Al Franken announced his resignation on the floor of the Senate today, a development that makes abundantly clear that the Democratic and Republican parties have never been more different in modern American history than they are right at this moment.
Franken’s speech started off on a surprisingly defiant note, going much farther than he had up until this point in asserting that the charges made against him are not true. But that only reinforces the point I’m making about the two parties, as I’ll explain in a moment:
“Over the last few weeks, a number of women have come forward to talk about how they felt my actions had affected them. I was shocked. I was upset. But in responding to their claims, I also wanted to be respectful of that broader conversation, because all women deserve to be heard and their experiences taken seriously. I think that was the right thing to do. I also think it gave some people the false impression that I was admitting to doing things that in fact I haven’t done. Some of the allegations against me are simply not true. Others I remember very differently.”
As I argued in a piece today at The Week, when it comes to sex scandals, it’s usually the most guilty, least repentant politicians who wind up surviving, whether it’s Bill Clinton or Roy Moore or Donald Trump. Those latter two have seen their party go through the same cycle: At first the party (or at least significant portions of it) is outraged at revelations of their misbehavior and withdraws its support for their candidacy. But then, when it appears that the offender is not politically doomed, they come back to stand behind him.
Many Republicans rescinded their support for Trump after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, but then rallied around him once it became evident that his candidacy had not been destroyed. And now they’ve done the same with Moore. The president has endorsed Moore, the Republican National Committee is supporting him, and leaders such as Mitch McConnell say that it’s up to the people of Alabama to decide his fate. And just wait: If Moore wins on Tuesday, they’ll say that the voters rendered their judgment and we all need to move on, which is exactly what they say whenever the issue of Trump’s own history of sexual assault is brought up.
Franken addressed this during his speech:
“I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party.”
It has never been clearer than it is right now: While abusers come from every region, every religion, every race, every economic class and every political orientation, the Democratic Party is taking the issue of sexual harassment seriously and is willing to cast out its own if they’ve been credibly accused. The Republican Party does not take the issue seriously and is perfectly happy to tolerate serial abusers in its midst — even an accused child molester — if there might be a political cost to turning its back on them.
Whatever else you might think about those parties, right now one of them is acting with some integrity. The other is not.
It was clear from Franken’s remarks that he was prepared to fight the charges and attempt to continue his political career. And he might well have succeeded. The allegations against him are of behavior that falls on the less awful end of the sexual abuse spectrum (gropes and unwanted kisses), and his guilt would be difficult to establish in any legal sense. Given the passage of time — he isn’t up for reelection until 2020 — it isn’t hard to imagine that he could have done his work as a senator, waited for the issue to fade and found himself rehabilitated in voters’ eyes. Other politicians have survived worse scandals.
But Franken’s party wouldn’t allow it. More specifically, the women in his party wouldn’t allow it. Yesterday, upon the release of a new allegation against Franken, it was a group of Democratic women senators who came out and demanded his resignation. Over the course of the day, more and more of their colleagues joined them, until almost the entire Democratic caucus in the Senate was united. Franken obviously felt he no longer had any choice but to step down, even though it wasn’t what he wanted to do.
Contrast that with how Republicans have responded to much more egregious charges against their own. Many Republicans tried to get Moore to leave the race, but when he refused, they pretty much gave up. Not long ago Paul Ryan made an emphatic statement that “sexual harassment has no place in any workplace, let alone in the United States Congress,” but when he was asked how that might apply to the president of the United States, he dodged: “Right now, we’re focused on making sure this place works the right way.” And while Democrats pressured John Conyers into resigning, I haven’t seen any Republican call for Blake Farenthold‘s ouster.
We must keep reminding ourselves that the leader of the Republican Party is on tape bragging that he can commit sexual assault with impunity, and more than a dozen women have come forward to say that he assaulted them. That doesn’t even get into the long litany of other horrifying things he has done, like reportedly bursting into the dressing rooms at the Miss USA and Miss Teen USA pageants so that he could watch the contestants undress, something else he has bragged about (“I’m allowed to go in because I’m the owner of the pageant, and therefore I’m inspecting it…they’re standing there with no clothes, ‘Is everybody okay?’ And you see these incredible looking women, and so I sort of get away with things like that”).
It was Republicans’ most fervent hope that we’d just forget about all that, and they wouldn’t have to answer for their own role in helping Trump evade responsibility for his odious history. And before you say “What about JFK, or Bill Clinton?,” understand this: Both parties may have been guilty of tolerating the abuse of women in the past, and it’s certainly worth reconsidering what was accepted at earlier times. But right now, only one party is doing the right thing.