The possibility of Senator Franken

Franken’s announcement was a good start, but he should capitalize on Coleman’s flip-flops.

by Jason Stahl

As a weekly columnist, there unfortunately are times when I write something in haste which I later regret. Usually, such regrets arise because I have not considered the full impact of something I wrote. Such was the case in a column I wrote back in November about the 2008 U.S. Senate elections. Toward the end of the column – one devoted to the likelihood Democrats will make gains in Senate, gains nationally and in Minnesota in 2008 – I suggested Al Franken might not be the best Democratic candidate to take on vulnerable Minnesota Republican incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman. At the time, I wrote, “I just don’t think that the overall electorate will take him seriously” and that “this factor will allow Coleman to get maximum advantage out of his limited incumbency.”

While I still stand by these words, I think they came across wrong. I did not mean to suggest that Franken was unelectable – only that another Democrat might have a better chance at taking advantage of Coleman’s weaknesses. However, I do see how my words could be interpreted, as a letter to the editor suggested at the time, as furthering the “spurious meme developing in the media that Al Franken is unelectable.” So, with Franken’s announcement this past Valentine’s Day that he is, indeed, running for Coleman’s Senate seat, I thought this would be a good time to set the record straight and to give Franken’s candidacy a fresh look.

Toward this end, I just finished watching Franken’s announcement speech on YouTube and was actually quite impressed with much of what I saw. In particular, I thought that Franken made excellent use of his family’s personal narrative to make the case for effective progressive governance. He told the story of how his wife’s family was able to get by after her father’s death because of Social Security survivor benefits and how all the kids still got to go to college because of Pell Grants and military service. He spoke of how his mother-in-law was able to get a GI loan which she put toward a college education and how that very same loan was forgiven when she used her education to teach low-income Title One students.

Taken together, these stories are poignant and can be effectively wielded under a message of economic populism on which Franken clearly intends to run. As he said in his announcement speech, “Conservatives like to say that people need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps – and that’s a great idea. But first you’ve got to have the boots. And the government gave my wife’s family the boots. That’s what progressives like me believe the government is there for.” Such a message is remarkably similar to that of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone – who once held the seat for which Franken is now vying. And as Wellstone proved – and as so many Democrats proved in 2006 – such a message is a winning one.

But such a message is only part of the equation. In addition to the forthright economic populism espoused in his announcement, Franken also needs to be equally forthright on getting out of Iraq and not starting a new war with Iran. In this respect, the speech was lacking as it contained one non-policy reference to Iraq and zero references to Iran.

I hope this isn’t a sign of things to come. We’re not in 2002 anymore. Back then, prominent national Democrats were arguing that congressional candidates running in the midterm elections should focus on domestic issues and not on the looming war with Iraq. This was a losing strategy then and it is a losing strategy now, especially now that poll after poll shows the public wants out of Iraq and doesn’t want a new war with Iran.

Additionally, for Franken’s race, the issue of Iraq is one of Sen. Coleman’s most vulnerable areas – namely because it is hard to know where he stands on the issue from day to day. One day he’s against escalating the war and the next day he’s for it – provided that the escalation goes only to certain areas of Iraq.

Franken could capitalize on this kind of flip-flopping (which characterizes Coleman’s entire political career) if he were as clear on Iraq and Iran as he is on domestic issues. That is the winning message for Franken, or another Democrat, to run with. I hope all of them recognize this as they move ahead.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected].