Sometime today, Al Franken will resign his Senate seat. The Democrats are hoping for a banner year, and from all indicators it looks like they’ll have one, and I hope they do—if they take back one house, this horrid Trump/GOP agenda is done for.
But the Democrats’ 2018 is sure getting off to a dubious start. Franken should not be going. When he announced his resignation on December 7, I wrote a column saying that Democrats would come to regret what they’d done to him. Nevertheless, I wrote, his resignation was probably the right and necessary thing under the circumstances.
The Twitter response to the piece was huge—about four or five times the normal response I get. And it was, as near as I can remember, literally unanimously in defense of Franken. This made me start rethinking things. Yes, I still think the Democrats will regret this. But was his resignation really the right and necessary thing?
For three weeks, I've been sitting around wondering why no pollster was asking Minnesota's voters. It was astonishing to me that no one bothered. That was apparently that, and we’d so easily moved on. But now, someone has polled it, and the PPP survey of 671 Minnesotans taken the two days after Christmas says precisely what I and a lot of other people expected it to say.
For starters, Minnesotans believe he should not have resigned by 50-42 percent. You may be thinking, “Well, that’s kinda close.” Yes, but it’s the only number that is close.
Should the ethics committee investigation have played out, or should he have resigned immediately? Complete investigation, 60-35. Should this have been up to Minnesota voters, or other senators in Washington? The former, 76-12. The only groups that really want to see Franken go are Republicans and Trump voters, and that’s presumably not because their gender-politics values were offended. Republicans backed the resignation by 71-19. Democrats said he should not resign by 71-22, and they were joined by independents, who said by 52-41 that Franken shouldn’t quit. Finally, the poll showed Franken with higher levels of support among women than men. Only 38 percent of women said Franken should resign, while 46 percent of men said so.
In other words, the only Minnesotans who wanted Franken to go are the people who (I think we can safely assume) wanted him out for partisan or ideological reasons: because he was, among Democratic senators, literally the single most effective questioner of Trump administration officials who came to testify before the Senate, because he exposed Jeff Sessions as a liar under deft examination, because he was going to be a major thorn in the Trump administration’s side for as long as it lasts. These Minnesotans don’t care how many buttocks he squeezed, or whether he squeezed one. They want a really smart and effective Democrat replaced by a hopefully less smart and effective one. And the Democrats did their work for them.
But that isn’t the main point. The main point is that Franken didn’t have a chance to defend himself. He has maintained publicly that he didn’t do most of the things he’s been accused of. Democrats are supposed to believe in things like a fair process and hearing both sides and letting a person defend himself. In this case, they did not. They will face, and deserve to face, very tough questions of their own, starting with New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who started this Queen of Hearts-ish avalanche. She came in for a lot of heat on my Twitter feed, and elsewhere, I’ve noticed. And props to Pat Leahy for being the only Democrat to come forward and admit on the record that he was wrong to call for Franken’s resignation. It would help, a little, if more of them had the courage to do the same.
Now. The fair questions that Franken’s defenders—and as I noted in my previous column on this, I’m not just his defender but a friend since the time we were both Shorenstein fellows in 2003—are these. First, what if more and more groping allegations had surfaced? And second, can it be argued that the Democrats’ drawing of a firm line in the sand on sexual matters, as they did with both Franken and John Conyers, helped clarify muddy waters and maybe even helped elect Doug Jones over Roy Moore in Alabama?
The answers to both questions are unknowable of course, but I will concede that maybe the answer to both questions is yes. It’s easy, only these few weeks later, to forget what it felt like when the fifth then sixth then seventh woman came forward. It looked pretty indefensible. And as for the Alabama connection, it might be this. Until Franken announced he was quitting, Democrats on Capitol Hill were being asked daily by reporters, ‘But what about your own problems?’ Once Franken and Conyers were out, those questions stopped. The “both sides do it” narrative was cut off at the knees. The media focus returned solely to Moore, and while these things are definitionally unmeasurable, it may have had an impact on that outcome.
But all that’s conjecture. What isn’t conjecture is what happened, and what happened is disgraceful. The next time someone else is accused of something, and Democrats say “let the process play out”—because maybe that next someone will be from a state with a Republican and not a Democratic governor—how convincing will that sound?
And finally, that poll should persuade Franken that his career isn’t necessarily over. And if he does come back, and Chuck Schumer is the majority leader, I hope Schumer restores his seniority. It’s the least he could do to signal that he knows this was reactive, expedient, and wrong.