Day in court, foot in mouth


At this point, after seven weeks of largely fruitless litigation, Norm Coleman's odds of wresting the disputed Minnesota Senate seat from Al Franken are roughly equivalent to the odds of A-Rod wresting the New York Yankee captaincy from Derek Jeter.

But the Republicans who continue to bankroll Coleman - such as Senator John Cornyn, who says "we'll support Norm until the bitter end" - are not necessarily focused on his prospects for victory. The smart ones are well aware that he is probably toast. Rather, their aim is to obfuscate and procrastinate for as long as possible, with the goal of ensuring that Franken does not become the 59th Senate Democratic vote at a time when the Senate Democrats dearly need him.

It may be downright craven for the Republicans to deny Minnesotans full Senate representation; to extend their day in court despite the fact that Franken has already won a statewide hand recount of 2.9 million ballots; and to indulge Coleman's call for a "re-vote" of the entire election, despite the fact that Franken has already been certified the winner by Minnesota's canvassing board, and despite the fact that there is no legal precedent in Minnesota, much less any law, that would provide for a re-vote.

But craven politics is often smart politics; in this episode, Coleman and the GOP have been brilliant.

With spring and summer on the horizon, President Obama is trying to leverage his popularity by pushing on a host of policy fronts. The Democrats are dealing with an expansive budget, health care reform, labor reform, climate-change legislation, and that's just for starters. The more Democratic senators they have in tow, the less they need to kowtow to the GOP's tiny band of moderates. Franken's continued absence complicates their task.

In the election trial conducted by a three-judge panel in Minnesota, Coleman rested his case last week without offering any tangible proof that Franken's certified 225-vote lead was fraudulent. Coleman's lawyers did note that there were some procedural disparities about how some absentee ballots were counted, or not counted, but they have failed to translate those disparities into actual votes that would erase Franken's lead.

The bottom line, at this point, is that Coleman's lawyers have been reduced to targeting 1,360 disputed absentee ballots, in the hopes that a closer examination of those ballots will produce a mini-landslide that would catapult Coleman to victory. But the odds of that happening are extremely small, even if one assumes that the court agrees to count them all (which itself is problematical).

The Minneapolis Star Tribune did the math last night. It started by examining the November election results in the counties where those absentee ballots come from. And, lest we forget, the Minnesota vote was spread among three Senate candidates. The paper concluded that, if all those ballots match the November vote percentages in the relevent counties, Coleman would trim Franken's edge by only 57.

All told, in the words of election-law expert Larry Jacobs at the University of Minnesota, "there's not proof in terms of votes that would suggest that Al Franken's certified lead of 225 votes is in jeopardy." Minnesotans seem to have endorsed that view; in a new Rasmussen poll, 47 percent said they believe that Franken has won the seat, while only 35 percent saw Coleman as the winner. But none of this will deter the Coleman camp, nor its donor/supporters. The procrastination strategy requires that they lay the groundwork for extensive court appeals, perhaps even to the U.S. Supreme Court, assuming that the three-judge panel rules against them.

This is all tactically shrewd, given their goal of barring Franken from casting votes on the Senate floor, but I can't help remembering what Coleman said in the immediate aftermath of the November election, back when he had a 700-vote lead, long before the statewide hand recount was even conducted. He said that Franken should simply concede: "If you asked me what I would do, I would step back. I just think the healing process is so important."

That was then, this is now. There's no room for healing in the game of hardball.

Maybe we should start an office pool and put down some bets on how long Michael Steele will remain as GOP national chairman, given his propensity for repeatedly requiring mouth surgery to remove his foot. (Until Steele came along, I had assumed that Democratic Sen. Roland Burris was the best topic for such a pool.)

Even before eking out a narrow victory on the sixth ballot of the January race for the party chairmanship, Steele was perceived by the conservative base to be a closet moderate, and therefore highly suspect...and now we have Steele uttering some blasphemous remarks about abortion in a new interview, released yesterday by GQ magazine.

Steele: "The choice issue cuts two ways. You can choose life, or you can choose abortion. You know, my mother chose life. So, you know, I think the power of the argument of choice boils down to stating a case for one or the other."

Q: "Are you saying you think women have the right to choose abortion?"

Steele: "Yeah. I mean, again, I think that's an individual choice."

Q: "You do?"

Steele: "Yeah. Absolutely."

Oh, dear. That won't do much to ensure his long-term survival in the job. A Republican chairman simply cannot say such things out loud (just as a Democratic chairman cannot attack the concept of choice). And, sure enough, the Republican National Committee sought this morning to mop up the mess by releasing a clarifying Steele statement:

"I am pro-life, always have been, always will be. I tried to present (in the interview) why I am pro life, while recognizing that my mother had a 'choice' before deciding to put me up for adoption. I thank her every day for supporting life."

OK, so maybe when he was talking to GQ, he just forgot what he truly believes. Or maybe he was saying what he truly believes ("individual choice), and forgot that he was supposed to fake it in order to stay in sync with the conservative base. Or maybe he's just a surprisingly poor communicator.

Sure enough, the religious right teed off on Steele today. Mike Huckbee, the ex-pastor and perhaps future presidential candidate, declared: "For Chairman Steele to even infer that taking a life is totally left up to the individual is not only a reversal of Republican policy and principle, but it's a violation of the most basic of human rights - the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. His (clarification) today helps, but doesn't explain why he would ever say what he did in the first place."

Meanwhile, what about Steele's other GQ blasphemy, the one that's getting less attention at the moment? The one where he spits in the eye of religious conservatives who insist that being gay is merely a foolish lifestyle choice? Here's the exchange.

Q: "Do you think homosexuality is a choice?"

Steele: "Oh, no. I don't think I've ever really subscribed to that view, that you can turn it on and off like a water tap. Um, you know, I think that there's a whole lot that goes into the makeup of an individual that, uh, you just can't simply say, oh, like, 'Tomorrow morning I'm gonna stop being gay.' It's like saying, 'Tomorrow morning I'm gonna stop being black.'"

Q: "So your feeling would be that people are born one way or another."

Steele: "I mean, I think that's the prevailing view at this point..."

Perhaps Rush Limbaugh can help Steele sort out what he might think he was trying to say. Indeed, at this rate, he might be free within months to pursue the next phase of his career. And Norm Coleman might well be free to join him.