Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) became the first sitting senator in the post-Harvey Weinstein era to lose his job, just 24 hours after Senate Democrats abruptly ditched him over groping allegations.
But don’t give Democrats too much credit for pushing out an alleged serial groper. For one, ejecting Franken was not that big of a political risk. And you could argue that Democrats didn’t act quickly enough to position themselves as the party of principle on sexual misconduct.
Let’s start with the political risk involved. Since winning a dragged-out recount in 2009, Franken had evolved into a prolific party fundraiser and a strong social media voice for Democrats in the era of Trump. But after three weeks of allegations, he had clearly become a political liability for a party that wants to fashion itself on the right side of the #MeToo movement. So Democrats cut him loose, knowing the state’s Democratic governor will likely appoint a Democrat to hold the seat during delicate budget, tax, health-care and immigration debates, until there’s an election to replace Franken next year. (That race is likely to be competitive, but that’s a way off.)
The Democrats’ decision to force Franken to resign did come at a politically perilous time for the party. In six days, Republicans could elect Roy Moore, an Alabama politician accused of sexually assaulting teens when he was in his 30s.
And yet the only sitting members of Congress accused of sexual misconduct over the past few weeks have been Democrats. Two Republican members of Congress have been embroiled in sex scandals over the past few weeks, but they don’t involve sexual harassment claims in the #metoo era.
Before Monday, all three of those accused Democrats — Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, Franken and Rep. Ruben Kihuen of Nevada — held their seats while bipartisan ethics investigations revved up to look into their conduct.
The power dynamics shifted in a big way Tuesday. Conyers resigned after House Democrats called for him to do so days earlier. Senate Democrats had a playbook to follow to push out Franken.
Meanwhile, whatever moral high ground Republicans may have had over sexual misconduct, they lost as President Trump fully endorsed Moore on Monday and the Republican National Committee began cutting his campaign checks again.
So as Republicans embraced Moore, Senate Democrats decided Franken had to go — after the seventh accusation surfaced.
But why weren’t the previous six allegations — one of which had photographic evidence — not enough?
Democrats may need to answer to that more than their Republican colleagues. As The Fix’s Aaron Blake points out, a Quinnipiac poll finds 77 percent of Democrats think a lawmaker should lose his job over multiple sexual harassment claims. Franken didn’t lose his job for three weeks.
Now, to talk about where Democrats do deserve some credit. Members of Congress need to pause more than the private sector does when deciding whether to fire someone faced with allegations, said Kelly Dittmar, a women in politics expert at Rutgers University. “There are protections in place to ensure popularly elected officials can’t just get kicked out of office,” she said.
And Dittmar said that female senators in particular were consistent from day one that this kind of behavior is inexcusable.
Plus, members of Congress seem just as confused as the rest of us about what exactly is happening to our nation right now. The ground is shifting so rapidly on what constitutes sexual harassment and whether men in power will be held accountable for it. How can any of us know where the moral conscience of the nation stands?
Politicians on both sides are still dragging their feet into this new world of zero tolerance.