He’s good enough, smart enough and, doggone it, people like him: Why Al Franken may be a serious candidate for vice president

MinnPost photo by Jana Freiband
If a running-mate is meant to be an attack dog, then Sen. Al Franken could prove a good selection.

A Minnesota Democratic senator is in the news for being a potential selection for vice president — a sharp political mind with a reputation for sober legislating, coming off the heels of a major re-election victory.

And it’s not Amy Klobuchar — it’s Al Franken.

Seriously.

As Hillary Clinton has emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Franken’s name has popped up alongside usual VP shortlist suspects — cabinet officials like Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, and senators like Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (and Klobuchar too, of course).

Minnesota’s junior senator may not be in the top tier of potential selections for now. But if this election cycle has proved anything, it’s that almost nothing is out of the question. Is Vice President Franken?

Franken: An unusual choice for an unusual election

The genesis of Franken veep speculation was driven by two factors: Donald Trump becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, and the unexpected success of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

The challenge presented by Trump, and the progressive insurgency ignited by Sanders, has encouraged unconventional thinking: that a different kind of running-mate might be necessary to both counter Trump and appeal to the Democratic Party’s left flank.

But that doesn’t make Franken a shoo-in. The top choice for progressives is undoubtedly Warren, who is said to be interested in the job and has publicly criticized Trump numerous times.

But Warren’s popularity hasn’t stifled a discussion of others who might play a similar role. The first real argument for Franken as a liberal alternative to Warren came in late March, when writer Bill Scher posted a comprehensive case for the senator in Politico Magazine.

Speculation picked up from there, with the press regularly asking Franken if he was interested in the VP gig. Though he affirmed again and again his interest in his day job, that didn’t stop people from endorsing him.

In May, The Week magazine declared Franken the “perfect Trump-slayer;” in June, GOOD magazine called for Franken to be veep, and former Obama Chief of Staff Bill Daley said Franken in the VP role would “drive Trump crazy.”

The anti-Trump

So what would Franken bring to a Clinton ticket, if he did get the call?

If a running-mate is meant to be an attack dog, then Franken could prove a good selection. He did, after all, build his national profile in the 1990s and 2000s thanks to polemic tomes like “Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot” and “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.”

Franken has largely avoided stoking controversy as a senator, but now that he is into his second term, he’s been a little more eager to knock political rivals: at MinnRoast this year, Franken called Texas Sen. Ted Cruz the “lovechild of Joe McCarthy and Dracula.”

That style might work in this unusual election cycle: Trump has proven to be somewhat resistant to traditional attacks, and Clinton struggled early to find her footing in messaging against the billionaire.

Democrats have come around to the idea that the best way to blunt Trump’s appeal is to attack him with humor and make him seem ridiculous. Who better to do that than a former comedian?

Joel Goldstein, a professor at Saint Louis University and an expert on vice presidential politics, described this as a key advantage for Franken. “One theory is that using humor is a way of dealing with Trump, and that among Senator Franken’s talents is he’s demonstrated an ability to use humor in a way that is very effective,” he said.

Beyond that, Franken is also very popular in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, largely due to the years he spent on Air America, a now-defunct liberal talk radio network, criticizing the George W. Bush administration. He may be able to help close an enthusiasm gap among Sanders backers who are hardly fired up at the prospect of a Clinton presidency.

According to Steven Schier, professor of political science at Carleton College, Franken would have “considerable appeal to the Sanders crowd, which might help to produce more campaign volunteers, money, enthusiasm, within the left-wing base of the Democratic Party.”

And then there’s the bottom line. Franken is a prolific fundraiser — a tangible plus he’d bring to the ticket. His leadership PAC has raked in $1.9 million this cycle, the most of any Democratic member of Congress.

Clinton’s campaign will have little trouble raising money — she has $42 million in the bank as of May 31, dwarfing the barely $1 million Trump has. But Franken’s progressive ties might help Clinton find donations in corners she might usually not.

Schier says that Franken’s “ability to raise money and excite a partisan base… does really elevate him,” adding that Warren is the only other potential candidate who can do the same.

Perhaps the biggest advantage Franken has over Warren — and Booker or Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown — is that a Democrat sits in the governor’s mansion in Minnesota. Selecting a senator who represents a state with a Republican governor means that a Republican would almost certainly be an interim Senate appointee.

With Democrats looking at a near-zero margin of error in their effort to take back the Senate majority, that could be a major consideration for Clinton.

‘He’d be a polarizing choice’

There are plenty of risks to selecting Franken, though, that explain why he is probably not in the top five or six on the veep list.

For one, just as Franken might add a humorous edge to the Clinton ticket, he could open her up to criticism that she is not running a serious campaign.

Though politics-watchers in D.C. and Minnesota know well that Franken has tried to cultivate a reputation as a sober, details-oriented lawmaker, many voters might remember him first as Stuart Smalley from Saturday Night Live.

“Sometimes, somebody’s strength can turn into a perceived weakness,” Goldstein says. “The fact that he had this prior career as a humorist, a satirist, some people will still think of it that way rather than based on the service he’s provided in the Senate.”

Already, polling has sought to test Franken’s viability as a veep. In late June, a Monmouth University poll measured Franken’s effect on a Clinton ticket, placing him alongside Warren, Sanders, Castro, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine.

Twenty-one percent of voters nationwide, per the poll, would be less likely to vote for Clinton if Franken were the VP choice, while 12 percent would be more likely.

Twenty-four percent of liberals were more likely to vote for Clinton if Franken were on the ticket, while 30 percent of conservatives were less likely. Sixty percent said it would have no impact on their decision. (It’s worth noting that the only politicians that would make the average voter more likely to vote Clinton, per the survey, were Warren and Sanders.)

“No question, he’d be a polarizing choice,” Schier says.

Beyond that, conventional wisdom ascribes a lot of importance to picking a running-mate who can deliver a key state or region.

This is debatable: the past two vice presidents, Joe Biden and Dick Cheney, hail from states solidly within their own party’s column. But a candidate who can also offer appeal in a battleground state could put someone like Virginia’s Sen. Kaine over the edge.

Though Minnesotans cherish their political independence, the North Star State is no battleground state this election cycle. Minnesota has the longest active streak of any state for voting for Democratic nominees — the last Republican the state voted for was Richard Nixon, in 1972.

There’s little indication that trend will break in 2016: there is notably low enthusiasm for Trump in Minnesota, and it was the only state where he placed third in a caucus or primary.

Franken will play a role regardless

Franken, no doubt, would be a very bold choice for a politician whose defining trait may be her measured caution — and who could very well win against Trump simply by minimizing errors.

The senator has said he’d take the job if Clinton asked, but he’s also made clear that he doubts he’ll get that call: Franken told MinnPost in June that he “wasn’t worried” about having to consider a place on the presidential ticket. His staff says he is not being vetted by the Clinton campaign right now.

Clinton can also benefit from Franken’s talents — quips on the campaign trail, appearances at fundraising dinners — without having him on the ticket. Based on what Franken has said, he will be playing an active role in helping to get Clinton to the White House.

Still, Goldstein sees parallels between Franken and a legendary Minnesota veep — Walter Mondale.

“Franken, like Senator Mondale, both are from Minnesota, both from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party,” he said. “Mondale, among vice presidents, he was one of the wittiest vice presidents, a man who used his wit very effectively.”

“I think to the extent that Secretary Clinton might feel she needs to reach out to Sanders supporters, reach to her left in a sense, I think that Senator Franken might be one of the people who would help her do that.”

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 07/07/2016 - 11:25 am.

    A Reach?

    As long as this is a political season of reaching for alternatives to those candidates given to us, I suppose Franken makes an interesting (quizzical) choice for speculation. He has definitely matured as a fairly responsible character from early Senate image of earnest procedural student. His rhetoric certainly has moderated in tone, for the most part. How subject to old reflexive aberration remains a valid concern, however. My concern here is simply that Al would be on the ticket purely for demographic market purposes, certainly not for succession attributes. I see no way he could absorb and perform the duties in the Oval Office should that be required.

    Elizabeth Warren seems more an intelligent “kook” than Franken once was. She, of course, has some credits accumulated during the Wall Street reorganization and Fed. Reserve interventions. There she showed both the ability to cut through the nonsense and keep “the boys” on point; although again, she was prone to flippancy. She might be difficult to control as VEEP, but would be useful in shifting focus from POTUS. She’d be a press magnet, for sure, allowing HRC to adopt an image something akin to Queen Victoria.

    Since both Franken and Warren would clearly be on the ticket to pull as much of the Sanders Blue Left soon to be left with the blues, either choice would appear only tactically expedient, not otherwise very credible.

    It’s an interesting concept for projection, however. With either Franken or Warren tasked to take on Trump’s similarly abstract volatility, HRC could focus on her “Presidential” image enhancements, well above the noise of intentional distraction. She needs all the cover she can get in that process.

    That scenario best fits my personal view of Clintonian strategy over many years. No matter how one feels about them, the Clintons know how to deploy their border collies to herd the political sheep, walking calmly along behind the bahhing and barking, able to sidestep the ubiquitous droppings left behind the herd.

    Gotta give them credit for that. It’s worked for many years…and likely continues successfully.

    • Submitted by Hugh Gitlin on 07/07/2016 - 12:23 pm.

      Why wouldn’t Al be qualified to by President?

      Is it his BA in government from Harvard>

      His fellowship at Harvard?

      His 8 years in the Senate?

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 07/07/2016 - 01:42 pm.

        Well…

        University degrees are not the best indicator of global expertise.

        Besides, HRC is a Yalie.

        • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 07/07/2016 - 01:59 pm.

          That Other Guy

          Well we tried a “C” student, and we’ll be paying the price for his mistakes for years to come.

          • Submitted by Jim Million on 07/07/2016 - 04:53 pm.

            GW?

            Well, yes, but he was POTUS not VEEP. His scholarship was a point of attack, as I recall. It might have helped had he had at least 8 years as #2, but then, his Dad pretty much only needed to complete Reagan’s unfinished Kremlin business. See why dynasties are not good for us?

            Then, of course, we’ve also had one POTUS whose college records are sealed for some odd reason.

            Should anyone be surprised that conventional standards no longer hold?
            2016 seems to prove that all around.

  2. Submitted by Sabina Sten on 07/07/2016 - 11:28 am.

    Al Franken

    Al as Veep is an excellent idea. Not only does he get Minnesotans – he gets life, and has wisdom, humility, and humor…..what a great representative of the U.S, he would be!
    Sabina

  3. Submitted by Roy Everson on 07/07/2016 - 12:03 pm.

    What else he adds to the ticket

    Tickets are balanced in all sorts of ways: geographical, generational, ideological. “Doggone it, people like him.” The likeability factor is not to be misunderestimated.

  4. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/08/2016 - 11:52 am.

    Keep Al Franken in the Senate

    We should not overlook one really powerful fact about our Senator Al Franken: the guy knows how to be successful in a number of professions, the latest one being his service as U.S. Senator from Minnesota. I’m so proud of him, and having had the chance twice now, to vote for him.

    Al Franken was a huge success at his first career, writing and performing comedy and satire. People forget that comedy is much harder to write and perform than “drama,” because it takes the sharpest of wits, perfect timing, and even likability! He excelled at it. Made a lot of the right enemies as he excelled at skewering them.

    Then he got elected to the Senate. He took a careful look around and decided to take the sage advice of successful peers: He kept his head down, stayed off TV while he learned all the arcane rules and traditions of the Senate, and carved out an area of expertise where there’s really no one else in the Senate who can hold a candle to his knowledge of the law and how to change it for the better: twenty-first-century telecommunications laws and regulations. Totally the opposite of Sen. Ted Cruz, Franken is respected for his way of Being a Senator. He contributes. I want him to stay in the Senate, where he can call out the self-serving players (Big Telecom) and help protect our privacy. He speaks out very well on other important issues, and we’ll gradually hear more and more from him.

    Keeping Al Franken in the Senate is more important than having him serve as VP, and I say that for Elizabeth Warren, too. Their voices would be muffled as VP, and we don’t need that.

  5. Submitted by Howard Miller on 07/08/2016 - 06:05 pm.

    Al as VP

    I think Al Franken would make a marvelous public official what ever post he occupied. But if the idea is to placate Sanders supporters by nominating a progressive, their thinking has skipped an important beat,namely that – although the Minnesota Democratic Caucuses supported Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination …. Al Franken, Amy, Mark and most of the other elected Democrats stayed firmly in Hillary’s camp, ignoring the will of the Democrats in Minnesota. Adding him does not change my Bernie vote into one for Hillary. Her pay-to-play style of politics is what we’re trying to fix in the US. She’s the problem, not the solution, whether Al is VP on her ticket or not. State Democrats will experience some blowback about this, sooner or later.

    • Submitted by Henry Fischer on 07/10/2016 - 04:34 pm.

      “ingnoring the will of Democrats in MN”

      While Bernie may have won a majority of votes at the DFL Caucuses that is not necessary the will of Democrats in MN. Polls have shown that a lot more DFLers support Hillary rather than Bernie. I found in working before the caucuses a large number of DFLers who supported Hillary but did not want to attend the caucuses. There’s no evidence of Hillary operating “pay to play” at any time in her career. Anyone who seriously wants to make our country better will be supporting Hillary in November. Al, Amy, Mark and the rest have earned our support and don’t deserve to be vilified. Most true DFLers will be working this fall to elect Hillary, our congressional candidates and legislators and won’t spend their time being mopes as some apparently are.

  6. Submitted by rolf westgard on 07/10/2016 - 05:47 am.

    Not from a swing state

    Franken and Warren are from states that are a lock for Dems. Usually look for a partner who can bring in a big swing state.

  7. Submitted by David LaPorte on 07/10/2016 - 07:24 am.

    Franken completes Clinton

    Hillary’s two greatest vulnerabilities are that she’s not seen as sincere or likeable. She’s also committed a number of faux pass when she’s tried to use social media or humor against Trump.

    Franken is a master of all of these weaknesses. Only an idiot (a description which surely applies to The Donald) would get into a Twitter war with Al. Al’s sincerity and likeability are clear, once people get to know him. (The TeaPublicans will never warm to him, but they’ll never vote Democratic anyway.) And he’s a good deal more pragmatic and moderate than Warren.

    Franken can also appear to disaffected Sander’s voters. A major source of Sander’s appeal was the view that he was not a member of the beltway establishment. Even though he’s been in Congress for many years, he isn’t viewed as typical. It would be hard to simultaneously frame Franken as a run-of-the-mill Democrat AND as a newly-arrived former comedian. He’d also appeal to the left-leaning Sanders supporters, particularly since he’s been more consistent than Hillary.

    Also, as much as I’m ashamed to say it, I think that it’s pushing the envelope to have even one woman on the ticket, particularly as the candidate for POTUS. Despite our self-described position as world leaders, the United States is decades behind many other developed countries who have been led by women. (Yes, Palin was on McCain’s ticket, but they lost and Palin was one of the reasons.) When you step into (for the USA) uncharted territory, balance will be comforting to some swing voters. I think that voters on the fence would be more comfortable with a mixed gender ticket.

    But I would hate to lose Al from the Senate, particularly because internet privacy is a looming issue that no one else seems to take seriously. However, keeping The Donald out of the Oval Office would make trying to replace Al as a voice for the 21st century worth the effort.

  8. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 07/14/2016 - 10:21 pm.

    Good reasons all

    “If a running- mate is meant to be an attack dog, then Franken could prove a good selection”

    “A Democrat sits in the governor’s mansion in Minnesota. Selecting a senator who represents a state with a Republican governor means that a Republican would almost certainly be an interim Senate appointee.”

    “Franken is a prolific fundraiser”

    And since Senator Franken is 65, he can keep the Social Security ticket going too.

Leave a Reply