Must Senator Al Franken go? In the immediate aftermath of revelations about Franken’s (now-admitted) troubling actions toward women, progressive writers have taken opposing positions, some saying that Franken is too valuable to liberals to be dropped, while others have said that he is now too toxic to remain in office.
I have read quite a few columns about this question by left-leaning writers (and some by conservatives), and every commentator has offered serious, compelling points that make it clear that this is no easy call. Even New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, who wrote that “Franken Should Go” on November 16, admitted in a follow-up column four days later that she was wavering.
In the course of discussing the sea change in public reaction to sexual harassment and sexual predation, I wrote last week that “[i]t is not an easy call either way, but for the record, my immediate reaction was that [Franken] had to go (and that was before the second accuser came forward),” adding that “I continue to believe that he should resign.”
That was more than a week ago, and if Goldberg can begin to wobble in half that time, I decided to stop and consider whether I have had second thoughts. To the contrary, I now believe even more strongly that the Democrats should push Franken toward the door, even though I understand that not all bad actions are equally bad. As conservative Washington Post commentator Jennifer Rubin put it:
“The severity of the offense(s) and the need to protect the integrity of institutions (the press, the Congress, the presidency) should warrant permanent banishment for repeated actions of unwelcome physical conduct, even as we understand morally that some actions are worse than others.”
This is true. As a longtime fan of Franken (both his comedic work—including his wonderful books, like Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, and Other Observations—and his political commitments), I was sorely tempted to argue that, well, the photo of Franken mugging for the camera in front of a sleeping woman did not definitely show that he was touching her breasts. And besides, I considered adding, she was wearing a flak jacket, right?
Rationalization is always tempting, but I then thought about how I would feel if the person being objectified in the photo was someone I loved. For that matter, I thought about how I would feel if I were to wake up and learn that someone had done that to me while I was asleep. “I was unconscious, so if it happened, I didn’t feel it or know about it” is most definitely not how I would respond.
The strongest argument against pushing Franken out of the Senate, I think, is that future situations might not be as politically safe for Democrats. It so happens that Franken would be replaced by a Democrat, but what if a Democratic senator from a state with a Republican governor is the next one accused?
The reason that this argument does not ultimately work is that we have no idea how the public discussion of these issues is going to proceed even in the next few days, much less the next few years. If the “next Franken moment” presents a more difficult political tradeoff, Democrats can assess it when it arises. It might never happen at all, but if it does, then a not-yet-knowable set of considerations will be in play.
But would Franken’s departure not have set a precedent? And if the next set of revelations is as bad or worse, then how could we argue to keep Senator X when we dumped Franken?
Frankly, I have always thought that Democrats and liberals too often fear being accused of inconsistency. If conservative judges have taught us nothing else, it is that it is always possible to distinguish cases to prevent us from facing the unappetizing consequences of following precedent.
Or to put it in more blunt terms, people can act differently when there is good reason to do so. Given that Republicans are obviously not going to be similarly strict with offenders in their ranks, Democrats can enjoy the advantage of claiming the high ground now—“We dumped a widely admired guy who confessed and apologized; what did you do?”—and in a different enough situation later, say, “Well, we tried, but the Republicans continue to support people like Roy Moore and Donald Trump. No more unilateral disarmament on our part.”
What is the downside? We would no longer have Al Franken in the Senate. Again, I have always liked him, but that is no reason to say that he deserves to stay in office—which is a privilege, not a right. Jennifer Rubin again captures the idea:
“Congress is entitled to and should have a higher standard than Hollywood or even a run-of-the-mill workplace where an offending employee might be docked pay, demoted or suspended rather than dismissed. We still hold out hope that the White House should be held to at least that standard.”
I will certainly not be outraged if Franken stays, but I think it would be a missed opportunity for Democrats not to seize this moment.
What About Bill Clinton?
No matter what happens with Franken, it is important to understand how valuable this moment can be. Conservatives have spent the last few months screaming that liberals have been too easy on their liberal friends. Although initial claims that Harvey Weinstein was receiving kid-gloves treatment ended up being wildly off the mark, conservatives are already trying to make liberals feel uncomfortable by saying, “What about your big hero, Bill Clinton?”
This was, after all, Donald Trump’s strategy during the 2016 campaign, going so far as to bring Clinton’s accusers to sit in the front row during a debate against Hillary Clinton. Now, their claim is that because liberals say that we should “believe the women,” we must believe all claims made by women about Bill Clinton.
To which I respond: I have no problem with that. We do not even have to get into the nuances of saying that “believe the women” really means that we should no longer automatically disbelieve women, not that every accusation at all times is irrefutably true. Although that is a good argument, I believe that Clinton is very likely guilty of at least some of the things of which he has been accused, and I always have.
The problem is that conservatives think that liberals all love the 42nd president. We do not. I have written again and again about how Clinton the Triangulator was the best president Republicans ever had. His neediness and his cynicism caused him to do despicable things, such as making a huge show of presiding over the execution of a mentally impaired inmate in Arkansas during the 1992 campaign.
Moreover, Clinton’s final position on issue after issue was center-right at best (based on his strategy of “talking left but governing right”), from his orthodoxy on federal deficits to restrictive and punitive immigration policies to “ending welfare as we know it.” Bill Clinton’s record of selling out progressive values was a contributing factor to Hillary Clinton’s defeat, because many people on the left were not as convinced as I was that she had changed her views from those of her husband over the years.
Even if I had loved Bill Clinton on questions of policy, moreover, the people that I knew during the Clinton years were all deeply troubled by his obvious problems with women. The Monica Lewinsky example was important, not for the reasons that Republicans cared about but simply because the “consenting adults” defense of Clinton so cavalierly ignored the nature of true consent in the context of the most unbalanced power relationship imaginable. A college-aged woman and the most powerful man on the planet? No implicit coercion there!
It is true that Clinton’s enablers did a lot of scummy things to defend him, including reinforcing some damaging gender stereotypes, and some of the women in Clinton’s orbit were the worst offenders. But why should people like me feel challenged when someone asks us to say that that was bad? Of course it was bad. Full stop.
But what of the claim that this makes Hillary Clinton guilty, too, because she at least benefited from her husband’s political survival, and she might even have been one of the affirmatively bad actors? Again, I see no need to engage in that debate. If conservatives think that they can score points by telling people like me that the Clintons did bad things, they are going to be disappointed.
Even from the perspective of crass politics, liberals are better off if they refuse to be pulled into that pointless discussion. Yes, not everyone was as willing as they should have been to see Clinton for what he was, but the left loses nothing if they simply say now, “Yeah, Bill Clinton did things that he shouldn’t have done. He survived a hyper-partisan impeachment drive, and that was a good thing. But there is no reason to pretend that he was better than he was.”
What About Joe Biden?
A more complicated question arises about former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden, like Franken, has a record of being very good on gender-related issues in his role as a politician. Having his voice in the political conversation has in many instances been a blessing to the country, especially in the Trump era.
However, Biden has always been troubling. There have been some excellent stories written recently about Biden’s mishandling of the Anita Hill hearings in 1991, when Biden was the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Hill and others have said in no uncertain terms that Biden was “part of the problem.”
Biden was simply bad at his job, and he allowed the hearings to get out of control, failing to confront the Republicans’ efforts to discredit Hill. (Reading about those events also brings back to mind how truly awful Senator Arlen Specter had been.) Even when Biden was defending Hill at the end of the hearing, the most he could say was that “assuming for the moment what you have said is true,” he understood her reaction. Yeesh. With defenders like that, who needs prosecutors?
Interestingly, Biden would have had trouble running for president in 2016, which of course was before the recent change in attitudes about sexual harassment, even without the Hill issue. Back in February of 2015, when Jon Stewart was still its host, “The Daily Show” ran a piece on Biden called “The Audacity of Grope.”
The piece shows Biden “getting handsy” with various women—and at least one young girl—during photo ops. What is especially odd about Biden’s actions is that he somehow managed to be far too physical with those women yet somehow not come across as a sexual predator. I hasten to add that what I just wrote is not a defense. He was extremely creepy and inappropriate, and I remember thinking at the end of the piece, “Wow, Jon Stewart just ended Joe Biden’s presidential chances.” Imagine the Trump campaign in possession of that kind of raw material.
The point is that no one is irreplaceable, and even “good guys” are not always worth defending. Again, if conservatives want to score points by saying, “Hey, you liberals should take a look at yourselves,” my answer is, “Yes, and Biden is not someone I feel the need to defend.”
I am very glad that Biden has tried (in an unfortunately limited way) to apologize for the Hill fiasco and that he has tried to be a voice for improving society’s treatment of women. I really am. But that does not mean that I have to ignore the full truth about him.
What makes Clinton and Biden especially easy calls, of course, is that they are both part of history. Biden is still allowing people to speculate about another possible presidential run in 2020, but his age alone will make that a non-starter, and if he does try to run, his track record suggests that he will not get very far.
If we are going to try to make any real progress, no one on the left should feel in the least bit hesitant to admit what is true about Bill Clinton or Joe Biden. We should not get tied up in knots about whether Franken “deserves to lose his career.” We do ourselves no favors by expending effort defending these men—even though they are, on their worst days, infinitely better than the current occupant of the White House.