It seems like a distant memory now, but Al Franken’s arrival in the U.S. Senate eight years ago marked the very moment when Democrats’ control of Washington reached its highest point in a generation.
After an eight-month recount, the onetime “Saturday Night Live” star had been declared the narrow winner of the 2008 election in Minnesota — and Democrats, who also held the House and the White House, had gained the 60th Senate vote they needed to push their agenda through without fear of a filibuster.
Franken’s announced departure Thursday, amid allegations of sexual misconduct, came at another inflection point for Democrats.
Shut out of power completely, they are looking for a way out of the wilderness.
Toward that end, getting rid of Franken was both a moral and political calculation. It was the Democrats’ strongest declaration yet that they — unlike the Republicans — are willing to sacrifice their own in the interest of staking out the high ground.
As the country moves into the midterm election season, it remains to be seen whether a new sensitivity toward sexual misconduct, which has found a voice in the #metoo movement, will become a more potent force than partisan loyalties.
In his speech on the Senate floor where he announced his plans to resign, Franken pointed out what, to his supporters, is a bitter irony: “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.”
That, in fact, is precisely the contrast that Democrats hope to present — as House leaders did in forcing the resignation of Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the longest-serving member of Congress, who was accused of demanding sexual favors from female staffers.
President Trump was elected last year, despite his crude boasts about mistreating women picked up on a now-famous “Access Hollywood” video from 2005, and despite claims by nearly a dozen women that he had behaved that way toward them.
Next Tuesday will answer another question: Will Bible-Belt Alabama send to the Senate a Republican who faces credible accusations of having made sexual advances on teenagers when he was in his 30s?
After Trump enthusiastically endorsed GOP nominee Roy Moore this week and the Republican National Committee resumed its financial support, GOP senators are bracing for an exceedingly awkward situation if he wins.
“Clearly, part of the wager here was to try to force Franken out before Tuesday, to draw a bright line around Moore’s alleged transgressions. Tuesday will be the test,” said David Axelrod, who was former president Barack Obama’s chief political strategist.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told reporters that Franken’s resignation also establishes a “new standard,” in which behavior that predates an official’s election can be used to judge fitness to hold office.
Some say that while Franken’s forced resignation might give the Democrats a momentary advantage, it will not be enough to overcome the deeper dynamics that drive the electorate, and will instead make voters even more disillusioned.
“Right now, Democrats have a little traction on the moral front, but we have now taken away the notion of calibration here,” said political scientist Norman J. Ornstein, a close friend of Franken. “The fact is, people are going to vote on the basis of their tribes at the moment, and the larger idea here is, they are all bad.”
Initially, Senate Democrats had said the Franken matter should be dealt with by the Ethics Committee. But the urgency mounted, as more accusers came forward, alleging acts of varying severity.
When a handful of female Democratic senators called on Wednesday for Franken’s resignation, most of their caucus followed suit within a matter of hours. People who know the Minnesota senator but who do not want to be identified speaking about his private anguish say he was stunned by the sudden turnaround of his colleagues.
Notably, Franken did not use his speech to apologize to the women who said he groped and kissed them against their will, in incidents that mostly predated his time in the Senate.
He lamented that his response to the claims “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.”
That Franken’s resignation has put Republicans off balance can be seen in the fact that some unlikely voices had risen to his defense.
“This is a party which is losing its mind,” former speaker Newt Gingrich said of the Democrats who had turned on Franken. “They suddenly curled into this weird puritanism that feels like a compulsion to go out and lynch people without a trial.”
His comments were a contrast to Trump’s reaction when the first allegation against Franken became public three weeks ago.
After broadcaster LeeAnn Tweeden posted a photo that appeared to show Franken with his hands poised to grope her breasts as she napped, Trump tweeted: “The Al Frankenstien [sic] picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words. Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 while she sleeps?”
Franken apologized for his behavior in the photo, which he said was a misguided effort to make a joke, and for having offended Tweeden by attempting to kiss her during a rehearsal for a USO show in 2006, two years before he was elected to the Senate. Tweeden said she accepted his apology.
On the other hand, Trump’s reaction to allegations against him has been to brand as liars the women who have made them. It worked, as evidenced by the outcome of the election.
In Alabama, Moore has taken the same approach.
“There seems to be a double standard in place where the people who acknowledge their behavior leave, and the people who don’t get to stay and be rewarded,” Axelrod said. “That’s a strange situation.”