Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) has been shown the door. It’s what comes after that door closes that has left Democrats apprehensive.
Aides on the Hill and operatives in the party say there was no other option—and little second guessing—about forcing the Minnesota Democrat out of office amid numerous allegations that he had groped women. The punishment was relatively swift. And the overwhelming consensus was that it was necessary.
“We are not Republicans,” former DNC Chair Donna Brazile told The Daily Beast. “We have been strong advocates for women’s rights, human rights, etc. Democrats must support due process, but we cannot waiver in our support to help eliminate sexual harassment in the work force.”
But even those supportive of the move acknowledge that there are unknowable and uncomfortable ramifications that could come with it. The “Franken standard” for, essentially, firable conduct remains murky. And no one is clear how it will be applied in the future.
“I feel sick about what’s happened to Al because I think that he legitimately would dispute many of the accusations that have come up but was trying to show that he respects women and believes they should be believed,” said one top-ranking Democratic strategist, who spoke candidly on condition of anonymity. “I bet you there are sitting Democratic senators, and many on the Republican side too, who are guilty of far worse things than him. So it does gnaw at you. But it had to happen anyway.”
Or, as one senior Democratic aide put it: “Of course it is a clusterfuck. But you have no choice.”
Among the main concerns stressed in interviews with The Daily Beast is that not every allegation involving sexual assault or misconduct breaks down on clear ethical lines. Franken’s eventually did for much of the party. The allegations against Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), who was forced to resign as well amid far more serious accusations of unwanted sexual advances, were even clearer.
But absent such clarity, there was the potential that due process could be lost in the swift rush for resolution—a fear Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) expressed in an interview on CNN Friday. In the frantic days after another allegation is made (and virtually everyone expects more to come) the possibility exists that someone will be exiled for dubious or debatable reasons.
“The problem we have is we have two parties who have very different beliefs to how we treat women and children and those who are not in power,” said Nomiki Konst, a Bernie Sanders ally who served as a member of the unity reform commission.
“So while I commend the Democrats and agree with them taking a strong stance on sexual misconduct. I do think there needs to be a clear process on how we investigate this kind of misconduct and an awareness of the potential of Republicans to use this unfortunately new policy as an opportunity for them to take out our leaders. Which is why they should investigate either before allegations become public or immediately after they become public.”
The fears operatives and aides expressed reflect the delicate place that the political system writ large finds itself in with respect to sexual harassment in its ranks. The Democratic Party, like much of the country, is confronting a problem that it long kept below the surface. And no one, not even those who led the charge for Franken to resign, firmly believes that they have found a surefire way to handle it.
“We need to have one standard. And the standard needs to be that if you are sexually harassing people and use your power to intimidate women then you have to go,” said Lis Smith, a Democratic operative who was hyper critical of party leadership for not moving faster on Conyers and Franken. “Where you are correct here is it can’t become a witch hunt. It can’t devolve into just going after men for boorish behavior. There needs to be just a standard. If you are making multiple unwanted advances to people especially in the workplace, that is a problem. If you’re using your position of power or as a celebrity that is over the line.”
Franken’s case, far more than Conyers, has piqued those fears. After the initial allegation was made against him, the senator attempted to both respect the emotions and experiences of his accuser, acknowledge that he had (perhaps inadvertently) crossed a line, but also profess some level of innocence. In the days and weeks that followed, more women came forward. Franken did not deny their allegations but stressed that he did not recall the specific moments they detailed.
The final allegation—that he had attempted to forcibly kiss an aide by claiming it was his right to do so as an entertainer—was different. He vociferously denied any such instance had taken place.
By then, Senate Democratic aides said, it was too late. Franken’s colleagues had, as one Senate aide put it, “reached the end of their reserve of patience.” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) was the first to call for his resignation. She was soon followed by the majority of her colleagues.
Not every Senate Democrat was on board. “You know, I just felt the process should’ve proceeded,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) told Politico. “I thought that Al should’ve been able to go through the process and in the process, he would’ve been able to make the statement he had to make today [that] he was forced to make, without resigning.”
In private, Democrats on the Hill say that while Franken is responsible for his own fate, he also was the victim of bad political timing. At a moment when both parties are grappling with how to handle the accused within their ranks, Democrats felt determined to show no tolerance.
It may have been a moral conviction. But it also has political consequences. The next senator to find himself in the crosshairs may not hail, as Franken did, from a state where the governor will appoint a same-party replacement. At that point, party leadership will face a harder choice. That’s the standard that’s now been set. Most, but not all, officials insist they’ll be better off for setting it.
“I don’t doubt that certain party leaders may think about it in that way,” said Brian Fallon, a party strategist and former spokesman to Hillary Clinton. “But those are the crass tactical considerations that leads you to blur distinctions and make trade offs that feed into the cynicism that Trump is trying to stoke.”