Did Kirsten Gillibrand just pay the price for the sins of Al Franken?
It's possible, even likely, that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) was always destined to make an early exit from the Democratic presidential primary campaign. The pack of candidates is overcrowded — breaking away and into the top tier was always going to be a huge challenge for any candidate not named Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders.
Elizabeth Warren managed it. Gillibrand could not.
But there is another, unsavory possibility. Consider this: It is likely that Gillibrand's candidacy would be alive and well if she hadn't called on Sen. Al Franken to resign in the face of sexual harassment allegations in 2017 — and that, as a result, Gillibrand is yet another woman whose career has been unnaturally shortened or damaged by forces determined to protect a powerful man from the consequences of his actions.
Maybe Democrats aren't universally sincere about their commitment to the #MeToo movement. And maybe Gillibrand just paid the price for that.
She acknowledged that possibility Wednesday when she dropped out of the presidential race.
"We know there were donors who were angry about it and did not support me because of it," Gillibrand told The New York Times. "I wouldn't change what I did, because I would stand with those eight women again today."
Gillibrand did lead the call for Franken' resignation, but she didn't force him to leave the Senate. By all accounts, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer pressured Franken to quit as multiple women stepped forward with allegations. And while Franken's departure sparked some ambivalence among Democrats — he was a powerful and effective voice against President Trump in the Senate, pressured to leave before he could get a hearing from the Senate Ethics Committee — his resignation was, on the whole, seen in the moment as a bit of a win for the party.
Republicans, after all, were led by a president who had bizarrely survived his own harassment scandal during the 2016 election, and who in turn was campaigning in Alabama for a Senate candidate facing accusations of his own. What better way for Democrats to prove their #MeToo bonafides than to send Franken back to Minnesota? Indeed, what better way for Franken to prove his own sincerity on the matter than by accepting the consequences?
But the backlash began soon after. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), almost immediately urged Franken to rescind his resignation. Dissatisfaction spread to rank-and-file Democrats, as well — New York noted in January that "on Twitter, people across the political spectrum accused Gillibrand of having 'thrown Franken under the bus.'"
We didn't forget that Gillibrand led a lynch mob against Al Franken! You denied him the Ethics hearing he asked for.
— Diana Manister (@DianaCialino) August 28, 2019
A subsequent New Yorker article, however, on the matter may have sealed Gillibrand's presidential doom.
That article was certainly unique in the magazine's handling of #MeToo cases. (Conservatives weren't wrong to complain about an apparent double standard.) The same publication that helped take down Harvey Weinstein featured a gauzy photo of Franken and lent a sympathetic ear to his laments about leaving office — along with a series of quotes from senators who regretted having called, like Gillibrand, for his resignation. It also questioned the credibility of Franken's first accuser, Leann Tweeden, with lines of inquiry familiar to any woman who has accused a powerful man of wrongdoing — suggesting she had a political motive in making the allegations, or that perhaps she just didn't get the loosey-goosey, jokey showbiz vibe of the USO tour where the two met. His famous friends vouched for the magazine that, actually, Franken is a really nice guy.
"I'll go to my grave thinking Al Franken is not a predatory person," his former chief of staff told The New Yorker.
The point here isn't that Franken is or isn't innocent of the multiple allegations against him. The problem — not just for Gillibrand, but for Democrats as a whole — is that it sure looks like establishment figures in politics, entertainment, and the media have applied a different, seemingly more lenient set of standards to his case than they have for Weinstein, former CBS chairman Les Moonves, or any Republican accused of #MeToo wrongdoing. To some extent that is understandable — most observers agree Franken’s alleged acts were less egregious than other prominent #MeToo stories — but it also resulted in Gillibrand becoming a villain for some Democrats. That seems predictable and wrong.
This isn't unusual for Democrats. Joe Biden has faced recent criticism for his 1990s handling of Anita Hill's charges against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. And the party is in the throes of reconsidering its relationship with former President Bill Clinton, who was impeached for his sexual relationship with a White House intern.
"It seems more than likely that he won't have a prime speaking slot at next summer's Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee — if he appears at all," Todd Purdum wrote recently in The Atlantic.
Still, it seems likely that Gillibrand is going home early from the campaign trail as a consequence for her involvement in the Franken case. Nobody is attacking Schumer over the matter, of course, nor are they going after Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), who said that calling for Franken's resignation was "one of the biggest mistakes I've made." Instead, it is Gillibrand — the most notable woman who spoke up — who has been punished by donors and voters.
Somehow, it's always women who pay the price.