Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., is a test case for Democrats: Can they hold accountable a current party leader accused of sexual misconduct as they have just started to do with one who is clearly past his prime?
Over the past week, liberals have been entertaining second thoughts about their handling of allegations against former President Bill Clinton during the 1990s. One prominent columnist wrote that she believed Juanita Broaddrick, who accused Clinton of rape. Another argued he should have resigned over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. A third pushed back against the way Democrats defended Clinton and even how “machine feminism” worked to discredit his accusers.
These are just a handful of examples. But Clinton has been safely out of office for nearly 17 years. His wife’s defeat in 2016 likely marks the end of their time at the helm of the Democratic Party. Franken is a sitting senator and an ascendant progressive leader, still highly relevant when a photograph appeared of him groping accuser Leeann Tweeden.
So far, Democrats and outside liberal groups have been intent on showing they will pass this test. “Sexual harassment is never acceptable and must not be tolerated,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “I hope and expect that the Ethics Committee will fully investigate this troubling incident, as they should with any credible allegation of sexual harassment.”
“There is never an excuse for this behavior — ever,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill. “What Senator Franken did was wrong, and it should be referred to the Ethics Committee for review.”
“I’m shocked and concerned,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. “The behavior described is completely unacceptable. Comedy is no excuse for inappropriate conduct, and I believe there should be an ethics investigation.”
"We believe Leeann Tweeden's account and are disappointed in Senator Franken's actions,” said Progressive Change Campaign Committee communications director Kait Sweeney in a statement. “Sexual harassment and assault are not joking matters. This behavior isn't excusable in any context, and we're glad he's attempting to take responsibility and show remorse. We hope he commits himself to being part of a necessary culture shift in the halls of Congress, the entertainment industry, and across society.”
“The Minnesota DFL commends Leeann Tweeden for courageously coming forward to share her story,” said state Democratic chairman Ken Martin in a statement. “We are incredibly disappointed in Senator Franken. As each one of these stories comes out, it becomes even clearer how pervasive sexual harassment is throughout our society. We must create a culture of zero tolerance for sexual harassment, and that starts with holding people accountable for their inappropriate actions. The DFL supports and calls for a thorough Senate ethics investigation into Senator Franken’s behavior. There is no excuse for his actions, whether they occurred before he was in the U.S. Senate or not.”
“Harassment is always wrong and should always be called out,” tweeted Emily’s List president Stephanie Schriock, a former Franken campaign adviser. “I am sad and disappointed about this inappropriate behavior. This does not reflect the Al Franken I have known for 12 years and I'm glad he has apologized and called for an investigation.”
Franken issued an apologetic statement and expressed support for the Senate Ethics Committee probe.
But some liberals did defend him in terms reminiscent of apologias for Bill Clinton in the 1990s and Ted Kennedy years before that.
Democracy 2017: I am sincerely arguing that we should not force a Democrat to resign for sexually abusing a woman, because I know Republicans never will, and that once the first Democrat goes, R's next move is finding shady Ds from states with R governors.— Kate Harding (@KateHarding) November 16, 2017
And the real test will come after the Senate Ethics Committee investigation is over. What will Democrats do then? Will more liberal groups come forward asking for Franken’s resignation?
Most major Republican leaders in Washington have closed ranks against Alabama GOP senatorial candidate Roy Moore, who faces numerous credible allegations of sexual misconduct. Both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner, R-Colo., have publicly said they favor Moore’s expulsion if he is elected. Many others have called on him to drop out or have rescinded their endorsements.
One significant exception: President Trump, who himself faced accusations during the 2016 campaign. “[T]he president believes that these allegations are very troubling and should be taken seriously, and he thinks that the people of Alabama should make the decision on who their next senator should be,” said White House press secretary Sarah Sanders at Thursday’s briefing. “Look, the president said in his statement earlier this week that, if the allegations are true, then that Roy Moore should step aside. He still firmly believes that.”
Sanders did say that Trump supported decisions by the Republican National Committee and the NRSC to withdraw their support for Moore.
The Alabama Republican Party is also sticking by Moore, saying let the voters decide.
Before the allegations against Moore, powerful Hollywood figures like Harvey Weinstein and others in public life have seen their reputations upended by revelations that they engaged in varying degrees of sexual misconduct. Even former President George H.W. Bush has been accused of groping several women, including an allegation Thursday that dates back to 1992, when he was running for re-election. That year was known as the “Year of Woman,” during which several Democratic women were elected to the Senate as part of the backlash against sexual harassment claims against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and eventually Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore.
An October Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that 79 percent of Democrats view sexual harassment as a serious problem, up 20 points in the last six years, compared to 66 percent of independents and 42 percent of Republicans.
The Franken probe comes at a time when it has been revealed that Congress has paid out millions in sexual harassment settlements. It may also coincide with the Senate debating expelling Moore, if the Alabama Republican wins the Dec. 12 special election.