The last thing most readers of The Nation probably want to see so soon after the "shellacking" Democrats suffered in the midterm elections is advocacy of an independent presidential candidacy for 2012. It therefore fell to Alexander Cockburn, the magazine's leading contrarian since the departure of Christopher Hitchens, to raise the black flag in the November 29 issue by calling on lame duck Senator Russ Feingold, just defeated for re-election, to challenge both President Obama and the Republican party.
Cockburn pointedly argues against Feingold challenging Obama in the Democratic primaries. Whatever Feingold does, Cockburn predicts that "at some point a champion of the left will step forward to challenge [the President] in the primaries," and that "this futile charade will expire at the 2012 Democratic National Convention amid the rallying cry of 'unity.'" Instead of "some desperate intra-Democratic Party challenge late next year by Michael Moore or, yet again, Dennis Kucinich," Cockburn argues that "The White House deserves the menace of a convincing threat now."
How is a man who failed to win his own seat in his own state a convincing threat to a sitting President? Admittedly, Feingold has followers outside Wisconsin and appeal among progressives in the Democratic base. On top of that, Cockburn claims, Feingold would have a clear agenda: "to fight against the Republicans and the White House in defense of the causes he has publicly supported across a lifetime."
Cockburn reminds us of Feingold's causes. He opposed the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq and voted against the Patriot Act. He opposed NAFTA and the Bailouts of 2008. As co-author of the McCain-Feingold bill, "he is the implacable foe of corporate control of the electoral process." This package, Cockburn suggests, makes Feingold "a champion of the left with sound appeal to the sane populist right." Cockburn has been nearly alone among Nation writers in his belief in such an entity, by which he probably means something like the readership of The American Conservative. He thinks that Feingold could prove palatable to a broader base after dissociating himself from the Democratic party, citing the opinion of one Wisconsin observer that the Senator lost his job because he was misrepresented as a "party-line Democratic insider." One person's opinion isn't much to go on, however. Cockburn has given us a list of Feingold's deviations from party orthodoxy, but to the extent that the midterms were decided by debt anxiety and fears of government takeovers of whole economic sectors, how inaccurate were those ads as far as the issues that counted were concerned?
Of course, Cockburn can write off this year's results, which prove only that Americans "haven't a clear notion of which way to march," since they "want a government that doesn't govern, a budget that will simultaneously balance and create jobs, and spending cuts across the board that leave the defense budget intact." He blames the confusion largely on Obama's failure to inspire Americans toward any sense of direction, as well as the President's inclination toward compromise. Cockburn now appears convinced that the left can no longer wait upon the Democratic party to inspire them, nor hope to change the party from within. "The left must abandon the doomed ritual of squeaking timid reproaches to Obama, only to have the counselors at Obama's elbow contemptuously dismiss them," he writes.
Cockburn isn't the first person to call on Feingold to run for President in 2012, but most of the others simply want him to challenge Obama for the Democratic nomination. Feingold's own plans for the future are unknown. An independent campaign might earn him nothing but the same "torrents of undeserved abuse from progressives" that Ralph Nader has received since 2000. Who can say if he could stand it. My advice to Cockburn and those who feel as he does about the Democratic party is not to wait for Feingold. They have more than a year now to do what the Tea Partiers did: build a movement that will draw out politicians seeking their support. If they build it, Feingold might come, and others definitely will, but the movement must come before the candidacy. Right now, instead of drafting a candidate, they should draft themselves into the struggle.