Sen. Franken’s Last Hurrah

So Al Franken has chosen to leave the Senate on a Paul Wellstonian note.  Borrowing from the late Senator Wellstone, Franken tells us that politics is all about improving the lives of people.

What Senator Franken doesn’t tell us is whether or not he believes that all politicians, left, right and middling, Democrat, Republican and independent, believe the same thing.  If Franken does think this is the case, he has reduced Wellstone’s maxim to a simple truism.  Name me a politician who doesn’t think he or she is trying to improve people’s lives, and I’ll name you a politician who doesn’t belong in politics.

On the other hand, if Franken meant to suggest that only his (and Wellstone’s) brand of politics is devoted to improving people’s lives, then Franken has reduced Wellstone’s simple truism to sheer partisanship.

So which is it, Senator Franken?  A statement of the obvious or a slap at the other side?  After all, virtually every profession imaginable helps make people’s lives better in some way, even stand-up comedians.

A more honest, if not exactly profound, statement would have gone something like this: Politics is about stating and resolving our differences as we go about our common business of working to improve people’s lives.

Too wonkish?  How about this: Politics is all about the balancing act of trying to make sure that our actions help more people than they hurt.  That formulation probably wouldn’t pass Wellstonian or Frankenian muster, because it suggests that government action can actually harm people, even people who don’t deserve to be harmed.

Well then, how about this: Politics is all about trying to make sure that our actions help those who deserve to be helped and don’t deserve to be hurt.  Once again we’re heading back into truism territory.

Of course, there is also the possibility that government inaction can hurt people.  Then again, it’s also possible that government inaction can actually help people, including many more folks that the oft-demonized 1%.

OK, let’s get back to refining Wellstone.  Maybe this will work.  Politics is about airing and resolving the differences between those who favor using government to improve people’s lives and those who don’t.

Both Senators Wellstone and Franken would surely approve of that formulation.  But is it really fair to their opponents?  Is it even remotely accurate?

We may be running out of options, but perhaps not quite.  How about politics is all about battles between those who would turn first to government to improve people’s lives and those who would not.  This snapshot “take” is fairer than the one that preceded it, but there still might be an improvement.

Let’s add this one to the list: Politics is a contest between those who presume that people are always about the business of improving their own lives and those who presume otherwise.  Not fair to the Wellstones and Frankens?  Fair enough.

Maybe this refinement will be an improvement: Politics is a contest between those who remember that people are always trying to improve their own lives and those who forget.  This, too, might be unfair to Messrs. Wellstone and Franken.  But perhaps not.  After all, the partisan take on the Wellstone-Franken formulation does seem to suggest a forgetfulness about the very real possibility that their actions can and do have negative consequences.

And by implication their formulation also denies both the positive impact of policies initiated by the other side and the positive impact of doing nothing.

Let’s use the current battle over the $15 minimum wage as an example.  There is no doubt this hike will help some people.  But it might well hurt others, both those whose businesses cannot survive and those who lose their jobs, not to mention those never hired in the first place.  For that matter, such a wage hike may even hurt its beneficiaries in the long run by creating an all too comfortable comfort zone at a much too early point in one’s working life.

Then there is the battle over school choice and school vouchers.  The system that is currently in place certainly benefits, and maybe even improves, the lives of those who have secure jobs and those students who do just fine as things are.  But many aren’t doing just fine, whether they be young teachers who lose or can’t find jobs—or struggling students in decent schools—or good students in failing schools—or struggling students in failing schools.

In sum, no matter the policy or the politician, there will always be winners and losers.  This is even true, nay it is especially true, in societies where those in charge decree that the purpose of politics is to equalize people’s lives.

To be fair, neither Senator Wellstone nor Senator Franken has espoused such a line.  But the presumption is there for all to ponder: I am about the business of working to improve people’s lives, and my opponents are not.

If this characterization is unfair, then we are left with little more than an empty truism.  And what kind of a legacy is that?

So what are we to do?  And how are we to formulate?  Maybe it all comes down to nothing more than this:  Since there will always be winners and losers, politics is about the business of how best to secure a level playing field for all.

That’s not very romantic.  Nor will it likely lead to kudos and pats on the back, much less to a steady flow of campaign contributions.

Well then, let’s gussy it up a bit: Politics should be a contest between differing approaches to securing the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.