Forcing Franken to step down from the Senate because of relatively minor incidents that occurred when he was still a comic and radio talk show host, before he was elected to the Senate, creates a new opportunity for Republicans to pick up a Democratic seat in 2018. Democrats already faced long odds in regaining the Senate majority. Franken had three years remaining in his term but his departure would set up a special election next year to fill the last two years of his term.
This is an expensive show of high dudgeon by the Democrats in an attempt to seize the moral high ground. Republicans welcome the disgrace of Franken, but they show no shame or embarrassment in their embrace of Donald Trump and Roy Moore.
We don’t dismiss that the women who have complained about Franken may have a grievance with him, but it’s hard to determine the alleged misdeeds rose to the level of sexual harassment or abuse. It’s certainly not the level of abuse alleged against Trump, who remains in the White House despite at least 16 credible claims of sexual harassment and abuse and his recorded bragging of his sexual predation, and Moore, who received support from the Republican National Committee as well as from the White House in his campaign for the Senate from Alabama despite credible complaints that he pursued relationships with teenage girls as young as 14 and, in some cases, assaulting them. (And Clarence Thomas was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice in 1991 despite the sworn complaint that he sexually harassed Anita Hill.)
Arguably, the most serious complaint against Franken was aired Nov. 16 by Leeann Tweeden, a former model and conservative radio host in Los Angeles and a frequent guest on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, about an aggressive kiss during a USO skit overseas in 2006, and a photo of Moore posing as a lecher above an apparently sleeping Tweeden, during a flight on the tour. Although news reports called it groping, the photo does not show Franken touching Tweeden.
Franken apologized for the incidents, though he said of the claim that he tongued Tweeden during the rehearsal kiss, “I remember that rehearsal differently, but what’s important is the impact it had on you, and you felt violated by my actions. For that, I apologize.” Tweeden accepted his apology, but that wasn’t enough to stem the outrage of #MeToo militants who said Franken had to go.
It’s easy to believe Republicans set up the fall of Franken. He has emerged as an effective senator who, among other things, had caught Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions lying to the Senate Judiciary Committee about his contacts with Russian officials before last year’s election, and Franken was being mentioned as a possible presidential contender in 2020.
Actor and comedian Tom Arnold, who hosted Fox Sports Net’s Best Damn Sports Show Period when Tweeden was a cast member from 2002 to 2007, claimed Tweeden was coached by Roger Stone, who has specialized in dirty tricks for Republicans since his time in the service of Richard Nixon. Tweeden denied she coordinated the statement, saying neither she nor any of her managers or colleagues at KABC “coordinated with any group, campaign or individuals outside of the news industry” when she decided to go public with her story. Stone also denied the claim, but he appeared to have advance knowledge that the allegations were coming as he was quoted saying, “It’s Al Franken’s ‘time in the barrel’,” hours before Tweeden’s allegations, The Hill reported.
Franken, who has been a consistent advocate for women’s rights, could have survived the Tweeden incident, but more allegations started trickling in, claiming that Franken groped butts and waists in photo shoots at the State Fair of Minnesota and other events. Then an anonymous allegation, reported in Politico Dec. 6, that Franken tried to kiss a former Democratic congressional staffer in 2006 after her boss was interviewed on Franken’s Air America radio show broke the dam, causing more than 30 Democratic senators to call on Franken to step down. Franken denied the incident took place, but on Dec. 7, after Democratic leaders called for him to resign, he announced he would leave the Senate.
“Is this the principled solution?,” Dahlia Lithwick asked at Slate Dec. 6. “By every metric I can think of, it’s correct. But it’s also wrong. It’s wrong because we no longer inhabit a closed ethical system, in which morality and norm preservation are their own rewards. We live in a broken and corroded system in which unilateral disarmament is going to destroy the very things we want to preserve …
“You can talk about gradations of harm — what Franken is accused of still pales next to child predation — but even that is a trap,” Lithwick continued. “The point is, as Jennifer Rubin notes [in the Washington Post], that ‘one party has adopted a zero-tolerance position (with Sen. Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, set to go before the ethics committee) and another party opens its arms to people it believes are miscreants.’ Rubin feels confident that becoming the party of alleged sexual abusers will harm the GOP in upcoming elections (did she live through last November?). My own larger concern is that becoming the party of high morality will allow Democrats to live with themselves but that the party is also self-neutering in the face of unprecedented threats, in part to do the right thing and in part to take ammunition away from the right — a maneuver that never seems to work out these days.”
In a Senate where Republicans have been ramming through unqualified and underqualified right-wing judicial nominees to lifetime appointments on 52-48 votes, as well as giving the green light to Trump’s agency heads who appear determined to undo government programs that have developed over the past 80 years to help workers, seniors, minorities and small businesses and family farmers, the best hope for progressive Americans is that Democrats can pick up three Senate seats in the next election to regain the majority and stop the damage being done. That is particularly important as Republicans already are preparing to use the deficits that their supply-side tax cuts will increase, as an excuse to cut Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and other social programs that help the working poor as well as the middle class.
Democrats already were planning to defend 23 seats next year, including many in states Trump carried, as well as two independent senators who caucus with the Democrats. Only three Republican states — Arizona, Nevada and Tennessee — are rated solid pickup opportunities (though Texas Democrats have high hopes for unseating Ted Cruz). But even if Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) names a good progressive Democrat to replace Franken until next November, it does not help for Democrats to add Minnesota to the states they must defend.
Public officials must be held accountable for their misdeeds, but the Democratic caucus forcing members to quit upon the publication of complaints amounts to unilateral disarmament if Republicans are allowed to stay in office at least until their cases are resolved by each chamber’s ethics committee.
Franken originally offered to cooperate with a Senate Ethics Committee investigation of the complaints against him, but we think a more fruitful exercise might be to set up a truth and reconciliation commission to hear complaints of relatively minor transgressions.
We should draw a line against harassment of women, but in cases such as Franken’s, perhaps we should allow for a dotted line. If you think Franken should reverse his decision and remain in the Senate, call his Senate office in St. Paul at 651-221-1016 or his D.C. office at 202-224-5641 and tell him to stay put. — JMC
Editor's Note: When this was written, Al Franken had not said when his resignation would be effective. On Dec. 14, his office told the Associated Press he plans to leave office in early January, after Gov. Mark Dayton announced he would appoint Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to replace him. Franken reportedly said, "Tina Smith will make an excellent senator ... I look forward to working with her on ensuring a speedy and seamless transition."
From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2018
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