Democrats Missed Opportunity

Democrats Missed Their Opportunity

Amy Walter
November 28, 2017

We are reportedly at a “watershed” moment on the issue of sexual harassment. Women, emboldened by the Harvey Weinstein revelations, have come out of the shadows of shame and stigma to tell their own stories of harassment and assault. It's also been a time of “reckoning” for Democrats who once excused or defended President Bill Clinton over accusations of abuse and harassment. From an electoral standpoint, this new focus on empowering and energizing women voters should be an opportunity for Democrats. In Alabama, Democrats have a chance to steal away a bright-red Senate seat thanks to assault accusations against Republican Roy Moore. It’s also an opportunity for them to prove to voters that the party demands the highest standards of conduct from its representatives in Congress. An opportunity to show that Democrats won’t put party over doing the right thing. Yet, I have been struck by the lack of “watershed-level” response to Democrats' handling of allegations against Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers, two members of their own party. Instead of meeting the moment, Democrats have missed it.

First, there was Leader Nancy Pelosi’s political face-plant on Meet the Press this weekend. When pressed by moderator Chuck Todd as to the fate of Conyers given her call for “zero tolerance” regarding sexual harassment, she gave this garbled — and wholly unsatisfying — reply:

We are strengthened by due process. Just because someone is accused — and was it one accusation? Is it two? I think there has to be — John Conyers is an icon in our country. He has done a great deal to protect women — Violence Against Women Act, which the left — right-wing — is now quoting me as praising him for his work on that, and he did great work on that. But the fact is, as John reviews his case, which he knows, which I don’t, I believe he will do the right thing.

A few hours after the taping, Conyers stepped down from his leadership post, while still denying the charges against him. On Monday, Pelosi released a statement saying that she had personally spoken with one of the accusers, Melanie Sloan, and said she “find[s] the behavior Ms. Sloan described unacceptable and disappointing...[And] believe[s] what Ms. Sloan has told [her].” Sloan had publicly accused Conyers with “berating her” while she worked for him in the 1990s. Sloan's story was in the Washington Post on November 22 — four days before Pelosi’s Meet the Press interview. When asked if she “believed” the accusers by Todd on Sunday, Pelosi replied: “I don’t know who they are. Do you? They have not really come forward.”

In an interview Monday morning on NPR, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who serves with Conyers on the Judiciary Committee, defended Conyers' right to due process, while also questioning the veracity of the source of the information. BuzzFeed, who broke the Conyers story, was given documents, including four signed affidavits, by Mike Cernovich, the conservative activist behind the “Pizzagate” conspiracy. Lofgren said:

Well, I think we can wait until either more material comes forward, if that happens, or if the Ethics Committee finishes promptly, I would hope, their investigation. He's served for more than 50 years. He contests the allegations. They were given to the BuzzFeed organization by a political operative. We want to make sure that they're accurate. A little due process doesn't hurt.

Democrats and Republicans both agree that the Office of Compliance, the agency responsible for handling claims of harassment in Congress, must be overhauled. The process is opaque and confusing. The payouts are secret. The members are shielded from public scrutiny. Congress is set to vote on a resolution next week that requires staff and members to undergo sexual harassment training. Still, these are around the edges sorts of changes. Most workers in America have sexual harassment training requirements. More important, these actions fail to address the bigger and more pervasive trust deficit between the public and Congress. If you say you have a “zero tolerance” policy, the policy should reflect that pledge. As of late Tuesday afternoon, only two Democrats, Reps. Kathleen Rice (NY) and Pramila Jayapal (WA), have publicly called for Conyers' resignation.

While Pelosi and Lofgren are correct that every American, including a member of Congress, has a right to due process, they also fail to appreciate how tone-deaf their responses sound. After all, these aren’t just regular Americans in a regular job. They are public servants. They should want Americans to expect that a member of Congress will be held to a higher standard than a famous journalist or a Hollywood movie mogul.

Kicking the investigations of Conyers and Franken to the ethics committee fails to clear that higher standard. First, this is the kind of solution to the problem of sexual harassment we would have gotten 20 years ago. Where’s the “watershed” in that? Moreover, with approval ratings of Congress at close to zero percent, why would any normal person trust the findings of a congressional committee investigating one of its peers?

I’m not a constitutional scholar, nor a lawyer, but I’m sure that there have to be some smart, creative people up on the Hill who could come up with a more transparent, accountable and efficient way to assess sexual harassment claims than the clunky, opaque and over-extended ethics committee. Perhaps aware of these concerns, Pelosi sent a letter to the leaders of the ethics committee late Tuesday afternoon urging them to "swiftly pursue" these allegations. In the event that the committee need "additional resources to fairly and swiftly pursue these investigations," she enocouraged the committee to "please make that need known." 

Unlike Conyers, Franken has openly and publicly apologized for his behavior. Democrats also take pains to distinguish his actions from the far more serious allegations against Roy Moore. Moore is accused of molesting girls, while Franken grabbed the chest of (clothed) grown woman while she slept. Moreover, Franken has apologized for his behavior, while Moore continues to try and undermine the validity of the women who have come forward to tell their stories.

Even so, the apology wasn’t exactly the kind of ground-breaking moment we might expect in this new moment. The Minneapolis Star Tribune found Franken’s press conference this week to fall short. “Without saying he didn't do it, he nevertheless has countered every allegation except the one that carries indisputable proof — the infamous photo of him appearing to grab at Tweeden while she slept,” wrote the Star Tribune editorial board. “Under such circumstances, Franken's apology is less a statement of accountability and more akin to "I'm sorry for what you think I did."

Meanwhile, Democratic leadership in the Senate has not called on Franken to resign. Instead, they – and Franken – have asked the ethics committee to investigate these claims.

Given the lack of immediate consequences for Conyers and Franken, it isn’t all that surprising that despite expectations of a flood of accusations, we’ve seen just a trickle. To be sure, some of that is due to the fact that women have signed non-disclosure agreements. Still, there have to be others who don’t fall under those restrictions, including those who are witnesses to the harassment, who might speak out if they believed doing so would get prompt results.

Republicans, meanwhile, have had their own struggles on the issue. There’s already been a public split between Senate Republicans, President Trump and Alabama Republicans as to the fate of — and innocence of — Roy Moore. This will only be exacerbated should Roy Moore win. They will also have their own reckoning moment if one of their own members gets accused of harassment, especially by a staffer. But, Democrats had the first shot at breaking new ground. Privately trying to get Conyers to resign doesn't cut it.  Imagine if, instead,  Democratic leaders stood up and said, “this is unacceptable, this is the line in the sand, and these are the consequences.” Maybe it would have been public call for resignation or expulsion. Or, a loss of committee assignments. Or, the loss of their pension. Yes, it would be messy. Yes, it might be challenged in court. And, yes it would have caused intra-party friction. But, it would be a shock to the system. It would say to voters that we are able to exceed the low expectations you have set for us. Instead, the system — and the status quo — continue to survive.

Image Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik