sexual harrassment

Can Al Franken’s Senate Career Survive?

Will the former comedian soon be a former U.S. Senator? It’s not at all clear. Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Like everyone I consulted for a reality check when the story of Leann Tweeden’s allegations against him broke on Thursday, I figured Al Franken’s Senate career would soon end. For Franken, the timing — near the apparent crest of national outrage about sexual harassment and abuse of women by powerful men, and in the midst of a very specific firestorm over the propriety of elevating Roy Moore to the Senate after accusations of misconduct several decades before Franken’s — was horrendous. And then the photo of a leering Franken placing his hands on or near a sleeping Tweeden’s breasts at the end of the same USO tour where she claimed Franken had harassed and assaulted her was the capper. I could see him perhaps resolving to tough it out until the end of his current term in 2020, but with his career ruined and many past supporters and admirers distancing themselves from the former Saturday Night Live star.

When influential liberal New York Times voice Michelle Goldberg immediately penned a column entitled “Franken Should Go,” it sounded like an opinion just a bit ahead of an inevitable curve.

The first glimmer that Franken might survive immediate demands for his resignation came from his accuser, as Tweeden accepted a personal apology from him and said she was not trying to force him out of the Senate:

“I didn’t do this to have him step down. I think Al Franken does a lot of good things in the Senate,” Tweeden said when asked if he should resign. “You know, I think that’s for the people of Minnesota to decide. I’m not calling for him to step down. That was never my intention.”

The “people of Minnesota,” or at least their elected Democratic leaders, appeared conflicted. Two Democratic candidates for governor, who both happened to be women (Rebecca Otto and Erin Murphy) called on Franken to resign. But current Democratic governor Mark Dayton and Franken’s Senate colleague Amy Klobuchar have echoed the beleaguered senator’s own call for an ethics investigation before any formal action is taken.

This weekend, Franken’s office told a Twin City newspaper he wasn’t going anywhere at present:

Asked Saturday whether Franken would resign, a spokesperson for the senator responded: “No.”

“He is spending time with his family in Washington, D.C., and will be through the Thanksgiving holiday,” the staffer said by text, “and he’s doing a lot of reflecting.”

I imagine so.

Democrats and other left-of-center observers will probably continue to be conflicted about whether to let Franken slowly regain respectability through apologies and contrition, or to push him toward the exit ramp. One factor in his favor is that the Senate has never before punished a member for bad pre-Senate behavior. But then again, that’s precisely what senators from both parties have been contemplating if the voters of Alabama defiantly send them a deeply compromised Roy Moore.

More generally, Democrats worry about looking hypocritical, as Amanda Marcotte suggests at Salon:

Every day Franken remains in the Senate as a visible symbol of liberal hypocrisy, Republicans get a free pass to grope, harass and abuse women. Any effort by journalists or Democrats to hold them accountable will be met with, “What about him?” Even misogynist legislation, which Republicans love more than dogs love their owners, will prosper under the Al Franken shield.

And others, like Goldberg, are concerned that lenient treatment of Franken will signal an end to the current period of “reckoning” over sexual harassment and abuse:

[M]y first instinct is to say that Franken deserves a chance to go through an ethics investigation but remain in the Senate, where he should redouble his efforts on behalf of abuse and harassment victims. But if that happens, the current movement toward unprecedented accountability for sexual harassers will probably start to peter out. 

The beneficiaries of that subsiding wave of interest would include the president, whose “reckoning” for his own behavior has yet to occur.

But, as Kevin Drum replies, treating Al Franken as nothing more than a chess piece in a broader contest is not exactly right either:

The message to men in power should be: we will treat you fairly. That should be our message to everyone, the guilty and the innocent alike. If we get to the point where we sacrifice individuals just for the sake of movement optics, that’s where I get off the train.

To a considerable extent, Franken’s fate will depend on whether he wants to make his every waking moment for the foreseeable future revolve around the difficult questions raised by his behavior toward Leeann Tweeden. Even if his Senate career survives, it will never be the same.

Can Al Franken’s Senate Career Survive?