Franken’s Fate and the Complexity of Unilateral Disarmament

When Al Franken announced his intention to resign from the Senate last week, some of us had very mixed feelings. Yes, he has been credibly accused of inappropriate behavior by several women, and no one wants someone guilty of mistreating women in a position of power. The fact remains that as a US Senator, Franken has fought for issues that are important to women, including healthcare, reproductive rights, equal pay, and the Violence Against Women Act. Does some of that make him a hypocrite?  Probably.  But it makes him a hypocrite who fights on the right side. And that’s worth something, especially in our hyper-polarized political climate.

There is no excuse for Franken’s behavior towards the women who have accused him of harassment or inappropriate physical contact. Nor is there any excuse for the much worse (if we want to argue about degrees) actions of Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), who retired after allegations of harassment and a subsequent cover-up. Conyers, too, is a loss for democratic principles and the Democratic Party. One of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus, he stood on the right side of important issues of race and gender. His transgressions were much more cut-and-dried than Franken’s and involved a conscious cover-up, making the fact that he was forced out of office more clear-cut as well.

As we’ve come to realize, inappropriate behavior is rampant on Capitol Hill.

The same day Franken made his announcement, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) also bowed out when his request to impregnate two aides became public (whether he wanted to them to become surrogates the old-fashioned way or in a doctor’s office is still somewhat in question). Congressman Blake Farenthold (R-TX), also accused of harassment and pay-offs, announced today that he will not seek reelection, but there were no widespread Republican calls for his resignation.

Those who believe in fighting for equal rights, justice, and fair opportunity should be proud to say, “Democrats fire harassers and molesters. Only Republicans are willing to elect them president. Or seat them on the Supreme Court.” It is important to hold the moral high ground, because it’s simply right and because it’s effective politically. It’s possible that the fact that Democrats were willing to push Franken to resign had some effect at the polls in Alabama, where a very red state turned away accused child predator Roy Moore despite the endorsement of the president, most of the Republican Party, and many Christian evangelical leaders.

And yet, the question remains: Are we ultimately endangering our cause by getting rid of some of the very politicians who have been instrumental in passing progressive legislation? Is “unilateral disarmament”—forcing Democrats out of office while Republicans, including those at the highest levels, stay in office—going to end up hurting us in the end?

In Franken’s case, responsible activists and journalists with proven progressive credentials have questioned whether resignation was the right option. Zephyr Teachout (a political activist and sometime political candidate) wrote an op-ed in this week’s New York Times in which she maintains that due process demanded the Ethics Committee investigation that Franken himself requested. Margaret Carlson, writing at the Daily Beast, suggested that right-wing operatives targeted Franken specifically because of his effectiveness, using his bad actions to set a trap for Democrats.

An NBC News story pointed out that Franken’s ouster may have significant consequences in the long run. The Senate seat is certainly safe for now, since Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton appointed Lt. Governor Tina Smith to fill the seat. But Franken was not up for election until 2020, making his seat safe in 2018. Now, there will instead be a special election for the seat in 2018, with well-known Republican Tim Pawlenty rumored to be interested in running. So a safe seat turns into another battle for the all-important mid-terms.

On Monday, fifty-nine leaders of the Democratic Women’s Working Group in Congress published a letter calling for the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform to open an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations that have been raised against Donald Trump. In the past few days other politicians, including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who was alternately cheered and blamed for leading the calls for Franken’s resignation, have begun calling on Trump to resign over allegations of sexual harassment and molestation against him, which number seventeen by some counts.

New Yorker columnist Masha Gessen (an LGBT activist, writer, and frequent Trump critic) wrote that Franken’s resignation showed, “the force that is ending his political career…operates on only roughly half of this country’s population—those who voted for Hillary Clinton….the force works selectively.”  If the #MeToo moment is going to claim success in keeping predators out of power, we have to ensure that Gessen is ultimately wrong. We cannot be satisfied with only toppling the deeply flawed politicians on our own side. And we cannot accept that Trump’s supporters and the Republicans in Congress will put up with any bad behavior from their side as long as it means that their terrible tax bill will be passed. It’s Trump’s turn to have his feet held to the fire.