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.