Is Russ Feingold the Next Howard Dean? Or Paul Wellstone?

Sen. Russ Feingold unveiled his proposal for withdrawal from Iraq at several Los Angeles events this week, sounding like Howard Dean in 2003 by telling Democratic activists and potential funders that the Democratic Party is "too timid".

Feingold is the first U.S. Senator to offer a specific proposal for withdawal by the end of next year. In doing so, he may change the dynamic of the Senate Democrats who are dominated by the pro-war views of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. If Feingold's proposal, which he floated in a series of speeches around the country, receives a warm response from Democratic and independent audiences, it may force other senators to re-position themselves on the war.

Feingold acknowledges that he is "considering" a presidential run in 2008, but is far from decided. Most of the party's elites, and a considerable portion of its base, are loyal to Hillary Clinton who takes a hardline hawkish position on Iraq despite polls showing 85 percent of Democrats see the war as mistaken.

The Feingold factor may begin to realign Democratic thinking at a time when the Cindy Sheehan crusade has fired up the grass roots. Incumbent politicians will return to Washington in September when exit strategy hearings are scheduled for Sept. 15, followed by massive protests and lobbying Sept. 24-26. Feingold believes that many Democratic officials will be "asking themselves how to do something against the war" in September. Already, for example, former Sen. John Edwards has begun the re-positioning process by his wife's moving letter to Cindy Sheehan.

Feingold's Iraq resolution, while bold by Senate standards, is cautiously-phrased in comparison with peace movement demands. Recently co-authored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, the Feingold resolution calls on the administation to provide a timeframe for achieving its military goals and withdrawing all troops. In his Los Angeles presentations, Feingold said he was flexible about the one-year deadline. "It's to start the discussion. Let others offer their ideas", he said.

Both supporters and critics may forget the political context of Feingold's proposal to pick instead on its sparse details. Already many in the peace movement think a one-year timetable is too long while pundits at the LA Times echo President Bush in claiming that timetables will be exploited by the enemy. Feingold is on solid ground with most Americans, however; even a Fox News call-in poll revealed a majority favoring a one-year pullout. As for the Times's criticism of deadlines, Feingold replies that, according to that logic, the insurgents could stop fighting today, wait for the US to pull out, then take over Iraq.

The best that can be said of Feingold's proposal is that it is a brave departure from the ice house of the Senate, with potential for being developed further as he travels the country. Its main deficiency is the lack of an exit strategy, which might consist of appointing a peace envoy, commencing talks with insurgent groups, along with confidence-building declarations that the US has no interest in permanent military bases or privatizing the Iraqi economy for foreign investors. Most, though not all, Americans are hesitant about military withdrawal without accompanying efforts at a negotiated political settlement. That is why the Bush Administration works so feverishly at creating the appearance of progress towards an Iraqi constitutional process.

Feingold's caution was displayed at a Town Hall meeting Wednesday morning when he spent thirty minutes describing his Iraq proposal as a "course correction" in the larger war on terrorism. It is characteristic of Beltway Democratic thinking to frame even anti-war criticism as part of pro-war rhetoric on terrorism. It is true, of course, that all Americans live on borrowed time because of the probability of another 9/11 attack, and it is true that the war in Iraq is a rallying point for would-be martyr-bombers. But the debate over the war cannot be reduced to which party is "tougher" on national security. The reasons that voters are anti-war are due to the Bush Administration's deceit, the needless deaths in an unnecessary conflict, the one billion dollars spent per week, the war profiteering, the deepening of our global isolation, and the shame brought to America by prison torture.

The strongest moment in Feingold's Town Hall speech came at the end when, struggling with genuine emotion, he spoke of his 25-year old daughter in London. He wanted her to go as far as possible in life, he said, and "always be welcomed as an American, which any parent should want for their child."

Feingold's effort is a work in progress. But already he has ended the silence of the Senate and aligned himself with the grass roots majority. Beyond his Iraq initiative, Feingold represents an attractive, progressive profile in courage on other issues. He consistently opposes his colleagues on trade agreements that lack enforceable worker and environmental protections. He was the only Senator to vote against the Patriot Act. He has opposed the death penalty for many years. He is the champion of the soft-money contribution ban. He fights to reclaim the label "patriot" from the right-wing. He comes from a state with a long history of populism, labor struggles, and isolationism capable of producing both reactionary and progressive populists. He has the qualities of a new Paul Wellstone. #