Thursday, July 09, 2009

Who's Laughing Now?

"I confess I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing."
-H.L. Mencken

You'll have to forgive us if we've been lax in commenting on Al Franken officially becoming a United States Senator representing our fair state. I thought that I had already worked my way through the five stages of grief back in January when it was obvious that it would only be a matter of time before Franken took his place in the world's greatest deliberative body. But last week, when I heard the title Senator Al Franken being used and when Franken actually was seated this week, I realized that I had reverted from acceptance back to stage one:

You will probably react to learning of the loss with numbed disbelief. You may deny the reality of the loss at some level, in order to avoid the pain. Shock provides emotional protection from being overwhelmed all at once. This may last for weeks.

Or even years. Because that's how long we've already been dealing with the prospect of Al Franken becoming a Senator from Minnesota. As part of the healing process I thought it would interesting to go back and review our views on Franken's candidacy over those years.

But before we go there, I want to make a couple of points about Franken's election which haven't been fully appreciated, especially on the national level.

Firstly, Franken's victory was hardly a ringing endorsement from the people of Minnesota on his candidacy. It was more of a referendum on Norm Coleman and the GOP. Given the dissatisfaction with Bush and Republicans in general and the Democratic resurgence in Minnesota, Coleman was going to be in trouble no matter who his opponent was. Had the Democrats put almost anyone else on the ticket, they likely would have beat Coleman by at least four or five points (Obama won the state by eight) and the whole recount would have been avoided. Franken comes into office as the victor, but his public support has little depth or breadth.

Secondly, Franken's victory would have not been possible without relentless (and usually baseless) attacks against Norm Coleman's integrity and character. His campaign employed the strategy of throwing enough crap up on the wall that eventually some of it stuck and created a public perception of Coleman as a sleazy and possibly corrupt politician. And it was crap too. Just one example was the campaign commercials suggesting that Coleman was in the pocket of the oil industry and other interest groups without offering any evidence to substantiate the charges. Since the campaign ended, we've learned that (surprise, surprise) nearly every one of the accusations against Coleman was without merit and politically motivated. But that doesn't matter now. Enough damage was done to Coleman's character to push enough Minnesotans (just enough) to vote for a man uniquely unqualified for the office. This is a strategy that I expect the DFL to repeat in coming election cycles and it's one that Minnesota Republicans are going to have do a better job countering if they hope to win statewide elections in the future.

Finally, people need to quit carping that the election was "stolen." As I noted way back in January, it wasn't stolen as much as squandered. In that post I used the analogy of an NFL team complaining that a late ticky-tacky pass interference call caused them to lose a game to the Lions. For a seasonal update, you could compare it the Yankees complaining that the way the umpire called balls and strikes cost them a game against the Twins. The old cliché is that good teams beat the teams they're supposed to beat and don't let the referees or umpires decide the outcome. The same goes for good candidates.

Despite all the political headwinds that I referenced in my first point, there is no doubt in my mind that Norm Coleman could and should have defeated Al Franken by a wide enough margin to ensure that a recount was unnecessary. The reason that Al Franken is a U.S. Senator is not because of the Minnesota Supreme Court, Mark Ritchie, or ACORN. It's because Norm Coleman's campaign didn't put him away when it could have. (It also didn't help that Franken's post-election team outworked and outsmarted Coleman's at almost every turn.) To paraphrase another sports cliché, when you've got the clown down, you need to step on his throat.

In hindsight, Coleman's decision to suspend negative campaign ads and go all "Minnesota Nice" late in the campaign was a terrible one. Spare me this pabulum about how voters don't like negative ads or that negative campaigning doesn't work in Minnesota. People may tell you that they don't like negative ads, but the reality is those ads are effective. Negative ads helped Franken chip away at Coleman's public image over the course of the campaign and had an impact at the polls. Coleman should have ignored the media's tut-tutting and gone after Franken hard right up until the eve of the election. Not about all the silly and stupid things Franken said and did in the past. Instead, Coleman should have zeroed in on the fact that nothing in Franken's background, experience, or temperament qualified him to serve in the U.S. Senate. He should have been relentless in attacking Franken on this and never have allowed him breathing room on it.

This election was not as much won by Al Franken or stolen by ACORN as it was lost by Norm Coleman. And that's a shame. A crying shame.

But they tell us that laughter is the best way through the tears. So let's look back at the good ol' days when the idea of Al Franken being a Senator was something to laugh about.

* November 2003 The first mention that I can find is Saint Paul catching Franken himself waffling on his qualifications for higher office:

But that's beside the point. Not 60 days ago Franken said he wouldn't be a serious candidate and that it would be a "sin" for him to run for office, IMPLYING that he's engaged in some deep introspection over the question and presumably arrived at a thoughtful conclusion (i.e., he would be "terrible"). And after saying all of that, he's now telling the press he's considering a run for office?

* November 2003 Later that month, Saint Paul concludes that Franken won't run:

I don't honestly believe Al Franken will run for the Senate. Yes, his massive ego and psychological need for vengeance over those who aborted the Wellstone legacy will compel him to give it serious consideration. But I suspect even Franken has enough sense to understand he'd be a laughingstock as a candidate (and not in a good way). Furthermore, given the petrified political culture of the DFL, it's unlikely he'd ever make it out of a primary election.

* May 2004 I weigh in with a sense of foreboding:

First Paul Wellstone, now Mark Dayton, and in the future Al Franken? How much can one state bear?

* July 2004 Saint Paul begs the Democrats to give us Franken:

Democrats, please, please nominate Al Franken for Senate in '08. There hasn't been a good butt joke in Minnesota politics since Roger Moe retired.

* September 2004 We get to catch Franken in action at the State Fair and are not impressed:

Uninspiring, unfunny, and unprepared. As Saint Paul noted, "I did more prep work for today's show than Franken did for his speech." Now that's saying something.

Before Franken was introduced, Matt Entenza (House DFL minority leader) called Franken and Mike Erlandson (State DFL Chairman) the "twin towers of the Democratic Party in Minnesota". Besides being a bit inappropriate, the remark demonstrates the sorry state of the DFL today. If Franken is one of your towers, you've got a lot of rebuilding to do. And if anyone thinks that this putz can stand on the same stage as Norm Coleman and not get his head handed to him, they're delusional. When it comes to Al Franken running for the Senate, I say, "Bring him on."

* February 2005 Saint Paul says that if Franken were to run it would be the Stupidiest Campaign Ever.

* February 2005 We think the idea of Franken running for the Senate is so appealing that we have a contest to help him come up with campaign material.

* February 2005 Saint Paul greets the announcement that Franken is running with much mirth making

Good times, good times. We could continue with example after example of our dismissive attitude towards Franken's chances in the past. But in the interests of time let's skip ahead to June of 2008 when a couple of local yokels all but guaranteed that Coleman would win when asked about the election by Kathy Shaidle for a piece on Franken that appeared in FrontPage Magazine:

FrontPage asked two well-known Minnesota political bloggers if they thought Franken had any chance of winning the election, given these recent developments. Via email, Ed Morrissey of was blunt: "...he has next to no chance at all. Only a Coleman withdrawal would give Franken the seat. He may not even survive his primary challenge at this rate."

Chad Doughty of Frater Libertas has been blogging about Franken since 2003, when rumors first surfaced that the comedian might challenge Coleman. Doughty says state Democrats are worried that Franken's candidacy might even negatively affect Barack Obama's run for president.

Doughty told FrontPage via email:

Six months ago, [Franken] was probably an even shot to unseat Coleman. Now, he's a long shot despite all the headwinds against Republicans that Coleman has to weather. His ads are becoming increasingly negative and vicious and there's more than a whiff of desperation coming from his campaign. (...) Franken is becoming a national embarrassment for the Dems.

Unless there is a seismic shift on the Senate race battleground between now and November, Norm Coleman should be re-elected relatively easily.
Then again, Minnesota is the same state that elected a shoot-from-the-hip former pro wrestler, Jesse Ventura, to the position of Governor. So presumably anything could happen.

And indeed it did.

Finally, we should note that way back in May of 2004 one pundit read the tea leaves correctly by noting that the idea of Franken winning a Senate seat in Minnesota was not as far-fetched as it seemed at the time:

I'd like to luxuriate in the joys of what Jonah Goldberg calls Frankenfreude as Air America loses executives and misses payrolls. But that's not possible now that Alice is bruiting about the idea of running for the Senate. In any other state, that might be laughable, but not in Minnesota. It's the one state where he could actually win. Do the words "Gov. Jesse Ventura" ring a bell?

First, Minnesota is one of the most reliably leftist states in the country. Second, the Star & Sickle, otherwise known as the Star Tribune, already loves Alice to distraction. Third, never underestimate the desperate Minneapolitan appetite for celebrity. You can't appreciate the meaning of trying too hard until you've read a local columnist hyperventilating over Minneapolis being compared to Des Moines instead of Paris. Fourth, Paul Wellstone. It could happen.

Congratulations to Vox Day for not underestimating the unpredictable nature of the Minnesota electorate. Perhaps he could gaze once again into his crystal ball and tell us what he thinks about Franken's reelection chances in...

...2014. Sigh. There aren't going to be a lot of laughs over the next five-and-a-half years, are there?

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