When Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) gave a speech two weeks ago announcing he would resign amid a growing number of sexual misconduct allegations, the same Democratic colleagues who had called for him to resign the day before lined up one-by-one to comfort the Minnesota senator with a hug or a handshake. Some cried as he departed.
But for Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the scene on the Senate floor was more like the Ides of March — the moment when Democrats stabbed a fellow colleague in the back.
“The most hypocritical thing I’ve ever seen done to a human being — and then have enough guts to sit on the floor, watch him give his speech, and go over and hug him? That’s hypocrisy at the highest level I’ve ever seen in my life. Made me sick,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), during a recent interview on Politico’s “Off Message” podcast.
Manchin wanted the Senate Ethics Committee to conduct a full investigation of the numerous sexual misconduct allegations against Franken and make a judgment of whether he should have stayed or departed.
And he’s not the only one. Even after Franken’s decision to resign, Democrats remain divided on whether it was the right one. The split reflects a broader concern within the White House about whether, as Republicans stood behind Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and continue to stand behind President Donald Trump, there’s a double standard for Democrats on sexual harassment.
Senators are starting to speak up against the resignation
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) joined the calls for Franken to resign, issuing a statement saying the Minnesota senator’s position had become “untenable” and he was concerned the ethics investigation would not happen quickly enough.
Leahy now said he regrets the decision.
"I have stood for due process throughout my years as a prosecutor and in chairing the Judiciary Committee," Leahy said in a statement to Vermont newspaper Seven Days. "I regret not doing that this time. The Ethics Committee should have been allowed to investigate and make its recommendation."
Politico recently reported that four unnamed senators are telling Franken to reconsider his resignation, saying the calls for him to leave were too hasty.
In the past few weeks, the resignations of powerful Democrats in Congress including Franken and former Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) were quickly compared to the accusations against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and President Donald Trump, who certainly weren’t about to resign their positions (though Moore lost his election).
Another member of Congress, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), resigned after it was revealed he had asked female staffers to serve as surrogates and carry his child, which some staffers believed meant he wanted to have sex with them.
Still, it was clear that more Democratic men in federal office accused of sexual misconduct were resigning than Republicans. It was a standard Franken pointed to in his resignation speech.
“I, of all people, am aware 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,” he said.
As Vox’s Tara Golshan wrote, Franken painted himself as the victim:
Franken made the case that he was the collateral damage in a cultural revolution to hold powerful men accountable for their actions — a force of change that he himself has championed as good. That is, until it came to him.
There are plenty of Democrats who agreed with him, arguing that Franken’s political track record of supporting policies to protect women’s rights should outweigh the accusations against him. As Feminasty podcast co-host Kate Harding wrote in an opinion piece for the Washington Post:
If we set this precedent in the interest of demonstrating our party’s solidarity with harassed and abused women, we’re only going to drain the swamp of people who, however flawed, still regularly vote to protect women’s rights and freedoms. The legislative branch will remain chockablock with old, white Republican men who regard women chiefly as sex objects and unpaid housekeepers, and we’ll show them how staunchly Democrats oppose their misogynistic attitudes by handing them more power.
The calls for Franken to go were louder than the ones for him to stay
But plenty of others, including top Democratic Party officials in Minnesota, said that no matter his voting record, there was simply no excuse for Franken’s behavior. As the number of Franken’s sexual misconduct accusers topped eight, Democratic women in the Senate decided to go public with calls for his resignation.
Leading the charge was Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), a vocal advocate for women and sexual assault victims. Gillibrand’s office quickly coordinated with other female senators, including Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) to time their calls for Franken to resign, one after the other, according to a CNN report.
“Enough is enough,” Gillibrand said later at a press conference, exasperation audible in her voice. “I think when we start having to talk about the differences between sexual assault and sexual harassment and unwanted groping, you are having the wrong conversation. You need to draw a line in the sand and say none of it is okay. None of it is acceptable.”
But Gillibrand and other female senators who swiftly called for Franken’s resignation were some of the same people who comforted him after his resignation speech on the Senate floor.
In Franken’s home state of Minnesota, Democratic Farmer Labor Party chair Ken Martin called Franken a friend and told Vox his loss will be felt in Minnesota and in the national political landscape. Martin noted Franken’s record of leading on progressive policy and women’s issues. At the same time, he said he could not excuse the allegations against Franken and believed the senator resigning was the right action to take.
“I feel absolutely terrible about losing Al Franken in the Senate,” Martin said. “That in no way excuses his behavior to the women that came forward. We believe Sen. Franken made the right decision.”
The ship has sailed for Franken — and set a new standard for Democrats
Today, Franken’s office announced his last day will be Janury 2. Democratic Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton named the state’s Lt. Gov. Tina Smith as Franken’s replacement last week. Smith will be sworn in on JanuaryFan 3, and she has announced she is planning to run for the seat in 2018.
During a press conference last week, Smith thanked Franken for his service in the Senate, but said she believed his resignation was “best for Minnesota.” She also had words of praise for the women who had gone public with their accusations, saying it was part of a larger “sea change of attitudes” about sexual harassment in America.
“I think in some ways, this sea change is being led by young women, who tell women of my generation that maybe some of the things we put up with during our lives, we shouldn’t have to put up with,” she said.
Franken’s departure likely won’t quell the debate around whether Democrats should have forced him out in the first place. Franken was one of the first men in Congress who actually faced the consequences of his actions, and the fact that he was a progressive champion for women’s rights ultimately didn’t save him.
The #MeToo movement is showing no signs of going away, and the ways Democratic men treat women — both in the policies they support and the behaviors they exhibit — is most likely something others will have to answer to in the future.