A CJR Town Hall in the Badger State

Wisconsinites sound off about Russ Feingold

In this land of beer, brats, and the Packers, it is the autumn of discontent. Anger, distrust, apprehension, disaffection—these are some threads I pulled out of my recent man-on-the-street chats in Wisconsin. People were eager to talk politics, and the subject of their Democratic senator came up. Russ Feingold is winning no popularity contest, at least in my unscientific sample of his constituents. But the polls are showing the same. Politico reported that Feingold is falling behind his opponent businessman Ron Johnson by the “double digits.”

You could also tell by the signs sprouting in people’s front yards. From Door County in the north to the Milwaukee suburbs in the south, the signage seemed to favor Republican candidates. Voters I talked to craved a sense of honesty they think their politicians lack, a sentiment I picked up in other visits to the Midwest this year. Perhaps they believe Republicans will deliver for them in this department. Or perhaps they won’t vote at all, like Russ Jones, age thirty, who was waiting with his young son for sausage pizza at Little Caesars in Waukesha. “I don’t bother with politics. I don’t follow it,” he said. “They just lie. They don’t do what they say they’re going to do when they get elected.” Jones has never voted.

At a model railroad store in Green Bay, I ran into sixty-two year old Russell Mueller, who was working behind the counter. Never would he support Feingold. He was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act, Mueller explained. But that wasn’t his only beef. “I don’t think that he’s honest. He considers himself smarter than us. He’s for big government. I don’t like his view of America. It’s definitely not mine.” Mueller added that “this Ron Johnson is liked locally.” He said he had been to a Tea Party rally and liked it because “we’ve always thought this way.” “It gives us a voice,” he said. “It’s like talk radio. It gives us a voice too. “

The day I talked to Mueller, Politico ran a piece about the Tea Partiers and talked to one Sal Russo, whose consulting firm in Sacramento runs the Tea Party Express. “When people ask me what’s the measure of success at the end of the day, my answer is ‘We’ve already achieved it,’” he said. “‘We’ve made fiscal responsibility an important part of everyone’s plank.” That has come through loud and clear to the Wisconsinites I saw. Another customer, Charlie Koskela, age seventy-one, joined the conversation and confirmed Russo’s observation.

Although Koskela is a Republican, he voted for former Wisconsin Democratic senator William Proxmire every time he was up for reelection. Proxmire was responsible for much of the tough consumer credit regulation passed in the 1970s, and was known for giving his Golden Fleece Award for wasteful spending in government. “He was a person who was going to do the people’s business, and he did,” Koskela told me. But why is Democrat Feingold different, I wanted to know. “He’s too liberal and doesn’t want to keep the spending down. We’ve got into lots of government spending,” he said, placing blame on Feingold and his Democratic colleagues.

Koskela was particularly troubled by the credit crunch, and how the Obama team has handled it. “The banks got tied up with home mortgage interests, and that froze the financial system,” he said. What the country needed, he explained, was a “depression that deprived the wealthy of their money, property, and high-paying jobs.” He went on: “We needed a depression to cure that, but instead they borrowed for the future to solve the economic depression and as a result bankers made hundreds of millions of dollars.” He believed that the government should have let a depression happen. “It would have re-set the wealth distribution in this country.”

Scott Andersen, a retired banker with M and I Bank, was reading in the Waupaca public library. He had been responsible for credit administration for northern Wisconsin before he retired by choice two years ago, after a thirty-year career with the bank. He got out of the business right before the recession hit. “You’re seeing a tide to put business people back in Congress. I think there’s a general push to put non-career politicians back in office.”

“Russ has been a politician all his life,” he said. “I think it will be a tough race. I’m basically a Republican and will vote for Johnson.”

Andersen said he wasn’t a big believer in big government or government interference. But the honesty and truthfulness problem surrounding this year’s crop of candidates popped up. “Russ says ‘I create jobs,’ but politicians don’t create jobs. Small businesses and businesses create jobs. Politicians can make the requirements more friendly,” he explained. And as a businessman, he did like friendly regulations. Feingold’s talk would be a “negative for me.” Andersen added. “I don’t like that kind of terminology.”

At a thrift shop in Waukesha, seventy-year-old Jean Coshun who was volunteering told me she had thought Feingold was going to be good. “But he hasn’t been. I just think he is a hypocrite because of the way he votes.” Another volunteer, Joan MacGregor, agreed. She said she liked Ron Johnson because he is a “genuine American.” “I think it’s time we got rid of suave and debonair politicians. Feingold is smooth. The minute he opens his mouth I tune out. He’s too smooth for me.”

I asked MacGregor to explain what she meant by smooth politicians. “I like it when they stumble over their words,” she said. “That indicates they are on the same plane with me.” In other words, she seemed to be saying, she didn’t care for pols who talked down to the voters. The fact Obama used a teleprompter for his speeches bothered her. “He has to have everything printed out. He cannot give a speech without the prompter.” MacGregor said she was a Republican from Chicago and had little use for politicians from there like Obama. “He has no experience for this type of job.”

I couldn’t help relate all this talk about honesty to a series periodically running in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel examining the truthfulness of local political advertising, including Feingold’s. While I was in the state, the paper examined Feingold’s claim that “I’ve been outspent by my opponents every time I’ve run for the U.S. Senate,” which the senator has used or a variation of it several times on the campaign trail. The Journal Sentinel looked at campaign spending numbers and found:

Though that (the claim) is true in two races, he uses some twisted logic—and math—to get there on the third, tallying up spending by Republican primary candidates he never faced to obscure that he vastly outspent the one he did.

Maybe fact checks like the Journal Sentinel’s are beginning to color voters’ opinions. On one level, that’s what these truth squads are supposed to do. On another, they may be creating vague, general impressions among voters who may not have read all the fine print. In politics, though, impressions matter more than the details.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.