The XX Factor

Why Franken Had to Go

Sen. Al Franken, just before announcing his resignation at the U.S. Capitol.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken announced on Thursday his plan to resign “in the coming weeks” after a series of allegations that he groped women and kissed them without consent. “There is a big part of me that will always regret having to walk away from this job with so much work left to be done,” Franken said in somber remarks on the Senate floor. “But I have faith that the work will continue because I have faith in the people who’ve helped me do it.”

In recent weeks, as accusers have come forward with stories of Franken allegedly forcing kisses on them and squeezing their butts during photo-ops, there has been much hand-wringing among Democrats and progressives about how he and the party should respond. Should Franken have resigned immediately after L.A. radio host Leeann Tweeden first accused him of shoving his tongue into her mouth, a claim accompanied by a picture of Franken pretending to grab her breasts while she slept? As my colleague Mark Joseph Stern wrote that day, the credibility of Franken’s party, which had called for alleged child molester Roy Moore to quit the Alabama Senate race, was on the line. Or should Franken have stuck it out and left a Senate ethics investigation to decide his fate? After all, it may do women worse if a far-right conservative wins his open Senate seat than it would have been to leave in place a handsy creep who doesn’t vote against women at every turn.

The dilemma boiled down to this: Democrats could either put themselves at a potential political disadvantage by observing rules of decency Republicans have entirely abandoned, or they could lower themselves into the GOP latrine, keep Franken on the roster, and spend the next several election cycles smelling a little like shit. Democrats seemed content to hold their nose and bear with Franken through the first half-dozen accusations. But when a seventh accuser came forward this week, at least 17 Democratic senators—mostly women—publicly urged Franken to step down, leaving him little choice.

However unfair it may be that Franken is leaving Washington while admitted assailant Donald Trump is still in the White House (Franken called it an “irony” in his remarks on Thursday) and Moore might be on his way to the Senate, it is clear that Democrats, and Franken, made the right call.

Republicans have never held themselves to the same standards of behavior as Democrats, and it will never be a good idea to sink to the GOP’s depths of hypocrisy. Theirs is the party that panders to a set of rabid anti-abortion voters who couldn’t care less about the transgressions of its leaders as long as they vote to curtail women’s bodily autonomy. Its tolerance even extends to men who privately tell their own extramarital girlfriends to get the abortions its voters despise. It’s the party that lifted Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, positions the Violence Against Women Act as an assault on family values, believes equal pay legislation is anti-male, bemoans the days when women stayed home to keep house, and works to make it harder for colleges to combat campus rape. Dems are hardly blameless—no less than Joe Biden did Thomas a big favor by casting doubt on Anita Hill’s claims of sexual harassment—but in the Republican Party, contempt for women is a feature, not a bug. It would do Democrats no good to start hedging their own commitment—new as it is, for some—to gender equity.

Progressives like Kate Harding, who wrote a Washington Post piece last month arguing that Franken’s resignation would do more harm to women than good, believed they were playing the long game when they encouraged Democrats to allow the senator to keep his seat. Kicking him out might make the party look good now, but the potential damage done by the ouster of a good liberal could last for years. I’d counter with an even longer game: Think about the Democrats with long, bright futures ahead of them, the rising stars, the next Obamas, the legislators who might pass universal Medicare or eliminate Medicaid abortion bans or become president someday. If Kirsten Gillibrand, Sherrod Brown, and Kamala Harris didn’t condemn Franken, they’d lose no small degree of faith among women currently feeling empowered by the #MeToo movement to root out abusers. If Franken was allowed to keep his seat while his party comrades twiddled their thumbs, young people who already think the Democratic Party is a corrupt instrument of the bourgeoisie would have one more reason to write it off for good. By sacrificing one senator, however popular he might be and whatever the perils of relinquishing his seat, Democrats were able to prevent irreparable damage to the party’s reputation among the people it should care about most: its base.

There’s another still longer game to think about, too. In the best-case scenario, the hurt caused by Franken’s resignation will be a memorable lesson to Democrats: Don’t mistreat women, or promote the candidacies of people who do—otherwise, your party might take a debilitating loss when it can least afford it, and the whole country will suffer. The moral high ground can be painful to walk, but at least there are fewer gropers there.