Russert Watch: Come On, People. Admit It. Senator Feingold Is the Real Deal for '08

Show of hands. If you watched Senator Russ Feingold on Meet the Press this morning, how many of you agree that he's the best-spoken, most lucid, toughest, most steely-eyed Democrat in Congress?

Okay, let's see some hands. Let's go. Hands up. Great! I'm seeing a lot of hands even though I literally can't see any hands because this is a written metaphor.

So why is there so much quiet conventional wisdom grumbling that Senator Feingold isn't a viable candidate for the nomination in 2008? Personally, I don't see another congressional Democrat who is a better candidate -- one who can clearly articulate his position and do so without sounding weak or out of touch with the mainstream.

The senator hit the nail on the head so many times on today's show, but in terms of his viability, this was THE quote:

"I cannot understand why the structure of the Democratic Party, the consultants that are here in Washington, constantly advise Democrats not to take a strong stand. This election could turn on this Iraq issue, in fact, the 2006 election, and maybe even 2008. The party that says we have a reasonable plan to bring the troops home by this date and to refocus on the anti-terrorism issue is the party that will win. And I believe that my political instincts tell me..."

As Cenk likes to say on the Young Turks, "Of coooouuuurse!"

Democrats need to take a stand and speak about the issues, whether popular or unpopular, in a way that's strong and unwavering. Sure there'd have to be some compromise in execution. But they'll never get to that juncture unless they throw down -- starting right damn now.

One of the key factors dividing America is that voters are starving for strong, competent leadership. Bold, progressive voices that call to mind Teddy Roosevelt. It's a shame that several of the Democratic front runners for 2008 are still playing the kinder and gentler politics of a bygone era. It's not going to work, especially against Senator McCain or Governor Romney or both. And you can take that as a prediction for the 2008 GOP ticket. Democrats can still have smart, well-thought positions, but their positions need to be articulated in a way that disarms their opponents and makes everyone feel as if they believe in what they're saying, rather than simply zigzagging with the poll-driven whims of their consultants.

An urgent note to Democrats running this year: watch this video of today's Meet the Press and study the first half on an endless loop until you, too, have nailed it. Practice in the mirror. Then get out there and run, dammit. Don't worry about how Hannity or Limbaugh will parse your words. Speak the truth that progressive ideology is the right direction for both fixing what's wrong with America and to restore balance in Washington.

Moving on.

My job on Russert Watch this week is too easy. With every Russert question and pullquote, the senator knocked it out of the park. So let's get to his responses. There's nothing I can add to make them more poignant, other than to suggest that printing the senator's quotes doesn't do them full justice as the rapidity and forcefulness of the remarks can't be conveyed in written form.

On the Iraqi prime minister's call for a timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq:

"It appears to me that the American people understand that it's time for a timeline to withdraw the troops from Iraq. The Iraqi people and the Iraqi government understand it. It seems like it's only here in Washington that people don't understand that it's time to end this mistake. To end our military involvement there and the votes in Washington don't show it but the people of this country and the people of Iraq want us to stop it."

Boom. Oh and General Casey seems to understand it, too, though he'd probably never admit that he and Senator Feingold are actually on the same page. More on that below.

On the Iraqi prime minister's awful proposal for amnesty for insurgents who attacked American soldiers -- an idea which many Republicans in Congress support:

"The idea of amnesty for people who have attacked or even killed American troops? I think that's unacceptable, and something we have to make very clear to the Iraqis that we can't accept... We as Americans cannot tolerate the idea that people who have murdered American soldiers should be off scot-free. I don't think any of us can support that."

BAM! Who could possibly support amnesty of this nature? 19 Republican senators evidently can. 19 Republican senators, including Senators Cornyn, Hagel, Lott, McCain, Graham, and DeMint, voted "nay" on an amendment to condemn this idea last Tuesday. I have yet to hear a good explanation as to why. Inconsistent GOP position number one. Here's another one:

Russert brought up the news of General Casey's proposal to the president this week for a withdrawal of occupying forces from Iraq, even though a definitive majority of congressmen and senators voted against a timetable for a staggered withdrawal of U.S. troops. The general's plan is to draw down two-thirds of our forces by late 2007. That sounds like a timetable. Senator Feingold perfectly outlined the inconsistency of the Republican position:

"RUSSERT: Make sense?

SEN. FEINGOLD: Not only does it make sense, but it shows that all this talk about a timetable being unreasonable and ridiculous is just wrong. Even General Casey is talking about how realistic it is to bring the troops home. And our timetable that we proposed last week had to do with bringing the troops home within one year. I mean, how is this different?"

You have to realize that Senator Feingold is saying all this at his own political peril. If the administration draws down our forces and declares victory in Iraq, then the GOP is almost assured victory in 2008. Senator Feingold has to know this, yet he's supporting his position with the same energy he had when he voted against the use of force four years ago. Why? Because he wants to do right by the American people and our soldiers. That's integrity.

Russert's first curveball:

"RUSSERT: What General Casey and others would say about your plan is that it limited his flexibility. You wanted a time certain for all troops out. What he says is, "I need flexibility. I need to be able to have a withdrawal plan on my terms, based on what's happening on the ground." And he would have 40,000 to 50,000 troops on the ground at the end of next year. You would be completely out.

SEN. FEINGOLD: We give total flexibility to the Pentagon and to General Casey in terms of what order he wants to do this, what time frame within the year that we have proposed. And the fact is our amendment does not call for the complete elimination of all troops. We allow exceptions to protect American facilities, to conduct anti-terrorist activities, and to help in a limited way in terms of training the Iraqi military and the Iraqi police. So the fact is, we do provide the flexibility that General Casey needs. Our plan is so similar to what he's talking about it makes me wonder what the Republicans of the United States Senate and others were talking about when they said a timetable was a sort of a crazy idea. It's a perfectly reasonable idea."

Of cooooouuurse!

Watching Meet the Press this morning was like an enormous breath of fresh air. It was as if a hole ripped open in the space time continuum and for 30-minutes the world spun perfectly on its axis. Reason and sanity ruled. Throughout the first half hour, and with every patented Russert "f-you quote," Senator Feingold trounced the GOP position on Iraq. Every curve thrown was immediately turned on the Republicans and made the administration and congressional majority sound like the splintered and divided party for a change. Every single time. All it took was a Democrat who doesn't waver, and who presents the facts in such a way that makes it all seem so logical and crystal clear.

At no time was Senator Feingold's strength, style and attitude more underscored and contrasted against the Democratic leaders than when Russert played a clip of Senator Clinton in which she said:

"SEN. CLINTON: I simply do not believe it is a strategy or a solution for the president to continue declaring an open-ended and unconditional commitment. Nor do I believe it is a solution or a strategy to set a date certain for withdrawal without regard to the consequences."

Awesome statement -- awesome for Karl Rove's collection of clips to use against the Senator Clinton's campaign for the next two-plus years. Contrast that with:

"SEN. FEINGOLD: People are looking for a candidate, whether it's a Democrat or a Republican, who they perceive as being honest and straightforward. That to me is the key."

Not only is he exactly right, but you can take that as a first shot fired across Senator Clinton's bow, despite the kind words he had for the senator later on in the show. If he can raise the cash; if he can stick with his instincts; and if he can avoid debilitating scandals, he could win the nomination.

His narrative is clear: he's the steely-eyed maverick -- the outsider insider. The perfect Democratic counterpoint to his friend, Senator McCain.

His message is clear: hold big government accountable and give the American people a voice again.

If it's going to be a history-bending Senator vs. Senator race in 2008, and Senator McCain is the presumptive Republican nominee, the most logical challenger is Senator Feingold. If not, the only other options are General Clark or Mark Warner who, because of their unemployed status, might be stronger as vice presidential options. Al Gore or Senator Obama could be spoilers, but they're comfortably residing in the unlikely column at this point. And ultimately, Senators Clinton and Kerry, along with John Edwards, have messy senatorial records with too much baggage ripe for GOP and traditional media attacks.

Above all, I can guarantee with some certainty that Senator Feingold won't be doing any windsurfing.

The second half of the show was predictably less inspired. Though I was glad to see Stretch (David Gregory) on the roundtable. I also enjoy watching David Broder. He's clearly a smart guy, but whenever he's on -- and feel free to rip me for saying this -- I can't help but to repeat, "Am I not turtley enough for the Turtle Club?"

On that baseless note, that's a wrap for this week.

--- The first comedy about post-9/11 patriotism: THE WAR EFFORT on DVD.