The Democratic party’s strategy for responding to the Al Franken scandal is now apparent: Taking up Franken’s own hint in his apology statement, there will be an “Ethics Committee investigation.”
Investigate what, Senate Clouseaus? Franken has been caught on film. When Los Angeles radio host Leeann Tweeden said that during a 2006 USO tour Franken used his position as an entertainer to rope her into kissing him in the guise of a rehearsal for a sketch, that was repellent enough. Franken “put his hand on the back of my head, mashed his lips against mine and aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth,” Tweeden said, and Franken offered no specific alternative story, only a lame suggestion that “I don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit as Leeann does.”
Franken might be able to shake this off if he could depend on conflicting memories. But he can’t. Because of that photo. The sex-abuse scandal is becoming, to cultural history, what Watergate was to political history. It is gigantic. It is era-defining. And among the dozens of famous people implicated in it, the Franken photo is the most damning and irrefutable evidence yet to emerge. It’s a tableau of our time. It is the photo of our moment. It’s the kind of smoking gun you couldn’t use in a Law & Order episode because it would be too blatant. It will never disappear from the national consciousness.
Consider the breathtaking way each detail reinforces the horror of the others: A Hollywood celebrity who will soon be a Democratic senator is molesting a woman. While she’s asleep. And in military gear, because she’s traveling to support our troops. In a war zone. And Franken is smiling. While shamelessly posing for the photographer. How can we ever cease to be amazed and appalled by this photo? It is to the sex war what the picture of the summary execution of that Viet Cong prisoner was to the Vietnam War.
Yet as the Senate circles the wagons around Franken, it’s liberals and Democrats who should be angry — not Republicans. To Republicans it’s Thanksgiving come early. It makes no difference to the Republican policy agenda whether Franken or some other generic liberal Democrat holds that seat. If Franken remains, Roy Moore’s chances of victory in Alabama increase. It makes it too easy for Republicans in Alabama to say, “Wait a minute, we’re supposed to end the career of Roy Moore, a legend in this state, when Democrats won’t expel Franken? Why should we agree to unilateral ethics enforcement?” Should Moore make it to the Senate, Democrats will be able to cast Republicans as the party of sex creeps only if they expel Franken. Every time Moore’s name is mentioned, the response will be, “What about Al Franken? And by the way, what about Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy?”
True, in a certain sense this isn’t fair. What Moore probably did is worse than what Franken admitted doing. But politics isn’t fair. Whataboutism and crying hypocrisy aren’t very strong moral arguments, but they’re easy to make and they’re emotionally satisfying. And a photograph of obvious wrongdoing simply carries more salience than a verbal allegation — even if the allegation is credible and even if the behavior alleged is worse than that seen in the photo.
Democrats who just this week were saying they would no longer tolerate Bill Clinton–type behavior can prove it. They can make a clear break with the past by saying no more sexual misbehavior will be tolerated, even by beloved party members. They could then leverage that moral clarity in 2018 to seek the votes of the married women who are wary about the liberal agenda but might be persuadable. Instead, they’re protecting their own. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand either can position herself as America’s leading tribune for women victimized by sexual assault or she can support keeping Franken in the Senate, but not both. Her initial gambit — his apology isn’t enough but “I expect to hear more” from Franken — is insufficient. What more is there for Franken to say now that he has admitted guilt and apologized? The Democrats are creating a three-word weapon with which the GOP will never stop beating them over the head: What. About. Franken.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.