Political Fallout From Franken Resignation

Amy Walter
December 7, 2017

Even before Sen. Al Franken took to the Senate floor to announce his resignation Thursday afternoon, theories about its broader political implications were already flying fast and furious.

In sum, there are two essential arguments being made:

  1. Democrats put purity over politics, which will give them the moral high ground but little else
  2. Democrats have set up a brilliant contrast with Republicans for 2018 between a party that protects women and a party that protects men accused of harassment.

Let’s flesh these out.

Two Democrats with high-profile harassment claims logged against them – Franken and Rep. John Conyers – have resigned, while President Trump, who has been accused by multiple women of harassment, remains in office. Next week, the Senate may also have in its ranks a Republican Senator accused of molesting teenage girls. The contrast couldn’t be clearer or starker, goes one line of conventional wisdom. In this #MeToo environment, sexual harassment is more politically toxic than ever. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 70 percent of Americans, including 39 percent of Republicans and 66 percent of independents, think Congress should investigate charges of sexual harassment against Trump.

But, the lines are simply not that clear cut.

First, many Democrats, instead of praising the party for following through on its "zero tolerance" rhetoric, are angry that they are putting a Senate seat at peril for the sake of political purity. Moreover, they argue, there’s a huge difference between what Franken is accused of doing (boorish) and what Moore is accused of doing (criminal). 

Of course, it’s important to remember that Senate Republicans were unified in calling for Moore to drop out of the Senate race. NRSC Chair Cory Gardner, the guy responsible for ensuring Republicans electoral success in 2018, went even farther, calling for the Senate to expel Moore should he win.

However, unlike Conyers or Franken, Moore didn’t heed their advice. And, of course, neither did the President who has endorsed the former Alabama Supreme Court judge. The RNC has also re-engaged in the contest, while the NRSC continues to stay out of it. Most recently, the NRSC’s Gardner told the Weekly Standard: "Roy Moore will never have the support of the senatorial committee. We will never endorse him. We won’t support him. I won’t let that happen. Nothing will change. I stand by my previous statement."

This is just the latest example of the dysfunction within the Republican party. That dysfunction will be in stark display in 2019 should Moore win and Democrats demand that Republicans live up to their previous pledge of investigation and expulsion.

Democrats are also held to a higher standard on the issue of sexual harassment. Not only do they promote themselves as the party of diversity, but they depend on women voters for their electoral base. And, women view the issue of harassment and the role of women in society much differently than men. When asked if they thought sexual harassment was a serious issue at their workplace, 46 percent of women agreed compared with just 27 percent of men. A Pew survey found that 57 percent of women said the country “hasn’t gone far enough when it comes to giving equal rights with men.” Just 42 percent of men agreed with this statement.

Another YouGov survey that has been getting lots of attention this week found that 64 percent of Democrats believe sexual harassment is a serious issue problem, compared with just 37 percent of Republicans.

Also, before anyone gives Democrats a "moral high ground" award, it’s worth noting that while Franken and Conyers willingly left their jobs, they failed to take full responsibility for their actions. Conyers continues to deny the accusations, telling a local Detroit radio program: "We take these in stride. This goes with the issue of politics, the game of politics which we’re in."

Franken personally apologized to radio personality Leeann Tweeden after she released a picture of the then-comedian groping her while she slept. However, he was less than apologetic about the other women who have since come forward to accuse him of groping them. In his resignation speech on Thursday, Franken said: "I also think it gave some people the false impression that I was admitting to doing things that, in fact, I haven’t done. Some of the allegations against me are simply not true. Others, I remember very differently."

There’s also the important question of precedent. Everyone is expecting more shoes from more members of Congress to drop. Are Democratic leaders going to demand that any and all members of their party resign? Will it be on a case-by-case basis? Already at least one Democrat accused of sexual misconduct, Nevada Rep. Ruben Kihuen, is refusing to resign.

America, it seems, is at a tipping point on the issue of sexual misconduct. But, in politics, of course, nothing is that easy. If Democrats want to be the party of “zero tolerance” they also have to accept that it may come with unpredictable – or even negative – political consequences. For Republicans, while Trump was able to weather the "Access Hollywood" scandal in 2016, his party may pay the price for his behavior - and that of other Republicans like Roy Moore – in 2018.