Norm Coleman is leaving no doubt to the public or the press that he stands firmly behind his decision to launch his U.S. Senate recount legal challenge. Coleman has drawn significant attention for his frequent courtroom appearances and the Senator has hardly been a shrinking violet when it comes to making media appearances.
This very public image has, until recently, stood in stark contrast to that of Al Franken, who has kept his distance from his attorneys, and, until this past weekend, most of the local media. One wonders, were it not for Esme Murphy’s high-profile open-letter blog to Franken nearly a week ago, would the Round 1 recount winner have been so eager to log about a half-dozen interviews this weekend (including one with WCCO)?
Franken’s motives for remaining aloof from the legal processes are obvious – he both wants to act like he has already won the election, plus he does not want to appear ‘in the frame’ when his attorneys take any actions that may give the impression of trying to cut the process short or suppress the counting of legitimate ballots of Minnesotans.
In recent weeks, Smart Politics has already outlined the many advantages for Coleman to pursue this court challenge as well as the fact that his actions to date have not truly damaged his public image .
However, while proceeding with the court challenge per se has its clear advantages, Coleman is incurring a real risk to his public image by so boldly putting himself in middle of the legal and public relations battlefields.
On the upside, by making numerous appearances before the media and in the courtroom, Coleman is taking ownership of his lawsuit, and is not seen as hiding behind his lawyers. The positive side of this for the Senator is that he is viewed by the public as taking responsibility for his actions – a sign of political leadership (even if motivated by undeniable personal gain).
On the downside, however, Coleman is now intimately being associated with every legal argument, and the laborious ballot-by-ballot examination in an election that is now 97 days old and counting.
In the political moment, when really big issues are facing the state of Minnesota – record unemployment increases, a budget battle in St. Paul, and a monumental stimulus bill on the Hill that split the Gopher State’s U.S. House delegation – the problems of Norm Coleman and the minutiae that emerges from these court proceedings seem, well, rather small. And with each passing day, Coleman and his legal arguments, however well-grounded, will likely seem even smaller as November 4th 2008 becomes an increasingly distant image in the voters’ rear view mirror.
A camper is told, should they encounter a bear, to stand up straight, reach their arms out wide to seem as tall as possible, and make a lot of noise to scare the bear away. While Coleman’s words and legal briefs may not be scaring away his opponent, he is doing his best to make his court challenge seem as big and important to the public as possible: the Senator couches his arguments for the challenge in grand Constitutional terms – that every vote should be counted, and that (alleged) double-counting will disenfranchise the votes of millions of Minnesotans.
The media strategy may be paying off so far for Coleman, despite an increasing number of Minnesotans who want the election to be over and done with. For it is Al Franken who has perhaps endured the greatest media backlash to date – first for his invisibility, and secondly when, in his motion before the Minnesota Supreme Court last week to dismiss the case, Franken attorney Marc Elias strayed from legal arguments to political ones – explicitly linking the need for Franken to be seated with the need to pass the federal stimulus package: “The fate of a stimulus package hinges on one vote in the United States Senate. For want of a vote, a stimulus package may be lost.”
Public relations gaffes like that by Franken and an open, roll-up-your-sleeves relationship with the media by Coleman will clearly buy the Senator more time. But how long can Coleman continue to tread water in the sea of public opinion?