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Why D.C. Needs Al Franken the Comedian More Than Al Franken the Policy Wonk


Everybody seems to be recalling examples of Sen.(!) Al Franken's appetite for wonkery, so here's mine: When Franken launched his campaign for Senate, a friend who worked for his campaign called excitedly to tell me to watch it. Apparently, Franken had been persuaded by political scientist Jacob Hacker's theories on income volatility destabilizing the middle class and had decided to make that the core message of his campaign. My friend figured I, as one of the 12 journalists on earth who knew who Hacker was, would be particularly interested.

Indeed, I rather doubt that the Senate is going to find Al Franken insufficiently interested in policy. Rather, I think it'll be the reverse. About a month ago, I sat down with a senator and some of his aides to discuss a particular piece of legislation he was sponsoring. I noted that a lot of natural allies seemed to be opposing the bill. That's not fair, one of his aides replied. They don't really understand it yet. When they do, they'll come around. I turned to the senator. "Has it been your experience," I asked, "that that's an accurate rendering of how this place works?" He didn't even try to reply. He just laughed.

Which is actually why I'm interested to see Al Franken, satirist, more than Al Franken, policy wonk. There are a lot of policy wonks in this town. There are even a couple in the Senate. They don't seem very influential. In part, that's because policy wonks are better at being right than making other people look wrong. Franken, however, is sort of professionally-skilled at making people who believe foolish things look foolish. That's a toolkit that would be pretty useful in this town. Sadly, I worry that instead of Al Franken, political satirist, we're going to get Al Franken, hardworking junior senator from Minnesota. The danger with Al Franken is not, as Amy Klobuchar sneered, that he'll act like a comedian. Rather, the danger with Al Franken is that he won't.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Craig Lassig.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 6, 2009; 11:00 AM ET
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In the House, folks long ago concentrated their ridicule at Barney Franks, and some still do. But then they discovered that he actually knew some heavy stuff on financial services and a bunch of other stuff. Now, as Chair of Financial Services, he's rarely a target by his opponents in the GOPosaur party. He's got power, and he's quite likely to devastate them on the house floor with a combo of knowledge and searing destruction of their positions.

I think it is the combo of wonkery and quick-witted satire/rebuttal that could make Franken a heavy hitter for the Dems. They'll try demonizing him, for sure. But longer term, he will leave some emotional scars on the know-nothings in the party of 'no'.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | July 6, 2009 11:27 AM | Report abuse

I was going to say, "it doesn't work for Barney Frank." He's a brilliant satirist who can make Bill O'Reilly even a bigger buffoon, yet he is hated by the Village. Is it just because he's gay?

Franken will not be a heavy hitter because both sides will be very afraid of him.


Posted by: PoliticalPragmatist | July 6, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

This has got to be embarrassing.

The most unfunny clown on Saturday Night Live is your Senator with no prior experience in any political office whatsoever.

Of course, isn't this the same state that gave you Gov. Jesse, the body, Ventura?

Posted by: ElViajero1 | July 6, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

Agreed. Franken has an advantage in these sparring matches not only in his wit, but also in his ability to handle being made fun of. For a former professional comic, it's just not that big of a deal to have some people think ill of you -- it's a risk you have learned to take.

The worst thing that could POSSIBLY happen to Franken is that he'd lose in 6 years because of some stray remark he makes, but given that Franken had the last 50 years' worth of his ill-considered remarks thrown back in his face, I'd say the people of Minnesota have absorbed that aspect of his personality and aren't likely to hold it against him in 6 years any more than they did back in November.

In short, his ability to deal rhetorical blows far exceeds the harm that could come back to him.

Posted by: tomveiltomveil | July 6, 2009 1:39 PM | Report abuse

"The most unfunny clown on Saturday Night Live"

Hrumph. I can't wait till Stuart Smalley takes the floor to explain healthcare reform.

Posted by: dganchor2002 | July 6, 2009 1:50 PM | Report abuse

I have this fear that Franken might find that he's one of the few who actually cares about details and policy. A commenter earlier criticized Franken for not holding any other elected office, but I think that is the main problem other senators have. Their skill set has more to do with how to be a politician, how to win elections, and how to give out rewards to those that helped you into this position of power. Franken's position of truly wanting to change things for the better is going to quickly realize that the senate gets nothing done and is more about boisterous grand-standing than actual governance.

And, for the commenter that brought up Jesse Ventura (who also beat Norm Coleman, btw), I want to ask, what criticisms do you have against Jesse's tenure? Was he a particularly good or bad governor? (I don't really know).

Posted by: nylund | July 8, 2009 11:10 AM | Report abuse

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