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Franken refuses to back off his support of Obamacare and goes after neocons on Iraq

Sen. Al Franken would like to frame his reelection campaign around this question: “Who has a record of fighting for middle-class Minnesotans?”

Sen. Al Franken: "Why should you be able to refinance your business, your house, your car, everything except your student loans?"
Office of the Governor

This is one in an occasional series of articles about the policy positions of U.S. Senate candidates Mike McFadden and Al Franken.

Sen. Al Franken is not backing down from his support for the Affordable Care Act, pushes back against neoconservative finger-pointing in the current Iraq mess, and would like to frame the campaign around the question of “who has a record of fighting for middle-class Minnesotans?”

This post is to finish off some of the main topics I covered in my interview with Franken last week, which was a follow-up to an earlier interview with his likely Republican challenger, businessman Mike McFadden.


McFadden calls Obamacare a disaster. He favors repealing it and replacing it with something better. The details of the something better are not all clear, although he laid out some elements of it here.

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Franken, by contrast, acknowledged that “obviously the rollout was very rough,” but was much more upbeat about what the law has accomplished.

“I think that what we’re seeing is something we can build on, and it has several very successful areas,” he said. “In Minnesota we’re seeing the number of uninsured decline by 40 percent. I think that’s significant and it’s what the program was designed to do.”

He ticked off the main provisions, including some that McFadden said he would like to include in the replacement bill. Franken touted one of the ideas in the bill on which he was leader, the requirement that insurance spend at least 80 percent of premium dollars on health care. (That’s one that McFadden says he would not retain.) Franken said he is continuing to work on getting rid of the medical-device tax, which pays for some of the Obamacare costs but which hits Minnesota companies.

(McFadden has blamed Franken for allowing that tax to be in the bill. Franken has emphasized that he and Amy Klobuchar succeeded in getting the tax cut in half from the original proposal and that they are working to get rid of the remaining half.)

Franken touted a provision in the ACA, on which he played a leading role, to fund a diabetes prevention regimen that was piloted and tested in Minnesota and which he says reduced by 59 percent the portion of those with pre-diabetic indications who actually developed the disease. He said the cost savings are impressive, amounting to $4 of cost saved for every $1 spent on the prevention program.


I asked Franken about the ongoing, spreading mess in the Mideast. I haven’t heard from McFadden yet on that topic, but hope to in a future interview.

“We live in a very dangerous world and we’ve seen this in Iraq again recently,” Franken said.

“My feeling is that there’s only so much the United States can do… We stayed there a long time and paid a lot of blood and a lot of treasure for that. And there are some people pointing blame who I think are trying to cover up for their own bad mistakes.”

Franken mentioned former Vice President Dick Cheney specifically in that last category. He also brought up Sen. John McCain, saying:

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Senator McCain, who I respect as a colleague, but if it was up to him we’d be fighting in a lot of different places and I don’t think that should be our role in the world…

Eventually, the Iraqis have to stand up for themselves. We can’t do that for them. No matter how long we stay there, ultimately we’re going to leave and they’re going to have to stand up.

We’re going to protect our embassy. Protect our people there. But we don’t want to be [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] Maliki’s air force. I’m sure we’re going to be encouraging a different government there, someone who can forge ties to Sunnis. But what it’s come down to now is very close to a sectarian civil war there.

When Franken touched on Syria, he was clearly responding to those who criticized President Obama for not launching strikes after he had said that any use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Assad would be a “red line.” Said Franken:

“In Syria, we did get something, as it happens, for the president’s policy, which is very, very significant — which is the chemical weapons out of that country. There’s still some work to be done. That was an enormous threat to Israel.”

On Iran, Franken responded to those who have advocated a military strike against Iran to set back its nuclear research and development. Said Franken:

We don’t know how the negotiations with Iran are going to turn out. But we have been able to keep the P5+1 [that refers to the five permanent members of the U.S. Security Council, plus Germany, which have been collaborating on a program of negotiations plus sanctions with Iran] together. We have been able to enforce these sanctions and get a world coalition to enforce these sanctions, which drove Iran to the table. I’d much rather be negotiating with them than the alternatives.

I should mention before leaving the subject of Iraq that Franken — who was neither a senator nor a candidate in 2003 during the run-up to the U.S. attack on and invasion of Iraq — did not oppose the war. His statements during that period were ambivalent, but slightly more in favor of the war than against. He ultimately told me that he had been “53 percent” in favor. Not until 2005 did Franken make a clear statement that the original invasion had been a mistake.

There were reasons to be for the war, and reasons to be against, he told me in 2008 during his first campaign, but “all the reasons to be for the war turned out to be false.”

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Franken’s frame

Minnesota voters will (in all likelihood and with all due respect to others who are also seeking to be Minnesota’s next senator) be choosing between Franken and McFadden in November and will do so in year when partisan control of the U.S. Senate will be up for grabs. I asked Franken (and hope to ask McFadden) how he would like to frame the choice. Said Franken:

It’s about comparing two candidates and their records and who has a record of fighting for middle-class Minnesotans… We have a tax system that’s rigged. We have loopholes for companies that offshore jobs or offshore themselves.

I want to do things like raise the minimum wage. Like make sure you can refinance your student loans. Why should you be able to refinance your business, your house, your car, everything except your student loans? I’m someone who believes in getting things done. Things like the medical-loss ratio. I’ve gotten things done.

And it’s versus the Republican, whoever it is, is probably going to reflect what we’ve seen in this Congress. We’ve seen [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell literally say that his number one goal was to defeat the president. Instead of saying that his number one goal is to help people get jobs. Or that his number one goal is help people get health care or his number one goal is to create a great education system.

(Obnoxious interruption by me: McConnell has often asserted that making Obama a one-term president was his No. 1 political goal, not that it outranked all of his substantive policy goals. There is language in the original quote to partially back him up.) Back to Franken:

We’ve had this unbelievably partisan Congress. And I’ve been able to work across party lines and get things done. And the things I’ve been fighting for are about building the middle class.

I grew up in St. Louis Park. My dad didn’t graduate from high school. He was a printing salesman. We grew up in a two-bedroom, one-bath house. Me and my brother and my parents. But I considered myself the luckiest kid in the world because I was growing up middle-class in America at a time when that really meant that you could do anything.

And I felt that. I don’t think every kids feels that way now. I don’t think even the middle class feels that way. Because they feel very squeezed. Because they are. I want to make sure that people have the opportunity that I had.

Referring to how the economy is working in recent years, Franken said: “We’re not trickle down. We’re not top down.” Referring to Democrats: “We believe that the economy works best when it grows from the middle out.”