Franken resignation shows Democrats' line in the sand

The Minnesota senator's decision to step down reflects the uncompromising stand his party is taking on sexual misconduct – a position Democrats hope will create a strong moral contrast with Republicans, but that also could come with risks.

Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters
Senator Al Franken (D) of Minnesota arrives at the US Capitol with his wife Franni Bryson to announce his resignation in the wake of numerous allegations of sexual misconduct.

Sen. Al Franken (D) of Minnesota’s decision to resign his seat – announced Thursday from the floor of a somber, almost funereal Senate chamber – reflects just how quickly, and comprehensively, his party is moving to stake out an uncompromising position on the issue of sexual misconduct.

Calling himself a champion of women, Senator Franken said flatly that some of the allegations against him “are simply not true” and that others he “remembers very differently.” He insisted that as a senator, he has done nothing to bring dishonor on the institution.

Yet Franken acceded to demands that he step down. In the end, he may not have had much choice: After yet another accusation against him emerged this week, many of his Senate colleagues, led by a group of female lawmakers, came forward publicly to say “enough is enough.”

Franken’s decision follows that of Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan, who announced his retirement on Tuesday, in the wake of a series of sexual harassment allegations involving staffers.

The twin announcements put Democrats on the moral high ground – albeit one with twists and turns. The party has shown itself willing to sacrifice two iconic political figures as the country grapples with a systemic scourge. And, as Democrats are well aware, it puts them in stark contrast to Republicans, who have been divided over how to respond to sexual misconduct allegations against their Senate candidate in Alabama, Roy Moore, and whose president also has been accused of harassment.

As Franken put it in a parting shot: “There is some irony in the fact that I am leaving, while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office, and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate.”

Courage and consequences

“It shows some courage by Democrats to step up and do this, especially Democratic women who have been leading this charge,” says Emily Parcell, a Democratic consultant in Iowa who worked on the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. “It demonstrates an obvious commitment to doing what’s right, over putting party first.”

But Democrats also run the risk of being accused of ignoring due process, of summarily pushing out members before an investigation could run its course. Speaking of the drumbeat of calls for Franken to resign, conservative Fox News host Laura Ingraham warned her viewers of a “lynch mob” that “could be coming for your husband, your brother, your son, and yes, even your president.”

Other Republicans came to Franken's defense, characterizing him as a scapegoat of sorts. Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary for President George W. Bush, tweeted:

Slightly higher marks for Democrats

Still, right now, the politics look better for Democrats on this. A Quinnipiac poll taken before this week’s resignation announcements found that neither party got particularly high marks on sexual harassment, though Democrats rated higher with 28 percent approving of their handling of the issue, and just 21 percent approving of Republicans’ handling of it. That was in contrast to the media, whose approach to sexual harassment won approval from 48 percent of Americans – a reflection, perhaps, of the high-profile firings of television journalists such as Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona – the lone Republican to watch Franken’s speech and then shake his hand afterward – said he has been “concerned for a while” that Republicans are ceding the moral high ground.

“With Roy Moore, certainly,” he told reporters on Wednesday, though he’s grateful that almost all of his Republican colleagues in the Senate have said the controversial judge should step aside, even as President Trump threw his support behind Moore. Also, the Republican National Committee reversed course this week and announced it would support the candidate financially. Several women have come forward to say that Moore behaved inappropriately with them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.

Notably, Senator Flake wrote a $100 check – and put a picture of it on Twitter – in support of Moore’s Democratic opponent, Doug Jones.

According to a Democratic Senate aide, Franken’s resignation puts Democrats in a far stronger moral and messaging position if Moore is elected to the Senate. While Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has said Moore would “immediately” face an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee if he were elected, that investigation could take months or even years. Indeed, Franken’s declared readiness to comply with an ethics investigation was seen by some as an effort to buy time.

It’s also significant that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand – whose name is often mentioned as a potential challenger to President Trump in 2020 – led the charge against Franken in the Senate, becoming the first of Franken’s colleagues to call publicly for his resignation. The Democrat from New York has long been at the forefront of the sexual harassment issue, starting with the military. Senator Gillibrand also drew attention last month for an interview in which she said that, in hindsight, President Bill Clinton ought to have resigned from the White House over the Monica Lewinsky affair.

“She’s getting in front of this issue,” the Senate aide said.

Women lawmakers in both the House and Senate, including Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia, have in recent weeks successfully pushed for legislation to require mandatory harassment training in Congress. They also want to overhaul the process of reporting allegations, which they describe as onerous and tilted against victims. The lawmakers are responding to a wave of complaints of rampant harassment in Congress.

What they are demanding is zero tolerance for sexual harassment at the Capitol.

“We need to draw a line in the sand and say none of it is okay, none of it is acceptable,” Gillibrand said at a news conference on Wednesday. “We as elected leaders should absolutely be held to a higher standard, not a lower standard, and we should fundamentally be valuing women. That is where this debate has to go.”

Who's next? 

But not all misconduct is alike, and that has some on the Hill now wondering whether it is OK for a male senator and a female staffer to be alone in the same room together, or what grounds might be for the next resignation. Staffers are talking among themselves about who might be next – with some speculating that many more shoes will drop. As Senator Flake told reporters, “I don’t think every allegation is alike,” though he thinks Franken did the right thing by resigning.

“We don’t want to over-correct in the other direction,” says Ms. Parcell, the Democratic consultant.

A greater test of moral courage for Democrats might be if the party were willing to call for the resignation of a colleague in a state where a successor would be appointed by a Republican governor.

In Minnesota, a Democrat will make the appointment until the next election – though as Franken himself pointed out, he won his first election by only 312 votes. His seat will almost certainly be in play in a special election next fall to finish out his term until 2020. In Michigan, the governor – a Republican – must call an election to fill a vacancy, and Representative Conyers’ seat representing portions of Detroit is safely Democratic.

When it comes to sexual harassment, “If you are willing to put partisanship aside in one case, I would expect you would put partisanship aside in every case,” Parcell said, even if it’s painful.

The sexual harassment issue is part of a larger picture and won’t be the only ground that elections are fought on, says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. Still, his advice to future candidates is to “think long and hard if you have any indiscretions in your past because chances are they are going to come out.”

Staff writer David Sloan contributed to this report.

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