For Once, the Joke Is on Al Franken

Salena Zito
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Posted: Dec 13, 2017 12:01 AM
For Once, the Joke Is on Al Franken

There is a strong argument to be made that Sen. Al Franken's central reason for resigning is he knew he would be reduced to being shunned by his peers and the press if he were to continue representing Minnesota in the congressional upper chamber. In short, he would have become a joke, an afterthought, a pariah, a no one.

For the egocentric Minnesotan who was courted by everyone in the Democratic Party to headline their fundraisers -- both for their re-elections as well as their state party's coffers -- and fawned over for his Hollywood pedigree and admired by progressives for his notorious grilling of Republican Trump Cabinet appointees, the mere thought of being reduced to zero status in American politics was a bridge too far.

In truth, it likely repulsed him. He is a man used to being center stage, needed, wanted, catered to, fawned over and courted.

If you have any doubt to the validity of this argument, consider his speech on the floor of the Senate last Thursday during which he announced he was resigning. He never once admitted doing anything wrong. He also never said he was sorry.

Franken said: "I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office, and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party."

This is not the mark of a leader, but candidly, was Franken ever elected to be a leader? He was a celebrity, a bulldog, a bully who was ironically heralded by feminists as a hero for women. But the truth is he never was a hero for women; that was just code for being staunchly pro-choice. And for many feminists, being staunchly pro-choice can cause them to overlook character flaws.

It is interesting how people have forgotten his first campaign for Senate in 2008. Voters knew he was coarse, vulgar and unapologetic for bad behavior and elected him anyway, narrowly in that election but overwhelmingly in 2014.

It's just like voters in Alabama know that senatorial candidate Roy Moore has his own set of disturbing issues but are considering electing him anyway. But it is important to look at Franken outside of Moore because these are two separate and different issues. Franken resigned because no one had his back anymore, and without that he would have become the David Vitter of the Democrat Party: the guy who did distasteful things no one wanted to be associated with again.

I often say we get the elections we deserve. We also get the candidates we deserve.

Minnesotans knew who they elected to the Senate: a former Hollywood writer and actor, former provocative talk-show host and satirist. His prominence in the Senate was pretty reflective of his previous life. There was a lot of noise, but according to research done by the Twin Cities Pioneer Press in 2014, his home state newspaper, his legislative career was weak. Of Franken's 141 pieces of legislation (85 bills, 47 amendments, and nine resolutions), none became law.

Americans don't just want members of Congress to be decent people; they want them to actually do things that benefit them, their communities and the country. They also don't want someone who solely uses their elected office as a springboard to more power.

When we decided 40 years ago -- at the beginning of the "me" generation -- to drop societal norms and boundaries, we gave people the OK to behave badly, especially men. It was cool to be naughty, and uncool to be respectful and gentlemanly.

It appears that storm is fading fast in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal in both our culture and our politics. Politicians and aspiring politicians who had the wink, wink, nod, nod OK to do this while polite society looked the other way don't get any more winks or nods.

Maybe the best test of all for our country would have been Franken not resigning and instead facing the people who put him in office in the first place. In that moment we would know whether voters would bargain their values away in favor tribal of politics or, perhaps, see their way through to vote what was best for their lives, their communities and their country -- I suspect that as candidates line up to run in 2018, there will be some opportunities to test this.

Politics is always about the best calculation for your team. Voting is sometimes about what type of bargain you make when you pull the lever. Democrats calculated they'd gain more than they'd lose with Franken gone. A Democrat would replace him, at least initially, with Minnesota's Democratic governor putting a new Democrat in Franken's seat and the stain of the accusations ceding with him gone.

It leaves Democrats free to say they are the Party of moral authority but also leaves them with the image of a defiant, unapologetic man poking them in the eye as he walks out the door. It will be interesting to see what the long-term impact of that might be.