“Seems odd”: the final Feingold-Johnson debate

By: Thomas Nephew

The third and final debate between Russ Feingold and Ron Johnson was held on Friday night at Marquette University; moderator Mike Gousha posed some questions himself, and citizens from around the state added those of their own. The roughly ninety minute debate can be seen online in two parts provided by television station WISN. As the Associated Press report relayed by WISN noted, Feingold’s primary tactic was to suggest his opponent remained an unknown quantity:

Feingold accused his opponent at least half a dozen times of ducking questions by resorting to vague cliches instead of offering specific arguments. “I’ve never seen a larger gap between questions and what’s said in response than any debate I’ve ever been in,” he said. Feingold said he himself offered specifics, for example a 41-point plan to help control federal spending. Johnson said the plan would cut $25 billion per year at a time when the deficit is $1,400 billion. That “doesn’t cut it,” he said. Feingold shot back that at least he’s providing a plan, whereas his opponent hadn’t done even that.

The debate was also characterized by an almost exclusive focus on the economy and the federal budget. In fact, foreign policy only barely made it into the debate, as moderator Rousha’s final questions: “How long should American troops remain in Afghanistan?” , and “besides the terrorist threat represented by Al Qaeda and other similar terrorist groups, what concerns you most in foreign policy, what keeps you up at night?”

I’ve appended these exchanges to the transcripts of the two prior debates — but both candidates gave essentially the same answers they did in those debates: Johnson felt the war in Afghanistan should continue as long as required to deny it as a haven to Al Qaeda, while Feingold urged a timetable for withdrawal. Likewise, both candidates agreed that Iran was a threat — and Feingold once again made clear he had no qualms even about supporting a military strike to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Johnson added North Korea — and then added, “That’s one of the reasons we should not have moved the missile shield from the Czech Republic and Poland. That was a real mistake.”

That gave Feingold the chance to observe — with a priceless, puzzled expression — “If your concern is North Korea and Iran, I don’t know how a missile shield relating to Russia is the answer. Seems odd.”

Not if you’re Ron Johnson — who seems to specialize in non sequitur answers to every issue of the day: tax cuts for the wealthy as part of a plan to return budgets to balance; opposing the stimulus bill to return America to prosperity, scrapping health care reforms and starting from scratch because health care is that important.

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The good news is that Feingold has pulled into a statistical tie with Johnson according to a recent Wisconsin poll. The bad news, of course, is that the political climate is such that Feingold has needed to come back at all to get to this point, and that the election remains a toss-up, given the vastly unequal resources being spent on it.

But for those of us who value Feingold as a consistent voice for civil liberties and for a rational foreign policy, this debate and those before it should also be troubling in other ways.

First, it’s telling that not a single citizen question focused on either of those issues. While an economy that remains frail at best is undoubtedly going to be uppermost in people’s minds, the side effect is to relegate fundamental questions of war and peace, liberty and security to the back burner at best — or to some forgotten jar in the cupboard at worst.

Second, should Johnson win, he has given ample signals (e.g., repeated, Cheney-esque emphases on missile defense and “very strong intelligence capability”) of being a nearly 180 degree turnaround from Feingold’s positions. Johnson stands for a return (to the extent we’ve even managed to leave it behind) to the Bush-Cheney vision of America as a kind of militant Stratofortress, intervening and bombing wherever there’s even the prospect of enemies finding a haven. Not only that, but with his view that Senators should discuss such matters in private, rather than take public stands, Johnson affirmatively believes in permanently relegating such issues to “back burner” or “forgotten” status.


Still the right symbol for
“Get FISA Right”?

Finally — and this is simply my personal opinion, not one that should unduly influence allied groups like “Get FISA Right” or others — we should recognize that we need not always fully agree with even a Senator we esteem as highly as we do Russ Feingold, just as we don’t always agree (to put it mildly) with President Barack Obama’s decisions before and after assuming office. If the past ten years have shown anything, it’s that peace, security, and civil liberties are closely connected issues. It may be time to put our own allegiances to to civil liberties and to peace ahead of those to parties, men, and campaign slogans or insignia when the situation calls for that.

To get to the point, as scary as Iran could be with nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union was scary too — and we emerged from that era with our planet intact and our hands clean of beginning at least that war. There is little we could do that would more certainly guarantee Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons than attacking their enrichment facilities; those facilities are dual-use, to be sure — but one of those uses is legitimate. Nuances get lost in debates, but Feingold’s repeated insistence that “nothing is off the table” with respect to Iran are words he may want to have back some day, just as many of us wish we hadn’t supported the Iraq War at any juncture. Let’s hope we don’t have to repeat the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan — with the people of yet another country paying the fullest price for it, but ourselves paying ever higher prices in fear and curtailed liberties as well.

All that said, I have no doubt whatsoever which man I’d rather have in the Senate if this issue is debated. We need Senators like Russ Feingold who aren’t just willing to say “seems odd” about the non sequiturs of men like Johnson now or Bush and Cheney in the past, but to speak out against and vote against their plans. I continue to be proud to support the most independent, principled, liberty-defending man in the Senate: Russ Feingold. Let’s continue to stand by him in every way we can.

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