As the Al Franken sexual harassment contretemps moves into its second week, it is essential that progressives hold two distinct ideas in their head at the same time. First, what Al Franken is alleged to have done is nowhere near as bad as what Roy Moore and Donald Trump almost certainly did. Second, if Leeann Tweeden’s allegations are true and Franken’s conduct while rehearsing the skit in question, and the story of the photo, was as Tweeden claims it is, then Franken has committed sexual harassment and needs to resign. Moreover, those who try to change the subject by discussing Tweeden’s political sympathies or posting photos of her in scanty outfits are blaming and seeking to undermine the accuser in a way we would never tolerate if the accused were a Republican.
If Al Franken is not held firmly accountable for his behavior, it will make it almost impossible for progressives to hold anybody accountable for sexual harassment in the near future. It will also create further barriers for women seeking to tell their stories of sexual harassment, provide cover for somebody because of his politics, make progressives vulnerable to the charge of being hypocrites, and provide rhetorical ammunition for all those on the right who would love to claim that much worse accusations against Moore, Trump and potentially others are simply political witch hunts. This may mean than an otherwise distinguished progressive who has made himself one of the most outspoken and compelling voices of the resistance will have to leave the Senate. That would be very unfortunate, but the alternative is worse.
If Franken is given a pass on this, than all the usual excuses that have enabled sexual harassers for years will be given new life. Irrelevant information such as how a woman dresses, her political views, the alleged harasser’s idea of what is funny or the view that women are being pushed into making these charges for political reasons will be trotted out to defend sexual harassers in politics, show business and elsewhere. If indeed Tweeden was pushed into this by conservative activists, as some have asserted, then Franken has been backed into political corner, but helping him out of that corner will be, in the long term, a mistake.
The question of whether or not what Al Franken did to Tweeden on that USO trip rises to the level of an offense that should trigger resignation is a subjective one. The strategic perspective is more clear. Some may argue that if Franken resigns it will be another case of Democrats letting themselves be bullied by Republicans while that same Republican Party gets away with much graver misdeeds. One has to look no further than the current occupant of the White Hosue to see that is true. However, that is a perspective based on partisanship and on the popularity of Franken among many progressives, rather than sound strategic thinking.
There is a huge strategic advantage for the Democrats if Franken resigns. First, it allows progressives to demonstrate that for us sexual harassment is a stand alone important issue not one that is little more than another partisan tool. Second, it gives progressives a very strong position to continue to call for Donald Trump to be held accountable for the many very convincing allegations of sexual harassment that have either been made about him or about which he has boasted. Third, it demonstrates that for Democrats nobody is above reproach when it comes to sexual harassment. Fourth, Franken’s successor will be a Democrat because Minnesota’s governor, Mark Dayton, is a Democrat.
Franken’s resignation would be a loss for the senate and for progressives. He has been a very good presence there on major issues like the Trump-Russia one as well as one issues that frequently get less attention, like policy challenges related to mental illness. However, his continued presence there would be a distraction and ultimately a political liability for those seeking to change a culture that has normalized sexual harassment and even assault.
For Franken himself being forced to resign from the Senate would be a setback, but perhaps only a temporary one. Given his extraordinary successes in both entertainment and politics, he would undoubtedly reemerge quickly perhaps as a television host, regular columnist or other kind of contributor to the progressive movement. Franken, unlike a lot of career politicians, is smart enough to know there are plenty of ways to make a difference in public life. If Franken fights to stay in the senate, he will, regardless of his intentions, become less effective and a major distraction from the bigger issues on which progressives need to focus. Frankel continuing service in the Senate would also become another argument for minimizing sexual harassment, making it even harder for the victims of sexual harassment to come forward.
Photo: cc/Neon Tommy