I was able to watch the last half-hour of the debate on C-SPAN tonight. In that half-hour I think there is a lot to try and unpack.
Sen. Feingold was incredibly animated often to the point of seeming exasperated. It seemed as though he was stunned to be sitting next to a political neophyte who is kicking his butt in the polls and spent a great deal of time defending his record. While Senator Feingold tries to paint himself as a deficit hawk, or a pragmatist, or a defender of civil liberties, if you listened carefully to his answers, that's not his record.
The Senator was adamant that the stimulus was the right thing to do. He was proud of his vote for Obamacare. He even doubled-down on the idea that Social Security is just fine and will continue to be the best piece of legislation ever. We all know that Sen. Feingold is a skilled debater. He knows how to work an audience and how to use the best possible language in his answers, but time and time again the answer in Sen. Feingold's mind is government, government and more government.
There is nothing new or visionary about the Senator's politics. He is an old-school Progressive and when it comes right down to it, on the big issues, Sen. Feingold sides with government, not the average Wisconsinite he speaks so highly of. I think that the most telling exchange in the debate came at the very end. Sen. Feingold trotted out his favorite talking point: denouncing outside groups. He asked Ron Johnson point blank if he'd denounce them and ask them to stop. I think Johnson's response was perfect.
The problem with Feingold's request is that his own landmark law prohibits any coordination between campaigns and outside groups. But Johnson hit on something a little more basic: it's about free speech.
Earlier in the debate, Sen. Feingold dismissed a question by Johnson about not denouncing the infamous "General Betray-us" ad by hiding behind free speech. Sen. Feingold said it was pointless and a waste of time, not to mention he didn't want to risk "chilling" any speech. Ron Johnson rightly pointed out that it seems odd to defend slandering the finest general of his generation, yet then turn around and through McCain-Feingold, and other efforts like the DISCLOSE Act, restrict political speech during campaigns.
I think that exchange and Sen. Feingold's almost childish repetition of "will you denounce them?" was very telling. Ron Johnson seemed very calm and collected and insistent on the issue of freedom of speech. To me it's a pretty good encapsulation of the choice in this election year. Sen. Feingold is a doctrinaire Progressive whose politics and ideas are better suited for the 20th century. He's a protectionist on trade and in favor of big government control over large swaths of the economy to control the greedy corporations.
Ron Johnson may be new to politics and he is certainly new to foreign policy and diplomacy, but he knows business. He knows the economy and balancing a budget. Johnson has consistently stated his preference for smaller and more limited government. We've been trying big government from both parties for too long and it hasn't worked. I think it's time to let someone else take a shot at it.