Al Franken Seeks the Wellstone Seat
There is nothing novel these days about actors, radio hosts, authors, billionaires and even the accidentally or tragically famous entering politics. But celebrities come to the campaign trail in different ways, and with decidedly different purposes. There is no useful reference point for Franken's run to be found, for instance, in the political career of fellow Minnesotan Jesse "The Body" Ventura, who never quite stepped out of his all-star-wrestler character during a single uninspired term as governor. Nor is Franken a Midwestern version of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg or most of the other famous or rich, or rich and famous, fellows who have in recent years spun their prominence into a measure of political gold. The model for a contemporary celebrity candidate is that of someone who rises above politics. But Franken is the champion of an old-fashioned liberal credo--rooted in the spirit of Franklin Roosevelt and Wellstone--that rejects the notion that government is evil.
Despite Minnesota GOP chairman Ron Carey's characterization of him as "the most far-left, polarizing and out-of-the-mainstream candidate to run for the US Senate in our state," Franken is no radical. His is a traditional and sometimes frustratingly responsible liberalism. He favors single-payer healthcare but says it will have to be achieved in steps because the political will is not yet there for the great leap forward. He preaches the gospel of energy independence, only to scare people with Al Gore-style speculation on the green virtues of nuclear power. After initially accepting at least some of the Administration's arguments for invading Iraq, Franken emerged several years ago as a vocal critic of the war. He now argues that Congress should use the power of the purse to force Bush to start bringing troops home. Yet the candidate's still a little murky on the precise timing of the withdrawal process--not because he doesn't want it to happen but because he frets about getting the exit right. In the Senate, Franken would generally vote as Wellstone did, although it might take some prodding to get him to take some of Wellstone's riskier positions.
On the "government is good" theme that Wellstone so deeply valued, however, Franken needs no encouragement. Here, he becomes the great communicator. "As a middle-class kid growing up in Minnesota [in the 1950s and '60s], I felt like the luckiest kid in the world. And I was," explains Franken, whose argument that government exists to "provide security" for middle-class families like his own and a leg up for working-poor families like that of his wife, Franni, strikes a homespun, nostalgic note. "Maybe you know what it's like to be one health crisis away from bankruptcy. Maybe you, or your parents or grandparents, can't afford prescriptions. Maybe you have kids, and you're worried about paying for their college. Maybe some one you love is in Iraq, and you don't know how long they'll have to stay there, or what will happen when they come home. Middle-class families today struggle with that feeling of insecurity--the sense that things can fall apart without notice, outside of your control. Your government should have your back. That should be our mission in Washington."
Franken points to people's overwhelming rejection of privatizing Social Security and says, "I think most Americans are liberals." He's running not to replace old paradigms of left versus right or Democrat versus Republican, as Schwarzenegger and Bloomberg sometimes claim to do, but as a candidate who accepts the paradigms while suggesting that some tricks learned backstage at SNL might make it easier to master them. And Franken has proven to be masterful.
A year before the 2008 election, it is clear the comedian is a serious candidate. His fundraising, in Minnesota and nationally, is phenomenal. He has already outraised Coleman in two quarterly cycles, creating a sense that Franken will be able to match the incumbent blow for blow in a Senate race that could easily cost the candidates $20 million. Polls show Franken, who once trailed Coleman by a wide margin, pulling even. And the challenger's tireless trekking across Minnesota has eased doubts about his viability. "The only way we're going to win this race is with a candidate who's passionate, principled and understands how the failed Republican agenda impacts Minnesota families. That's Al," declares State Senator Steve Murphy, a Democrat from the Mississippi River factory town of Red Wing, which is about as far from Hollywood or New York as you can get physically and politically. Murphy, who represents some of Minnesota's most competitive swing counties, is not one to bestow an endorsement casually. Nor are the forty-two other DFL legislators who have endorsed Franken, along with powerful Teamsters and Steelworkers district councils and locals in a state with deep labor traditions.
The deal has not been closed, however, not even among Democrats. To a far greater extent than any Democratic Party in the country, the DFL is organized down to the precinct level. At precinct caucuses in February, thousands of party activists will begin choosing delegates to a state convention that will endorse a Senate candidate in June. The convention endorsement could still be challenged in a September primary, but Franken, like his challengers, has agreed to abide by the convention's call. This means that the party's Senate nominee will be chosen by party activists who are serious about winning elections and pushing the political discourse to the left. The DFL has historically been remarkably good at identifying what Democratic Socialists of America founder Michael Harrington used to refer to as "the left wing of the possible." No one in Minnesota loses sight of the fact that it is Wellstone's seat, the loss of which DFLers have never accepted, that will be filled in 2008.