The nation's capital is not where most Americans look for leadership on sexual harassment and assault.
President Donald Trump's aides, supporters, and even the Republican party still insist he never committed sexual assault, despite the fact that more than a dozen women have shared credible evidence to the contrary — and he admitted to such predatory behavior on a hot mic. And let's not forget how, back in the 1990s, liberals helped shield Bill Clinton from accusations of sexual assault by questioning the motives of women who came forward with harrowing stories.
Washington, D.C., in other words, is a place where politicians often chose to abandon their moral compass if it means preserving their political influence.
But a group of powerful female Democratic senators set a new example Wednesday when they unequivocally called for their Democratic colleague, Minnesota senator Al Franken, to resign in the wake of a new claim that he once tried to forcibly kiss a woman.
As elected officials, we should be held to the highest standards—not the lowest. The allegations against Sen. Franken describe behavior that cannot be tolerated. While he’s entitled to an Ethics Committee hearing, I believe he should step aside to let someone else serve.
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) December 6, 2017
The move shows the public how politicians can act with conviction once a pattern of abusive behavior emerges, and it puts new pressure on the GOP to explain why it won't disavow Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who allegedly pursued relationships and sexual contact with teenage girls as an adult.
As of Wednesday, Republicans can no longer point to Democratic hypocrisy about figures like Franken as they dismiss questions about their own party's — and president's — support of Moore.
"I think that this moment, and the way in which many individuals respond, is going to be a reflection about whether or not they choose partisanship over principles," says Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University–Camden.
Several women have publicly and anonymously said Franken groped, kissed, or attempted to touch them against their will in the last 15 years. Soon after Politico reported the latest accusation, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand tweeted that the former SNL star should resign, and published a lengthy Facebook post on the subject.
"The women who have come forward are brave and I believe them."
"The women who have come forward are brave and I believe them," she wrote. "While it’s true that [Franken's] behavior is not the same as the criminal conduct alleged against Roy Moore, or Harvey Weinstein, or President Trump, it is still unquestionably wrong, and should not be tolerated by those of us who are privileged to work in public service."
Other female Democratic senators, including Kamala Harris, Dianne Feinstein, Tammy Baldwin, and Heidi Heitkamp, posted similar statements. The floodgates swiftly opened; male Democratic senators like Dick Durbin, Ed Markey, and Bob Casey joined the women in asking for Franken's resignation. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer did the same by the day's end.
While some may feel that Franken's fellow Democrats were too slow in pressuring him to step down, Dittmar says they may have been waiting for a Congressional ethics investigation to make a conclusion about the allegations, or they could've been hoping that the first few accounts were isolated incidents.
Once the claims demonstrated a pattern of behavior, Dittmar says it left Democrats — especially female senators who've championed gender equality and focused on preventing sexual harassment and assault — little choice but to use their influence to force Franken from office.
Sexual harassment and misconduct should not be allowed by anyone and should not occur anywhere. I believe the best thing for Senator Franken to do is step down.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) December 6, 2017
It’s clear the American people don’t look lightly on these kinds of actions, no matter who they’re committed by, and the number of complaints against Senator Franken is a concern. I think resignation is the right thing for him to do.
— Sen Dianne Feinstein (@SenFeinstein) December 6, 2017
Senator Franken’s behavior was wrong. He has admitted to what he did. He should resign from the Senate.
— Senator Dick Durbin (@SenatorDurbin) December 6, 2017
We must commit to zero tolerance – which is where I believe we as a country and Congress should be – and that means Senator Franken should step down. Full statement: pic.twitter.com/4qrZB0mBTo
— Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (@SenatorHeitkamp) December 6, 2017
That might seem like an obvious outcome, but in recent days prominent Republicans have gone from repudiating Moore to embracing his candidacy. After withdrawing its support last month, the Republican National Committee started funneling money into Moore's campaign this week.
Earlier Wednesday, prior to Gillibrand's statement, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, appeared on CNN to spin Trump's endorsement of Moore: "[Moore's opponent] Doug Jones is a liberal Democrat, the president has said, and he doesn't want a liberal Democrat representing Alabama in the Senate. Just like Kirsten Gillibrand and other Democratic senators who are saying, well I'm not sure [about Franken]...they want a reliable Democrat to have that Senate seat in Minnesota."
After equivocation & delay, Dems are finally getting their act together on Conyers and Franken.
If Moore wins & GOP doesn't vote to expel, Dems will nationalize the issue, claim high ground (despite past sins), and, I suspect, draw a LOT of political blood. GOP will deserve it.
— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) December 6, 2017
Conway also frequently tweets and comments on allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Democratic figures, but continues to maintain Trump's innocence and defend the GOP's embrace of Moore. In her CNN interview, Conway said the president has "tremendous moral standards."
When an NPR host asked Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to explain the difference between holding members of Congress and Trump accountable for sexual misconduct, Ryan dodged the question and said that his focus remained on his peers, not the commander-in-chief. It was the closest Ryan could get to a political non-answer without sounding morally bankrupt.
Such examples make it seem as though Republicans will believe victims, unless doing so threatens their Congressional majority or tax cuts. Democrats were arguably in a similar position until Wednesday, which is why Conway, in her television appearance, masterfully pivoted to discuss hypocrisy instead of the ethics of endorsing a man accused of pedophilia by several women with credible accounts.
DNC: Franken should resign
RNC: we’re all in on Roy Moore
— Sam Stein (@samstein) December 6, 2017
While Republicans may scramble to keep the conversation focused on who's side is worse, that strategy just became a less feasible option thanks to the women who began calling for Franken's resignation.
"The onus will be put on Republican members to take a position because they can no longer say those Democrats are hypocritical," Dittmar says.
She also believes the scene that played out Wednesday reflects the importance of women's representation in Congress: They can spot and speak personally to issues that their male colleagues might not understand or may feel reluctant to discuss publicly.
I hope the Democratic men in the Senate step forward on Franken too. Shouldn’t just be women.
— Jon Favreau (@jonfavs) December 6, 2017
And those who follow the lead of the women who spoke up today, Dittmar adds, will probably benefit as well.
"They're going to come out of this looking more true to principle than politics," she says.
That might be good politics for them, but it's even better for the country.