Senator Al Franken and the Significance of 60

Column No. 227

So Al Franken is Senator Al Franken. The GOP hates him (politically) because he is a reasonable liberal and even moreso because he is, as all readers of TPJmagazine know, Democratic Senator no. 60. 

Funnily enough, Al is no progressive, as a number of left-wing analysts are letting us know loud and clear, but the GOP hates him anyway. The Republican Scream Machine hates him (viscerally) because he would not have been in the Senate were it not for the success of his books “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot” and “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right,” which exposed that very same RSM for what they are. The personal attacks have been vitriolic and likely to get even moreso (that is if there are different levels of vitriol). They focus on Sen. Franken’s earlier career as a comedian and comic writer. 

Dipping to the level of the Republican Scream Machine, one really classy GOP Senator (it was either Kyl or Coburn, the latter of whom, by-the-by, seems to be caught up in the Ensign scandal, both far-Rightists in any case) called him a “clown” on the floor of the Senate. Not quite at the level of Cheney saying “f__k you” to Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont on the Senate floor a few years ago, but close.  When screaming about Franken, not one of these clowns includes any information of the facts that, for example, he a Harvard College Graduate (with honors) and that before he decided to run for the Senate he was a thoughtful liberal analyst on the first (and best) iteration of Air America Radio. But a Senator with a sense of humor, especially about politics and politicians, so many of whom take themselves so seriously, who can also actually think? How awful. So they just do riffs, not funny ones either, on the fact that he was also a professional comedian.

But let’s pause for a moment to look at entertainers in politics. Republicans do come to mind, mind you. First of course is the hero of the current generation of Republican “leadership,” Ronald Reagan. Graduating from being a sportscaster (Rush Limbaugh anyone?) he became a decent B movie actor. He was left-wing enough in his younger days to have been the President of the Screen Actors Guild. But he was a very happy cooperator (1947) with the House Un-American Activities Committee when its Hollywood Witch Hunt was beginning. In the 1950s he became a cigarette pitchman (a time when the tobacco industry, internal memos much later showed, already knew that cigarettes were deadly. There is no evidence that they shared this knowledge with Ronnie. But there is no evidence that they did not, either.) In the 1950s and 60s he was the principal public spokesman for General Electric, at a time when its labor relations were handled by one by Lemuel Boulware. “Boulwarism” was the name given to the man’s very vicious and very successful union-crushing strategy and tactics. 

And so with this as his background this former actor, former labor leader, former squealer, former pitchman for personal poisons, became first governor and then President. Experience in running anything? Well, no. Experience as a legislator? Well know. Any higher education in history or political science? Well, no. And then there was George Murphy, previously best-known as a tap dancer (not in a class with Jimmy Cagney, but a pretty good one), who became a one-term GOP Senator from California in 1964. And then of course there is Ahnold, who shows us that you can take steroids and still live a seemingly normal life.  But in government or its study any experience? Well, no. But the GOP now complains about Al Franken, Harvard grad., political analyst and author, and yes, comedian and comic writer.

But even worse for the GOP than who he is, is the fact that Sen. Franken is the 60th Democratic member of the Democratic Caucus (which includes the two independents, from the left, Sen. Sanders and from the right, Sen. Lieberman). Now according to the GOP minority leader, Mitch McConnell, this means that the “Democrat” Party will be able “to ride roughshod” and “get what they want.” Actually that is not at all the case. The majority party in the Senate has never needed 60 votes to pass legislation or confirm Presidential nominations for positions in the Administration, something many people seem not to understand. They simply need 60 votes to make sure that the item in question gets to the floor of the Senate for a vote. That is, the “cloture rule” is invoked, cutting off debate after a specific time and allowing the item to come to a vote. One would assume that Sen. McConnell does understand, but if he does, he ain’t tellin’. To do so would not serve his party politically, and for the GOP that’s often what it’s all about. 

What 60 votes means, then, is that democracy might actually become the rule of the day in the Senate. For when proposed legislation or votes on Presidential nominees are brought to the Senate floor for a vote, democracy can now rule. Just because a Democratic Senator votes for cloture does not mean that he/she would necessarily vote for the legislation or the nomination. But since the Democrats hold the Vice-Presidency and the Vice-President gets to vote in case of a tie, they can actually pass legislation with 50 votes, plus the big One.

Where democracy has not been in effect in the Senate is first in the “when proposed legislation is brought to the Senate floor for a vote” part. The power that McConnell has possibly lost is precisely that he has been able to prevent the democratic process from taking place in the Senate. “Filibusters” don’t defeat proposed legislation or nominations; they do prevent proposed legislation or nominations from being voted upon. If the Democratic caucus can stick together and if its two very sick members, Sens. Byrd and Kennedy, can get to the floor if needed, democracy will be able to rule in the Senate for the first time since President Obama was elected. 

“Sticking together” could be a big “if,” of course. There is the small posse of right-wing Democratic senators. Only one of them has to vote against bringing proposed legislation or a nomination to the floor for a vote and the item doesn’t get there.   But if the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gets some cojones, cloture might actually happen. And Senator Reid, not previously known for his militancy as a Democrat, may actually be growing a pair of the aforementioned appendages.  He has issued some fairly strong, actually anti-Republican statements of late, dontchaknow.

If Sen. Reid does get tough with his caucus, democracy can thus be brought to the Senate. Democrats always allowed it when they were in the minority but could have filibustered endless times had they had collectively what Sen. Reid seems to be possibly developing individually. But that of course means nothing to the GOP. It’s not that they “hope Obama fails,” a la Limbaugh. It’s that they are doing everything within their power to make sure that that happens. Part of that process is preventing proposed legislation from coming to the floor. Possibly more important in the still early days of the Obama Administration is that they have used the filibuster to tie up the confirmation process in knots. For example, the nomination of Dawn Johnsen, an outspoken opponent of the Cheneyite “Unitary Executive” (read “dictator”) theory of US government, has yet to be confirmed to be head of the Dept. of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel. Only when that position is filled can there be a real investigation of the depths to which the office was taken under Cheney/Bush/Gonzales/Mukasey/Yoo/Bybee. And that is a definite “we don’t want that” for Republicans.

So this is why the election of Senator Franken is so significant. Not because “the Democrats can ride roughshod,” but because so many matters for which the Senate GOP has prevented democracy from working, can now be subject to ---- the democratic process.