The question of whether Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) would resign following allegations that he groped, forcibly kissed and otherwise manhandled a number of women seemed to have been resolved after many Democratic senators came out and firmly declared that he would have to go. Bowing to the seemingly inevitable, Franken resigned — while saying his final departure would come at some point “in the coming weeks.”
That put an end to the steady drip of groping allegations against him. It possibly contributed to Democrat Doug Jones’s upset victory over Republican Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race. It permitted the Democratic party to renew its focus on more than a dozen women who claim Donald Trump sexually harassed them and to call for his resignation over the events. Taken together, it all seemed as if the Democratic Party was moving toward a decision on how to position itself in the #MeToo world.
But that was last week.
Politico reports that no fewer than four Democratic senators are now saying it was all a mistake. Sen. Joe Manchin of Virginia, for one, said he never supported the decision and would like to see Franken walk it back. “I hope they have enough guts … and enough conscience and enough heart to say, ‘Al, we made a mistake asking prematurely for you to leave,’” Manchin said. Another senator, who asked for anonymity, told the publication, “In retrospect, I think we acted too fast.”
Politico also reported that Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who supported the attempt to push Franken to resign, told Manchin that he now regrets his position, according to people “familiar with the conversation.” (Leahy wouldn’t comment to Politico.)
This is a mistake. Democrats need to stick to their original position on Franken. To do anything else makes it look like Democrats are not taking sexual harassment charges seriously and are, instead, using them expeditiously as an electoral weapon.
First, #MeToo is in a bit of a pushback moment. There are an increasing number of people stepping forward to say that maybe, perhaps, this is all going too far. Comparisons to everything from the anti-communist Senate hearings of the McCarthy era to the Salem witch trials are not exactly hard to find. People accused of misbehavior are not slinking off as fast — Tavis Smiley, for one, is taking to the talk-show circuit, defending himself against accusations at PBS that he engaged in inappropriate workplace relationships by saying it was consensual office dating.
Franken is a likely candidate for this sort of revisionism. He was both an extremely effective and popular senator before the allegations. He was being talked about as a potential presidential contender in 2020. The Democrats didn’t lose a semi-anonymous back-bencher to #MeToo. They lost one of their stars.
There are a lot of people who truly believe Franken should not have resigned — that what he is accused of doing, while not nothing, does not rise to the level of a firing offense. Groping, while not exactly welcome, is not on par with romancing (as Roy Moore was accused of) a 14-year-old. Franken was set to be investigated by the Senate Ethics Committee. There is a process, and it was moving forward.
Finally, it’s not like Franken fully admitted guilt and slunk off with his tail between his legs. Instead, he claimed he could not effectively serve his constituents while undergoing an ethics investigation. His floor announcement was not exactly apologetic. “Some of the allegations against me are simply not true. Others, I remember very differently.”
So was Franken hoping that by still not fully admitting to the charges against him and delaying the actual resignation until early January, he would possibly be begged to change his mind when this moment came? No one besides Franken can answer that. But if that was the plan, despite Manchin and the other anonymous senators, it’s not the right move.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) quickly appointed Lt. Gov. Tina Smith (D) to finish Franken’s term. She’s now calling herself the “United States Senator-Designate.” Do you really need me to tell you the optics of going back on this now would be horrific?
The resistance to Trump has been predominantly driven by women. Millions of women poured into the streets for the big Women’s March last January. Women have been taking on the bulk of the volunteer work of the resistance, knocking on doors and hosting phone banks in states around the country on behalf of candidates ranging from Jon Ossoff to, yes, Doug Jones. More women are running for office.
And, of course, the women of the Senate, seemingly led by New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, rose up and began to call for Franken’s resignation when the drip-drip-drip of accusations by women alleging Franken groped them became too much.
And make no mistake, Franken resigned. He could have fought back and tried to hang on. He did not.
Casting doubt on what happened with Franken now makes it seem as if Democrats take women’s concerns in this area seriously only when they need them imminently at the election booth and then abandon those concerns as soon as they do not. Do Democrats really want women to believe this?
If Democrats want women to be there for them, they need to continue to be there for women. Gaslighting Gillibrand and the other female senators who backed her, while humiliating Smith and casting doubt on Franken’s accusers, is the exact wrong way to go about that.