Saturday, July 4, 2009

Independence Day II: Minnesota, Congress and limbo’s end

Minnesota, your long congressional nightmare is over. On Tuesday, finally throwing in a towel that’s been gathering dust on the turnbuckle for months, Norm Coleman, once the Republican senator from the Gopher State, officially ended an increasingly quixotic pursuit of re-election, conceding defeat in last November’s election, at the hands of Democratic challenger Al Franken — a win by no more or less than 312 votes out of about 3.9 million votes cast.

Coleman’s last-nanosecond appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court was rejected; the candidate, knowing that the state Supreme Court made its announcement the same day the U.S. Supreme Court was ending its current term, finally saw the handwriting that's been writ large on the wall since January.

The Franken victory, of course, not only liberates the good people of Minnesota from effectively having no voice in the United States Senate. In raw numbers, at least, Franken (who could take the oath of office next week) becomes the 60th Democrat of the 111th Congress, assuming a straight party-line vote. Within that august body, the Democrats have now attained the magical, if not magic, number required to advance legislation and overcoming any proposed Republican filibusters.

Some in the conservative wing of the punditburo had sour grapes in extremis. The op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal Online was not feeling especially magnanimous on Thursday. At all: “Mr. Franken now goes to the Senate having effectively stolen an election. If the GOP hopes to avoid repeats, it should learn from Minnesota that modern elections don't end when voters cast their ballots. They only end after the lawyers count them.”

Over at News Corporation tentacle Fox News, Glenn Beck was similarly uncharitable. “[I]t shows how crazy our country has gone" … “[I]t shows that we've lost our minds.” No, Glenn, only you can do that.

Beck kept jabbering. “It is — we have entered a place, I mean, with Al Franken coming into office, we've entered a place to where there isn't statesmanship anymore.”

Wrong again, Glenn m’lad. We entered that place about eight years earlier, and we stayed in that place until last November. When the country decided it had had enough. When the people of Minnesota decided they’d had enough — by a margin no bigger than the number of people attending a healthy town hall.

And Fox News’ Sean Hannity, asserting that Franken is “not all there,” later dug his heels in the sandy soil of denial. “I, in my heart of hearts, do not believe that Al Franken won that election.”

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But it’s a good bet that the citizens of Minnesota, in the hearts of their hearts, don’t much care what Sean Hannity believes. Not anymore. This has gone on for seven months, a length of time in which a state of 5.2 million people tried to conduct its social and legislative and economic business hampered by a phantom congressional identity.

Sometimes political victory happens by the skin of the skin of the teeth. But a landslide doesn’t have to bury your car to be a landslide. Dirt six inches above the tailpipe is quite enough to achieve the same thing as dirt at the roofline. John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election by 0.1%, a popular-vote margin said to be the closest of any election in the 20th century, anywhere. 312 votes will do just fine, if they're the right 312 votes.

What awaits the former “Saturday Night Live” writer and actor in Washington will be a landslide of bills and wrangling and debates. Franken will be very much in the crosshairs of the opposition, representing as he does the Democratic breakthrough in the Senate. He can expect to be courted, and targeted, on all sides, at least in the short term.

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And it’s fair to say that — as he's been all along — Franken will be a man of principle in the Senate. With Franken, we can count on a senator who’ll no doubt be more fearless than most of his colleagues about voting his convictions, having held fast to those convictions during one of the most bitterly contested senate races in generations, and maybe ever.

Like the recently-reinvented Arlen Specter, who crossed party lines from GOP to Democrat in April, Franken shouldn’t be seen as a forgone-conclusion vote for the Democrats.

As Senator-elect Franken prepares to take office, casting votes on his state’s behalf, he’ll probably thank more than his lucky stars for where he is. He should quietly thank himself for performing that one extra campaign event, going to that one extra rally ... shaking those 312 extra hands. Just enough to win with.
Image credits: Franken at victory speech: Still from C-SPAN broadcast. Great Seal of Minnesota: State of Minnesota.

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