Senate debate: DFLers, mostly in agreement, find contrast in the details


Four DFLers seeking their party’s nomination to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman debated Tuesday evening before an audience of several hundred that filled the Roosevelt High School auditorium in South Minneapolis.

The four — comedian Al Franken, attorney Mike Ciresi, attorney Jim Cohen and Professor Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer — agreed in general on many issues while differing on important details.

Nelson-Pallmeyer, the newest entrant in the race, consistently drew the loudest applause and the sharpest contrasts with his opponents. Considering that the pattern started as soon as he was introduced, that obviously had something to do with who had the most supporters in the room.

He also took the leftmost position on almost every issue, and did it in a bastion of South Minneapolis liberalism where the audience agreed with Nelson-Pallmeyer:

• that President Bush should be impeached;

• that the current patchwork of public and private health care should be replaced with a Canadian-style single-payer system;

• that global warming is the biggest threat to U.S. national security;

• (and that an Iranian nuclear weapon wouldn’t be such a grave threat);

• that neoconservatives exploited the Sept. 11 attack to get the United States into an Iraq war that they had craved and planned for years; and

• that 10 percent of the Pentagon budget should be transferred from military spending and used to create universal preschool.

Franken, the presumed favorite for the DFL endorsement, had a down night. He began and ended the evening by calling Coleman a “friend and enabler” of President Bush and said it was urgent that Bush’s enablers leave Washington with him in January of 2009.

Several of Franken’s positions did not receive the big audience reactions, and seemed especially hedged in contrast with Nelson-Pallmeyer’s. For example, Franken argued:

• that the U.S. troops should leave Iraq but not “precipitously;”

• that it would be “insane” for the U.S. to attack Iran, but that “the prospects of Iran having a nuclear weapon are very frightening;”

• that single-payer is desirable but not politically practical in the near future and that it is important not to let “the perfect [presumably single-payer] be the enemy of the good [presumably a reorganization of the current system so that it covers everyone].”

Ciresi, widely viewed as Franken’s chief rival for the DFL endorsement, didn’t outline many clear issue differences with Franken. He frequently cited his record as a lawyer taking on big corporations to indicate that he was an effective fighter for the people against the powerful, and cited various charitable activities and employment policies of his law firm. The seemed to be a continuation of his recent argument that he, in contrast with Franken, has a record of getting results.

Ciresi did catch fire at least once, late in the debate, when his answer on abortion (he’s pro-choice, but so are the other three) turned into an impromptu denunciation of Republican hypocrisy and efforts to morally micromanage the private lives of Americans. A long quote from that answer is below.

Cohen demonstrated mastery of several policy areas and passion about some (single payer health care, higher pay for teachers) but didn’t forge much of a connection with the audience except maybe early on, when asked if he would abide by the endorsement. He said he would, but “there has to be an endorsement. There has to be an endorsement.” I wasn’t quite sure whether this was a hedge on his pledge to abide or whether he was urging the assembled DFLers, some of whom will be delegates to the state convention, not to allow a deadlocked convention that adjourns without endorsing a candidate.

It got me to thinking about something that I’m sure has occurred to the Franken and Ciresi campaigns. Nelson-Pallmeyer is a longshot to get the endorsement. His strength among peace-and-justice lefties will probably give him many loyal delegates on the early ballots. If Franken and Ciresi are anywhere near even, Nelson-Pallmeyer could easily be in a position to break the deadlock with an endorsement. It is widely believed that Nelson-Pallmeyer did exactly that in his previous race for the open Fifth District congressional seat in 2006, throwing his support to the eventual winner, Keith Ellison.

This is wild speculation at this point. Nelson-Pallmeyer intends to win. But in case that scenario might play out again, tea leaf readers will take note of Nelson-Pallmeyer’s attitude toward Franken and Ciresi. He disagreed with both of them on several issues and said so, civilly but crisply. But if you had to guess from last night (and my sources who have been to some campaign events I missed tell me this was their impression as well) Franken’s answers sometimes seemed to get on Nelson-Pallmeyer’s nerves.

For example, when Franken gave his riff about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good on single-payer health care, Nelson-Pallmeyer rebuked him quite directly within two minutes, saying “you don’t compromise before you fight, before you organize, before you mobilize” for single-payer.

Here are some of the best or most colorful rhetorical moments for each of the candidates (with apologies in advance for shortcoming of the notetaker):

Jim Cohen

“We’ve got to get out of Iraq now.” (His plan calls for all combat troops out by April of 2008.)

“We can find the common good, together.”

“All children have been left behind by No Child Left Behind.”

“NAFTA and CAFTA are wrong and not good for America and they need to be dropped.”

Arguing that same sex couples should have equal rights but not necessarily the right to the “m” word: “This word ‘marriage’ is a divisional word… A rose is a rose is a rose. Love is love is love.”

Al Franken

“George W. Bush has driven us into a ditch, along with his enablers like Norm Coleman. But it’s really important that he is friends — and let’s face it, Norm Coleman was his friend — go with him.”

Asked whether we need a new 9/11 Commission: “I would like to have a permanent 9/11 Commission.”

“The ‘coalition of the willing’ has become the coalition of the leaving and the left.”

Arguing that the response to global warming should not be one big thing but many small things: “As Al Gore said, ‘There is no silver bullet for global warming, but there is silver buckshot.'”

After declaring that same-sex marriage should be legal and is no threat to heterosexual marriage: “Do you know what state has the lowest divorce rate? Massachusetts. This [gay marriage] is not a threat to marriage. This is marriage.”

Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer

“It troubles me when I hear Democrats say that they’ve taken impeachment off the table. I think it needs to be put right back on the table.”

“Our country is unraveling from within.”

“The reason the United States isn’t leaving Iraq is because this administration never intends to leave Iraq.”

“Last year, of every dollar in federal discretionary spending, Congress gave 57 cents to the military; they gave four cents to education, two cents for the environment, a couple of pennies to transportation and less than half of one cent for retraining workers.”

“I don’t want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. But if Iran developed a nuclear weapon, would that be a threat to the United States? Would that be a grave security breach? No… Let’s stop the danger inflation with Iran.”

Mike Ciresi

“The ‘No Child Left Behind'” law should be called ‘No child left with a dime.’ The Bush changes to the tax code should be called ‘no limousine left behind.'”

Referring to the run-up in the national debt during the years of Bush Republicanism: “They believe we shouldn’t have a ‘death tax.’ Well I believe we shouldn’t have a birth tax.”

“I fought the most powerful industries in this country and I won.”

Arguing that his status as a first-generation American, son of an Italian father, gives him insights into the current immigration issue: “They talk about undocumented workers today. ‘WOP’ stood for ‘with out passport.'”

“I’ll tell you what I’m tired of. Here we are, talking about gay marriage. About a woman’s right to choose. The Republicans said they were going to get the government out of our lives and what have they done? They’ve told us where we can live, when we can die. How we pray and what children we’re gonna have. On top of that, they tell us how we’re gonna education our children. I’m tired of that… It’s immoral what they’ve done. Let’s talk about real morality.”