opinion

Irony Alerts

Here’s Why Democrats Forced Al Franken to Do the Right Thing—And Why They May Come to Regret It

Do you think we’d have heard all these calls for his resignation from his Democratic colleagues if Minnesota had a Republican governor? No way.

So Al Franken is out. It was the right thing for him to do. I guess. What he did was wrong. It wasn’t asking-a-14-year-old-girl-to-take-her-clothes-off wrong, but it was wrong.

He didn’t quite admit he’d done anything wrong, though, in the Senate floor speech at noon Thursday when he announced his resignation. The stories of the last three weeks, he said, “gave people the false impression that I was admitting to doing things I had not in fact done. Some I did not do. Others I remember very differently.”

Franken then noted the “irony” of the fact that “a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office” and that another man accused of child molesting is running for the same Senate “with the full support of his party.” But even so, he said, he was going.

Yes, he had to at this point. Still, two thoughts nag at me. First, there’s some opportunism at work here. And second, if the Democrats think that taking the high ground on this one is going to score them any points, my bet is they’re sadly mistaken.

If there’s a United States senator I can actually call a friend, it’s Al. We met in 2003 when we were both visiting fellows at the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. We hung out kind of a lot. Shorenstein fellows have to do research projects. Mine was this, and Al’s was his best-selling book Lies and Lying Liars Who Tell Them. Kennedy School grad students get to select which fellow they want to work for, and of course everyone wanted to work for Al, so he had like 25 assistants.

He had parties for them at the apartment he and Franni (his wife) rented up near the Sheraton Commander. Franni cooked them elaborate and delicious meals on the brown ’60s-style pull-out electric range just like the one Samantha Stevens had in Bewitched. A couple years ago, he had a reunion party for them in Washington, to which he invited me. They nearly all came, and as far as I could see, they all, men and women, spoke of him with great and sincere affection.

None of that mitigates the wrongness of what he did, of course. There’s a great historical score to be settled here, in the name not only of the women Al did wrong, but the thousands of women down the years who’ve been treated disrespectfully by men using their power—who didn’t get that promotion, were passed over for that writing gig at Saturday Night Live, never made it to the United States Senate.

Al probably could have survived this if it had happened a year ago—that is, not in the post-Weinstein climate. That he did not in this new climate is a manifestly positive thing for society.

A part of me does wonder, though, what exactly would have been wrong in this case with letting the ethics process play out, seeing what the committee found, and determining his fate then? Liberals are supposed to love and respect process, which they sometimes do to a fault. So why short-circuit it here?

This is where I see some opportunism at work, in two ways. First, let’s cut to the chase: Do you think we’d have heard all these calls for his resignation from his Democratic colleagues if Minnesota had a Republican governor? No way. Maybe a couple senators would, but as a group they wouldn’t be nearly so cavalier about dumping him if they knew a Republican was going to replace him. And that’s fine; that’s politics. Newsflash: Politics is political. But it does make me take these high-moral-ground statements of his colleagues with a few grains of salt.

Now Gov. Mark Dayton is throwing a wrench in the works by evidently appointing a caretaker on the condition she not seek to keep the seat, which opens the seat up to the real possibility of Republican capture in 2018 (maybe by Norm Coleman, the Republican Franken defeated in 2008). I wonder how many Senate Democrats calling for Franken’s head would have thought twice if they’d known Dayton was going to pull that boneheaded move, instead of appointing a younger star like state Attorney General Lori Swanson who could build a real Senate career.

Second, obviously, the Democrats are hoping to present to America a contrast between them and the Republicans. And that contrast is real. But it, too, is not really about morality. It’s because rank-and-file Democrats take sexually inappropriate behavior a lot more seriously than rank-and-file Republicans do. This week, Quinnipiac polled about 1,700 people and asked them whether an elected official accused (and only accused) of sexual harassment or assault “by multiple people” should resign. Among Democrats it was 77 percent yes to 14 percent no. Among Republicans it was 51-37.

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Good for rank-and-file Democrats. They’re in the right place on this question, and Republicans are in the wrong one. I’m just positing that if the polls weren’t coming out like this, maybe many of these moral high horses we’ve seen mounted in the last 48 hours would have been kept in the barn.

The Democrats want to be able to say: See, when Al Franken and John Conyers are discovered to have done wrong, we don’t equivocate. We take care of it. Meanwhile, look at those Republicans. They’re all-in behind Roy Moore, whose alleged attacks on women make Franken’s look awfully tame. They have a congressman, Blake Farenthold of Texas, who reached a $84,000 settlement of his sexual harassment charge—paying it with taxpayer money—and still holds his seat with no one batting an eye. And of course, they have Donald Trump. When’s he going to be filing those lawsuits against those 16 women, by the way?

It’s a contrast, and maybe it will impress some female swing voters in Alabama. But it seems more likely that the Republican way of handling these things is going to win. Deny, deny, deny. Lie, lie, lie. Pushback, pushback, pushback. Be so outrageous—the Republican National Committee officially supporting an accused child molester!—that people can barely wrap their heads around it. Sad to say, it wins.

I’m not saying the Democrats should reduce themselves to that level. As I said, Franken should go. But I’m not sure what the Democrats are getting out of it. They’re losing one of their best and smartest senators, somebody who would have been a quite plausible presidential contender in 2020; and failing that would have been a great and important lifetime senator.

But there’s more. They’ve circumvented process and the principle of hearing from both sides. They’ve completely ignored the possibility that a person can reform himself. (Maybe Franken used to be a sexist jerk but has genuinely changed; aren’t liberals supposed to welcome that?) And they’ve blurred the line, which I think should exist, between different categories of sexual crimes, some of which are obviously worse than others. The day will almost surely come when they’ll regret having established these precedents.