How Al Franken Changed America

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Sept. 6 2010 11:07 AM

How Al Franken Changed America

This holiday listicle in Politico does a decent enough job of keeping up web traffic while people grill and relax, but I think it undersells one factor that affected the 2010 elections and ignores the most important factor.

First, the undersell. Alex Burns writes that Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts inspired other Republicans to run and "ensured that Republicans would have a stronger influence over the substance of the 2010 campaign." I'm not sure how powerful an electoral factor Brown really was, all by himself -- remember, that wave of Democratic retirements that was supposed to follow his win didn't really materialize. (Democrats had fewer retirements this year than in 1994.) The more important factors were the unpopularity of health care reform and the high unemployment rate. Had Brown won, but health care actually been as popular as Democrats thought it would be -- ceasing to be controversial, starting to get majority support, as Obama's popularity rebounded -- I don't know how many GOP candidates would have jumped in. Wisconsin's Ron Johnson, for example, has said he got into his race because of health care, and I definitely buy that.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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But not only did Brown he deny the Democrats power to pass bills, he denied them time. He won on January 19, and health care reform didn't pass the House until March 21. That was because of the freak-out his win inspired, a panic that temporarily convinced some powerful liberals that it wasn't worth taking one last vote to pass the bill that would be hung around their necks in November anyway. (For an example of how that works -- taking damage over a bill that won't even go into effect -- look at cap-and-trade.) That was two months Democrats could have spent much more fruitfully. Also, from my own experience in Massachusetts, I believe Brown would have narrowly lost to a different candidate like Rep. Michael Capuano or former congressman Joe Kennedy. Coakley's laziness and gaffes made her a laughingstock just at the time Brown was peaking, and he couldn't have run the same campaign against a busier candidate or a Kennedy. (Telling Joe that this was "not the Kennedy seat" may well have backfired.)

Next, the forgotten factor, which I'll write in listicle-ese like this:

What if Al Franken had been seated in January 2009?

If Franken had eked out another 1000 votes in Minnesota, or if Republicans simply decided not to keep suing to overturn the recount he won, the Democratic agenda would have been radically different. In January and February, the 59 -- not 58 -- Democrats in the Senate would have only needed to grab one Republican to pass the stimulus. That probably would have resulted in a larger stimulus bill, with extra billions of dollars (maybe $110 billion ) going to tax cuts or spending. Democrats would have had the votes for card check, and gotten that out of the way quickly, while Ted Kennedy was still healthy. Just having that extra vote to play with when Obama's popularity was peaking might have shaken up the whole schedule, gotten nominees like Dawn Johnson into their jobs, and led to more action in the Senate that pleased the Democratic base and -- possibly -- had a marginal impact on the economy. As it was, Democrats only had a functioning "supermajority" from September 2009 (Franken in the Senate, Paul Kirk in Ted Kennedy's seat) to January 2010, and all they did with it was pass health care.

Here's something amazing about the Franken mess: Republicans appear to have paid no price for it.* The Republican who lost, Norm Coleman, is a respected think tank chairman who's seen as a credible candidate for RNC Chairman in 2011 or for U.S. Senate again in 2014. From time to time a conservative group releases some fishy data about how Franken won with "fraud" (on this, I trust the Minnesota courts and election boards that he didn't), and the claim gets aired out on Fox News and endorsed by prominent Republicans. History's written by the winners, unless those winners 1) join unpopular Senate majorities and 2) are Democrats.

*Why are Republicans better at making scandals out of other process fights than Democrats were at making a scandal out of the Franken seating? I'm referring to how they intimated, even before the election, that the Democrats would refuse to seat Scott Brown, and how they're currently churning up fears of a lame duck session. Two things spring to mind. First, Republicans are better at messaging things like this. "But the Democrats have the White House!" you say? Sure, but the president doesn't want to spend his capital on process fights, while Fox News and a bunch of busy back-benchers will happily do so. Second, I think a big factor was Al Franken himself. If Democrats needed Generic Lawyer Who Barely Won to take his seat, that would have been one thing. But the optics of going to the mat for Stuart Smalley sucked.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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