Congratulations, Al Franken

[ Posted Tuesday, June 30th, 2009 – 16:35 UTC ]

The 2008 election is finally over. Former Minnesota senator and incumbent Norm Coleman has officially conceded the race to Senator-Elect Al Franken, after the Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously decreed that Franken was the winner. Two hundred and thirty-nine days after the election was held, it should be noted.

For his tenacity and patience, and for his 314-vote victory, we must congratulate Franken. Though the entire process was long and frustrating, the people of Minnesota saw the recount and state court case as a fair and legitimate process, which is important in disputed elections (as we're all aware). But, as far as state law is concerned, the Minnesota Supreme Court had the final say. If Coleman had pushed on to file a federal lawsuit in an attempt to put the issue before the United States Supreme Court, he risked the wrath of the state's voters for continuing to deny them a second seat in the Senate, with very little chance of success for Coleman holding onto his seat.

Coleman, thankfully, did not choose this route. Instead of prolonging the legal wrangling, he conceded. Perhaps he realized that if he had taken it to the federal courts, he would have destroyed his chances of ever holding elective office in the state again. Perhaps the national Republicans were tired of throwing money after a losing cause, when they're going to need it for next year's midterm elections. But whatever his reasons, Coleman must be applauded at this juncture for knowing when to throw in the towel.

By doing so, Coleman also spared his fellow Republican, Governor Tim Pawlenty, the rock-and-a-hard-place choice between certifying the Supreme Court's decision, by signing the official election certificate, or refusing to sign until the federal courts had weighed in on the issue. Pawlenty would have exposed himself to political risk either way, because the people of Minnesota would likely have condemned him for not signing the certificate (meaning the same thing for Pawlenty as it would have for Coleman, namely making himself unelectable for Minnesota office with the voters ever again); but if Pawlenty had signed it, it could have doomed his chances for a presidential run (Republican primary voters definitely would have remembered who gave them Senator Franken, and voted accordingly).

But Coleman took the pragmatic route, and has announced his support for Franken in a press conference:

The Supreme Court of Minnesota has spoken -- I accept its decision and I will abide by its results.

. . .

It's time for Minnesotans to come together under the leaders it has chosen and move forward. And I join all Minnesotans in congratulating our newest United States senator, Al Franken.

. . .

I have never believed that my service is irreplaceable. We have reached the point where further litigation damages the unity of our state, which is also fundamental. In these tough times we all need to focus on the future, and the future today is that we have a new United States senator.

But what does seating Al Franken in the Senate mean for Democrats and for President Obama's agenda? On paper, it certainly looks good, and some are already celebrating a "supermajority" or "filibuster-proof majority" in the Senate. But this may not be as easy as it looks.

Seating Franken will change the balance of the Senate to: 58 Democrats, 40 Republicans, and two independent senators who regularly vote with Democrats. Since 60 votes is what is required to achieve cloture (voting down a filibuster, in other words), it would seem this paves the way for smooth sailing for Democratic initiatives.

But when you take out a magnifying glass and look at those 60 votes, this becomes less certain. Because those 60 include Joe Lieberman, Arlen Specter, and all the "moderate" Democrats elected from purple-to-red states who are collectively known as "Blue Dog Democrats." Who have already shown how powerful their bloc can be both in the stimulus debate and on the healthcare reform debate.

Perhaps we need some new dog packs in the Senate. Say a "green dog" Democratic group who held the line on liberal issues? I'm just saying....

The whole "dog" moniker (as applied to Democrats) came from the Deep South and Appalachia, where voters -- for almost 100 years after the Civil War was fought -- would vote for a "yaller dog" as a Democrat over voting for any Republican (Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, to refresh your memory, who led the "War of Northern Aggression"... and memories are long in the South). These Yellow Dogs are all but extinct nowadays, due to the South moving Republican after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act (guaranteeing black people the right to vote, among other things). And now, for reasons unknown, centrist Democrats who break with the party on various issues (gun laws, economics, and others) have painted themselves as "blue" dogs.

They're a potent force, because they hang together so effectively. While there are similar caucuses for more liberal Democrats (Progressives, Populists), they mostly exist in the House and not the Senate, and they have trouble keeping their membership in line when it comes down to actually voting as a bloc.

With Democrats needing every single vote in order to defeat filibusters, this sadly means that every single Democratic senator is going to be the most important senator on every vote. This was more apparent when the Democrats held the Senate 51-49 (with Dick Cheney lurking in the background, ready to break 50-50 ties for the Republicans). If a single Democrat bolted, then they couldn't get anything done. This led (as it always does) to single senators demanding pet projects be voted on before they'd get on board. Which may happen in the near future, as well.

If you're a Democratic senator from the backbenches, and nobody in the national media knows your name, there will be a temptation to jump into the spotlight on key votes that may prove to be too overwhelming to resist: "I will vote on cloture for the healthcare reform bill only when the funding for my state's (insert pet project here) is restored!" Anyone who discounts such a scenario just hasn't been paying attention to these types of games in Washington, that's all I can say.

So, while we do indeed celebrate Senator-Elect Franken's official victory (as we will celebrate when he gets formally seated next week and we all can finally begin calling him "Senator Franken"), a note of caution seems appropriate. Because that magic number of 60 votes is going to be a lot harder to achieve than it would seem at first glance.

Of course, I could be (and sincerely hope I am) wrong about that. Perhaps Democrats will stay largely united, at least on the big issues that come before the Senate. Losing a minor vote or two here or there won't be that big a tragedy, but on the large, policy-making bills it will be very frustrating if a lone Democrat decides to join the Republicans in their obstructionism.

But at least when Democrats do decide to speak with one voice in the Senate, they will have the votes to move their legislation forward and ignore the minority party. And for giving us even this possibility, we heartily congratulate Al Franken on his long-awaited and long-anticipated victory.


-- Chris Weigant


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