Senator Al Franken announced his resignation yesterday amidst accusations of inappropriately touching multiple women after 32 Democratic Senators, led by Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, urged him to resign. Though Franken undoubtedly did things he regrets and has admitted as much, the way some Senate Democrats engineered Franken’s political execution without a trial was unseemly in its own right. In what appears to be a politically motivated move to distinguish themselves from Republicans on the issue of sexual misconduct, Democrats showed an alarming willingness to abandon due process, rush to judgement, and forgo nuanced thinking.
Let’s be clear about what we know and don’t know as Franken steps down. Eight women have accused Franken of some form of sexual misconduct, ranging from squeezing a woman’s waist during a photo to kissing Leeann Tweeden against her will during the rehearsal for a sketch on a USO Tour. We know for sure that Franken pretended to grope Tweeden while she was sleeping, which he apologized for. And we know that Franken has said the other allegations against him are either not true, or that he remembers the encounters very differently.
Now, if Franken is truly a predator who used photo opportunities to grope women or worse, he should be held accountable, with a punishment in proportion to the misconduct. But it’s apparent that even if the worst accusations against Franken are all true, they are still not in the same ballpark as the allegations that Senate candidate Roy Moore repeatedly pursued a 14 year-old or President Donald Trump’s vulgar admissions in the Access Hollywood tape. And while it is easy for Senator Gillibrand and others to say that Franken’s behavior, though different, is “still unquestionably wrong, and should not be tolerated,” the differences really do matter.
Saying behavior should not be tolerated does not explain why Franken is unfit to represent his constituents or why Franken needed to resign before an ethics investigation, which he welcomed. Bad behavior exists on a continuum, which is why our criminal justice system doles out punishment not based solely on the fact that an illegal act occurred, but based on the act’s severity and its context. What principle are Senate Democrats following by demanding that Franken resign without a proper inquiry, based on conduct that is arguably at the low end of that continuum for sexual misconduct?
Should any representative accused of sexual misconduct by be forced to resign before an investigation? Is one instance enough to disqualify someone from elected office or are multiple instances required? And does this principle apply only to sexual misconduct, or to other illegal or unethical actions as well?
In 2014, Roll Call reported that Senator Gillibrand’s campaign committee was fined by the Federal Election Commission for, “failing to disclose accurately $12,124 in receipts and $229,479 in disbursements in ten disclosure reports filed during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles.” Before that, Gillibrand represented Phillip Morris during the Justice Department’s probe into the tobacco industry. Should Gillibrand resign because we cannot tolerate representatives who defy our campaign finance laws or support big tobacco, or are those mistakes tolerable?
These are difficult questions to which there are no easy answers. But the Democrats who turned on Franken didn’t even seem to grapple with them, which is startling from the party that is beginning to speak out against mass incarceration and a criminal justice system that often seems stacked against the accused. In their effort to seize a political opportunity and become the party that “will not tolerate” sexual assault, Democrats expelled a man who, before these allegations, was considered one of their most effective and honorable members. And Senator Gillibrand’s “clear message that any kind of mistreatment of women in our society isn’t acceptable,” is tainted when she arguably mistreated Franken in order to send that message.
Thought Senator Franken reiterated in his resignation announcement that he did not believe he had done anything do dishonor the institution during his time in the Senate, he told supporters that he would be just fine. His resignation is but a small part of a seismic shift in the growing awareness about sexual assault in our culture and the reckoning for those who have gotten away with misconduct for far too long. That change is undeniably a good thing. But the way a mob of colleagues essentially forced Senator Franken out of elected office more closely resembles historical embarrassments like McCarthyism, in which cooler heads do not prevail amidst hysteria, and opportunistic individuals pursue personal gain at others’ expense.
Democrats are right to distinguish themselves from Republicans and take a stand against sexual assault and harassment. But in the future, perhaps they can be more careful not to trample on the rights of the accused while they’re fighting that battle.