Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said everything he could say — even that there were no words to wipe away the sexual conduct he has already apologized for. (“I know there are no magic words I can say to regain your trust and that it’s going to take time.”) He sounded remorseful, not defiant. He said he’d cooperate fully with the ethics committee. He did not smear his accusers. And yet, one wonders if that will be enough to spare him, or if it should spare him.
It took a churlish and sanctimonious Republican voice, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, to remind us that Republicans are behaving like hypocrites, like pols who never embraced and endorsed President Trump, who has been accused of serial sexual misconduct by a list of women longer than even Roy Moore’s known accusers. “The things he’s already admitted to I find to be outrageous and offensive — and I do think on that alone he should consider resigning,” Rubio told WFOR-TV in Miami. And would Rubio say the same of Trump? And if so, why not?
So, here we are in a “whataboutism” dilemma, trying to differentiate between the accused sexual miscreants and yet not play partisan politics. We shouldn’t overcompensate for “whataboutism” with an injudicious approach to running every public figure who has misbehaved out of public life. For one thing, we’d run out of public figures.
There are some basic guidelines we might follow.
For starters, no one who has endorsed Trump and has stood by him has the moral authority to judge political opponents accused of sexual misconduct. Rubio is an enabler of Trump; he is also a once-respected pol who helped normalize Trump and protect him from the consequences of his actions (sexual and otherwise). Whatever Rubio’s motives now, unless and until he calls for a full investigation of Trump, pledges not to support his reelection and commits to throwing Moore out of the Senate if he is elected, he should pipe down about Franken and other Democrats. Rubio’s moral compass is broken. His views on the topic therefore are worthless to all but his fellow partisans.
Second, adults make moral and legal distinctions all the time. To spell it out, a serial child predator is worse than a serial adult sexual predator, who is worse than a crude comedian who had no business touching women without their consent. The conclusion that Moore doesn’t belong in the Senate does not mean Franken should be thrown out. Franken deserves punishment, but the severity of that punishment does and should depend on the facts.
Third, unfortunately, good people do bad things, and they need to be held accountable for their misconduct. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) an “icon,” citing his role in opposing the Vietnam War and in the civil rights movement. She properly did not say he should be let off the hook for his alleged offenses against women. And that’s the key takeaway — one can respect the accused and mourn the fall from grace of one’s political idols, but that doesn’t give them immunity for whatever actions they committed.
Fourth, due process applies in courts and to a degree in the ethics procedures in Congress (although Congress can set rules of evidence, for example, that are quite different from those accepted in a court). It does not apply to voters urging miscreants to resign or not to seek reelection. It doesn’t apply to other public figures who are expected to show moral leadership in evaluating conduct that brings disgrace on their party, their institution and our democracy.
Finally, the notion that Trump’s press secretary propagated, namely that Franken is a greater malefactor because he confessed and apologized, is morally obnoxious. Remorse should not necessarily spare the accused, but Trump’s and Moore’s refusal to come to terms with their alleged action and their indulgence in wild conspiracy theories (there is a report that Trump has said the “Access Hollywood” tape might not have been authentic!) make them worse, much worse, than someone who seeks to make amends.
These are not easy situations, but we can avoid moral hypocrisy and blindness by distinguishing bad actors from worse ones, holding all politicians to a standard that like actions should result in like punishments regardless of party, and by treating accused who falsely smear their accusers harshly.