It's been five days since Al Franked was cajoled—okay, more like browbeaten—into resigning. By now, he must know better than anyone that it’s all about the political calculus. If Minnesota had a Republican governor, you can bet anything that the same liberal colleagues who pressured Franken to resign would have been imploring him to hang in there to the bitter end. But since Mark Dayton is a Democrat, Franken’s replacement will be too. Much more than the grievousness of his actual sins, that made Franken an expendable poster boy for his party’s proud new zero-tolerance attitude to sexual misconduct.
The convenience of “misconduct” as a catchall term is that it avoids any differentiation between degrees of wickedness. Most people recognize that Franken’s alleged gross behavior around women at photo-ops and such isn’t on a par with Roy Moore getting banned from malls for preying on underage girls or the multiple grotesque assaults and outright rapes Harvey Weinstein has been accused of. But that doesn’t matter, partly because it’s often paradoxically easier for politicians to survive a scandal implying serious moral turpitude than one that just makes them look like jackasses. Franken had done such a good job of repurposing himself as a thoughtful, grown-up legislator that practically nobody brought up his comedy past anymore. All it took was one picture of a leering Al pretending to non-consensually fondle Leeann Tweeden’s breasts to turn him right back into the sophomoric, frat-boy clown of his SNL days.
However, Franken had to leave because Roy Moore wouldn’t. Assuming Moore gets elected on December 12, the Senate’s Democrats will be obliged to kick up an outraged ruckus and campaign to get him expelled. They won’t have a chance of succeeding now that Mitch McConnell has decided “Senator Moore” sounds just fine to him, but even so, the prospect of Franken sitting in judgment on Moore muddied the waters considerably.
Lamenting Franken’s loss as if he’s irreplaceable only highlights a critical Democratic Party weakness.
Presumably, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer knew that. The opportunity to draw a line between the GOP’s opportunistic tolerance of sexual harassers and the Democrats’ nobler stance was too good to pass up. Nobody knows how much of a wedge issue 2017’s Great Reckoning with powerful men behaving vilely will be in 2018’s midterms, but it’s a fairly safe guess it won’t have vanished from people’s memory. Or from next year’s Democratic attack commercials, either, something that would have been much harder to pull off if Franken was still in the Senate.
As bitter as he undoubtedly is, Franken himself understood this. That’s why his resignation speech included this pointed reminder of the gulf between the two parties’ standards: "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." Needless to say, the one sitting in the Oval Office is the ultimate target of the Democrats’ recently discovered high moral ground.
Ever since the Weinstein scandal first erupted and then the list of credibly accused male perps mushroomed beyond belief, Trump’s shadow has loomed over the whole affair like a phallic Goodyear Blimp. Everybody knows he’s gotten away with sexual misbehavior far worse than Franken’s—and conceivably, depending on which unconfirmed but persistent accusations you believe, every bit as bad as Weinstein’s. In the year of Me Too, he’s the ultimate unindicted co-conspirator, to borrow a phrase that helped send Richard Nixon packing once upon a time. These days, Schumer has to be wondering whether reviving people’s memories of Trump’s boastfully seedy sex life has a better chance of bringing about his downfall than Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation ever has.
Even so, the Democrats have their own potential Hindenburg gently wafting around on the horizon: Bill Clinton, of course. Maybe he’s been out of office for 17 years, but he’s an issue once again, thanks to the shameful pass his party and the liberal establishment—feminists included—gave the old horn-dog on his own sex scandals in the 1990s. That taint has to be neutralized before the Democrats can plausibly present themselves as indignant defenders of women victimized by male potentates. It won’t be easy. Criminalizing the Clintons’ seamy streak and calling out liberals’ hypocrisy is not only the GOP’s most road-tested hobby but a virtual mania with Trump himself, after all.
That’s just one of the many reasons why giving Franken the bum’s rush was smart politics, pure and simple. Among other things, waiting for the Ethics Committee to weigh in wouldn’t have changed the fact that he was finished as an effective Trump critic or a voice for liberal causes, not to mention a potentially king-sized millstone around the party’s neck. The relative triviality of his offenses compared to Weinstein’s or even Trump’s may make the outcome seem unfair, but trying to make excuses for him was a non-starter in this inflamed environment.
Lamenting Franken’s loss as if he’s irreplaceable only highlights a critical Democratic Party weakness: its shortage of nationally known star talent. That’s why progressives can’t stop clinging to the likes of 66-year-old Franken, 75-year-old Joe Biden and 76-year-old Bernie Sanders instead of looking for fresher faces to boost. Since he was good at what he did, blue-state America will probably have days when it misses him, but sentimentality has always been a lousy guide to political practicality. Unceremoniously dumping Al Franken was the opening shot of the 2018 midterms, and even he probably knows that he improved the Democrats’ chances by exiting, no matter how reluctantly.