By all rights, Al Franken should not be a United States Senator. And I’m not just referring to the fact that after the votes were counted and certified on election night in 2008, Franken trailed his Republican opponent by 215 votes. Based on qualifications and disposition, Al Franken makes no sense as a member of “the world’s greatest deliberative body”.
Technically, by the contemporary Constitutional requirements of age and citizenship, he is qualified. But those we’re intended to be the means to an end. An end the Founders of the United States envisioned to be a man exhibiting the highest levels of intelligence, judgment, patriotism and character, the meritocratic 1% of the American citizenry. From James Madison in The Federalist No. 62:
… the nature of the senatorial trust, which, requiring greater extent of information and stability of character, requires at the same time that the senator should have reached a period of life most likely to supply these advantages …
… those men only who have become the most distinguished by their abilities and virtue, and in whom the people perceive just grounds for confidence.
… Senators so chosen will always be of the number of those who best understand our national interests, whether considered in relation to the several States or to foreign nations, who are best able to promote those interests, and whose reputation for integrity inspires and merits confidence.
These were really good plans.
Let’s add Madison and Jay to the litany of mice and men, and hope they are wearing seat belts in their crypts, as we introduce the junior Senator from the great state of Minnesota.
Unfair, you say, to exhibit the man’s stability of character, virtue, and confidence inspiring integrity via an acting performance as a monkey-minding, drug addled baggage handler? Ah, that is but a sample of the behavior exhibited over his entire adult life. You can Google any number of examples of Franken’s lack of possessing these very qualities. For example, here, here, here, and here. At some point, a collection of similarly oriented data points represents a pattern.
Al Franken’s entire preparation for the United States Senate was as a highly paid fool. He was a comedian who trafficked in base, scatological, sexualized humor and politically driven ridicule and calumny under the guise of humor. Or, if you like that sort of thing, he was a “social satirist”. You can make millions doing this, even if you’re not funny, as long as you gain the support of enough like-minded fellow travelers, as Franken did. But it doesn’t make you suitable material for the upper chamber of the legislative body of a great nation. A mature, civilized democracy doesn’t advance people like this to these lofty positions. For most of our nation’s history, Franken wouldn’t have even been considered by the voters. And yet, there he is.
A further assumedly imposing impediment overcome by Franken in his improbable rise is his lack of connection to the state that he represents. He was born in New York City. His entire adult life was spent in New York City and other places outside of Minnesota. For a period, as a child and adolescent, he did live in the suburbs of Minneapolis. But then he was gone for the better part of three decades. Granted, compared to the carpet bagging standards of someone like former NY Sen. Hillary Clinton, this practically makes him as Minnesotan as lutefisk hot dish. But, the point of representative democracy was supposed to be having people in government who are representative of the people for whom they make decisions. Being away from those people for 30+ years, by choice, tends to compromise the ability to be representative of them.
The “democracy’ part of representative democracy was supposed to be the failsafe of the equation. What people in their right mind could possibly select as their Senator a professional fool from out of state? Inconceivable! Madison and Jay didn’t bother to even write a footnote to the Federalist Papers addressing the possibility of a monkey-minding, drug-addled baggage handler getting elected. (That’s why we need a living Constitution! – Ruth Bader Ginsburg). And yet, there he is.
Three primary dynamics led to this outcome. First, Minnesota has a lot of Democrats in it. And most of these Democrats are deeply loyal, highly partisan Democrats who would blindly vote for anyone carrying that party’s endorsement. For example, the last Republican Presidential candidate to win the state was in 1972. Minnesota’s were all in for a second term of Jimmy Carter. We wanted to dump Ronald Reagan for a shot at the magic of Walter Mondale. We were inspired to strap on the helmets and follow Michael Dukakis into battle. Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Obama? Keep it coming, we can’t get enough! Anyone carrying the Democrat endorsement is likely to win. It’s beyond yellow dog Democrat, its Al Franken Democrat.
Secondly, for whatever reason, we Minnesotans are insecure about our image in the world. We think we’re special. We like it here. We think that all our women are strong, all our men are good looking, and all our children are above average. And we need EVERYONE else to agree with us.
This yearning manifests itself into a weird attachment to celebrity. We cleave to anyone with a Minnesota connection who has been validated by the wider world. If the world appreciates this person, the thinking goes, they must appreciate us as well; their validation is our validation. Even if that person got the hell out of Minnesota as soon as they reached the age of majority (see Al Franken, Bob Dylan, etc.), these celebrities are icons cherished by Minnesotans as exemplars of our own specialness.
And if they run for office, we elect them. In our recent past, we have had a former professional wrestler/action movie hero as our governor and a TV newsreader as our former senator. Currently, we have an NFL Hall of Fame defensive tackle on our Supreme Court, the scion of a beloved department store owner as our governor, and — as our other senator – the daughter of a legendary local sportswriter. None of these people were particularly qualified for their lofty positions. But in Minnesota the endorsement of celebrity outweighs qualifications. And Al Franken’s celebrity is the weightiest of the lot (at least pending a future candidacy by MacGyver).
You may be able to fool most of the people some of the time with the attributes above, but how does Al Franken get past the gatekeepers and elites of his own party? These people have toiled in the mundane salt mines of local politics for decades and certainly had developed loyalties to legitimate Minnesota candidates before Al Franken parachuted in shortly before the election.
This brings up the third dynamic fueling Franken’s rise. Contemporary campaign rules favor candidates who are independently wealthy or with an outsized national profile that is conducive to raising money. It costs millions to run for a statewide office and that’s extremely hard to do via individual donations (which cap out at $4600 per election cycle) within your own state. A prospective candidate who can bring substantial financial resources of his own to the party is immediately considered viable for nomination.
Franken doesn’t spend his own money to self-finance his campaigns; rather he taps into his network of celebrity friends and national fan base. It wasn’t uncommon during the 2008 campaign for more than 75% of his donations for various filing periods to be fromout of state, including from such luminaries as Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Xena the Warrior Princess. The national Left loves Franken and funds him accordingly, and that was enough to get him to the front of the line in a Minnesota Democrat primary election.
And that’s how Franken landed in the United States Senate, a combination of celebrity, big money, and blind partisanship. That doesn’t work everywhere, for example at Franken’s most recent previous employer (Radio Air America), but it’s good enough for government work. Is it good enough to get him re-elected?
Potentially, yes. It’s a powerful combination in politics in Minnesota and often sufficient for victory. But even with these advantages, Franken barely won in 2008. In a Democrat wave year, where Obama won Minnesota by nearly 300,000 votes (a 54% majority) the funnyman Democrat down the very same ballot running for US Senate won by a scant 225 votes (a 42% plurality). Minnesotans elected him to office, but they don’t love him.
Franken no doubt realizes this and has generally kept a low profile while in office, in six years not leading any significant legislative initiatives and being uncharacteristically low key on all the hot button issues of the day. Even when campaigning for office, he’s very reserved. His strategy seems to be abandoning the personality he’s exhibited his entire adult life in favor or not actively giving people a reason to vote against him.
However, he has quietly amassed a virtually perfect Democrat partisan voting record, which is more liberal than even Minnesota standards. And as the last senator seated for the 111th Congress (thanks for the 2008 Senate recount, not taking office until July of 2009), he can credibly be accused of being the 60th and decisive vote in the passage of Obamacare (which has recently been polled as having a 33% approval rate in the Minnesota). Despite his attempts to stay silent, his voting record speaks volumes about the representation he offers Minnesota and this can be effectively used against him.
The key to victory is offering a viable alternative to Al Franken. For this mission the Minnesota Republican party endorsed Mike McFadden this past May. Who is Mike McFadden? Unfortunately, it’s a question many Minnesotans need an answer to before they will vote for him. Prior to running for US Senate, virtually no one in the state had heard of him. He’s a relative newcomer as a resident to Minnesota (just over 20 years) and quietly became a millionaire (net worth $15 – $57 million) in management for a financial services firm. And that’s the most anyone really knows about him. He may be a political genius and inspiring, visionary leader as well, but we don’t know.
What we do know — and what the Democrats are counting on — is that he’s an anonymous, generic, conservative rich guy who wants to hold a powerful political office. This is not a classic combination for victory in a place as class-conscious and parochial as Minnesota. Rich guys can get elected to state office (see Mark Dayton). Generic folks can get elected (see Amy Klobuchar). Anonymous guys can get elected (see Paul Wellstone). Even conservative guys can get elected (see Rod Grams). But I’m unaware of that quadruple threat ever leading to victory.
Apparently it can work in neighboring Wisconsin (See Ron Johnson). I think that example, combined with McFadden’s ability to self-fund a campaign, led Minnesota Republicans to this risky bet. (It’s also true that there were no strong, prominent Republicans even running for endorsement, which may be the real tragedy of this race for those dreaming of a Frankenless future.)
So, Franken is a weak incumbent and he’s running against a potentially even weaker challenger. The current polling reinforces this status, with Franken hovering around 50% and McFadden about 8 points back.
It’s certainly not over by any means. Before November, national events can serve to highlight the problems with Franken’s voting record. McFadden could distinguish himself in voters’ minds through effective advertising and debate performances. Or Franken could let his guard drop and revert to his traditional ways of communication and comportment for all the voters to see. Al Franken will never be a landslide election victor. But is there enough time, and is the opponent agile enough, to overtake him this year? Stay tuned.
For additional wise, civilized conversation on this topic, check out the comments section on the Ricochet post.