

Tavis: This argument, and I’m saying this with all due respect to you, this argument always wears me out, that the president was convinced by his aides. So Obama was this brilliant guy that we all wanted to see elected four years ago and now he’s not as brilliant or not brilliant enough to not be talked out of a dumb decision by aides suggesting otherwise.

I don’t buy that argument, number one, respectfully. But secondly, I want to just think outside the box – how statesmanlike, because you said earlier in this conversation that you think by the end of his second term he’ll be a great president. I want to believe that as well. I hope that is the case, and not just another garden-variety politician.

But how statesmanlike would he have been if he had said, “I’m not playing this game?” I believe that the American public, who are so sick of money in politics, would have rallied to his defense and said, “The president’s right about this. We’ve got to get money out of politics. I stand by this decision.”

Furthermore, the guy raised three-quarters of a billion dollars the last time around without this super-PAC provision.

Feingold: That’s right.

Tavis: How much money do you need? You’re leading Romney and Santorum and Gingrich in double digits in most of these states. I’m just trying to figure out why a decision to be statesmanlike, to draw a line in the sand, and you talk about having a legacy – oh my God.

Feingold: That’s right.

Tavis: The legacy is that you were the guy that really put some more teeth in McCain-Feingold and started to get money out of our politics. Why not?

Feingold: Tavis, I completely agree. I think he still could do that in this campaign. He only made this announcement a month ago. They can pull back from the brink.

Everybody knows who he is. He’s going to win because he’s Barack Obama, not because of money.

Tavis: I agree. I totally agree.

Feingold: So your guys are –

Tavis: And because he’s running against a bunch of nobodies, yeah.

Feingold: You and agreeing so much is a problem on this. (Laughter) He should do that. He should do that. It would be a wonderful thing. Then he would have momentum when he comes in next January, like you and I have talked about. You propose these things when you’ve sort of gone the other way, it’s harder. It does look more hypocritical.

So I right now will urge the president to reverse this. It hasn’t gone too far. Let’s not play this game. The American people are onto it, they know that Citizens United is a fraud, and this president could start it earlier rather than later.

Tavis: And anybody who didn’t get it, once Stephen Colbert, to his credit, got done with his riff (laughter) on this, man, everybody understands what a joke this super-PAC stuff is.

Feingold: Yeah, “Variety” magazine called me, and of course they don’t call me very often; they’re not very interested in me. (Laughter) They said, “Well, what do you think about what Colbert’s doing on this?”

I go, “This is fantastic. He’s really making it clear to people.” I said, “Look, I’ve been all over the country trying to explain this, and even though I’m funnier than Stephen Colbert, he’s doing a pretty good job.” (Laughter)

Unfortunately, they didn’t print it, but this has been genius, the way that he’s brought this on. What a boring, arcane subject, and somehow he brings it to life, and it’s been great. It was a real public service.

I think it’s part of the reason everybody’s talking about this, day and night. How often are people talking about a Supreme Court decision? I think there’s so much pressure on this, and people are so aware of the problem that the Supreme Court’s getting nervous, and I think the people in the Obama White House will – when they hear what you just said will realize they’ve got a chance to walk away from this thing. It’s not too late.

Tavis: Yeah, I’m not sure they’re listening to me in the Obama White House. (Laughter) But that’s another issue.

Feingold: They should.

Tavis: They should, yeah, but that’s another issue. So since we’re talking about this, Michael Moore and I were together for a symposium not long ago in Washington and he just basically looked dead in the camera and said, “Mr. President, you’re going to win this. You are going to win it. These guys on the right can’t shoot straight.”

Romney cannot – Joe Scarborough said it last night. Forget me; he’s a Republican. Scarborough said last night he doesn’t see any way at all, even given their hatred of Obama, he can’t see how Romney is going to rally the conservative base. So how competitive is this race really going to be this time around?

Feingold: Well, I take a different view, and it’s because things change so fast. I think Obama will win, but I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk.

Tavis: You think close race?

Feingold: I think it’ll be close, and I remember when I was writing this book, “While America Sleeps,” last summer, and I have a little reference in there to the economic report that came out in August and September. Things looked really bad for the president then. Things change so fast. It could change again.

If there’s a downturn in the economy, if Romney finally gets through this thing, and you know people have short memories; they’re going to forget about all the dumb stuff he said, and he has a tremendous –

Tavis: Unless he keeps saying dumb stuff.

Feingold: Right. But I think this thing could get close, and here’s where the point comes back again that you and I agree on – the worst thing the president can do is undercut his credibility by not looking like he’s the man of the people, which he clearly is against Romney.

When he’s associating with the 1 percent and asking for contributions from the 1 percent, it makes the other 99 percent feel like they’re not part of the process. So all the people that were excited about Obama in 2008, it’s kind of depressing. It’s like well, why do I bother? It’s not about me anymore.

So I actually think the reason he should walk away from this, apart from the moral aspect and that it’s a terrible thing to do, is that it is also important to win the election, to not touch this money.

Tavis: I got two minutes left. Tell me about Wisconsin. The whole nation is watching it politically, so tell me about what’s going to happen with this Scott Walker situation, what does Wisconsin portend for labor unions across the country? You tell me.

Feingold: Well, we’re going to finish the job. Governor Walker was sworn in and without any warning attacked the working people of the state of Wisconsin. We’re the first state in the country to have collective bargaining for public employees. Millions of people responded, you had over 100,000 people protesting at the state capital.

But they didn’t leave it at that. They recalled a couple of the Republican state senators and now we filed over a million signatures to have a recall election of Governor Walker, which should occur sometime in early June and mid-June.

If it does, we’re going to win. We’re going to have a new governor, and it’ll be only the third successful recall of a governor in American history, and we’re not going to end up with Arnold Schwarzenegger. We’re going to end up with somebody better – one of our candidates, we have a couple of people running who would make an excellent governor, and it’s going to make history.

Tavis: That somebody better, most people in Wisconsin, when polled, wanted that to be you. I saw these numbers. People begged you to consider running for that seat. Why did you not?

Feingold: Well, I’ve been in public office for 28 years in a row, and I think it’s healthy for me and for the constituents in the state to first sort of take a break and maybe I’ll want to do it again.

But I’m having a chance to write about some international issues I care about, I’ve helped fight on the recall issue, I’m fighting the battle nationally in campaign finance, and I believe that it’s not one person.

When a movement like that comes forward, it’s about a state saying, “Wait a minute, stop this.” So I’m one of the many Wisconsinites who’s going to be part of getting us a new governor. I just won’t be the candidate.

Tavis: I don’t think Russ Feingold is done with electoral politics. I certainly hope he’s not, because he’s so good at it, such an earnest guy. His new book is called “While America Sleeps: A Wake-Up Call for the Post 9/11 Era.”

Of course, former senator from Wisconsin. Senator Feingold, good to have you on this program.

Feingold: Thanks Tavis.

Tavis: Thanks for the book. That’s our show for tonight. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: March 7, 2012 at 5:06 pm