AGAINST THE GRAIN

How Al Franken Paved the Way for Donald Trump

If Obama didn’t have a Senate supermajority for his ambitious agenda when he was first elected, Washington would look a lot different than it does today.

Joe Biden administers the Senate oath to Al Franken in 2015.
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
March 8, 2016, noon

Look­ing for a cul­prit to blame for all the po­lar­iz­a­tion, grid­lock, and bad feel­ings in Wash­ing­ton? Point to Sen. Al Franken. No, that’s not a joke.

It’s noth­ing per­son­al against Franken. Ima­gine for a mo­ment if Franken had lost the Min­nesota Sen­ate race in 2008 by sev­er­al hun­dred votes in­stead of win­ning by a razor-thin mar­gin that promp­ted months of re­counts. Ima­gine that Sen­ate Demo­crats had only 59 votes in Decem­ber 2009 and needed to cor­ral at least one Re­pub­lic­an vote to pass Obama­care. But Pres­id­ent Obama didn’t face any real res­ist­ance in Con­gress to start his pres­id­ency, and that turned out to be a polit­ic­al curse be­cause he nev­er needed to work with the op­pos­i­tion bey­ond win­dow-dress­ing. That set the stage for the po­lar­iz­a­tion to come.

Without a Demo­crat­ic su­per­ma­jor­ity, Obama would have been forced to ne­go­ti­ate with Re­pub­lic­ans (or, at least, former Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine) and settle for the in­cre­ment­al health care le­gis­la­tion that his then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel re­com­men­ded. The GOP would still have been op­posed to any Demo­crat­ic health care re­forms, but the an­ti­pathy would have been muted be­cause a few Re­pub­lic­ans would have sup­por­ted the le­gis­la­tion. In­stead of pro­vok­ing a pitched par­tis­an show­down that cul­min­ated with then-House Minor­ity Lead­er John Boehner ex­claim­ing that the Con­gress had “shat­ter[ed] the bonds of trust” with the Amer­ic­an people, Obama could have tempered the wrath of the Re­pub­lic­an op­pos­i­tion.

“In a demo­cracy, you can only ig­nore the will of the people for so long and get away with it,” Boehner pres­ci­ently ar­gued be­fore the House’s fate­ful Obama­care vote. “If we defy the will of our fel­low cit­izens and pass this bill, we are go­ing to be held to ac­count by those who have placed us in their trust.”

Ima­gine, for a mo­ment, the state of the 2010 midterms without Obama­care in the equa­tion. Re­pub­lic­ans would have run against the stag­nant state of the eco­nomy with some suc­cess. But without the gal­van­iz­ing op­pos­i­tion to Obama’s health care law—Re­pub­lic­ans net­ted a whop­ping 63 House seats that year—Demo­crats would likely have nar­rowly kept con­trol of Con­gress, and con­tin­ued to press for­ward with Obama’s agenda. There would be tea-party-aligned Re­pub­lic­ans elec­ted, but ab­sent the wave, not enough to form the con­cer­ted op­pos­i­tion that emerged. Vet­er­an Blue Dog Demo­crats like Reps. Ike Skelton, Gene Taylor, and Chet Ed­wards (among oth­ers) would likely have been reelec­ted, and be­come bridge-build­ers between parties.

The no­tion of mod­er­ate prag­mat­ism pre­vail­ing might sound like fantasy to read­ers who have watched the polit­ic­al cage-fight­ing over the last sev­en years. But even in our po­lar­ized times, polit­ics is still primar­ily about self-in­terest.

Obama ac­ted against his polit­ic­al self-in­terest in push­ing Obama­care through Con­gress, but giv­en the di­vided gov­ern­ment that en­sued, it then made some sense for him to play to his base in his reelec­tion cam­paign and stick to his lib­er­al prin­ciples after win­ning. At the same time, Re­pub­lic­ans would have been com­mit­ting polit­ic­al mal­prac­tice if they ig­nored the tea-party tsunami that en­vel­oped the coun­try in 2010. With in­tensi­fy­ing en­ergy on the Right, the biggest polit­ic­al threat to mem­bers emerged from with­in their own party, and they ad­ap­ted ac­cord­ingly.

The ques­tion then be­comes: Who star­ted the fire? Obama cer­tainly de­serves some of the blame, and he even ad­mit­ted re­cently that one of his biggest re­grets as pres­id­ent was the po­lar­iz­a­tion that he’s leav­ing be­hind. The prob­lem is that he hasn’t con­nec­ted his early ac­tions with what tran­spired.

The no­tion that Obama was fated to face an in­transigent Re­pub­lic­an op­pos­i­tion has al­ways been off-base. He won a his­tor­ic­ally-high 53 per­cent of the vote in 2008, bring­ing Demo­crats con­gres­sion­al seats that they hadn’t won in dec­ades, in­clud­ing ones in rur­al Alabama and Louisi­ana. He even won 40 per­cent of non-col­lege-edu­cated whites—a re­mark­able tally giv­en how des­pised he is among this con­stitu­ency today. Demo­crats had all the polit­ic­al tools they needed to press Obama’s wide­spread per­son­al pop­ular­ity in­to an agenda that could pick off enough mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans to suc­ceed. (Just con­sider an al­tern­ate real­ity in which le­gis­la­tion ad­dress­ing in­come in­equal­ity, job-skills train­ing, and the costs and qual­ity of col­lege edu­ca­tion were the center­pieces of an Obama agenda after the re­ces­sion.)

But it’s also un­der­stand­able that Obama, eager to be seen as a his­tor­ic­ally-con­sequen­tial pres­id­ent, would want to spend all of his polit­ic­al cap­it­al early on the Demo­crat­ic dream of ex­pand­ing pub­lic ac­cess to health care—polit­ic­al back­lash be damned.

That’s where Al Franken comes in. If it wer­en’t for 312 voters in Min­nesota, Obama’s am­bi­tions would at least have been cur­tailed by le­gis­lat­ive real­it­ies, and the tra­ject­ory of his pres­id­ency would have looked much dif­fer­ent. Franken, the first in­sult com­ic to get elec­ted to the Sen­ate, cir­cuit­ously paved the way for the rise of a much dif­fer­ent type of en­ter­tain­er—Don­ald J. Trump.

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