Political Hay

Fighting Frankenstein

Thanks to Republican resignation, Al Franken is close to becoming the monster the right has long dreaded.

By 4.14.09

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Among other things, Mary Shelley's masterpiece of Gothic horror, Frankenstein, warns of the dangers of letting ambition push a man to aim beyond what he is capable of achieving.

What a happy coincidence it is that former funnyman Al Franken, the Democrats' would-be 59th U.S. senator from Minnesota, has a surname so close to one of literature's most famous cautionary tales.

Although Franken is not quite the misunderstood monster that in Shelley's classic story was cobbled together from the scavenged body parts of the dead, he is nonetheless manifestly unsuited for public office, a fact that reared its head repeatedly throughout last year's campaign. Now that a Minnesota court last night ruled in Franken's favor and declared him winner in the state's dead-heat Senate race, a monstrous outcome is that much closer to becoming reality.

Stopping Franken from taking a seat in the Senate has been a noble endeavor, especially given that the leveling Democrats are so close to attaining the 60-seat supermajority that might allow them to transmogrify America, turning it decisively away from whatever's left of its original limited government foundations and remaking it into a European-style socialist nation.

For conservatives, it hardly needs to be pointed out that Franken is a fundamentally unserious and untested figure worthy of ridicule. After being isolated in the echo chamber of the entertainment-media-academia complex where he got nothing but praise for decades, Franken is quite unsuited for the world outside. He cannot tolerate criticism and characteristically responds to it with over-the-top vitriolic attacks. He is the living embodiment of all the horrible things that conservatives fairly or unfairly impute to DailyKos bloggers.

Franken, whom I thought was often funny before he got into politics, has the volatile temperament of an artist, not a statesman. Recall that after one debate last year Franken's wife had to pull the candidate away from incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman. Franken could not get out of Coleman's face and stop arguing and he couldn't understand why it was not acceptable for him to continue invading Coleman's personal space. Liberals may applaud Franken for his passion, but most people encountering a person behaving that way might reach for the pepper spray -- just in case.

For a man who preaches class warfare and salvation through Big Government with the same enthusiasm that a Baptist preacher exudes in delivering a sermon about fire and brimstone, Franken's hypocrisy is breathtaking. This is the case even in the age of tax cheats Timothy Geithner, Tom Daschle, and Charles Rangel.

One incident from the early part of the campaign is particularly instructive.

During a debate in 2007, Franken reportedly tried to burnish his business credentials. "I'm a corporation, I employ a bunch of people," he said. "I love corporations that play by the rules, and we have to make them play by the rules."

But we now know that Franken's corporation didn't bother to carry the required workers' compensation insurance in New York State for employees who helped the comedian with his work from 2002 to 2005. He reportedly ignored New York officials until the heat of the Senate campaign. Eventually he forked over a $25,000 fine to the Empire State.

From 2003 to 2007, his personal corporation didn't get around to filing corporate income tax returns in California, and by April of last year, Franken was forced to pay a total of $70,000 in income tax arrears in 17 states for tax bills stretching back to 2003. He blamed his accountant and said he expects to get some of the money back.

Conservatives detest Franken, and rightly so, but the Republican punditry is losing interest in keeping up the fight against the former Saturday Night Live star.

In November the feeling in Republican circles was that Franken was trying to be a usurper: If he couldn't win in a Democratic sweep, he couldn't win ever. But now after so many months of legal warfare many prominent Republicans seem resigned to a Franken victory over incumbent Coleman.

Two respected National Review Online writers use reasonable enough sounding arguments to urge Coleman to throw in the towel, but their words betray their weariness over the protracted post-election fight.

Ramesh Ponnuru makes a concise argument for surrender:

"If [Coleman] keeps up the fight, he is likely to lose, unnecessarily deprive Minnesota of a second senator, end his political career seen as a sore loser, and hurt his party in a state that is eager for this fight to be over. His team has talked enough about further legal challenges that if he leaves now, he will get some points for grace. (Needless to say, that sentiment would not be universal.) But this is, I think, the last moment where he can exit with some dignity."

So, whether Franken is the rightful victor takes a back seat to political expediency and a false sense of urgency.

The very formidable Power Line blogger Scott W. Johnson, a Minneapolis lawyer, argues not only that it's over for Coleman, but also that Franken did not steal the election:

"I admire Coleman's public service and believe he has been an outstanding senator. But since the election, the Coleman campaign has put on a performance that conveys a strong impression of complacency and ineptitude; the Franken campaign outhustled and outsmarted it."

Johnson also asserts that "[f]rom the outset of the post-election process, the Coleman campaign was remarkably passive in its approach to the recount."

As Johnson shares his otherwise cogent analysis and rattles off a litany of Coleman's missed opportunities, his reasoning seems to suffer from a kind of lawyerly tunnel-vision. There is an undue focus on the niceties of legal process and not enough said about the appalling irregularities that characterized both the initial and subsequent vote-counting in the allegedly clean-elections state.

To list every single known irregularity might require a book at this point, but suffice it to say, there were plenty of them. To provide an overview, let's recount what went on early in the counting process, while a national audience was still paying somewhat close attention to the election. Ballots were discovered in an election judge's car and other votes appeared as if by magic across the state. One county discovered 100 new votes for Franken and blamed a clerical error. Another had vote tallies 177 higher than the total recorded on Election Day. Another county reported 133 fewer votes than its voting machines recorded. Almost every time new ballots materialized, or tallies were updated or corrected, Franken benefited.

The excellent research performed by John Lott, senior research scientist at the University of Maryland, who exhaustively documented the countless logic-defying decisions used by officials during the original count and the recount process, threw light on many of the irregularities.

As Lott wrote, the morning after the election, Coleman led Franken by 725 votes. As ACORN-aligned Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a former community organizer, presided over the process, over the next five days, Coleman's lead had dwindled to just 221. Election officials claimed they had to correct typos on vote tally sheets and that these corrections gave Franken 435 votes and took 69 away from Coleman.

Poof.

As Lott noted at the time, this massive vote-switch was if not statistically impossible, highly improbable. He wrote that in Minnesota, "corrections were posted in other races, but they were only a fraction of those for the Senate." Franken's Senate vote gains were "2.5 times the gain for Obama in the presidential race count, 2.9 times the total gain that Democrats got across all Minnesota congressional races, and 5 times the net loss that Democrats suffered for all state House races."

As Lott noted Nov. 10, almost all of Franken's new votes came from three out of the state's 4,130 precincts, and nearly half the new 246 Franken votes came from one heavily Democratic precinct in Two Harbors. Barack Obama won the precinct with 64% of the vote but "[n]one of the other races had any changes in their vote totals in that precinct."

None of this has ever been adequately explained. It probably never will be, but it's just a small sample of everything that went wrong in this closely contested Senate battle.

So how does all of this jibe with Johnson's arguments? Surely even if we accept the suggestion that Coleman's lawyers were awful, it does not follow that Coleman should necessarily now throw in the towel.

But that's what Johnson is arguing. His argument appears to boil down to this: Coleman didn't hire good enough lawyers so he deserves what he got.

That's not the kind of thinking that animates the landmark legal decision that ended the 2000 presidential election. Remember that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7 to 2 in Bush v. Gore, which Coleman's attorneys have repeatedly and appropriately invoked throughout the post-election process, that vote-counting has to be carried out uniformly. The general legal principle articulated by the high court was that the Equal Protection Clause requires that consistent standards be applied in the counting of ballots.

In the Coleman-Franken fight, it's not just the problem of divining voter intent, but also a case of explaining how hundreds of votes materialized out of thin air. You are not alone if you feel the two points have never been properly explained.

As Michael Stokes Paulsen, professor of law at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, writes, "Minnesota is Bush v. Gore reloaded. The details differ, but not in terms of arbitrariness, lack of uniform standards, inconsistency in how local recounts were conducted and counted, and strange state court decisions."

One doesn't have to be a lawyer to see that Coleman got a raw deal and that, at a minimum, he deserves his day in court. He deserves to be heard by the Minnesota Supreme Court, and if need be, by the U.S. Supreme Court for a proper constitutional scrutiny consistent with the principles laid down in Bush v. Gore.

Even if Coleman's attorneys were asleep at the wheel the public interest is served by having a full and proper counting of the ballots cast.

Will dragging out the battle hurt Republicans as Ponnuru suggests? It might, but considering the political stakes, it seems to be a risk worth taking.

A MoveOn.org email that went out to supporters yesterday speaks volumes.

Coleman's fight is "cynical. It's selfish. And it's hurting Minnesotans -- not to mention Obama's ability to pass real health care reform, create millions of green jobs, and build a new-energy economy."

I rest my case.

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About the Author

Matthew Vadum is an award-winning investigative journalist at a conservative watchdog group in Washington, D.C. Vadum is also author of Subversion Inc: How Obama's ACORN Red Shirts are Still Terrorizing and Ripping Off American Taxpayers.