MINNEAPOLIS—Former Democratic Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold stepped up his attacks Thursday night on party colleagues who accept unlimited and undisclosed outside money.In a 27-minute keynote speech at Netroots Nation here, Feingold pressured President Barack Obama to make overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court decision — which allowed corporations and unions to fund independent election ads — a central part of his 2012 campaign.“It shouldn’t be checking a box,” he said. “It should be in every speech, every statement. It is the bottom line for our democracy.”He also called out Priorities USA Action, a pro-White House group created in April by two former administration officials as part of a strategy to raise $100 million toward Obama’s election campaign.
“I fear that the Democratic Party is in danger of losing its identity,” Feingold said. “Creating those kinds of Super PACs is wrong … People will see us as weak. People will see us as Corporate Lite. It’s not just wrong. It’s a dumb strategy.”Feingold said nothing about a potential run for the seat opened by the retirement of Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) — he has said he will make a decision by Labor Day — instead talking about Progressives United, a liberal advocacy group he helped create after his defeat last November.
Throughout his remarks to more than 1,000 liberal activists in the Minneapolis Convention Center, it was unclear whether he was more interested in running a liberal interest group or running for Senate.In reference to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance, which reflected the view that campaign cash restrictions infringe on free speech, he said: “Speech doesn’t corrupt. Money corrupts, and money isn’t speech.”He touted the law he passed in 2002 with John McCain to curb soft money and expressed hope that an Obama second term could put another justice on the court to tip the 5 to 4 balance on campaign finance law.He called on Congress to pass a bill that requires more disclosure, and he praised the president in advance for making a “gutsy move” with an expected executive order that will require companies with government contracts to disclose their campaign spending.In response to the influx of corporate money into the campaign process, Feingold said he’s trying to buy more products from progressive corporations. “I want to buy Democratic toothpaste. I want to buy progressive toothpaste,” he said. “Same thing with detergent.”He also said that General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt is “not the right guy” to be leading the president’s jobs council.Looking one part activist, senator, and law-school lecturer, Feingold devoted a significant chunk of his speech to an extended history lesson on how campaign finance laws evolved since the end of the Gilded Age and the dawn of the Progressive Era. The country will return to a second Gilded Age if progressives don’t work aggressively to “put the genie back in the bottle,” Feingold said. “Except it will be the Gilded Age on steroids.”