Democrats need to find some honor and get rid of Al Franken and John Conyers

Stop being hypocrites on sexual harassment

Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers.
(Image credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images, AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

America is in the midst of a reckoning about sexual misconduct, as a steady stream of men in the public eye have resigned or been fired from their jobs over sexual harassment and assault allegations. Politicians have been no exception, with allegations coming against Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore for allegedly harassing and assaulting teenagers — but also against Democratic members of Congress: Sen. Al Franken (Minn.) and Rep. John Conyers (Mich.). As has become glaringly obvious, while the allegations against Moore are categorically worse than anything Franken or Conyers is accused of, harassment has no particular political affiliation.

Democrats need to find some honor and address their side of the sexual harassment problem, by forcing out Conyers and Franken. Not only do harassment victims deserve a measure of justice, Democrats' political reputation is on the line. These two — and I would guess probably a few others — need to go.

So far Democrats are only beginning to find their spines on this. When the first Franken allegations came out — from radio host Leeann Tweeden, that he had harassed, forcibly kissed, and then taken a shocking picture groping or nearly groping her while she was sleeping — Democratic Party hacks like Kate Harding wrote that he should not resign because Democrats are better on women's issues than Republicans. (Garrison Keillor said the idea of firing Franken was "absurd" before being fired over his own sexual harassment allegation.)

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But as has also become very clear over the past few weeks, where there is one allegation, there are generally many. Some six different women in total have since come out with stories about Franken harassing, kissing, or groping them — most recently allegations of groping a veteran's breast in a photo-op, and a former elected official in New Hampshire who said he tried to give her an unwanted "wet, open-mouthed kiss."

When the allegations against Conyers came out (that he had exposed himself to his staff, as well as harassed, groped, and verbally abused them), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi first hemmed and hawed, suggesting on Meet the Press that because he is an "icon," he would do the "right thing" — not saying what that would be. Later, she finally joined several of her colleagues in saying he should resign. This might be because Conyers is 88 years old, and was recently hospitalized reportedly due to stress over the story. It seems likely he'll be gone soon in any case — though his lawyer recently said that "Nancy Pelosi did not elect the congressman, and she sure as hell won't be the one that tells the congressman to leave."

But as yet, there has been no sustained pressure from the rest of the Democratic caucus to actually force him out, and almost no pressure of any kind for Franken to leave.

The first and most important reason for these two men to go is that sexually harassing and assaulting women is a grotesque crime and anyone who does it is unfit to hold high office (or any office). As Justin Charity argues, even a new partial standard that senators are not allowed to get away with it would be a large political victory in itself against sexism and harassment. Arguing that the occasional sexual assault is simply the price to pay to keep Democrats in power (so they can pass stuff like 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave for some employees, I guess?) overlooks this enormous benefit.

Furthermore, axing these two would probably help Democrats politically, on net. They had the moral high ground against Roy Moore at first, but Franken and Conyers failing to resign make Democrats look like hypocrites, because they are. It muddles the case against Moore, and allows Republicans to excuse themselves for voting for him. Moore's Democratic opponent Doug Jones might well lose because of this cowardice.

Indeed, defending them is almost certainly not even the smart move in the narrowly cynical political sense. Minnesota has a Democratic governor, and so a replacement senator to serve out Franken's term would be of the same party. Conyers won his most recent election by over 60 points, so any replacement would certainly be a Democrat.

On the other hand, if these abusive men try to hang on to their seats, then they might well lose them in their upcoming elections. Conyers has so far promised not to run for re-election, but Hillary Clinton only won Minnesota by less than 2 points. Since the allegations, Franken's popularity has collapsed, falling from 53 percent to 36 percent. The opening for a Republican to win in 2020 would be a large one. The smartest move from a purely tactical standpoint would be for Franken to step aside and allow, say, Keith Ellison to step up. That way the incumbent can be a popular Democrat, and the party avoids a bitter primary battle.

One of the biggest problems with American politics is the distrust the population holds for elite politicians — perceiving them as a pack of amoral, dishonest, wagon-circling, featherbedding, logrolling, favor-trading, corrupt scumbags. This distrust is, to a great extent, deserved. One absolute necessity in rebuilding a measure of trust is for Democrats to behave honorably, and hold themselves to the standards they espouse. They can start by getting rid of the sexual predators in their midst.

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