Political theatre

Former comedian becomes US senator while squeaky-clean governor confesses to affair.


    Franken was named the winner of a senate seat in Minnesota eight months after the election [AFP]

    Many are the politicians who have made laughing stocks of themselves in and out of the halls of congress, but Al Franken is the first and only member of the US senate to have gotten laughs for a living.

    Franken, former funnyman on the long-running American comedy TV show Saturday Night Live, has been certified the winner of last November's election for a vacant senate seat in Minnesota.

    Wait a minute, you say - last November? Yes indeed, 239 long days of litigation and vote-recounting later, Minnesota has two senators again, at last.

    Franken, a liberal Democrat, beat incumbent Republican Norm Coleman by a statistically insignificant 312 votes, Minnesota's supreme court ruled on Tuesday.

    Election 'mess'

    This tells us two things.

    One, the American election system is still a gigantic mess. Minnesota, an orderly Midwestern haven of third-generation Norwegian and German immigrants, is considered one of the states with a well-formed system of tallying votes and settling disputed ballots.

    Yet it took nearly eight months (and $11 million in legal fees, racked up on both sides) before the state supreme court threw out Coleman's last appeal to reconsider some absentee votes he said were miscounted.

    On Obama's watch, the Democrats now control both houses of congress [AFP]
    The other thing it suggests is that Washington is now, more than ever, a Democratic town.

    Besides running the White House, the Democrats control the House of Representatives by a wide margin and now have a 60-vote "supermajority" in the senate (two nominal Independents, Vermont's Bernie Sanders and Connecticut's Joe Lieberman, side with the Democrats).

    This is important because it takes 60 votes to force a vote on legislation if the opposition Republicans seek to prolong debate ad nauseum under an arcane parliamentary manoeuvre called a filibuster.

    Theoretically, Barack Obama, the US president, should now be able to get everything he wants out of congress - such as health-care reform, cap-and-trade energy legislation, and an overhaul of immigration law.

    Pressure to reform

    But only theoretically, because the Democrats are a variegated bunch, a sprinkling of more conservative red-state senators rubbing shoulders with liberals, and with local or regional interests often trumping party discipline.

    Therefore, Obama can't count on his party backing him up every time. Already, conservative Democrats are watering down his health-care reform and senators in manufacturing states are dubious about his anti-global-warming legislation.

    Human frailty is another factor.

    Democratic senator Edward Kennedy is gravely ill with cancer, and Senator Robert Byrd, 91, has just returned home from a lengthy hospital stay. Both have missed dozens of roll call votes this year.

    So, on any given day, the Democrats' (and Obama's) strength in the senate is 58 votes, not 60.

    Nonetheless, if Obama is unable to deliver the progressive agenda he campaigned on last year, he will not be able to blame the Republicans for his failure. The pressure is increasing on him to marshal all of his considerable political skills to push reforms through. If he fails, his left-wing base will be furious.

    The Sanford affair 

    Moving on from the farce of the Minnesota recount and the installation of a genuine clown into US congress, let us descend from comedy to bathos, and the tale of Mark Sanford, the South Carolina governor.

    Sanford, a Republican, disappeared briefly over Father's Day weekend (June 21). His wife said she didn't know where he was, his security detail was frantically searching for him, and his staff said they thought he might be hiking in the mountains.

    Sanford had been mentioned as a potential Republican presidential candidate [AFP]
    But when Sanford returned to Charleston, he held a bizarre, stream-of-consciousness press conference in which he admitted he had a lover named Maria in Argentina and had been periodically sneaking off (sometimes at state expense) to canoodle with her in Buenos Aires.

    Prior to his confession, Sanford had been prominently mentioned as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2012. He thrilled fiscal conservatives by turning down federal stimulus funding for his state, ensuring that the more impoverished South Carolinians (who are mostly black) would get no relief from Washington.

    His squeaky-clean image as an upstanding, anti-abortion-rights Christian family man with four well-scrubbed boys made social conservatives swoon.

    Public apology

    Well, so much for all that. As the country watches in bemused fascination, Sanford has continued to compound his problems.

    He has refused to resign, but has publicly apologised to his cabinet, state officials, and reportedly even to random tourists he happens to encounter roaming the halls of the state Capitol.

    He has given an interview with reporters in which he mistily described his Argentine lady-friend as his "soul mate", but said he was "trying to fall back in love" with his wife, Jenny.

    Jenny has booted the governor out of the family home and has shown zero interest in his quixotic attempts to reassemble the smithereens of his political career through public self-flagellation.

    The freakshow down south has activated a collective national gag reflex. But some people relish it as an example of the ever-renewing theatre of the absurd that is American politics.

    As a Canadian friend emailed me, with a note of admiration: "You guys are the Michael Jackson of politics".

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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