Capitol Letter: The Senate's Presidential Primary

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Senator Russ Feingold has always been an unpredictable politician. One of the strongest supporters of campaign finance reform, the Wisconsin Democrat lived up to his principles in 1998, blasting ads that national Democrats were running for him in his state that were paid for by "soft money," the sort of campaign donation that Feingold worked successfully to outlaw a few years later. In 2001, he angered Democrats by supporting John Ashcroft’s nomination for attorney general — and then shocked everyone when he was the only Senator to vote against the Patriot Act in the days following the Sept. 11 attacks.

So Feingold’s call to censure President Bush for his domestic surveillance program, which allows warrantless searches of people living in the United States and suspected of connections to terrorism, wasn’t that surprising, even though it had his normally chatty Democratic colleagues in the Senate ducking reporters to avoid talking about it. But Feingold may not have had his colleagues in mind in advocating censure. Increasingly, with at least 10 senators considering a run at the presidency, the place dubbed the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body often seems like a political laboratory where potential candidates trot out different ideas that may have little chance of becoming law, but will help them with their parties' bases leading up to the 2008 primaries.

Many political observers, aware of Feingold’s quixotic style, said they thought the move wasn’t designed solely to help his presidential aspirations. But for Feingold, a liberal Senator who has been giving speeches in key states like New Hampshire for several months, the censure resolution was a smart tactic. Any Democratic presidential nominee will need to satisfy the Internet bloggers and others who helped energize Howard Dean’s presidential campaign and have made moveon.org a powerful force in fundraising. And those people were thrilled with Feingold's censure proposal. "I think it was a brilliant move," said Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, who runs the popular liberal blog Daily Kos. And the Senator has sought to build support online in other ways as well. Early this month, he arranged a question and answer session through his website, where anyone from across the country could ask him questions. Getting visitors to campaign websites like Feingold's (progressivepatriotsfund.com) is important; people who visit give their e-mail addresses, and e-mail lists are a low-cost way to raise money in presidential campaign, as Dean proved in the last election.

Feingold isn’t alone in targeting these left-wing activists; Senator John Kerry’s leading a filibuster of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito earlier this year was also widely seen as a campaign tactic. Like Feingold’s censure resolution, it annoyed his Democratic colleagues in the Senate and had no chance of success, but it delighted party activists.

Republicans are playing the positioning game as well. Tennessee Republican Bill Frist, who for months has been soliciting opinions from visitors to his political action committee (volpac.org) on immigration, annoyed his Senate Republican colleagues by pushing out an immigration reform bill last week. As the Senate Majority Leader, Frist usually allows Senate committees to work through legislation first, but on an issue very important to the GOP base, he didn't wait for the Senate Judiciary Committee before proposing his own legislation, appealing to worries about illegal immigration. Frist’s bill includes dozens of provisions to add funding and resources to guard the border and block potential illegal immigrants, and does not include a so-called guest worker program that would create a system through which non-citizens could work legally, which President Bush favors.

More subtle campaigning is being done by other Senators. In early 2004, the non-partisan Washington magazine National Journal found Indiana's Evan Bayh to be notably more conservative than other Democratic Presidential hopefuls, with a 62 liberal rating, compared with 80 for Feingold, 81 for Hillary Clinton and 86 for John Kerry. But in the last year and half, as he has courted fundraisers around the country for a possible presidential bid, he’s changed his voting pattern a bit. He joined with only 12 of his colleagues (nearly all among the most liberal members of the Senate) in opposing Condi Rice's nomination for Secretary of State and then joined 21 other Democrats in voting against John Roberts' Supreme Court nomination. John McCain has long been concerned about spending, but his loud rhetoric in recent weeks about cutting pork-barrel projects will help please conservatives worried that he is too moderate. Appealing to that same group, Virginia Republican George Allen has proposed to stop the paychecks for members of Congress if they don't finish spending bills by a specific target date and has proposed a constitutional amendment that would require Congress to produce a balanced budget.

But there’s a reason no Senator has won the Presidency since John F. Kennedy. The Senate offers a vehicle to launch many policy ideas, but also forces candidates to declare their views on nearly everything, defend the residents of the states that put them in the Senate and be a team player with their colleagues. And that’s a tricky balance. Even while proposing lots of bills to combat spending, McCain late last year proposed $2 million to create a center at an Arizona law school in honor of former Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, which some have derided as pork. Frist has recently been attacking the growth of spending in Washington, but as the Majority Leader of the Senate for the last three years, he’s been a critical player in getting bills like the Medicare prescription drug plan passed, much to the chagrin of fiscal conservatives. And it’s unlikely Feingold will aggressively push his censure proposal in the months ahead, as his Democratic colleagues have already warned him it’s a bad political move for the 2006 congressional elections — which, of course, come before 2008. With these factors in mind, it’s worth remembering prominent governors like Iowa Democrat Tom Vilsack, Virginia Democrat Mark Warner and Massachusetts Republican Mitt Romney, some of the people who are running for President but may have a leg up because they don’t work in the U.S. Senate.