World Focus: Will Franken be the Democrats’ lefty bogeyman?

Author: By David Usborne

The saga ended with the Minnesota Supreme Court declaring him the winner late on Tuesday and Mr Coleman, who could have taken his case to the US Supreme Court, conceding. So by a margin of just 312 votes out of 2.9 million cast, Mr Franken and his outsized spectacles are going to Washington.

His swearing-in early next week will be a signal moment, culturally and politically. For some Americans, he will always be Stuart Smalley, the nutty self-help guru he created for Saturday Night Live in the 1980s. In the late Nineties, he became the most scintillating critic of the conservative right in the land. Most tantalisingly, his arrival will take his party to the filibuster-proof Magic Sixty in the Senate.

But the Senator Franken we are expecting and the one we will actually see are likely to be entirely different people. Likewise, his impact on the political landscape may not be so big, and the Democratic dream not so golden.

Reaching the 60 mark, with the likely help of two independents, is no small thing. Neither party has been in such a position for three decades. In theory, it opens the door for Barack Obama to push through his agenda unimpeded. In practice though, the Democratic senators are not one disciplined monolith. Two of them, moreover, Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd, are so unwell they may not be around to vote when it matters.

“Sixty is a magic number, but it isn’t”, is how Mr Franken himself put it, facing reporters outside his home in Minnesota. But that is just one of several realities he has surely already grasped. The other is that being his old self ? the guy who wrote a book about a certain conservative talk jockey called Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and another one about all conservatives, Lies (and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them) ? would not be wise right now.

The acerbic, tart-tongued Franken would thrill liberals for a little while. And a bit of swift humour in the so-sincere age of Obama would go a long way. But it is Mr Obama precisely who is demanding that his party resist the old partisan impulse. He wants bi-partisan co-operation, not parliamentary point-scoring.

And there is a trap here. Republicans are grasping for a new lefty bogeyman to galvanise their dispirited base. “Al Franken is a very tempting target because he is so outrageous,” said a Republican strategist, Brad Blakeman. “We hope that Al Franken is the gift that keeps on giving.”

Will Franken oblige? “With the kind of background he has ? comedian, entertainer ? it doesn’t bode well,” said a retired University of Minnesota historian, Hy Berman. “But with the intellectual capacity he has, he could become a good senator. We’ll have to wait and see.”

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