Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) leaves the Capitol after speaking on the Senate floor Thursday. | Jacquelyn Martin/AP
A year into Donald Trump’s presidency, many voters still don’t know what Democrats stand for — so at the very least, party leaders reluctantly decided, they better take a stand against sexual harassment.
Especially when they’re going to need a huge turnout among women to do what now still seems like a reach, but six months ago seemed impossible: flip the House and maybe even the Senate, and rally in races for governor and state legislature across the country next year.
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“For the last decade, Democrats have been pointing the finger at the Republican Party for devaluing women,” said Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA and the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the 2012 and 2014 cycles. “This is a requirement to be able to look at them with a straight face and say we’re the party that cares about them.”
“As long as Republicans don’t do that, there’s a very sharp contrast to be drawn. And there’s no question that women not only make up a majority of the voting population, but across the country, of both political parties, are sick and tired of the sexual harassment they’re facing in all sorts of work places,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who has been at the forefront of calling on Democrats accused of harassment to step down.
So it doesn’t matter if Nancy Pelosi calls you an “icon,” or if most Senate Democrats consider you a friend who just this year got comfortable enough in the job as senator to let his comedian side show in public. For a party heading into 2018 planning to run against Republicans as morally and legally corrupt, they know they need a clean argument.
Rep. John Conyers is the only person in history to be endorsed by both Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama. Al Franken was quickly becoming a legend on the left for his aggressive questioning at hearings.
But both of them were getting in the way of what party leaders see as a bigger mission, and bigger plans. And with the standard now set by Conyers and Franken, they know that will likely mean the end of Ruben Kihuen — the Nevada congressman elected last year as a face of the next generation of Latino political power — along with any other Democrat confronted with credible allegations of harassment or assault.
“Just because Donald Trump is sitting in the White House and Clarence Thomas may be sitting in the Supreme Court,” said former Democratic National Committee Chair Donna Brazile, “this is a very important moment and Democrats cannot slip-slide and not have a standard.”
Cecil, who days ago was one of the first prominent Democratic operatives to call for Franken’s resignation, said he sees this as “a clear-cut case.”
“I wish it would be both parties, but it is critical from an ethical and political point of view for the Democratic Party to be clear about what we are willing to accept and not accept,” he argued.
Voters haven’t left Democrats with much of a choice. Polls show that while Republicans believe sexual harassment is a Democratic problem, Democrats think it’s a problem across the board.
Beyond the White House’s dismissal of the women who’d gone public with accusations against Trump, Democratic leaders know that within a week, they’re likely to have a Senate without Franken but including Roy Moore, despite allegations of preying on children and being banned from a mall over his alleged pursuit of teenage girls.
They also know that while Conyers was walked to the exit by his closest allies, there has yet to be a single Republican leader to call for the resignation of Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold, who also settled sexual harassment claims with taxpayer money. (He denies wrongdoing.) And they’re full of self-doubt and disappointment that two of their own have been driven from office, while Republicans have dismissed or ignored claims.
Beyond a strain of anxiety that false information could now start being circulated against Democratic politicians to force them out, Democrats worry about holding to a standard that Republicans are not — a point that Franken touched on in announcing his own resignation Thursday.
“This does establish a new standard,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said after Franken’s resignation, and that to him behavior that predates a politician’s time in office can disqualify them for serving.
“Strange principle is emerging,” Democratic strategist David Axelrod tweeted Thursday. “If you admit misconduct, you resign. But if you deny it, however compelling or voluminous the testimony against you, you continue in office — or on to office — with impunity?”
But leaders say they have no choice.
“Democrats are not going to hide behind the curtain. We’re going to open up the window,” Brazile said, arguing that this is the natural and necessary next step for a party that led the charge for the Equal Rights Act, and the first national awakening around sexual harassment after the Anita Hill hearings. “When you go back and review the history of when this became a topic of concern for women in the workplace, it has always been Democrats and Democratic lawmakers who led the way.”
Brazile wants to see her party go further, to forcefully lead the charge for all records of sexual harassment claims and payments to be made public. And once their own ranks have been purged, to focus on highlighting the lack of substantive Republican response to Farenthold and the issue overall.
Jayapal on Wednesday introduced a bill to change corporate forced arbitration clauses, which are often used to hush sexual harassment. She is calling for a revamped process in Congress of accountability and transparency about all sexual harassment claims and payments.
“While there is a spectrum of behavior,” Jayapal said, “I don’t think we should be parsing what behavior is acceptable and what behavior or not.”
Democrats have also now reset the standard should Moore win the Alabama race next week.
Through Tuesday afternoon, Franken’s Senate Democratic colleagues had been punting on the question of whether he should resign, insisting that they needed to wait on “the process” of the Ethics Committee investigation. That stance collapsed in a matter of minutes on Wednesday morning, with a POLITICO story about another woman who said Franken tried to forcibly kiss her after the taping of a radio show in 2006.
It ended the diminishing patience of most Democrats and a number of Republicans, including Senate Conference Chairman John Thune.
If elected, Republicans have said that Moore would be immediately subjected to an Ethics Committee for an investigation. On Wednesday, Democratic Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire were among those who declined to answer questions about Moore, citing the possibility he would come before them.
Others already seem much less inclined to wait for the Ethics Committee to proceed if Moore wins, and will likely call for his expulsion immediately.
Meanwhile, on Thursday morning, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich sounded out an argument on Franken that meshed with what many Republican leaders have been saying about Moore: Calling on him to step aside but saying it’s up the voters of Alabama to decide.
Gingrich noted that more than a million Minnesota voters pulled the lever for Franken in 2014, but “30 self appointed ‘pure’ senators want him out.”
“What happened to popular vote,” Gingrich tweeted.
Then again, Gingrich led the impeachment of Bill Clinton, which would have had Congress remove a president who had been elected twice by millions of votes.
Democrats will miss Conyers, and they’ll miss Franken. The solace, they hope, will come both from feeling like they’ve done the right thing and from how they’re judged next November.
“Women voters, like all other voters, are watching. But it’s not just women voters,” Brazile said. “Millennials are watching. Everyone is watching.”