Rejecting Al Franken Is a Political Win for Democrats

Sen. Al Franken watches Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in March. Reuters

A growing number of Democratic senators—women and men—came out Wednesday to demand Democratic Minnesota Sen. Al Franken resign. Predictably, some say this is why the Democrats always lose.

Sexual harassment is unacceptable. This morning I spoke with Senator Franken and, as you know, he will be making an announcement about his future tomorrow morning. I am confident he will make the right decision.

— Amy Klobuchar (@amyklobuchar) December 6, 2017

Their soft-focus sensitivities to gender and race are no match for the GOP's rage for power. If they were political animals the way Republican are, critics say, the Democrats would say Franken can go when the other predator goes: namely, President Donald Trump.

Democrats are so stupid. The obvious thing to say about the Al Franken business is that he will resign the day Trump resigns.

— Bruce "Snarking and Barking" Bartlett (@BruceBartlett) December 6, 2017

This is wrong for a few reasons.

One, it misunderstands Democrats. Two, it's indifferent, at least, to the interests of women and human rights generally. And three, it sees idealism where there should be realism–—when in fact there is both. Calling for Franken's head, after weeks of allegations of sexual misconduct, is right on the values and right on the politics. That's a rarity. Even rarer is how this sets them up for future victory.

Think about it. What would it look like to other Democrats, especially women, if Congress took weeks to unpack the number of allegations against Franken, while each week brought more accusations? It would look like the Democrats are protecting Franken. This would be false. Due process is not protection. But the truth of the matter is sometimes less important than the appearance of it. And because the Democrats are responding to the power of appearances in calling for Franken's head, they are acting politically, and not only in terms of values.

Democrats are also responding to a cultural sea change underway in our understanding of sexual misconduct, the accountability being brought to bear on formerly untouchable men and the social cost of sexual misconduct. In that context, these Democrats can't afford to risk appearing hypocritical. They are not like Republicans. Group loyalty is not for them what it is for most conservatives. GOP leaders can go all in for Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who now stands accused of molesting teens when he was in his 30s, and suffer minor casualties. If Democratic leaders did the same for their Moore (who does not appear to exist at the moment), the losses would be catastrophic.

Bear in mind also who the Democrats are pursuing right now: educated, white middle-class women who did not vote for the president but instead for Hillary Clinton. The long-term efficacy of courting these voters is debatable, but indisputable among candidates, strategists and donors is that every voter who was offended enough by Trump's lechery to vote against him is the lowest of low-hanging fruit. Pretty much the only thing protecting House Republicans in blue states was the promise of cutting taxes. Now that the party is about to vaporize state and local tax deductions, they don't even have that.

A lot of time has passed since the election, enough time to figure out who this president really is. As such, many of the white women who instead went for Trump, and who Democrats so covet, have buyer's remorse and are rethinking their options. We saw hints of this during the off-off-year elections, when white women delivered to Democrats townships in Virginia and elsewhere that were long held by the GOP.

This leftward drift indicates voters are mobilizing, and responding to Democrats' messaging. Amid this climate of sexual misconduct and accountability, the party is signaling to every woman out there that the Democrats are for them. We got rid of our sexual predators, they are saying, while the Republicans sent theirs to the Senate. Don't vote for them in 2018. Vote for us.

But in linking Franken's resignation to Trump's, voters hear a different message altogether: Democrats should fight for women only when it's politically useful. Of course, that may not be their intention (I will presume for now that it is not), but that may be what many are hearing.

At the roots of this complaint is something fundamental, the idea that Democrats should not act on their values for fear of giving the opposition leverage. That's bosh. These Democrats actually stand for something, and for now, anyway, they will benefit politically from taking a stand. That's something to be admired, not belittled.

John Stoehr is a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, an essayist for the New Haven Register and a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor.