This week in Washington DC, we met with Senator Al Franken. As you might expect, it was a really short visit. He’s a busy guy. Our visit went like this. We showed up to his office. We were brought in to a conference room. Al hustled in, aides at his heels. Fifteen minutes later, Al hustled out, off to meet Minnesota’s military kid of the year.
To be frank, the quality of our conversation with Senator Franken was pretty unremarkable. I don’t think he struck anyone in the room as some sort of intellectual giant. His answers were rambling, bumbling even–– filled with starts, stops, and missteps. A few times he glanced over to an aide to help fill him in on details that had slipped his mind. Compared to some of the folks we’ve met with–– policy wonks who could recall exactly every aspect of US relations with China or NSA officials who gladly answered question after question about their work at one of the world’s most secretive agencies–– Senator Franken just wasn’t very impressive as a speaker.
But from the moment he walked in the room you could tell that he’s an immensely talented politician. I’ve noticed over the course of a few weeks in DC that whenever we meet with a big name speaker there’s a nervous energy in the room. You can feel the twenty-three of us Carls working hard to make sure we come across as interested and engaged. Senator Franken diffused this tension practically instantaneously–– he launched his first joke before he even sat in his chair, banged his fist on the table, and announced that we could ask him absolutely anything.
Politics is about connecting with people. Policy may be about big ideas, reasoned debate, and well thought-out reforms, but politics is simply the art of getting the most people to vote for you. This starts with getting people to like you, to relate to you, to believe that you genuinely care. I’ve heard a few folks at Carleton tell stories about meeting Bill Clinton. No matter who tells it, their takeaway is always the same: “He made me feel like I was the most important person in the world. Here he is–– he’s the President and he’s asking me what I think!”
Senator Franken’s style was much the same. He was personable, humurous, and self-deprecating. You don’t exactly expect a Senator to make you laugh out loud–– Senator Franken had us laughing for fifteen minutes straight. We left his office buzzing about how we’d all vote for him not because we found his ideas to be irrefutably persuasive. Rather, he earned our votes for no other reason than we liked him.
Now, there are certainly limits to this line of thinking. I’m not going to vote for a Republican candidate because I find him or her more likable than the Democratic candidate. But in a country where the average voter has only the skimpiest of political educations, I’d say that pure likability is as important a trait as any for a politician to have.
That’s why, on CNN or MSNBC at any given time, some talking head is pontificating on Mitt Romney’s inherently robotic nature, his inability to connect with your average voter, and why it very well may spell serious trouble for the Republicans in November.