It was only a matter of time before the presidential chatter began. Al Franken, the comedian-turned-politician from Minnesota, kept a conspicuously low profile during his first term in the Senate, sticking quietly to policy matters to convince the world that he was a serious guy, not just a celebrity with a political jones. But since Donald Trump’s election (and Franken’s re-election), the senator has been busting out all over, mainly due to his expert grilling of the Trump nominees that liberals most love to hate. Franken laid a perjury trap for attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions during his confirmation, and then, for his next act, uncovered education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos’s deep ignorance of education policy. This week, Franken’s deft questioning made vividly clear the callousness of Neil Gorsuch’s judicial philosophy—and turned a Supreme Court nomination fight into a public conversation about the conservative bias for corporations over people.
These dramatic moments, instantly distilled into YouTube moments, quickly spread online, transforming Franken in the blink of an eye from a relative political newcomer to someone who must be buzzed about, played up, shot down, and speculated about as potential presidential candidate in 2020. Queue the bandwagon!
“This is Al Franken’s moment in the spotlight,” writes Josh Kraushaar at National Journal. “If he chooses, he could parlay his good fortune into a bid for the presidency in 2020.” Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post and Michael Kinsley in Vanity Fair have echoed this argument that Franken is (or should be) a serious presidential contender for 2020. And a 23-year-old graduate student named Nick Butler has even set up a PAC to draft Franken. His rationale for a Franken candidacy: “He could be a kind of younger, cooler Bernie Sanders,” Butler told The Wrap, appealing to both young and blue-collar voters with his populism. Plus, Franken has “plenty of friends in the deep-pocketed entertainment industry.”
The “Franken for President” buzz is as understandable as it was inevitable. The Democratic Party needs all the star power it can find right now, of course. And with Trump in the White House, a colorful past in the entertainment world no longer looks like such a political liability; maybe it’s even an advantage.
Franken, of course, has every right to run for the presidency if he wants to. And he may very well be thinking about it—along with several dozen other Democrats. After all, he is the author of the 1999 satirical novel, Why Not Me? The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency. The plot is farcical and far-fetched—or at least, it seemed that way he wrote it. Franken unexpectedly wins the White House by promising to eliminate ATM fees, but is quickly forced to resign because of his bizarre behavior during the inauguration, which leads to the revelation of diaries revealing his unfitness for office. Why Not Me? is self-deprecating, as much of Franken’s humor is, but seems considerably less fantastic now that Trump is president. Trump’s success has enormously expanded the range of what is possible in American politics, to the point where an idea that Franken played for laughs in 1999 could be a real possibility in 2020. (Although he probably wouldn’t run on the ATM issue.)
But Franken should not run for president. The Democratic Party needs him too much in the Senate. What the last few weeks have demonstrated, most of all, is that Franken has exactly the skill set the party needs in Washington—especially when hearings come around. Senate hearings are a unique public forum that remains central to American political life and debate: They’re half-courtroom, half-theater. Like a good trial lawyer, a senator has to know how to ask questions forensically, so that they support an argument. And like a good actor, a senator also has to know how to grab and hold the spotlight at the right moments.
With the possible exception of Elizabeth Warren, no Democrats excels at congressional theater like Franken. He has a true gift for interrogating nominees in a way that gets them to reveal things about themselves that they would rather not. It was Franken’s direct questioning of Sessions during his confirmation hearings that led to the former Alabama Senator lying under oath about meeting the Russian ambassador (and ultimately forced Sessions to recuse himself from the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the election).
Similarly, under the glare of Franken’s questioning, Betsy DeVos revealed her stark ignorance of education policy, creating a national outcry over her nomination. This, as we now know, was vintage Franken: He shrewdly zeroed in on the debate over whether students should be evaluated based on “growth” or “proficiency”—one that anybody who knows anything about education would instantly recognize. As DeVos sputtered out her non-answer, it became clear that she didn’t know the difference between the concepts: “I think, if I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would also correlate it to competency and mastery, so that each student is measured according to the advancement they’re making in each subject area.” Franken corrected her: “Well, that’s growth. That’s not proficiency.” When DeVos said she was “just asking to clarify,” Franken finished her off with a dry quip: “It surprises me that you don’t know this issue.”
In his grilling of Gorsuch, Franken once again managed to redefine a Trump nominee—this time, as the embodiment of conservative judges’ corporate bias, and the human toll it extracts. In a deft line of questioning, Franken drew out the dangerous smugness of the nominee’s judicial philosophy with needling questions about a decision Gorsuch had made in what’s known as the “frozen trucker” case. A truck driver was fired after he temporarily abandoned his rig for a good reason: He risked freezing to death in it, or harming others if he tried to move it. In a dissenting decision, Judge Gorsuch said the company had every right to fire the trucker. Franken picked apart Gorsuch’s dissent, getting him to essentially admit he couldn’t put himself into the shoes of the truck driver.
Franken used the case to make a larger point about how Gorsuch’s “literalism”—like that of so many other Republican judges—leads him to make decisions that are manifestly cruel. In his closing peroration, Franken noted that Gorsuch claimed to be devoted to the “plain meaning” of the law, and then dissected that devotion mercilessly. “The plain meaning rule has an exception,” Franken explained. “When using the plain meaning rule would create an absurd result, courts should depart from the plain meaning. It is absurd to say this company is in its rights to fire him because he made the choice of possibly dying from freezing to death or causing other people to die possibly by driving an unsafe vehicle. That’s absurd.”
Franken then ended on a self-deprecating joke pointing to his own comedic past: “Now, I had a career in identifying absurdity. And I know it when I see it. And it makes me — you know, it makes me question your judgment.”
This is what Democrats desperately need more of. But Franken, like every promising Democratic office-holder, is going to be flattered and urged and petititoned to run for president—partly because his party has fetishized the presidency, to its own peril. While Republicans have invested heavily in “down-ballot” races, and built up a massive advantage in both state capitols and Washington, Democrats have continued to throw everything at winning (or losing) the White House. That mentality has to change—and maybe the process can start with Franken.
Franken has emerged as a uniquely effective senator because he has the skills needed to do the work that senators are actually tasked with. Beyond grilling nominees—and redefining national debates in the process—they’re legislators who have to have a command of policy details. Franken displayed that sort of command even before entering politics. As a comedian, he specialized in surprisingly wonkish political humor that was based on challenging blowhards like Bill O’Reilly on the facts. Franken’s special gift is that he can explain the often arcane matters taken up by the Senate in crisp terms that average citizens can easily understand. His use of the truck- driver story drove home a point about the real-world consequences of Gorsuch’s jurisprudence. Democrats need more voices like that in the Senate, not less—and not a guy who’s distracted by a presidential bid.
For the sake of their future, Democrats must come around to understanding that the party needs strong office-holders at every level. They can start by refraining from whipping up, or hopping on, the “Franken for President” train. Instead, liberals should encourage Franken to ignore the temptation, stay put in the Senate, and continue to hone his essential skills as the master of hearing-room drama.