Back in the early ’90s, Al Franken — via his fictional alter ego, Stuart Smalley — was fond of saying, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”
Well, he’s not likeable enough anymore.
Democrats pointed “The Giant of the Senate” toward the exit, and late this morning, on the Senate floor, marking “the worst day of my political life,” he called it quits. After a seventh woman surfaced this week to accuse him of sexual groping, that was deemed to be the final straw — understandably so. Seven is a behavior pattern. But in the broader sense, Democrats have sacrificed Franken for moral and political reasons; the moral reasons strike me as sound; the political calculations, somewhat less so.
Given their longstanding brand as the female-friendly party — fighting for gender equality and women’s rights — Democrats in Washington needed to show that they can live the values they espouse. The allegations against Franken and John Conyers (whose alleged conduct was worse) had reached critical mass. According to a new national poll, 77 percent of grassroots Democrats say that if an elected official is hit with multiple sexual harassment claims, he should resign.
The message for Democrats was clear: Clean house and seize the moral high ground. Send an affirmative, zero-tolerance message to the electorate. Set a good example. As the commentator Ezra Klein contended yesterday in a tweet, “Democrats holding themselves to higher standards is a step toward everyone being held to higher standards.”
It’s true: if Al Franken should resign, so should Donald Trump. But the fact that Trump won’t resign doesn’t mean Franken shouldn’t. Democrats holding themselves to higher standards is a step towards everyone being held to higher standards. It doesn’t happen all at once.
— Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) December 7, 2017
But, of course, the Democrats haven’t sacrificed Franken for those reasons alone. They are, after all, in the business of politics. Their political goal here is to draw a clear contrast with the amoral Republicans — led by accused serial harasser Donald Trump — who think it’ll be fine and dandy to seat a credibly accused child molester in the Senate. The message is: “One party pushes Franken out, the other party wants Roy Moore in. Which is more worthy of swing voter support?” Which is a lot like what Michelle Obama said last year: “When they go low, we go high.”
Yeah, that worked out real well.
In a column 16 days ago, when Franken was first accused, I suggested that the Democrats would be nuts to practice “unilateral disarmament.” In this era when political battles are fought on the low road, how often have Democrats won by hewing to the high road? When they try to be good, Trump-era Republicans are only too happy to break bad. Just last week, Republicans in Washington had no qualms whatsoever about blowing up norms by muscling a grotesque tax “reform” bill through the Senate without a single public hearing.
Commentator Dahlia Lithwick rightly warns that it’s “deeply naïve” to think that Democrats can win “a game of righteous ball, in which the object is pride and purity, and Dems are the only ones playing … In the event that you doubt that the war is asymmetric, ask yourself how long it took for the same GOP that was disavowing Moore a month ago to embrace him, and to embrace him again in the face of new evidence … While we know that our good faith and reasonableness are virtues, we currently live in a world where it’s also a handicap.”
It’s morally sound for Democrats to insist that Franken resign the Senate; if they want to live up to their ideals, fine. But that won’t make scintilla of difference to the GOP and its supporters. At last glance, nearly 60 percent of white women in Alabama are solid for Moore. Indeed, Franken, in his resignation remarks, said “there is some irony” that Moore is thriving as a candidate with money and support from the GOP.
If this were a rational political environment, Trump — hit with more serious accusations by 16 women — would join Franken on the resignation trail. Indeed, the aforementioned national poll reports that 66 percent of Americans want all multiple-accused elected officials to resign; and that 73 percent say it’s hypocritical for Trump to tweet attacks on other accused men. But we all know that he and his party enablers have no shame, and no interest in catering to the American majority.
The big questions can’t be answered until the midterm elections next November: Can the high road on sexual harassment translate to victory at the ballot box? Can Franken’s exit cleanse the Democrats and help them taint the GOP as the sexual harassment party and build a tsunami? Is sexual harassment truly the issue that will animate the electorate one year from now?
It’s conceivable. GOP strategist Rick Tyler, who previously toiled for Ted Cruz and Newt Gingrich, said this week: “All things being equal, the Republican Party has set itself up for a wave election in 2018. The seduction is now complete. The GOP made a deal with the devil back in 2016 — the problem with making a deal with the devil is that the devil is always going to change the terms. The deal now has been changed to where the Republican Party is endorsing accused child molesters for public office. And I think that may be irreparable.”
Yeah, maybe. It’s also conceivable that, as typically happens in midterms, the Franken-free Democrats won’t be good enough or smart enough.