Al Franken: Institutionalist?

The New Republic’s legal affairs reporter Jeffrey Rosen is up with a fresh (and fairly adoring) profile of Al Franken. The themes are familiar from a raft of profiles that ran in Franken’s first months: the need for Franken to curb the edgiest parts of his sense of humor, his effort as a rookie senator to emulate Hillary Clinton, who also had to overcome assumptions that her pre-Senate celebrity would give her attitude issues, his determination to at least get along with and maybe even work with his Republican colleagues, and the obligatory discovery that after a career in comedy, Franken can be smart and serious.

Rosen concludes that “Franken has self-consciously chosen[to try to become an] institutionalist who can achieve bipartisan consensus but also successfully champion liberal legislation.”

In fact, the piece is titled: “Franken Sense: The very serious senator from Minnesota.” The full version appears to be for subscribers only, but you can get the first page here. A couple of excerpts:

When Franken launched his campaign for the Senate, it wasn’t obvious that the former comedian and Air America pundit would become a devotee of the rituals of senatorial comity. As an entertainer, Franken had mastered a combative political persona in which he tackled his ideological opponents head-on. Given the opportunity to interview George W. Bush, then a presidential candidate, he asked Bush whether he’d ever manufactured crystal meth. He famously got into a shouting match with Bill O’Reilly at a C-SPAN panel discussion, and, in another of his books, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, he recounted that he’d once called up National Review editor Rich Lowry and challenged him to a fight in a parking garage. When Franken arrived in Washington, many expected him to be a bombastic, no-holds-barred partisan.

But Franken has self-consciously chosen a different model: the institutionalist who can achieve bipartisan consensus but also successfully champion liberal legislation. During his brief time in office, Franken has emerged as a throwback to the successful progressives of a distant era when senators knew what they were talking about and spent long hours working on worthy policy proposals to make the lives of their constituents better. As unlikely as it may appear, at a time when it seems as if every politician wants to be a celebrity, Franken has used his celebrity to become a serious senator.

My favorite bits from the piece were the concrete examples Rosen used of Franken using facts and logic to make his case, like this one:

I saw evidence of Franken’s careful preparation firsthand, when I testified in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last March on the Citizens United campaign-finance case that enabled unlimited corporate spending in election campaigns. One of the witnesses, Bradley Smith, had criticized a provision of a bill Franken had introduced which said that if a foreign national controls more than 20 percent of a company, that company shouldn’t be allowed to spend unrestricted amounts on American elections. When Smith confidently stated that 20 percent ownership didn’t constitute corporate control, Franken pounced:

FRANKEN: Yes or no, please. Do you know how Delaware, the leading state for corporate law, defines a controlling shareholder?

SMITH: No, I do not, nor do I think it is relevant to the question of whether control …

FRANKEN: I asked you to respond yes … or no, sir, and you said no, you do not. … Now, the fact is that thirty-two states that define control with a number, thirty-one of them define it as twenty percent ownership or less, most of them less.

Franken is not an attorney, but with a few deft questions he had demonstrated that Smith, a law professor, didn’t know what he was talking about. “It’s clear to me that he could have been a world-class litigator, and his ability to take people down the slippery slope is just fabulous,” said his friend Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “I saw a hearing on health care where a witness was talking about how our system was the best in the world and how awful others are, and Al asked,‘Do you know how many bankruptcies there were as a result of health care in Switzerland?’” When the witness said no, Franken said “[t]he answer is zero,” and then went through a list of other countries that had no bankruptcies. “The witness was just filleted,” Ornstein said.

And lastly

Franken’s staff told me that his ultimate model is not Hillary Clinton but Teddy Kennedy—a master of working across the aisle to advance an unequivocally liberal agenda. Whether Franken can fill Kennedy’s shoes will hinge on his ability to combine legislative skills with a fiery economic populism that is as progressive as the Tea Party’s populism is conservative. Although Franken has been a relatively successful institutionalist, he hasn’t yet demonstrated Kennedy’s ability to bend ideologically in order to cut a deal. (Of course, bipartisan deal-making may also be less possible in today’s polarized Senate than it was during Kennedy’s long tenure in office.)



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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 11/16/2010 - 01:28 pm.

    Minnesota is lucky to have such great US Senators. Both are smart, good listeners and able to convince people with evidence of the right thing to do.

    The GOP better get used to having those two in office!

  2. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/16/2010 - 02:48 pm.

    The first time that I saw Senator Franken doing his job, it was via a Minnclips column regarding a Senate committee hearing.

    Watch the first 1:40, and you will see the first impression that I got. I though it was watching Senator Bob Newhart:

  3. Submitted by Kate Packard on 11/16/2010 - 03:37 pm.

    I did not vote for Franken but I will when he runs for re-election. I was one of many who lost their employment due to the economic downturn. Our job networking group collected ideas and thoughts from members and those ideas and thoughts were sent on to our national leaders all the way up to the President and to all of our representatives in the Senate and House at the federal level and the state level. Not one politician responded except for Franken. He sent a representative to meet with us and gather additional information. His representative has also sent follow up communication on action items they have taken. I will not forget that he was the only one who cared enough to reach out.

  4. Submitted by Randi Reitan on 11/18/2010 - 12:36 pm.

    I hear many saying the same thing as Kate Packard. Senator Franken and his staff reach out and follow up when people have concerns. Our family has also witnessed this with his work for gay rights. He listens and he cares. We see Senator Franken as a man who is not only bright and well educated … he has a heart full of compassion. He is in the Senate to serve the people. Senator Franken has our love and gratitude.

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