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Edgy persona may not be much help in the Senate

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Political scientist Dan Hofrenning
Dan Hofrenning is a political science professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.
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What's next for Al Franken? He'll take office after an election and a recount that tarnished both him and his opponent, Norm Coleman.

In a big Democratic year, Franken received only 42 percent of the vote. In January, his approval rating was 37 percent, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar's ratings were above 60 percent. 

This means that Franken begins a term with one of the lowest approval ratings of any newly elected official in history. By comparison, George W. Bush took over as president in 2001 after a contested recount. His approval ratings on Inauguration Day were over 50 percent.

Franken's approval rating might have been higher if not for his persona as a satirist. The former "Saturday Night Live" writer has authored books with such titles as "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot." Senators don't usually speak that way, tending to call each other "distinguished opponents" instead of big fat idiots. 

The great satirists of American history, people like H.L. Menken, were known for their acerbic comments about American culture.

Politicians sometimes have been satirical. Sen. Sam Hayakawa once said about the Panama Canal, "We stole it fair and square." But among most of our elected breed, edgy comments are rare. Seeking to win elections, most politicians avoid satire, preferring to work the crowds and kiss the babies. 

To be sure, Franken only rarely speaks as the satirist of old. On the campaign trail, many observers commented that, ironically, he wasn't always that funny. Yet the edgy persona is still a part of him.

As a senator, this will be his biggest weakness -- and perhaps his biggest strength. To seek a majority, senators often go too far in avoiding controversy. Sometimes they all begin to sound alike. 

Everyone is for better health care and stronger schools, and thus are the equivalent of chain restaurants. The food is not always the best, but they get the most customers.

The best senators avoid such blandness as they take on the vexing issues. In Minnesota, we saw Walter Mondale tackle school busing. Dave Durenberger took on health care and appealed to many Democrats. Paul Wellstone cast lone dissenting votes on bankruptcy bills; he also formed a friendship with Jesse Helms. 

None of these Minnesota senators were satirists, but they sometimes took edgy and iconoclastic stances on the issues.

Franken will be a part of the Democratic majority. We can expect him to vote often with Democrats on issues like health care and the environment. But with his approval ratings at low levels, he must speak beyond the partisans. That will be his challenge.

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Dan Hofrenning is professor of political science at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.

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