Whether Al Franken emerges as a godsend for Democrats or their worst political nightmare may depend on how well the merry prankster can rein in his rapier wit, and maintain the low profile expected of the Senate's most junior member.
Pundits tell Newsmax it won't be easy. Franken is an obvious lightning rod for the right’s righteous wrath, thanks in large measure to the many dubious firsts he brings to the Senate.
Franken is the only senator to joke about helping terrorists assassinate a U.S. president, to openly marvel that his cocaine habit hadn’t led to addiction, and the only salon who angrily drops F-bombs during campaign fundraisers.
He is also the only senator to laud the era of Internet communications as an “exciting time for pornographers.”
Franken's infinitesimal victory margin following a controversial recount has aroused the GOP base, and strategists expect GOP leaders will attempt to make Franken the poster child of the 111th Congress.
“The Republicans will get a celebrity target for fundraising and other purposes,” Dr. Larry J. Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, tells Newsmax.
Sabato adds Franken could do Democrats more harm than good if he doesn’t control his tongue.
“The key here is whether Franken reverts to form and says controversial things once in the Senate, or whether he can discipline himself to assume a low profile,” Sabato says. “If it’s the former, the GOP may do better than having the actual Senate seat, because Franken is so well known and his comments will generate the kind of controversy that usually helps the other party.”
Among the incidents that don't bode well on Franken's resume:
Angry Al – Franken has a penchant for occasionally going ballistic. He won't be the only senator exhibiting that ugly trait, but it raises the question of whether he has the right temperament to serve in the Senate.
Respected Minnesota political veteran Dean Barkley, who founded Minnesota’s Reform Party and served briefly in the U.S. Senate, saw Franken up close and personal during the campaign. Barkley ran as a third-party candidate against Franken and Coleman, and participated in the debates. What he saw made him nervous.
“Franken concerns me a little because he seems so partisan and angry,” Barkley tells Newsmax. “These are two traits that do not play well in the Senate.”
Franken has pounded desks during interviews, loosed profane tirades, and engaged in shouting matches with rivals. Any of those behaviors will be viewed as dreadful breaches of decorum in the U. S. Senate, and could backfire on Democrats.
“Al Franken is a funny man driven by anger,” conservative Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, tells Newsmax. “In politics the angry side comes out more often than the funny side. Voters tire of angry.”
Bye-Bye Bipartisanship – Although Franken says he will emulate Hillary Clinton's low key approach to the Senate, he instantly complicates Obama's aspiration for a less partisan Beltway bureaucracy. Franken's history of partisan broadsides could make it harder to find the consensus Obama seeks.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever had an opponent who is so disliked by Republicans as Al Franken,” Minnesota GOP Party Chairman Ron Carey told Politico.com.
Whether Franken can effectively operate on a stage where decorum reigns supreme is an open question.
Franken’s Annoying Friends – Democrats who chaff at the notion that their party is the darling of Hollywood’s rich and pampered probably hope Franken asks his celeb friends to stay away from Capitol Hill. Franken’s famous supporters during the campaign included Rosie O’Donnell, talk host Bill Maher, Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, George Clooney, Ed Norton, the late liberal patriarch Paul Newman, producer Larry David, and cartoonist Garry Trudeau -- not to mention billionaire George Soros. It's not exactly a crowd in step with mainstream America.
In fact, Michael Brodkorb of MinnesotaDemocratsExposed.com told Fox News host Bill O’Reilly several months ago that so much of Franken’s campaign money came from Hollywood it raised the question “whether California will be gaining a third Senate seat.”
Franken may have to downplay his glitzy friendships to be accepted by Senate colleagues, but he’ll also have valuable connections to offer Democrats who need help winning elections.
Franken’s Mouthy Satire – In June, Franken’s campaign suffered a near-fatal blow when an article he wrote for Playboy Magazine titled “Porn-O-Rama!” surfaced. In it, Franken stated that Internet pornography had been a “terrific learning tool” for his 12-year-old son.
For perhaps the first time in his life, Franken in the Senate will be expected to set an example, rather than just mock the examples set by others. As perhaps the Senate’s most famous face, virtually everything he does and says will be echoed in the mainstream media.
His Serious Hypocrisy – People watch senators very carefully to see if they practice what they preach. “Do As I Say (Not As I Do)” author Peter Schweizer revealed that of the 112 staffers Franken had hired over the years, only one was African-American. Franken was so annoyed by that revelation that he threatened to sue. Now Franken will be under near-constant scrutiny, and if he chaffs at it his famous temper may erupt.
Frankly Bizarre Behavior – The Democrat reportedly used cocaine during his “Saturday Night Live” Days, and once spoke of being “in a manic high.” In 2004, he was caught joking on camera that he should have signaled "al-Qaida friends of mine" on how to assassinate President Bush. At the 2003 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he shouted to Assistant Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz: “Clinton’s military did pretty well in Iraq, huh?” Also, Franken once appeared on the “Today” program with Matt Lauer to discuss his fantasy of assassinating Saddam Hussein, and impregnating actress Anne Heche with a cloned embryo of himself. In Congress, Franken will have to learn that while entertainers can dismiss off-color remarks as satire, U.S. senators cannot.
His Vitriol Runneth Over – To conform to Senate decorum, Franken will have to overcome his penchant for getting personal. Senators avoid the acrimonious personal attacks that Franken appears to relish.
For example, Franken said of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who was an aide to Attorney General Ed Meese during the Reagan era: “Being a racist and a sexist was a good calling card for the Reagan administration.”
That crack led to demands that Franken apologize to Alito and former first lady Nancy Reagan. Also, Franken once called presidential adviser Karl Rove “human filth” and former Bush administration spokesman Ari Fleischer a “chimp.”
Such a penchant for bitter personal attacks will be no laughing matter for Democrats, should Franken join the Senate.
Some pundits predict Franken will manage the Beltway fishbowl by becoming Mister Serious, and avoiding humor and sarcasm altogether.
Whether Franken can successfully tone himself down, however, remains to be seen.
“Al Franken is a clown and a buffoon, but he’ll quickly become old news as the junior senator from the Gopher State,” predicts Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University communications professor who has served as a campaign consultant for many prominent Democrats.
The one consistent thing about Franken is his unpredictability.
“If he reverts to the obnoxious character Al Franken, circa ‘Saturday Night Live,’ and ruffles the feathers of the leadership of the Senate,” warns Berkovitz, “he will quickly become the poster boy for the Democrats run amuck and will be hammered by his colleagues, the Republicans, and most of the main-stream media.”
Or as Sabato puts it, “We’ll all find out together whether he can stop being so acerbic and grow into the office. No doubt, Democrats hope that will be the case.”
So if Franken behaves badly in the Senate, Senate Democrats may discover that the last laugh is on them.
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