Al Franken, Roy Moore and the Democrats: Exploiting the morality gap

Yes, dumping Al Franken might cause short-term political pain. Looking ahead, much bigger issues are at stake

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published December 8, 2017 4:58AM (EST)

Newt Gingrich; Al Franken; Roy Moore (AP/Photo Montage by Salon)
Newt Gingrich; Al Franken; Roy Moore (AP/Photo Montage by Salon)

... If the allegations are true.”

That was the qualifying statement that preceded or followed almost every prominent Republican’s statement when bombshell allegations of child molestation against the GOP Senate nominee in Alabama, Roy Moore, were first published a few weeks ago. From Mitch McConnell, the leader of Republicans in the Senate, to Kay Ivey, the Republican governor of Alabama, every GOP elected official grilled about Moore initially offered up a response that seemed to cast doubt on his accusers.  

As more women came forward to accuse the twice-ousted Alabama state judge of predatory behavior when he was a 30-something district attorney, Republicans appeared to be changing their tune. But less than a month after the first allegations were made public, Moore is sitting pretty atop the polls as McConnell and many other powerful Republicans have switched their positions from “I believe the women” to “Let the people of Alabama decide.”

As The Week’s Paul Waldman notes, a lesson of modern politics has been that “when it comes to sex scandals, the politicians who are the most guilty and the least repentant are the ones who survive.” This remains true today. Republicans do not care about the allegations against Moore — or against President Donald Trump either. They only care about tax cuts for the rich and also about punishing or stigmatizing liberals. A recent CBS poll found that 71 percent of Alabama Republicans believe the allegations against Moore are false.

Having principles can be difficult, because it forces you to stand by them even when it would be easier or more prudent to abandon them. Hours after Politico published the account of a seventh accuser who alleged that Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., tried to force himself on her, Democratic women of the Senate made a coordinated call for him to step down. On Thursday, Franken did just that.

Franken acknowledged that he had become a distraction, in a floor speech announcing his resignation. Moore’s Republican defenders had used Franken’s presence in the Senate to deflect with classic whataboutism.

“But, you know, it’s down to the fact that as long as Al Franken is in the Senate, and [Rep. John] Conyers is staying in office, why not have Roy Moore?” Mike Huckabee asked on Fox News this week.

With the resignation of Conyers, a congressional icon and civil-rights hero who has been accused by several women of sexual harassment, Franken’s resignation was inevitable. His continued presence in the Senate only helped to obfuscate the actions of an already emboldened Republican Party. The Republican National Committee embraced Roy Moore this week and will funnel resources back into the Alabama race, after previously announcing it would pull its support. The GOP is now openly backing a credibly-accused child molester.

But all anybody seems concerned about is politics.

Franken wasn’t some supercharged, unbeatable politician with a safe seat. He will be temporarily replaced by whoever Mark Dayton, Minnesota's Democratic governor, decides to appoint. But Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick is right to fear that “what we get in exchange for being good and moral right now is nothing.” Franken's Minnesota seat may now be vulnerable in the 2018 midterms because he grabbed a few women's butts, while the president has bragged that he would “grab ‘em by the pussy” and has now endorsed a credibly accused pedophile for the Senate who has a real shot of winning.

Franken’s resignation was noble, and Conyers’ was long overdue. These Democrats were pushed out because the weight of the allegations against them became unbearable for a party which contends it is inclusive and seeks to embody progressive social values. That those resignations free up Democrats, at least for now, to shine a spotlight on the devolution of Trump and Moore's party without having to provide cover to offensive Democrats is simply an added bonus.

Democrats will lose the game of moral high-ground chicken with the unscrupulous — in the short term. Look no further than last year’s presidential election for proof. Doing the right thing will do little to persuade those who have repeatedly demonstrated that they are shameless. Still, Republicans’ bad behavior is not a pass for Democratic indifference. Standing up for what is right and refusing to tolerate sexual harassment is not only the principled position, there’s evidence that it will eventually be a winning electoral strategy. 

Millennials are now the largest demographic slice of the electorate and they seem to share a distinctly different value system, one Democrats would be wise to exploit. According to a recently released Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics poll, 65 percent of likely voters between the ages of 18 and 29 said they would rather see Democrats control Congress. That’s why Franken had to go.

Democrats who are reluctant to clean house before Republicans do risk losing a vital avenue to young voters. The attitude that "Well, if the GOP gets to play dirty on harassment then so do we" is likely to turn off more millennial voters, who are already often inclined to believe there's not much of a real difference between the two parties. 

As more than 30 Democrats were calling for Franken’s resignation on Wednesday, RNC chair Ronna McDaniel funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars back into Moore's campaign. In contrast, Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez said, about the Franken case, that “everyone must share the responsibility of building a culture of trust and respect for women in every industry and workplace, and that includes our party.”

There is a difference between the two parties, despite conservatives’ cries that Democrats are operating out of simple political expediency.

Never mind what conservatives say: Democrats were right to finally come around. They were only able to do so, in fact, because of the party’s effort to be inclusive. One-third of the Democrats in Congress are women, versus only 9 percent of the House GOP caucus.

Democrats often suffer when they attempt to emulate Republicans. As frustrating as it is to take the high road and then face electoral loss, losing elections doesn’t mean Michelle Obama's memorable 2016 convention speech was wrong. While a zero-tolerance policy almost always results in unintended consequences, Democrats would be both politically prudent and principled to strive for such a goal on sexual harassment.

Millennials cast about 25 percent of ballots in the 2016 presidential election, and that number is likely to grow in the years ahead. Exploiting the morality gap is the right thing to do -- and the only way for Democrats to win in the future.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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