Jack the Giant Killer? Part 2

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After my previous blog about how Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer has the worst chances of winning the DFL endorsement for Senate but, paradoxically, the best chance of beating Norm Coleman next fall, I heard from a number of DFL activists, including some prominent lawmakers, who confessed that they indeed suffer the “heart-head” dichotomy I described: their hearts belong to Nelson-Pallmeyer, but their heads say they have to support Al Franken because he’s “electable.” We want to believe you’re correct, I was told, but want reassurances that Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer isn’t someone like, say, Becky Lourey – beloved by the progressive wing of the party, but unable to get any traction in her runs for the governor’s office.

There’s a two-part response to such questions. First, Nelson-Pallmeyer, in my opinion anyway, has the gravitas to win a big ticket statewide election. Second, Franken is not electable. In fact, he’s eminently unelectable for reasons I will discuss below.

Let’s take up the first half of the response.

While there are politicians perfectly capable of winning a local, district-wide or even low-profile state race, that does not mean they have the ineffable qualities it takes to move up to a higher office. At heart, setting aside all his other flaws, this is what undid Mike Hatch.

My sense is that Nelson-Pallmeyer does have the public presence to pull it off, more so than Mike Ciresi, who’s amiable but lacks charisma. Nelson-Pallmeyer is able to speak with passion, conviction, clarity, and force about things people are desperate to hear. Matched against an obvious dissembler like Norm Coleman, those qualities will shine even brighter by comparison. Even more important, though Nelson-Pallmeyer is not another Paul Wellstone (but then, who is?), he is the top-tier DFL candidate in the best position – by virtue of his convictions and his experience – to stand on the shoulders of that particular five-foot-seven-inch-tall giant and revive this state’s tradition of progressive leadership.

Here’s the second part of the response. Folks who think Franken’s the one because he’s the most “electable” need to look again. Franken’s a bright enough guy, but not nearly as smart as he thinks he is — a real liability for a politician. He may be great with the one-liners and the deadpan irony, but, having listened to his radio program off and on for two years, I’m here to tell you he hasn’t an original political idea in his head. On policy matters, he cribs everything from the DNC playbook – just like Amy Klobuchar, the timid, domestic- spy-program-supporting, Iraq-war-fund-backer, MoveOn.org-bashing junior Senator from Minnesota.

But that’s not Franken’s only problem. A community college student I know got an assignment to interview Franken for his school paper. This student is bright, well-informed – and a self-styled liberal Democrat. He was thrilled to be getting a chance to meet the comic-turned-politician, which only deepened his eventual disappointment. “He’s an idiot” was his reaction to Al Franken in person. “He’s the kind of guy that’ll say whatever he thinks you want to hear but will do whatever he wants if he’s elected.”

I’m not sure on that point – though I know Franken’s underwhelmed party activists I’ve spoken to who came in with expectations similar to my student friend and come away equally disenchanted.

But that’s not Franken’s only problem. In public appearances, he has the unfortunate tendency to shoot from the hip, rhetorically, uttering things that anybody with a lick of sense – or lacking his overweening arrogance – would know not to say. If he’s endorsed, I guarantee those slip-up will continue to occur — and his campaign will eat up tons of time and money trying to rectify and explain away what he just said.

Which ties into one other point that the Franken backers have to reckon with: Coleman can’t run on his record, so what is he going to have to do no matter whom he faces? Smear his opponent. That’s going to be lots easier if he faces Franken than if he faces Nelson-Pallmeyer. You just know that every flip remark Franken’s ever made, every scandal that’s ever consumed any member of the cast of Saturday Night Live, is going to be dredged up and shoved in our faces ad nauseum. The one thing we know about negative campaigns is that they suppress voter turnout. One of the other things we know for sure is that lower turnout helps the Republicans, not the Democrats.

Let me give you an example of the kind of bad karma that will come back to haunt Franken.

Back in the late 70s or early 80s, Franken made an appearance with his old sidekick, Tom Davis, at the Brave New Workshop. My late brother Mike was in town and, for some reason, we decided to take in the show, which turned out to be pretty bad overall.

But there came a moment that transcended the general mediocrity of the evening and raised it to a pitch of outright ugliness that almost got my brother, a volatile sort, up out of his seat to storm the stage. Franken and Davis sang what I’m sure they thought was a very witty version of Bob Marley’s “I shot the sheriff” only with new words they made up for it. Instead of “I shot the sheriff,” they substituted oh-so-clever verses like “I shot John Kennedy” and “I shot Martin Luther King” and “I shot Bobby Kennedy.”

It was meant to be shock-humor, but you know that if that performance had been taped and Coleman got his grubby hands on it, he’d air it again and again and again next fall and it would sink Franken faster than a donut in a coffee shop. Now, I doubt there was a tape made of that performance, but the point is there are plenty of tapes of similarly offensive performances; add Franken’s intellectual mediocrity and his flip mouth and he’s far more likely to self-destruct on the campaign trail than either Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer or Mike Ciresi.

Lastly, it should be pointed out that, unlike in prior election years, all of the top DFL candidates for Senate have pledged to abide by the party’s endorsement. In other words, unless Ciresi, Franken or Nelson-Pallmeyer are lying – which I don’t think any of them is – there will be no divisive and expensive primary fight to weaken the DFL chances of unseating Coleman in the general election. If Nelson-Pallmeyer fails to win the endorsement, those who have endorsed him can always switch to a second choice. Far from losing advantage, they would actually gain leverage in negotiating with the Franken and Ciresi camps, who will be very much interested in gaining their support.

Yes, for those activists sitting on the fence between their hearts and their heads, this year offers the perfect opportunity to leap down and vote, as their hero Paul Wellstone did so many times in his career, with their conscience and endorse Nelson-Pallmeyer.

Who knows? It might even prove a winning strategy.

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