At the same moment that nearly the entire Republican Party rallies around a Senate candidate who has been credibly accused of child molestation by multiple women, today we learned that Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has been accused by another woman of an unwanted, inappropriate advance.
Late this morning, a group of six female Democratic senators led by Kirsten Gillibrand called on him to resign, which essentially had the effect of rolling a bandwagon through the halls of Congress. As I write, around a dozen Democratic senators have joined the call. Franken’s office says he will have an announcement tomorrow, which means he’s probably stepping down.
Calling on Franken to resign may have been the right position to take. But it certainly feels as though we’re handling every sexual harassment case in an ad hoc way, without much of a discernible standard for what sorts of punishments are appropriate to what sorts of crimes. And politicians, being politicians, seem to be as concerned about how other politicians are responding as they are about whether we’re figuring out a coherent, consistent way to deal with these accusations.
First, the new allegations against Franken. Heather Caygle of Politico reports:
A former Democratic congressional aide said Al Franken tried to forcibly kiss her after a taping of his radio show in 2006, three years before he became a U.S. senator.
The aide, whose name POLITICO is withholding to protect her identity, said Franken (D-Minn.) pursued her after her boss had left the studio. She said she was gathering her belongings to follow her boss out of the room. When she turned around, Franken was in her face.
The former staffer ducked to avoid Franken’s lips. As she hastily left the room, she said, Franken told her: “It’s my right as an entertainer.”
This story seems quite credible, for a few reasons. This woman is a Democrat, and Caygle confirmed her story with two people she told about the incident years ago. Furthermore, we’re seeing something of a modus operandi developing with Franken. While there have been no accusations of violent assaults, the stories women have told about him suggest someone who takes opportunities with strangers or near-strangers to attempt a kiss or a grope, and then if called out, passes the whole thing off as a joke, since he’s a comedian. We should say that while Franken apologized for the other incidents (without really addressing the substance of the accusations in detail), he denies that this event took place.
It may not be an open-and-shut case that Franken is a serial abuser, but it’s starting to get close, even as there are other cases that are more clear, in both the severity of the accusations and the number of women coming forward. No honest person could contend that the dozen women who have accused Donald Trump are all liars, and so are the eight women who have accused Roy Moore — though the former is the official position of the White House and the Republican Party, and the latter is rapidly becoming the GOP’s de facto position. We should never forget that in both cases, Republicans initially expressed dismay but eventually rallied behind the perpetrators; Trump is president, and if Moore wins next Tuesday, I promise you that he’ll be seated in the Senate and Republicans will say that the election settled the matter, just as they now say about Trump.
One lesson here is that you can look for partisan advantage on this issue or you can keep some modicum of integrity, but you can’t do both. The challenge for each of us is not to just set aside our partisan biases — that’s impossible — but to acknowledge them, understand them and see if we can get past them even when it’s painful to do so.
It’s perfectly natural for each of us to feel some satisfaction when someone from the other party gets accused of deplorable sexual behavior and distress when someone from our party is accused, for both emotional and practical reasons. Like many liberals, I admired Franken a great deal as a hardworking, smart, progressive senator. Part of me would hate to see him go. And I understand why Republicans are reluctant to give up a guaranteed Senate seat in Alabama, at a time when their control of the chamber is so fragile.
But a morally sentient person has to be willing to draw lines. The fact that Republicans aren’t drawing a line at credible allegations of child molestation is what makes their current position so repugnant, but by now we should all realize that whichever party you’re in, there will be people whose positions on issues you agree with who turn out to be sexual predators. As of now there have been allegations of harassment against two Democrats in Congress in addition to Franken — John Conyers and Ruben Kihuen — and one Republican, Blake Farenthold. There will be more on both sides, of that you can be sure.
When I wrote a column after the first set of accusations against Franken emerged last month, arguing that Democrats should tell Franken to step down, I got some serious pushback from people I like and respect. Norm Ornstein called it a “Really stupid reaction.” Even my own mother, a lifelong feminist, told me she disagreed with me. I quickly began to wonder whether I had been too hasty and recommended a punishment that didn’t fit the crime.
I’ll be honest: I’m still not completely sure. When we look at cases like this, we have to ask whether we think the accused is guilty of these particular acts; just how bad those acts are; and what punishment is most fitting. There is a continuum of answers to each question. It doesn’t diminish one’s ability to condemn sexual harassment to say that grabbing a woman’s butt while posing for a picture is a rotten thing to do, but it isn’t as bad as making a woman’s workplace a nightmare of discomfort and fear, let alone committing rape.
Franken hasn’t been accused of acts like those, and many have come to the conclusion that he need not resign immediately, but should serve out the rest of his term (until 2020) and then step away. Given the nature of the allegations against Franken, particularly at a time when we’re also considering the fates of people such as Harvey Weinstein and Moore who are accused of horrifying crimes, that isn’t a crazy position to take. But it’s hard to say that Franken resigning wouldn’t be good for everyone, as a collective acknowledgement that we’re no longer willing to tolerate what women used to just be expected to endure from powerful men.
So stepping down would probably be the right thing for Franken to do. And the irony is that once momentum builds for a politician to depart, only the guiltiest ones with the least honor — like Trump and Moore — manage to resist it. If Franken does announce his resignation tomorrow, we may not have arrived at a standard that tells us what we should do with the next politician who is credibly accused, or the next after that, or the next after that. But at least we’ll know we’re moving in the right direction.