(Okay, it was lunch, but the title didn't scan as well that way)
By Brad Friedman on 4/23/2006, 5:23pm PT  

Russ Feingold blew through town this weekend, and called on a few bloggers to meet him for lunch.

I'm happy to report that upon introducing myself, he informed me that he's well familiar with The BRAD BLOG. On the other hand, he's a very good politician, so I'd have said the same thing to me too ;-)

I'll mention up front, that of the current cadre of '08 Democratic Presidential contenders --- which, of course, he claims not to be thinking about --- he's just about the only one I'd seriously consider supporting at this time (though I'd certainly be open to the idea of Al Gore if he jumped back in, and Wes Clark hasn't yet done anything to piss me off yet, but barring any other fresh ideas, I'd likely be forced to go the third-party route as usual. But I digress...)

Feingold, in person, is as affable and charming and smart and impressive as he is on TV. Probably more so (especially after his BRAD BLOG compliments. I'm a cheap date!)

I had two major points that I was curious about and hoped to get a sense of from him during our meeting. 1) Why he chose not to tell any of his Dem colleagues about his Censure Resolution condemning Bush's warrantless domestic spying program before announcing it on This Week and then introducing it in the Senate the following day and 2) If he understood the extent of the havoc being wreaked on our country and democracy in the wake of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA).

I was able to get fairly informative answers to both questions...

His answer to the first question was much appreciated. First, he made clear that, contrary to the general impression out there, there is no rule or requirement for a Senator to confer with anybody before proposing something on the floor of the Senate. Thus, he simply proposed the Censure Resolution having decided that "it was the right thing to do."

That decision came, he said, after the end of the year. He had been encouraged by the tough stance the Democrats had taken concerning renewal of the Patriot Act before the session ended, but found that during the break their resolve seemed to have disappeared and they returned to their "foxholes".

"Foxholes?" I interrupted...

"Yes, I said, foxholes," he answered back quickly, with a clear inference that he had chosen the words quite deliberately.

Once he'd felt the Dems had again lost their resolve to fight, and once the information concerning the warrantless NSA spying had come to light, he'd decided the right thing to do was to simply take action. And he did.

"Yes," I followed up, "and don't get me wrong, I strongly support your effort there, but might you have gotten more support from your Democratic colleagues had you consulted with them first before announcing the Resolution publicly?"

He explained that had he done that, the matter would have then been vetted by "Democratic consultants" who would have decided to kill the idea entirely before it could even be proposed on the floor. "Our party," he said, "is too beholden to Democratic consultants."

Whether supported or passed or not, Feingold said, it's important for the history books. When people look back to see what happened here, and wonder if anybody stood up for our Constitution in the face of unprecedented disregard for it, via the illegal practice of spying without a warrant on American citizens on U.S. soil, it'll be right there that at least he and about five others in the Senate had the courage to stand up and say, "No, this is wrong."

Given that we can all look back historically even now to the fact that he was the only U.S. Senator --- Democratic or Republican --- to vote against the Patriot Act when it was first passed in the days following 9/11, history can be very telling. His courageous vote back then, when it was anything but easy or popular, certainly speaks well for him now in retrospect with even the few years that have passed since that dangerous, and rather unAmerican legislation was first jammed through a cluelessly compliant Congress.

As to the second question, about whether or not he fully understood the havoc being wreaked across the country right now on our Electoral System due to the plague-like spread of Electronic Voting machines in light of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, he expressed concern, but admitted he wasn't as fully up-to-date on the topic as he might like to be.

He knew that we absolutely needed to have a paper record of votes cast, and pointed out that had there not been a paper record in one of his first races, he'd not have been sitting there today.

I can't recall which race it was (and I hope I'm relating the story accurately as he told it, it was very loud in the restaurant) but apparently the machines in use at the time had reported his opponent had won the race by just 32 votes. In the recount, or canvassing of the race, they had discovered that the Election Workers had forgotten to zero out the machine after testing, and prior to beginning the official balloting. The canvass had found that there were 31 votes already in the system for his opponent before balloting even began. Without the paper ballots to go back to, to sort things out, he says he might not have won that race at all.

One other election-related point that Feingold discussed which I think is worth mentioning. For that, I'll refer to my colleague Howie over at DownWithTyranny.com's coverage of the lunch:

"This administration," he told us, "doesn't know how to govern the country. But they are brilliant at intimidating Democrats." Obviously, they don't intimidate him at all. He speaks his mind because he believes in his core values and principles. Voters sense that. When Kerry, whose public perception was wishy-washy and someone with a weak value-system, squeaked by to a 10,000 vote victory in Wisconsin, Feingold's far more progressive and outspoken positions garnered him a 300,000 vote victory, despite an avalanche of right-wing money pouring into the unfathomably filthy campaign against him. But it wasn't really about the policy positions per se. It was about the man and how he makes decisions and what he's made of.

While I don't question the general analysis that Howie offers, I might suggest the vast disparity between Feingold's victory margin and Kerry's in the same '04 race might indicate, to me anyway, that there may have been more at play beyond voters in Wisconsin standing up for Feingold "the man and what he's made of." With a disparity like that, and given what we now know about the lack of security and hackability in our Electoral System, I for one would have taken a closer look at the Bush numbers in Wisconsin to see if there was any signs of monkey business.

I know that some Republicans enjoy pointing to Wisconsin's close victory margin for Kerry in order to claim that it was even closer than Ohio's "victory" margin for Bush but, unlike Democrats, they were willing to accept the results. Well, why should they? If they suspect Dems were punking the polls, they should have asked for a recount. But as far as I know, they didn't. Why? Was it because they figured they got their Bush victory anyway? Or was it because they'd rather nobody take a closer look to find out what really happened there?

We've seen evidence elsewhere, in Warren County, Ohio recently for example, that there was an effort to game the vote in 2004 at the top of the ticket only. Had there been a similar form of "ballot stuffing" to increase George W. Bush votes in Wisconsin, while leaving the rest of the races alone, we'd likely have seen numbers like the 290,000 vote difference in a single state between the winning Democratic Presidential candidate and a winning Democratic Senatorial candidate. But perhaps the GOP failed to "stuff it" enough to eke out the "victory".

Who knows? Either way, without an actual challenge, the mere innuendo has been far more valuable to Republicans for use in deflecting charges that they cheated in 2004. So better to keep the use of the innuendo in place than provide any actual facts to back them up. How very Republican of them.

All of that said, I offered Feingold my services to brief either him or his staff in full about what's really going on right now in regard to our National Electoral Meltdown, along with a gentle hint that there is a huge number of voters out there looking for a national champion on the matter. The first Presidential Candidate to come out as that champion, I mentioned, would likely gain a few million votes immediately out of the box just by showing up and bringing the issues into the national spotlight.

(Related: See Howard Dean's comments on the voting machines last week)

"Do you have anything written on all of this?" he asked, as the rest of the bloggers at the table who know my work well quietly chuckled. "Yeah, about 2000 or so pages," I thought, but instead politely replied, "Absolutely."

We made plans to try and get some of that information to him in the not-too-distant future. I hope he is truly interested in following it all up and fighting for the voters of this country, with the same courage he's shown in fighting to defend our Constitution in the Senate. We shall see.

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Here's how the other bloggers present and accounted for covered the afternoon...

-- Howie at DownWithTyranny.com
-- Steve from SteveAudio
-- R.J. Eskow from Huff Po
-- Scribes at MartiniRepublic.com
-- Joseph Cannon at CannonFire