Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Al Franken’s graceless exit

Here’s to the Democratic women of the US Senate. They stood up this week and gave their colleague Al Franken the bum’s rush.

And so, on Thursday, the Gopher State Groper announced he would soon resign.

He did not go gracefully. Despite eight women making accusations that he groped or forcibly kissed them, Franken essentially waved it all away, portraying his previous apologies as something he had done to respect the “broader conversation” about sexual harassment.

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“It gave some people the false impression that I was admitting to doing things that in fact I haven’t done,” he declared. “Some of the allegations against me are simply not true. Others I remember very differently.” No doubt. Memory, after all, can be a very friendly and convenient editor when it comes to one’s own misdeeds. But let’s be realistic. It’s unlikely that all these women are making this up.

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Franken did, however, offer an apt observation about the irony of his being pressured to resign while Donald Trump, who has faced multiple groping and forced kissing accusations and, indeed, bragged of grabbing women’s genitals, sits in the Oval Office, and Roy Moore, who in his 30s allegedly pursued teenage girls, remains the GOP’s more-or-less embraced candidate for Senate in Alabama. Those accusations are every bit as credible as the ones against Franken, as much as Republicans would like to wish them away.

Little can be done to hold Trump accountable until the next election. But the Senate needs an evenhanded way of addressing these problems, complete with some sort of understanding of what kind of sexual misconduct constitutes a venial, and which a mortal, sin.

For that to work, however, there first needs to be a way of purging the Senate of sexual harassers in a way that doesn’t change the underlying power balance. Otherwise, one can predict what will happen as the Great Reckoning goes forward: In situations where resignations would reduce a party’s Senate strength, that party will instead hunker in the bunker with its sexual misbehavers.

That’s not the case with Franken. Minnesota has a Democratic governor, who will obviously replace Franken with someone who is ideologically simpatico. Thus Democrats could confidently push for him to leave, knowing that, by doing so, they will end up with a Democrat replacement who doesn’t have Franken’s heavy political baggage.

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But what if Minnesota had a Republican governor? Then Franken’s resignation would have changed the power balance. In such a case, it’s likely that Democrats would have said: Why should we force a Democratic harasser out and suffer a loss in our ranks, when Republicans may well be rewarded for rallying round an alleged sexual predator like Moore? Moore’s alleged misdeeds, after all, are worse than anything Franken has been accused of doing. One woman charges that when she was 16, he locked her in his pickup and sexually assaulted her. Another says he had sexual contact with her when she was only 14.

In those circumstances, then, the incentives are perverse for a party purge of piggish pols.

That could be rectified, but doing so would require an approach that values the creation of a
harassment-free workplace and the reputation of Congress above partisan advantage.

The two parties would agree that in situations where someone resigned because of sexual misconduct, the governor of his state would appoint someone of the same party as the departing member. Ideally, such an agreement would stipulate that the Senate wouldn’t seat members whose selection violated such an accord, though that might not weather a Supreme Court challenge.

Unlikely? Yes, in the same way that anything that speaks of a goal beyond partisan advancement is unlikely in today’s Washington.

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And yet, this problem is only going to get worse. And, without a way forward, more partisan and more bitter.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.