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Democrats are facing an important test with Al Franken. They’ve failed it before.

Their actions now will determine the future of the party.

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) on November 14
Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) on November 14.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

In less than a month, Alabama voters will decide whether to send to the United States Senate a man accused of abusing and romantically pursuing teenage girls.

If Roy Moore wins, it will mean his constituents either don’t believe or don’t care about the woman who says Moore assaulted her when she was 16, or the woman who says Moore kissed and touched her when she was 14, or the women who say Moore kept approaching them at the mall when they were teenagers. And a Moore victory will set the standard that someone who is the subject of multiple reports of abusive behavior toward minors can represent his state in the Senate. Unless the Republican Party finds some way around the election in December, it will be a referendum on whether the safety of girls and women matters to voters in one of the most conservative states in the country.

But Democrats have a referendum on their hands too. Though the cases are different, the way Democrats respond to reports of unwanted touching and advances by Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), is just as important as how Republicans respond to Moore.

Democrats have already failed in this regard at least once, continuing to embrace and defend former president Bill Clinton even after an inappropriate relationship with an intern and reports of sexual assault. If they want to maintain the trust of their constituents and become a better, stronger party, they can’t make the same mistake this time.

Democrats are criticizing Franken — but some say it’s bad strategy for him to resign

Two women have now come forward to report inappropriate behavior by Sen. Franken. Last week, radio host Leeann Tweeden wrote that when she was performing with Al Franken on a USO tour in 2006, before he was a senator, Franken pressured her to rehearse an onstage kiss, aggressively put his tongue in her mouth, and later groped her while she was sleeping. A photograph shows Franken either groping or pretending to grope Tweeden while her eyes are shut. On Monday, CNN reported the story of Lindsay Menz, who says that Franken grabbed her butt during a photo op in 2010, when he was serving his first term in the senate.

Franken has apologized to Tweeden, but said he doesn’t remember their rehearsal the same way. In response to Menz’s account, he told CNN that he doesn’t remember the incident, but that “I feel badly that Ms. Menz came away from our interaction feeling disrespected.”

Meanwhile, BuzzFeed News reported this week that Rep. Conyers settled a complaint in 2015 by a woman who said she was fired for turning down his advances. Former staff members said in documents from the complaint that Conyers “repeatedly made sexual advances to female staff that included requests for sex acts,” BuzzFeed reported. Conyers has denied the allegations.

Progressive reactions to women’s accounts of Franken’s behavior have generally fallen into two camps. Some — including Michelle Goldberg at the New York Times and Minnesota State Auditor Rebecca Otto, who is running for governor in 2018 — have called for him to resign. Others, like Kate Harding at the Washington Post, have criticized Franken but argued that he shouldn’t resign, because the Republican Party does not demand the same of politicians accused of harassment.

If Democrats are forced to resign in the face of such allegations and Republicans aren’t, Harding writes, “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.”

It’s worth noting that few if any Democratic officials have come forward to defend the practice of groping women. We have not seen, for instance, a Democratic equivalent of the Alabama state auditor who brushed aside the allegations against Roy Moore with a bizarre Biblical reference: “Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”

Still, Democrats face a test. And they’ve already failed once.

In 1998, Democrats mixed up infidelity with abuse of power, and gave Clinton an undeserved pass

Reports of harassment and assault by Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men have prompted a reevaluation of several other powerful figures who should have been evaluated harshly in the first place. Prominent among these is Bill Clinton, who has been accused of sexual harassment and assault by multiple women, including Juanita Broaddrick, who says Clinton raped her in 1978. Clinton also admitted in 1998 to an affair with Monica Lewinsky. Their relationship was consensual, but she was a White House intern and he was president of the United States — Clinton abused his power and committed, as Vox’s Dylan Matthews put it, “textbook sexual harassment of a subordinate of a kind that would (or perhaps more accurately, should) get many CEOs fired from their companies.”

A boss having sexual contact with an intern puts her at a steep disadvantage — what if she wants to break off the affair? It also harms everyone else in the workplace — can the boss possibly be fair to the other interns if he’s having sex with one of them? How can he evaluate, support, or promote any of his employees fairly if he’s sizing them up as potential sexual partners? These questions become even more pressing when the boss is the commander-in-chief.

And yet Democrats, by and large, did not ask these questions when Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky came to light — or until very recently. Vox’s Matt Yglesias writes that in 1998, “my version of a sophisticated high schooler’s take on the matter was that the American media should get over its bourgeois morality hang-ups and be more like the French, where François Mitterrand’s wife and his longtime mistress grieved together at his funeral.” This was a common take at the time, among adults as well as teenagers. As Yglesias notes, the focus should have been on Clinton’s abuse of his power over Lewinsky, not his infidelity. But Democrats in Congress and voters alike decided to treat Clinton like a bad husband answerable to his wife, not a failed leader answerable to the American people.

Democrats in Congress were ready to force Clinton to resign over his relationship with Lewinsky, said William Chafe, a professor emeritus of history at Duke and the author of Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal. But when Hillary Clinton stayed married to Bill and remained supportive of him, Chafe explained, “the people in the country said, if she’s willing to stand with him, then we will too.” Democratic lawmakers stood down, and Clinton eventually finished out his term.

His public image suffered for a while after his impeachment — Al Gore’s presidential campaign kept Clinton away from some key swing states for fear that voters would punish Gore for Clinton’s misdeeds. But it didn’t last long — Clinton spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 and, of course, was active in his wife’s 2008 and 2016 presidential campaigns. One of the strangest moments I witnessed in 2016 was Chelsea Clinton’s appearance with both of her parents in Hudson, New Hampshire; it was impossible to watch the three of them together without being reminded of the pain Bill Clinton had caused his family and other women. A year and a half later, there he was at the National Book Awards, getting a standing ovation.

It’s become commonplace to speak of the current “moment” on sexual harassment as though before women began speaking out about Harvey Weinstein, no one knew it was wrong for men to kiss, touch, pressure, or intimidate unwilling women. But, of course, that’s not true. Tarana Burke started the Me Too campaign a decade ago. When Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 that Clarence Thomas had talked to her about porn and pubic hair on a Coke can, she knew those actions were wrong. (At Rewire, Imani Gandy argues that Joe Biden’s recent apology to Anita Hill rings hollow given his role as chair of the judiciary committee at the time.) And many people saw Clinton’s behavior with Lewinsky, and reports by Broaddrick and others, for the serious issues that they were. Trouble is, the rest of America wasn’t listening.

Democrats can’t make the same mistake twice

America is listening now. And while Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) made headlines last week when she said Clinton should have resigned the presidency, no Democrat that prominent has said that Franken should step down. Gillibrand’s comment was certainly controversial, but it’s easier to criticize a 71-year-old former president whose career — even as a supporter of his wife’s campaigns — is over than it is to pass judgment on a sitting senator whose future still matters for his party.

If Franken resigns, some of Democrats’ fears will probably come true. Whether or not Roy Moore makes it into the Senate, Republicans may be slower than Democrats to root out harassers in their ranks. Since Democrats and Republicans almost certainly commit harassment at equal rates, Democrats may find themselves ousted more frequently than Republicans if the party ends up being more willing to root them out. Democratic lawmakers may be forced to resign their posts in red states, only to be replaced with Republicans by Republican governors. Right-wing media may even use false allegations of sexual misconduct to try to bring down left-wing politicians, as Brian Beutler worries at Crooked Media.

These are all possibilities. Here’s what will definitely happen if Al Franken resigns: a man who has now been accused of harassment by two women — and who has been photographed apparently harassing one of them — will no longer be in the Senate.

The argument that taking sexual harassment seriously will give ammunition to Republicans has a core problem, Vox’s Libby Nelson tweeted last week. Such arguments “seem to assume an alternate universe where there is no downside or tradeoff” — where, in other words, continuing to ignore sexual harassment causes no problems. But that’s not true.

If a senator thinks it’s okay to grab a female constituent’s body during a photo op, he is not representing her fairly. This is true even if he supports reproductive rights and equal pay. By failing to respect the bodily autonomy of a voter, he is failing to act in her interests as her elected representative. Simply put, he is not doing his job.

Such failures have consequences. Rebecca Traister has written at the Cut that the prevalence of harassers in media has affected not just female journalists, but the way the news is presented to the American people: “the men who have had the power to abuse women’s bodies and psyches throughout their careers,” she writes, “are in many cases also the ones in charge of our political and cultural stories.” If journalists are in charge of our stories, politicians are sometimes in charge of our very lives. And placing women’s lives in the hands of men who see them as sexual targets is a terrifyingly irresponsible thing to do.

The possibility of false allegations weaponized by the right is a troubling one, and Democrats should be aware of it. They should certainly investigate allegations and give lawmakers who deny them a chance to make their case. But if they want to retain — and deserve — the trust of voters, then Democrats need to stop making the mistake they made with Clinton. They need to stop excusing men because of their politics, and start building a party that represents all Americans. And they can’t do that if they tolerate harassers in their midst.