Published On: Thu, Dec 7th, 2017

The rise and fall of Al Franken

AFTER several women alleged that that he had groped them, Senator Al Franken’s political future depended on the support of his colleagues, especially women. Most stood by him for a couple of weeks after the first accusations against the 66-year-old Democratic senator from Minnesota surfaced. By the time an eighth accuser came forward Mr Franken’s fate seemed to be sealed. On December 6th Chuck Schumer, a senator from New York who leads the Democrats, and a host of female (and some male) senators, including  Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, called on Mr Franken to resign. On December 7th, Mr Franken announced that he would step down “in the coming weeks”.

“I of all people am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office, and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party,” Mr Franken said as he stood before his colleagues in the Senate. He explained that he was ready to “co-operate fully” with an investigation by the Senate ethics committee. But he had decided to leave office, he said, because it became clear he could not both be part of the investigation and represent the people of Minnesota. He still insisted that he would be cleared. “I know in my heart, nothing that I have done as a senator, nothing, has brought dishonour on this institution, and I am confident that the ethics committee would agree.”

Many of Mr Franken’s colleagues had stood by him, as more women came forward with stories of gropes and unwanted touches, because they liked the affable former comedian and believed in his talent as policymaker and fund-raiser. They changed their minds for three reasons. One was the growing number of women making allegations. Another was the resignation on December 5th, under intense pressure, of another Democrat, John Conyers, the longest-serving member of the House and the longest-serving black congressman in history, after numerous accusation of sexual harassment. They did not want to be seen to be applying different standards to a white member of the House. But perhaps more importantly, Democrats want to send a powerful signal to voters in Alabama that their party does not tolerate sexual misconduct of any kind. On December 12th Alabamans will decide whether to elect to the Senate Roy Moore, a Republican former judge, who is accused of pursuing and molesting teenagers, at least one of them aged 14. At least officially, the Republican Party and President Donald Trump continue to back Mr Moore.

What Mr Franken stands accused of doing was, of course, wrong. But unlike Harvey Weinstein, a film producer, he was not accused of rape; unlike Mr Conyers, he was never accused of firing someone who declined his sexual advances; unlike Blake Farenthold, a congressman from Texas, he did not use $ 84,000 of taxpayer money to settle lurid harassment claims made by an employee. He faced neither as many accusations of sexual harassment as Donald Trump does; nor accusations of sexually assaulting and pursuing teenage girls while he was an adult, as Mr Moore does. He was, moreover, a “champion for women”, according to a statement released by eight former female staffers and a strong supporter of reproductive rights.

Yet once the majority of his colleagues turned against him, Mr Franken’s position grew untenable. Assuming Ruben Kihuen, a freshman Congressman from Minnesota accused of sexual harassment, soon steps down despite his protests, Democrats can credibly claim the moral high ground: they evict credibly accused sexual predators; Republicans welcome them.

Perhaps the party might have thought twice if Mr Franken was not from a reliably liberal state with a Democratic governor. The flip side of that argument is that Republicans realised that keeping Mr Franken in office would have let them muddy the waters with whataboutism when it came to Messrs Trump and Moore. Hence the robust defence of Mr Franken from Newt Gingrich and Laura Ingraham, a pair of deeply cynical Republicans.

But some Democrats ask why Mr Franken should resign while Mr Trump and Mr Moore—both credibly accused of doing far worse—remain in and on the way to office. In Slate, Dahlia Lithwick argues that “what [Democrats] get right now in exchange for being good and moral is nothing.” That’s a hard point to argue. But of course “right now” does not last forever. Expelling Messrs Franken and Conyers lets Democrats turn Messrs Trump and Moore into the running mates of every Republican seeking office next year and in 2020. As Jennifer Rubin, a conservative anti-Trump columnist, points out in the Washington Post, “one party has adopted a zero-tolerance position [toward sexual assault]…and another party opens its arms to people it believes are miscreants.”

Mr Franken’s resignation ends a promising political career. For most of his professional life Mr Franken was a comedian and satirist for “Saturday Night Live” and other popular television and radio shows. In 2008 he ran for the first time for Senate in Minnesota for the Democratic-Farmer-Labour Party, the local version of the Democrats. The election results in the race against Norm Coleman, the Republican candidate, were so close that they triggered a recount, which was then contested; leading to a trial in front of the state supreme court. In June 2009 Mr Franken was declared the winner. Three years later he was re-elected with a comfortable margin.

Throughout his tenure in the Senate Mr Franken tried to shed his clownish persona and establish himself as a serious policymaker. He is known as a champion of disability rights, a single-payer health care system and the rights of victims of sexual assault and battery in the workplace. (He was not always able to resist comedy in the Senate: when in 2010 Mitch McConnell, then the Senate minority leader, gave a speech in opposition to Elena Kagan’s appointment to the Supreme Court, Mr Franken grimaced and gesticulated throughout the speech; he later apologised in a hand-written letter to Mr McConnell.)

Mark Dayton, the Democratic governor of Minnesota, a Democrat, will now appoint a successor to Mr Franken who will probably remain in office until next year’s special election which will fill the seat until 2020. Minnesota’s lieutenant-governor and the state’s attorney-general are Mr Franken’s most likely successors. Both are women.

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The rise and fall of Al Franken