Why Republicans Should Back Franken

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April 17, 2009 7:50 a.m.
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It’s no surprise that Republicans have supported Norm Coleman’s (now all but doomed) effort to be reelected in Minnesota. After all, the Senate’s closely divided and Republicans hate Franken who has been tweaking them for a decade. But at some point, I think, Republicans will give up the fight not only because there will be pressure on them to do so but because they’ll realize that they are better off with Al Franken in the Senate than without.

I also think the fact that Coleman, who no doubt would like to run again someday, will bow to Minnesota’s good-government culture and not stretch this thing out, thereby giving Pawlenty the space to certify Franken. I could be wrong. Maybe they’ll make this a scorched earth policy for months to come, the opposite of Gore’s exit after the legal battle was lost. But I don’t think so. Coleman’s self preservation instincts will combine with the need of GOP’s consultant culture to put Franken in the Senate. Mitch McConnell won’t like it but I think he’ll be stuck with it.I say consultants because they know a gold mine when they see it. For almost 40 years, and one could argue much longer, Republicans have dined out on liberal figures they could demonize and use to rally their base. George McGovern served this purpose long after he was trounced in the 1972 presidential contest. Ted Kennedy was God’s gift to Richard Viguerie and other conservative direct mail honchos. But he’s lost his power to rally the GOP and he’s likely to be eulogized and sainted in the time he has left rather than bashed for socialized medicine and Chappaquiddick. In later years, Jimmy Carter and Hillary Clinton would serve the demon purpose but Carter’s off stage and Hillary is better known as a hawk now than a Children’s Defense Fund liberal (which was always a bit of a parody anyway). And if you go back to McCarthy and Nixon v. Helen Gahagan Douglas the tradition is longer. Franken could be the next foil.

I’m not saying Democrats don’t engage in villainy either. I remember listening to Walter Mondale deliver a speech in his 1984 bid for president in which is lambasted Ronald Reagan for being the first American president since Hoover not to meet with his Russian counterpart and cringing about how lame it was. As it happened, Reagan would meet Gorbachev several times. Democrats used Hoover long after the Depression had stopped being a rallying cry in American politics and it’s invocation in the 80s was a sign of how intellectually moribund the party had become. In general, though, Republicans have had better luck with demonization.

This is why they should back Franken. Attempts to portray a popular president as scary haven’t worked. For awhile, during the 2008 campaign, it looked like they might try to turn Michelle Obama into the new Hillary, but now that she’s become a well liked First Lady and a fashion icon, a role model and one of the few sure cover bets for magazine publishers, that seems like a useless target.

Republicans have used Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi to rally the base but neither has the high public profile or qualities that make for a good villain. Attempts to portray Pelosi as Castro in pearls seem lame. They would have been better off with the Kristen Wiig interpretation of her as wide-eyed and weird. Reid is just too dull to lampoon. Some of the anti-EFCA ads attacked Chuck Schumer who gives the GOP more of what they need as does Barney Frank. Dick Durbin who pops up occasionally seems more dull.

Franken is arechetypical Republican villain. His name has such an infuriating effect on the GOP that he could be just what they need in an age where the villains are lame. Franken, a friend of mine who I like a lot, is, O’Reilly aside, is I think a basically temperate and smart guy despite his role as a provocateur and comedian. He really didn’t give the GOP much to work with in the 2008 campaign; they had to dig up his comedic past to really nail him. But he’s the perfect foil for Republicans and conservatives. If Coleman wins, Republicans will have one more senate vote but they will have lost the kind of Democrat they instinctually love to hate.

At a time when the elected GOP congressional leadership so anodyne that the likes of Michael Steele, Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingrich are mustering all the excitement in the party, they really really need Senator Al Franken.

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