All eyes have been on the Republican Party following the growing sexual misconduct allegations against their Senate candidate in Alabama.
Most Democratic lawmakers who have spoken publicly about the allegations have called for an end to former judge Roy Moore’s political career. Capitol Hill has no place for politicians accused of multiple sexual misconduct allegations, they say.
But the scandal has also forced Democrats to re-examine their own history of responding to accusations of sexual assault, especially when new claims surface against one of their own.
Al Franken has been accused of unwanted kissing and groping by a former model during a 2006 USO tour, two years before the Minnesota Democrat was first elected to the U.S. Senate. Leann Tweeden recounted the incident in a blog post for the radio station where she works as an anchor and included a photo of Franken's hands over her breasts while she slept.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) said he hopes there soon will be an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee, which has the authority to recommend expelling a senator. “Sexual harassment is never acceptable and must not be tolerated,” Schumer said in a statement.
But this is not the same approach Democrats took decades ago when President Bill Clinton was facing allegations of sexual assault and harassment, a point Donald Trump and Republicans often made during the 2016 election when Hillary Clinton attempted to draw attention to the allegations against Trump.
More than two decades ago, Democrats did not immediately believe the accusers. James Carville, Clinton’s then-strategist, once infamously said: “If you drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find.”
In a 1998 New York Times op-ed, feminist Gloria Steinem went as far as to blame the women in a manner that most would consider victim-blaming in 2017.
Some have said, if they could turn back time, they’d approach the allegations against Clinton differently.
With Franken, Democrats now have a chance. And many have responded strongly.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the highest-ranking female Democratic senator, said: “This is unacceptable behavior and extremely disappointing. I am glad that Al came out and apologized, but that doesn’t reverse what he’s done or end the matter. I support an ethics committee investigation into these accusations and I hope this latest example of the deep problems on this front spurs continued action to address it.”
And Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, said: “There is never an excuse for this behavior — ever. What Sen. Franken did was wrong, and it should be referred to the Ethics Committee for review.”
Franken first issued a brief apology and said he didn’t recall the incident the way Tweeden did, but he later issued a longer apology: “There’s no excuse” he said. He welcomed the ethics investigation, saying he will “gladly cooperate.”
While Franken’s acknowledgment of his problematic behavior is different than the approach taken by Moore or Trump, Democrats have to ask themselves: Will we respond to our own tribe with the intensity that they did Moore?
While Franken has already agreed to participate in the investigation, only time will tell how his fellow party members will respond to these allegations. History has not consistently been on their side on this matter.
“The Democratic Party needs to make its own reckoning of the way it protected Bill Clinton. The party needs to come to terms with the fact that it was so enraptured by their brilliant, Big Dog president and his stunning string of progressive accomplishments that it abandoned some of its central principles. The party was on the wrong side of history, and there are consequences for that. Yet expedience is not the only reason to make this public accounting. If it is possible for politics and moral behavior to coexist, then this grave wrong needs to be acknowledged. If Weinstein and Mark Halperin and Louis C.K. and all the rest can be held accountable, so can our former president and so can his party, which so many Americans so desperately need to rise again.”
Democrats often campaign on being the party of women. Now is the opportunity to put action and policies behind campaign rhetoric and tweets.