When radio host Leeann Tweeden accused Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) yesterday of kissing her against her will when they were on a 2006 USO tour together, many Republicans were no doubt pleased, just as Democrats have been gleeful about the headache Roy Moore is causing the GOP. That’s what happens in politics: Whatever side you’re on, when a prominent figure from the other party is caught in a scandal, you can’t help but be happy about it.
But there’s something else happening on the issue of sexual harassment, and it shows just how radically different the two parties are on this issue at the moment. Anyone who tries to argue that there’s no moral difference between how Democrats and Republicans are reacting to these scandals is simply not being honest.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that liberal men are any less likely to be sexual harassers than conservative men. It has become more than clear that the abuse and objectification of women happens in every industry, every major institution, every religion, at every socioeconomic level and among people of every political orientation.
But we should all be asking ourselves some very hard questions, not only about the people now in positions of power but about how we’ve each thought about these issues in the past and what we want to change in the future. Democrats are doing that — perhaps imperfectly and arriving at different answers of varying quality, but at least they’re grappling with it. Republicans, by and large, are doing anything but.
The reaction to the revelation about Franken shows what I’m talking about. Despite the fact that he is a widely admired senator some were hoping would run for president, his actions were immediately condemned by many in his own party, including his Senate colleagues. No prominent Democrat is defending what he did.
So please, conservatives (or anyone else for that matter), if your argument that Democrats are being as bad on Franken as Republicans were on accusations against Donald Trump (more on him in a moment) rests on a tweet you saw where @NobodyTroll insulted Leeann Tweeden to his 12 followers, spare me. This is about the reactions of people with significant voices in the public sphere — politicians, writers, media personalities — the ones who have the ability to influence how others understand the issue.
But aren’t Republicans condemning Roy Moore? Yes, they are. But the accusations (now up to eight) against Moore about the pursuit and, in some cases, assault of underage girls are positively monstrous and suggest a different class of pathology. And while I don’t doubt that Republicans are sincerely disgusted by Moore, if he were leading by 10 points instead of falling fast in the polls and were on his way to victory, they might be talking very differently about this.
Their desperate attempts to find some solution to the problem Moore presents (such as running a whole new special election) are about making sure the seat stays in GOP hands. And of course, they’re terrified that Moore will be an ongoing PR headache for them if he wins. That’s what suggesting that the Senate expel him is about, since Alabama’s governor would appoint a (Republican) replacement. They’re certainly not so repulsed that they’ll just go ahead and say it’s better to have a Democrat in the seat for two years than an alleged child molester.
There’s something else Democrats are doing that Republicans adamantly resist: looking backward to reflect on whether they were wrong about issues of harassment in the past. There’s now a lively debate happening on the left about how to understand former president Bill Clinton, and whether they defended him in the right way. Even if they all agree that Republicans went on a witch hunt in the 1990s and that impeaching him was ridiculous, they’re asking difficult questions about whether they might have helped excuse inexcusable actions. Some liberal writers and politicians now say Clinton should have resigned when his affair with Monica Lewinsky was revealed. Others are reexamining their own reactions to the case of Juanita Broaddrick, who accused Clinton of raping her. Again, you might or might not agree with their conclusions, but you can’t say they’re not earnestly grappling with the issue.
But has any Republican come out and said, “Now that I look back, I realize that Anita Hill was probably telling the truth, and Clarence Thomas should never have been put on the Supreme Court”? That’s despite the fact that reporting later revealed ample evidence that she was and that there were other women ready to corroborate her testimony. Is there a single prominent Republican who has publicly reckoned with the unfathomably vicious campaign of character assassination their party waged on Hill? Do they have any regrets?
We don’t even have to go back that far; we only have to see what happened last October with the release of the Access Hollywood tape, in which Donald Trump bragged that when he sees beautiful women, “I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the p‑‑‑y. You can do anything.”
Perhaps my memory is faulty, but as I recall, while many Republicans condemned Trump’s words on the Access Hollywood tape, few treated them as anything but words. “Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified,” said House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). “I hope Mr. Trump treats this situation with the seriousness it deserves and works to demonstrate to the country that he has greater respect for women than this clip suggests.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Trump needed to “take full responsibility for the utter lack of respect for women shown in his comments on that tape.” The idea that Trump just needed to demonstrate more respect implicitly accepted his claim that it was nothing more than “locker room talk,” randy boastfulness that didn’t actually reflect his own actions.
Were there any prominent Republicans who demanded an investigation into how often Trump had committed sexual assault, as he bragged he could do with impunity? I don’t think there were. And then what happened when one woman after another went public — at great personal risk and without anything to gain — to say that yes, he had done to them just what he said he could do? About those allegations, we heard almost nothing from important Republicans. They essentially pretended those women didn’t exist.
But they did exist. And there were not one or two or five, but more than a dozen of them. Here are the names of women who say Trump kissed or groped them against their will: Kristin Anderson, Rachel Crooks, Jessica Drake, Jill Harth, Cathy Heller, Ninni Laaksonen, Jessica Leeds, Mindy McGillivray, Jennifer Murphy, Cassandra Searles, Natasha Stoynoff, Temple Taggart McDowell, Karena Virginia, and Summer Zervos. That doesn’t include the contestants at pageants — including teenage girls at the Miss Teen USA pageant — who related how Trump burst into their dressing rooms to watch them change clothes, behavior he also bragged about. The official White House position is that every one of those women is a liar. How many Republicans have stood up for them?
Democrats have a long way to go in figuring out how they should understand their own history and how to handle these allegations in the future, not to mention how to change a culture in which sexual harassment and abuse have been taken for granted for so long. But at least they’re starting to try — which is a lot more than you can say for Republicans.