In his column yesterday, David Broder called Minnesota Senator Al Franken "the loud-mouthed former comedian." Needless to say, given the authorship, that this is a conventional view, though Broder has expressed it with unusual vehemance. What should we suppose this swipe means? It doesn't, or shouldn't, mean that Franken is insufficiently versed in public policy. Franken is a hard-core wonk. Paul Krugman writes:
Al Franken’s dirty secret is that … he’s a big policy wonk. I used to go on Franken’s radio show, all ready to be jocular — and what he wanted to talk about was the arithmetic of Social Security, or the structure of Medicare Part D.
I've had the same experience.
Second, David Broder is hardly a policy wonk himself. Indeed, like many political writers, he thinks elected officials who focus too much on the details of public policy ridiculous. Here he was discussing Al Gore in 2000:
In tone and substance, Vice President Al Gore's acceptance speech on the final night of the Democratic National Convention was like nothing I have heard in 40 years of covering both parties' quadrennial gatherings.
Usually these acceptance speeches are attempts to take you to the mountaintop and show you the future. Gore's was more a request to step inside a seminar room, listen closely and take notes. ...
I have to confess, my attention wandered as he went on through page after page of other swell ideas, and somewhere between hate crimes legislation and a crime victim's constitutional amendment, I almost nodded off.
Broder's condescension has nothing to do with Franken's command of public policy. It's about decorum, self-seriousness, clubbiness, and other qualities prized by official Washington.
In the course of praising Franken, Rick Hertzberg expressed his long-standing preference for more Senators of genuine intellect and debating skill:
We would be better off as a country if more senators were cut from the Franken cloth, even if the ideological balance remains unchanged. Must we have right-wing senators who, rather than admit that there are problems that tax cuts and “free markets” can’t solve, would have the icecaps melt, the seas boil, and the coasts drown? Very well, then, but let them be conservatives whose brain waves are not completely flat and who have spent their professional lives doing something worthier than flattering local realtors, hating the life of the intellect on principle, and regurgitating Heritage Foundation talking points.
I think the Washington establishment, with its preference for clubby, groupthinking mediocrities, would find such a prospect horrifying.