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Al Franken, Policy Wonk

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Al Franken, Policy Wonk"

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Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) welcomed her new colleague Al Franken to the Senate with a fairly rude remark: “It’s important he go against the grain of his past career and really get to know the issues.” As Jon Chait says:

A couple things here. I don’t know anything about Klobuchar in particular. But Senators, in general, are wildly egotistical and deem themselves to be far smarter and better-informed about policy than they actually are.

Second, as I’ve written, and which Norm Ornstein attested on the Diane Rehm show yesterday, Franken is a policy wonk. Anybody who’s spoken with him or read his books (as opposed to just read the titles) knows this. He probably knows more about public policy than 90% of his colleagues. I’ve never met Franken, but the inability of people to understand that somebody can have a career in comedy and satire and also knows a lot of public policy galls me.

I have met Franken, years ago, and have also been friendly with a number of people who’ve worked with Franken over the years and will likewise attest that he’s very serious about policy. After all, the salient thing about Franken isn’t that he used to be a satirist. It’s that he used to be a satirist who was so interested in politics that he transitioned to becoming a political satirist and then a candidate for office. All because he was really interested in the issues and wanted to make a difference. Most comedians probably aren’t very well-informed about policy issues, but comedians do have both the time and the means to inform themselves if they’re so inclined, and Franken very much was and is so inclined.

By contrast, the culture on Capitol Hill is actually quite hostile to consideration of policy questions on the merits. Senators and members of congress have extremely time-consuming jobs, and the job is basically to fundraise, to travel a lot, and to hustle on behalf of the interests of donors and parochial local interests. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for policy. And it’s also not good for one’s mental health. You want to “understand the issues” in the sense of understanding the interest group politics surrounding the issue, the leadership’s view of the issue, how the issue plays in your district, etc. But if you really understand the issue then awkward burdens of conscience may arise “should I really jeopardize the lives of millions of people around the world in order to advance the interests of agribusiness?” That’s not a question people want to ask themselves, so it’s better to just stay fuzzy on the policy matters.

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