What Precedents Will Democrats Set by Forcing Franken’s Resignation?

Senate Democrats have decided to try to force Al Franken from their ranks. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Al Franken is now under enormous pressure from his Senate colleagues (at first a series of women, but then men, and finally the Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer) to resign over seven separate allegations of sexual harassment and/or inappropriate behavior towards women. Franken has called a press conference for tomorrow to respond, and it’s not entirely clear what he will do.

But if Senate Democrats do succeed in forcing Franken from office, they need to get ready to answer some questions about the standards they are applying to his case, and the precedent they might be setting for similar situations in the future, which might not be very far down the road given the explosion of revelations that are arising about the piggishness of powerful men.

1. What was the tipping point in Franken’s case? As recently as last week, it looked like Franken might survive at least until the Senate Ethics Committee could look into the allegations against him. That changed today after a seventh accuser came forward, alleging that Franken had forcibly kissed her without warning or invitation in 2006. So was this allegation decisive, and if so, why? Was it the sheer volume, the evidence of an incorrigible pattern of behavior, or the fear that new allegations would inevitably arise (sure enough, today an eighth woman — a columnist at that — went public with a claim of unwelcome squeezing by Franken at a 2009 inaugural event)? It would be helpful to hear more about how many or what type of allegations are just too much to defer to some future investigation.

2. How germane is pre-senatorial misconduct? In Franken’s case, the allegations included both pre- and post-senatorial misconduct (the latest allegedly occurred when Franken was a senator-elect). But in the case that will inevitably be compared to Franken’s, that of Roy Moore, all the misconduct (so far as we know) was in the fairly distant past. Moore could soon be knocking on the door of the Senate seeking access to one of Alabama’s two seats. It is entirely possible that Democrats moved decisively to push Franken out in order to prepare themselves to deal with Moore, either before or after next week’s special election. But they need to be clear about when the timing of incidents matters and when it doesn’t matter. They could take the position that pre-senatorial misconduct is not grounds for expulsion, but is grounds for public shaming, pressure to resign, and is furthermore a terrible reflection on the Republicans that supported him.

3. Is the nature of the specific misconduct crucial? One of the allegations against Moore (coerced sex with a minor who had been taken to a secluded location) involves felony criminal behavior. Most of the allegations against Franken involve actions that would amount to simple battery — a crime and a cause for a civil lawsuit, but no felony. Both men would also likely be subject to charges of sexual harassment according to current standards. But like the grounds for impeachment of presidents, the grounds for exclusion from the Senate (by forced resignation or expulsion) are mostly subjective. Since such allegations could proliferate in the future, however, a reasonably clear standard of intolerable behavior would be helpful.

4. Is the partisan identity of Franken’s replacement an acceptable factor in his case? In Roy Moore’s case, more than a few Republicans, including the president of the United States, have suggested that otherwise unacceptable conduct might be tolerated to avoid the horror of that other party obtaining a Senate seat. If Franken resigns, his successor (at least until the November 2018 elections) will be chosen by Democratic Governor Mark Dayton. Will Democrats cheerfully admit they’d feel differently about Franken if a Republican was poised to name his replacement? Or are they willing to establish the precedent that the partisan consequences in such cases don’t matter?

5. Should Democrats hold themselves to a higher standard in cases of sexual abuse of women, or does that make them chumps? While most people in both parties profess to deplore sexual harassment, abuse, or assaults, it’s no secret that the Democratic Party is the political home of most feminists. Indeed, hostility to feminism — and hostility to “politically correct” standards of behavior — is a hallmark of Donald Trump’s Republican Party, punctuated by his own dismissal of his own crude boasts about sexual assault as “locker-room talk.” So should Democrats explicitly police themselves more vigorously than Trump’s party does in such cases? Some Democrats think that places their party at a disastrous disadvantage:

The obvious answer is that Democrats have significantly less leverage over Trump than over one of their own. But clearly some people think Democrats shouldn’t unilaterally disarm by disciplining a grabby senator when a grabber of a different order is allowed to run the country. That’s an argument Democrats must squarely confront.

It would be good if they could get it all straight overnight.

What Precedents Will Democrats Set With Franken Resignation?