WASHINGTON — Debate on the health care bill was coming to a close on a cold day in December when a senator speaking on the floor overshot his allotted time.
The man occupying the chair’s seat that day was a Democratic freshman, who had arrived in Washington some months earlier after besting a Republican incumbent in a tough, bitter race. The health care bill was in a race against the clock; required cloture motions needed to be squeezed in so a vote could take place in time for lawmakers to spend Christmas at home.
As instructed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office, Alaska’s Mark Begich told Texas Republican John Cornyn that no, he could not have a few extra moments to finish his thoughts (though Begich would eventually give in on that point).
Later in the day, John McCain would take to the Senate floor to decry a refusal to grant additional time to a speaker as something he’d never seen during his time in Washington. He’d decry the time stringency as something that “harms the comity of the Senate.”
But he wasn’t talking about Begich. McCain was instead taking aim at Al Franken, who some hours later had done almost the exact same thing to Joe Lieberman.
With the words, “In my capacity as senator from Minnesota, I object,” Franken became a hero to many on the left for sticking it to Lieberman and an example to those on the right of just what happens when you elect a leftist comedian and talk radio host to the hallowed halls of the Senate.
Forgotten in most of the coverage was Begich, but that’s just the way things have been for Franken, one of the Senate’s newest yet most famous members. For better or for worse, celebrity politicians like Franken are treated differently, and that has presented a unique challenge for Minnesotans junior senator in his first year in office.
Franken seems to have found his stride despite the spotlight’s glare by keeping his head down, with at least seven substantive legislative victories notched in his belt.
But Republicans say when his head comes up, as it has in recent weeks, they see the sort of senator they can’t wait to run against in five years.
The Hillary Model
Alan Stuart Franken was sworn into the world’s greatest deliberative body exactly one year ago today, finally ending an eight-month recount victory over Republican Norm Coleman.
He had come to the chamber in the most unusual of circumstances, from a liberal talk radio host on Air America and before that from “Saturday Night Live,” where he made famous a sweater-clad would-be life coach named Stuart Smalley whose catchphrase was “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”
In the end, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld a recount verdict that 312 more Minnesotans liked him over Coleman, and Franken was sworn in one year ago today as the Democrats’ precious 60th vote.
Any senator would be under the microscope as Senator 60, as would any senator with Franken’s profile. Not since Hillary Rodham Clinton switched from being America’s first lady to New York’s second senator, has that glare been so intense.
Even before the recount finished, Franken consulted with former Clinton Chief of Staff Tamera Luzzatto to figure out what they did right and what went wrong. Leading the charge on Franken’s end would be Chief of Staff Drew Littman, who informally advised the Clinton team on its transition and had a front-row seat as Clinton developed her legislative strategy.
Keep your head down, work hard. And that’s exactly what she did — so successfully, in fact, that the strategy has become known as the Hillary Model.
The model has been copied by many freshmen, but it’s designed specifically for left-sided celebrities of whom Luzzatto said other lawmakers take “more of a caricatured and exaggerated view of how liberal they are.”
Franken would be the Hillary Model’s first true test case, the twin tenets of which are:
1. Promises made, promises kept. Essentially, be the sort of senator you campaigned as.
2. Be a workhorse, not a show horse.
That second maxim is designed in part to show other Senate colleagues that you mean business, that you mean to be a senator just like them.
For Clinton, and then for Franken, that meant that they’d be the first to arrive and last to leave committee hearings most senators ducked in late for. That way, when more senior senators walk in late they see you’ve been waiting for them to arrive.
Stay to the end, so they see you sitting while they get up and walk out early. And at all times, in all questions, refer back to your state.
Franken’s questions on Indian appropriations, for example, came in the context of a juvenile detention facility that was built but sat vacant for five years lacking the federal dollars to operate.
Carry a big stick
Franken’s first legislative send-up was fairly simple: a measure to launch a pilot program providing veterans with service dogs. He introduced the measure with Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson, whose mother was comforted by a therapy dog in her declining years.
It was a solid, bipartisan start that earned him polite applause from all sides of the political spectrum. When asked what Franken had done well in his first year, state GOP Chairman Tony Sutton cited that amendment.
It was Franken’s second legislative victory that made him famous as a legislator, and signaled that he’d be someone to take seriously both in policy and in politics.
Franken’s staff refers to it as the Jamie Leigh Jones amendment. Almost no one else does.
On the face of it, it was a simple, bipartisan amendment that was agreed to with 10 Republican votes. A young woman contractor in Iraq was gang raped, then confined to a shipping container for days before being allowed to seek medical attention.
Jamie Leigh Jones, then a contractor with KBR (a former Halliburton subsidiary), was told her only option to pursue damages was through arbitration. She had signed a contract giving up her rights to sue. Franken said that sort of binding arbitration requirement shouldn’t be allowed, and his amendment restricted its use by virtually all defense companies.
Franken’s amendment passed with the votes of every Democrat and several Republicans, including every Republican woman senator.
But the 30 Republican men who voted against him took a scorching, were categorized by many on the left as being rape sympathizers, and later protested that Franken did little or nothing to quell the flames.
The heat got so strong that South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham encouraged Franken to speak up and explain to the press that Republicans who opposed the bill weren’t in favor of rape.
Part of that Hillary Model, the keeping the head down bit, can be anathema to someone who has made a career out of speaking up — a man who still draws residuals from flame-throwing books like “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot” and “Lies (And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them).”
At times, Franken can be the loudest person in the Senate. His booming, nasal-sounding laugh echoes throughout the Senate’s marble corridors like a one-man chorus of vuvuzelas. He laughs a lot.
But he speaks softly. The humor in his jokes comes from timing, knowing where to put the pauses and leaving the audience lingering ever so slightly before granting them the punch line.
And his voice is made even quieter by his national media policy. It used to be “never talk to the national press.” It has tempered in recent months to “almost never talk to the national press, unless it’s topic-specific to what we’re doing right now.”
He’s declined “Meet the Press” and David Letterman. Franken has a standing invitation to talk on “The Daily Show” since at least last year that, so far, he’s ignored.
“I’m not here to do that — I did that,” Franken said with a laugh. “I have an opportunity here to be effective for Minnesota… you know, doing ‘The Daily Show’ doesn’t really help that at all — and it would distract, it would not be a good thing to do.”
Franken said that “perhaps” there will come a time to do Jon Stewart’s show — “I love Jon, and I love his show,” Franken clarified — but that interview is a long time away.
His media strategy focuses on Minnesota, giving weekly radio interviews on Wednesday morning as well as regular sit-downs with the three full-time Minnesota reporters here (myself included) and phone calls to those reporting from the state.
Nationally, however, he’s generally not interested. Franken doesn’t do the pack interviews that other lawmakers like Amy Klobuchar have mastered, and by and large national reporters aren’t happy about it.
Several of them told me (all on condition of anonymity, because they might need Franken for a story one day) that Franken may have kept his head down but he also hasn’t built up any sympathetic pens to write favorable sentences when things don’t go his way.
And the favorable press hasn’t always been there.
As every politician knows, the spotlight can be a harsh mistress. The brighter the spotlight, the more it can burn.
Clinton saw articles critiquing her facial expressions and whole essays written about centimeters of her bust that may or may not have shown on the Senate floor.
“They just salivate when they’ve got anything to write about [celebrity senators], rather than the other however many senators you’ve never heard of,” Luzzatto said. “It is unfair, but then when you’re a celebrity, life is unfair.”
Franken was the subject of an unflattering profile in The Hill in December, in which Republicans accused him of berating staffers for Tennessee Republican Bob Corker in a private meeting to the point that Corker demanded Franken turn his fire on his colleague instead.
Aides contested that account to The Hill, but the paper stood by its story. Franken won’t touch it.
“I don’t report on conversations that I’ve had with other senators,” Franken said flatly when asked about the exchange, “but [Corker] and I are fine.”
On the Lieberman exchange, Franken said if he had it to do again he still wouldn’t have given Lieberman the extra seconds he wanted, but said would have explained that he was under direction to keep time strictly.
Also mentioned in that profile was an exchange with John Thune that Franken said he now regrets. Thune and Franken had a conversation on the floor (those are usually considered private words not to be repeated in public), after which Franken took the microphone and challenged Thune on the record.
“I didn’t know at that time that was a no-no, and I apologized for it,” Franken said.
Consider those growing pains that he now seems to have outgrown. Credit the Hillary Model, observers say.
“At a distance, it seems to me that Franken is aware that his satirical humor and sharp tongue can appear to many people as deeply cynical, angry, and mean-spirited,” said Steve Smith, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who commutes there from the Twin Cities.
“He seems to have kept that in check.”
One man Franken looks up to went further than that.
“There was a fear that he’d go down and be a comedian, and he hasn’t done that,” said former senator and vice president Walter Mondale.
“He’s beginning to show the product of that hard work. A lot of people are impressed that he took this route.”
Emerging as a serious lawmaker
In the last few months, Franken has deliberately stepped into the limelight.
His coming-out was a sit-down profile with Roll Call that focused on his health care efforts. He headlined the Families USA conference with a talk on that subject as well.
Franken has become the lead voice opposing the merger of NBC and Comcast, a position Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are only happy to cede him given his first-hand experience in the entertainment industry and as a former NBC employee.
Franken’s arguments during the ongoing Supreme Court nomination battle quickly moved beyond the case for Elena Kagan and onto a broadside assault on the Roberts Court writ large, previewed in remarks to the American Constitution Society.
Presidents measure success after their first 100 days. Senators do it after one year. And at that juncture, the sum of his legislative accomplishments now equals an impressive seven measures passed through the Senate, including key additions to the health care and Wall Street reform bills.
On health care, his medical loss ratio amendment that insurance providers devote 85 percent of their premium revenues to actual health care costs. That, alongside the individual coverage mandate, essentially made up the foundation of the Senate’s health care bill.
“I think that’s a pretty major step toward keeping health care costs down,” Franken said, noting that his amendment came from Minnesota, where the state’s largely non-profit insurance industry averages a ratio of 91 percent. Franken’s requirement sets the standard at 85 percent for large plans and 80 percent for small and individual plans.
Franken authored a credit rating agency amendment to the Wall Street reform bill that eventually received double-digit GOP agreement. It would have forcibly divorced rating agencies from the banks that hired them by having a government regulator assign rating agencies to new financial products.
He tried to keep it intact in conference committee, writing every senator an individualized handwritten note on his stationary, front and back, and attaching a press clipping that spoke favorably of his plan.
The move earned him plaudits from colleagues there, though it couldn’t save the amendment from being watered down.
Despite that setback, Franken counts his credit rating and medical loss ratio amendments among his biggest successes so far.
“I’ve been trying to be effective, trying to get things done, and working very hard,” Franken said, “So if someone says you’ve had a very good record for a first year senator, I mean, I’d take it.”
Franken came to the Senate too late to be officially scored by the Washington vote tabulators on the left-right scale, but by most anecdotal estimates he’s a little to the left of Klobuchar.
For that matter, he might be a little left of President Obama, given that Franken’s anti-rape, public option health care, bank size capping and credit rating reform amendments were all policies the White House either stood against or were only tepidly in favor of.
Minnesota has a long tradition of iconic liberal senators — Mondale, Paul Wellstone, Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy stand out on that list — and that’s a group Mondale says Franken “is going to fit into in his way.”
“There are people who hope that Franken will emerge as a leading voice for the left. He’s not there yet,” Smith said.
“Franken’s challenge will be to balance the appeal of that role with the need to appeal to middle-of-the-road Minnesotans.”
GOP itching for 2014
And that appeal, said state GOP chairman Tony Sutton, is where Franken fails the Hillary Model.
“At the end of the day, he’s pretty much the lockstep liberal we all thought that he was.
“He’s still the hyper-sarcastic talk show and comedian,” Sutton said, citing Franken’s comments that the Roberts Court has a brass-knuckled fist on the scales of justice in favor of corporations that Sutton called “beyond the pale.”
“That anger, that sarcasm, that tone I think is who he is as a person and that’s going to be very hard to distance himself from in the run-up to 2014.”
Franken’s approval ratings hover around 50 percent, well below his counterpart, Klobuchar, whose ratings are consistently in the mid-60s.
“He’s going to be a big target,” said Cullen Sheehan, who managed the Coleman campaign. “When you’re more known for your temperament than legislative ability, you’re always going to have a target on your back.”
Everyone who’s anyone in the state GOP has been raised as a possible challenger, from Coleman (who did not return calls seeking comment for this article), to all three of the state’s lawmakers in D.C., to state politicians like Marty Seifert and Laura Brod.
“There’s no presidential campaign on the ballot that year,” Sutton reminded. “There will be nobody to help him; he’ll pretty much have to stand on his own.”
And of course, that’s the biggest test of the Hillary Model.
Clinton would eventually sail to re-election at the end of her first term in office. Franken faces that ultimate test in five years and counting.