Elections

Can an Unrepentant Al Franken Torpedo Kirsten Gillibrand’s 2020 Ambitions?

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D, N.Y.) addresses the crowd after receiving news of her reelection at her midterm election night party in New York City, November 6, 2018. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters )
The disgraced ex-senator’s fans in the liberal-donor class are attempting to hobble the senator who forced his resignation in her bid for the White House.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand may have thought she had heard the last of Al Franken, her disgraced former Democratic colleague, when he exited the Capitol with a defiant and unapologetic farewell speech on the Senate floor. But Franken and his friends appear to be mounting an effort to thwart Gillibrand’s nascent candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, which she evidently didn’t expect they would do when she helped orchestrate a campaign to force the Minnesotan’s resignation last year after he fell afoul of the #MeToo movement.

Franken was one of many powerful men who were accused of sexual misconduct after the publication of multiple serious charges against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein set off the movement last year. Multiple women accused the former Saturday Night Live comedian of groping or trying to forcibly kiss them. And with Democrats eager to draw a sharp distinction between their attitudes toward the mistreatment of women and President Trump’s, he stood little chance of surviving.

Franken’s problems arose at a moment when Trump and some on the right were foolishly seeking to rally behind the failing Alabama Senate candidacy of Judge Roy Moore, after he was accused of preying on underaged girls as an adult. Democrats understandably viewed Franken as a liability who needed to be removed from the political scene as quickly as possible in order to set the stage for an improbable Alabama victory.

Gillibrand was the first member of the Senate to demand Franken’s resignation. Shortly thereafter, nine other female Democratic senators followed suit, and then male Democrats, including Minority Whip Dick Durbin, joined them. That forced the hand of Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who made it clear to Franken that he was on his own. Franken and his supporters had hoped that a drawn-out and inconclusive Senate Ethics Committee investigation into the charges would allow him to stay in place until the issue had cooled down, at which point he could be let off with a slap on the wrist. But thanks to Gillibrand, he was forced to announce that he intended to resign within 48 hours of her initial broadside.

Gillibrand and many other Democrats may have thought that was the end of the matter; Franken and his friends apparently did not.

A Politico piece published Monday reports that Franken and many of his wealthy liberal supporters still hold a grudge against Gillibrand. Numerous leading Democratic fundraisers, many still smitten with Franken and angry at what they consider Gillibrand’s disloyalty to him, are vowing that they won’t give a dime to help her become president.

This is fascinating for two reasons.

First, it suggests that Democrats as a whole are less serious about weeding out sexual misconduct in their own ranks than they’d like the world to think. Franken’s demise, even as others were losing their careers over accusations less serious than the ones he faced, was surprising. It seemed to demonstrate how much had changed in the Democratic party since it closed ranks around President Bill Clinton when he was called to account for the Monica Lewinsky affair. It was all the more painful for coming at the hands of fellow Democrats.

Second, Franken’s loyalists are now speaking of Gillibrand with the same contempt that Republicans have previously had for her. Their willingness to trash her as a cut-throat political opportunist who would betray anyone and anything to get ahead is remarkable, since they would likely denounce similar talk from Republicans aimed at any other prominent Democratic woman (like, say, Hillary Clinton) as sexist.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen’s recent, appalling effort to rehabilitate Franken and tar Gillibrand is instructive here. He appears to speak for all those Democrats who came to the conclusion that there was something disturbing about Gillibrand only after she turned on Franken. Until then, her complete, rapid transformation from a Blue Dog House member into a progressive-firebrand senator was celebrated, or at least tacitly accepted, on the left.

The hypocrisy here is staggering: The same liberal base that was ready to destroy Judge Brett Kavanaugh without any corroborating evidence of the allegations against him is still carping about Franken’s being denied the due process of a Senate investigation.

The good news for Gillibrand, however, is that Franken’s bid for revenge may help rather than hurt her in the end. She may be getting a frosty reception at some Democratic soirées today. But she just cruised to reelection against token Republican opposition, she’s already flush with campaign money, and in an era when most national candidates are relying more than ever on small donors, hostility from Franken’s fans among the liberal-billionaire class isn’t likely a kiss of death.

More to the point, by reminding us of perhaps the one moment in her career in which she can claim to have acted out of principle rather than purely partisan or personal interests, the whisper campaign against Gillibrand may actually help to establish her as the leading #MeToo advocate in what will be an overcrowded Democratic presidential field.

As for Franken, the campaign to smear Gillibrand is unlikely to create an opening for the comeback his fans apparently desire. It remains to be seen whether there is a path to redemption for any #MeToo culprit who seems unwilling and/or unable to admit that he was at fault or to demonstrate repentance. But the idea that one can do so as a liberal Democrat in a party dependent on female voters and fueled by outrage at Trump seems a bigger joke than anything Franken ever conceived in his years as a comedian. We don’t know whether Gillibrand will suffer or benefit from her defenestration of Franken, but neither he nor his friends are doing him any favors by seeking to damage her in this fashion.

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