Posted by Ruth Conniff on February 07, 2012

Russ Feingold raised hackles when he criticized President Obama's reversal on raising money through a Super PAC.

"I think people will see it as phony that Democrats start playing by Republican rules," Feingold told Sam Stein of HuffingtonPost: "People will see us as weak and not being a true alternative and just being the same as the other guy. And as I have said before, to me this is dancing with the devil."

Feingold is a "loser," progressive commentator Ed Schultz shot back on his radio show. Having lost his Senate seat in 2010, Schultz added, Feingold is now just a "heckler from the stands." "This is about winning," Schultz said. "If you don't have the money, you can't win."

Plenty of other Democrats echo this refrain: it makes no sense to "unilaterally disarm."

"We're not going to fight this fight with one hand tied behind our back," Jim Messina, the Obama reelection campaign manager, told The New York Times.

That's why the President is dispatching his campaign staff and advisers to raise money from big donors for Priorities USA Action, the Democratic super PAC.

Thanks to the Supreme Court, outside groups are raising unlimited donations through the super PACs this year, which spend them mainly on television attack ads. The President said in 2008 that he didn't want independent money spent by outside groups, and criticized the corrosive effect of all that unregulated money on politics.

But not this year.

Citing a fundraising disadvantage with the Republican super PACs, Messina warned donors "we may have no spending advantage (as we did in 2008) and could in fact get outspent."

Does getting outspent mean defeat?

Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign cash, doesn't think so.

"Of course you can win while getting outspent. It happens all the time," he says. "The most important thing is the quality of the candidate and how well that candidate connects with the voters."

In Russ Feingold's home state of Wisconsin, as I wrote in a blog last week, a group of progressive activists are calling on whichever Democratic candidate emerges to run against Governor Scott Walker to eschew big money in the recall race. Walker has raised a record-breaking $12 million this year, racking up $4.5 million in just one week--mostly from a handful of big donors from outside the state.

The distorting effect of all that money on democracy is huge.

President Obama himself put it best back in 2010: "You can’t stand by and let the special interests drown out the voices of the American people.”

The shadowy groups behind issue ads have their own nefarious goals, the President explained:

“It could be the oil industry, it could be the insurance industry, it could even be foreign-owned corporations. You don’t know because they don’t have to disclose. Now that’s not just a threat to Democrats, that’s a threat to our democracy.”

But the greater threat, Obama and his supporters have decided, is saying no to all that cash.

There is another way.

At the People's Legislature last week, McCabe floated the idea of a low-budget, grassroots recall campaign that would rely on the same 30,000 citizens who gathered more than a million signatures to recall Walker.

People could hold up handmade signs on highways, throw house parties, conduct an intensive door-to-door campaign, and use Walker's big fundraising advantage against him.

Only a candidate who didn't take massive out-of-state cash could make the claim that she was sticking up for democracy, while Walker trounces the will of the people and follows the playbook written for him by his wealthy out-of-state donors.

If campaigns turn into nothing more than a war of money, as Ed Garvey puts it, "Democracy itself is at stake."

McCabe (and Russ Feingold) frequently invoke another progressive Wisconsin Senator, Bill Proxmire, who ran on a shoestring, spending less than $300 on each statewide race, and traveling around the state to meet voters face to face.

(Feingold liked to stand in front of the Flower Pavilion at the state fair--Proxmire's favorite spot--and shake hands with voters--just like Proxmire used to do.)

As for Feingold being a "loser," it wasn't trying to run a clean campaign that cost him his seat, McCabe says, but the tidal wave that washed away sitting Democrats as part of the nationwide backlash against Obama. That, and an ad campaign that "didn't do him justice," being more negative and defensive than in years past.

This year, McCabe says, a candidate could run a terrific, positive, Proxmire-style campaign with a twist:

"He did it alone. To run today and win, you couldn't run alone. But you wouldn't have to. There's this army waiting for a candidate willing to run a true grassroots campaign."

Wisconsin has long prided itself on being a laboratory of democracy. Perhaps, this year, the state will lead the way on campaign cash.

Too bad Russ Feingold isn't ready really to get out in front on this issue, and show Obama how it can be done.

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Which Way, Wisconsin? How to Compete with Walker?"

Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter