The Senate sex-and-power calculus has come to this: Roy Moore fans say, “Al Franken isn’t dropping out. Why should our guy?” Al Franken fans say, “Roy Moore isn’t dropping out. Why should our guy?”
The language of power has, for some on both sides, displaced the language of right and wrong. We’ve gotten to the point where politics is so divisive that it’s common for both sides to reserve their outrage exclusively for acts committed by their ideological foes. When repulsive acts are revealed, no one should say, “Hang on, let me check the party affiliation of the perpetrator before I decide how I feel about this.”
The latest worrying example is a New York Times op-ed by Michelle Goldberg, entitled “When Our Allies Are Accused of Harassment.” To her credit, Goldberg, a liberal, wrote five days earlier that “Franken Should Go” (and, for good measure, in the same week she also wrote, “I Believe Juanita”). But now, she kind of thinks Franken should stay — even though the only pertinent new fact that has emerged is that Franken has essentially conceded groping a second woman.
As David French points out, you would immediately fire any man in your employ if you found out he had groped and tongue-kissed a woman without her consent, and grabbed the rear end of another woman, also without her consent, using his superior social position to assert authority over each woman’s body. The U.S. Senate must be one of the few remaining workplaces in America that even considers a wrist-slap for such acts. (No need to write in asking, “What about Trump?” Of course I agree that the many credible charges of sexual assault against him disqualify him from the presidency.)
Last week Goldberg stopped short of noting that what Franken did was unacceptable and instead calculated that his remaining would be bad for women targeted by sexual abuse — “the current movement toward unprecedented accountability for sexual harassers will probably start to peter out” — and bad for Democrats. Now Goldberg feels guilty, she says, about her previous position. “I’d called for the sacrifice of an otherwise decent man to make a political point.” After being criticized, she today stands “relieved” that Franken apparently will remain “because I adore him as a public figure.” After all, Franken has made “valuable political and cultural contributions.” He’s not nearly as bad as Trump or Moore. Why create a “sex panic” about men whose “alleged misdeeds far fall short of criminal”?
Yet Franken didn’t deny that he groped a sleeping Leeann Tweeden. That’s “far short” of the crime of sexual battery? French, an actual lawyer, begs to differ. Goldberg approvingly quotes a Washington Post column by Kate Harding arguing that if Franken goes, it will set a precedent that serves merely to “drain the swamp of people who . . . protect women’s rights and freedoms.” Points for transparency must be awarded here. Harding conceded that people like Franken make up a “swamp” and that the stench they give off is hypocrisy. She is simply worried that (though Minnesota has a Democratic governor who would replace Franken with a fellow progressive) setting a standard of casting out sex criminals regardless of party affiliation could result in a future Democratic senator being replaced by a Republican.
When you make this argument for your side, you lose the standing to object when the other side uses it.
In other words, party — not the law or the protection of women — comes first.
When you make this argument for your side, you lose the standing to object when the other side uses it. Republicans also think their agenda is what’s best for women and the whole country, hence Republicans also can argue that a Senate seat is so important that they might downplay the sexual misconduct of an actual or potential senator (such as, say, Moore). Republicans would be wrong to make that argument, but Goldberg, Harding, and many others could not credibly call them on it. “It’s a strange political fiction that anyone can really separate partisanship from principle,” Goldberg writes. But actually, anyone can do that; all too many people just don’t want to.
Only a week ago liberals were licking their lips at the prospect of painting Republicans as the party of Roy Moore. Now they face the strong possibility that, a few weeks hence, Moore (who is losing by five and eight points in the two most recent polls) will not be in the Senate while Franken and Representative John Conyers get to keep their jobs. Not only are the Democrats jettisoning their “war on women” talking point for years to come but, assuming Moore loses, they’ll be inviting Republicans to use the same charge against them. That’s quite a reversal of fortune. It would be as if John Kerry had given his 2004 “reporting for duty” speech one day, and the next day it was learned that he’d burned the American flag on a secret trip to Hanoi while hugging a portrait of Ho Chi Minh.
The best possible scenario for Democrats, assuming Franken stays, is that voters will simply shrug and think, “Neither party is serious about policing sexual misdoings.” At the conclusion of her column Goldberg says she faces two options, neither desirable. One is abandoning the moral high ground on this issue, seemingly forever. The other is the prospect of a Senate in which some other liberal Democrat replaces Al Franken. To paraphrase Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, it profits a man nothing to sell his soul for the whole world — but for Stuart Smalley?
Al Franken Staying in the Senate Would Be a Gift to the Republican Party