On Monday, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who recently officially announced her long-expected presidential run, sat down with MSNBC's Chris Hayes for a lengthy town hall. Gillibrand talked about meaty policy issues, such as health care and gun control, and explained how she hopes that the Green New Deal can reduce climate change while creating a sustainable economic future for communities impacted by the decline in the auto industry. It was important, relevant information voters should care about when making their 2020 choices.
Naturally, however, much of the post-town hall coverage focused not on these important issues, but on a trivial controversy from December 2017, when Gillbrand was the first of 35 Democratic senators to call on Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., to resign after he was accused of sexual misconduct by at least eight women.
"If there are a few Democratic powerful donors who are angry because I stood up for women who came forward with allegations of sexual harassment, that's on them," Gillibrand said, when Hayes asked about the controversy.
What makes the persistent nature of this controvery doubly frustrating is that Gillibrand did nothing wrong. The person who deserves blame here is Franken, who put his Senate colleagues in this situation. But there is little doubt the media will continue to harp on this question as long as Gillibrand is in the running for 2020.
Why? Not because it's important, but because editors and producers know this idiotic controversy will drive clicks, ratings and ad dollars,. And that's true because some Democratic voters, donors and operatives continue to obsess over this issue, and use bad-faith arguments about "due process" or conspiracy theories to justify what is their transparent belief that Franken should just been allowed to get away with it.
The factual, dry numbers — 35 Democratic senators, eight accusers — may surprise readers. The way this story gets told and retold, both on mainstream and social media, leaves the impression that Gillibrand singlehandedly strong-armed Franken into resigning his Senate seat after a single, unsubstantiated accusation from a conservative operative.
That story is flatly untrue. The majority of Democrats in the Senate called for Franken's resignation within minutes or hours of Gillibrand doing so. And while one of Franken's accusers, Leeann Tweeden, is a conservative radio host, most of the seven other women are Democrats, some of whom had evidently kept quiet out of party loyalty. In addition, there had been whispers about Franken's behavior in Democratic circles for a long time about this (which I had personally heard).
Gillibrand herself is choosing to focus on this number — eight accusers — when she is asked about this, which will probably be about one billion times between now and January.
“The truth is we miss [Franken] and people loved him," Gillibrand said during the MSNBC town hall. "But he had eight credible allegations against him of sexual harassment for groping, two of them since he was a senator, and the eighth one was a congressional staffer."
The gambit about "due process" used by Franken defenders use is an obnoxious bit of bad faith. It sounds good at first glance — who doesn't love processes that are due? — but this argument falls apart under even cursory examination.
The end point, Franken's resignation from the Senate, was predetermined. Seven of the eight accusers have no clear ulterior motive. Republicans controlled the ethics investigations at the time. Most Democrats who actually looked at the evidence believed Franken was guilty. The real-world choice was between drawing out the investigation and maximizing the political damage to Democrats -- before Franken's inevitable resignation -- or ripping off the bandage in one swift move.
Franken chose to resign because he is not as stubborn or as ignorant as his most ferocious supporters. He realized that drawing out an investigation would just make things worse for him and the party. Now he gets to benefit from people blaming a woman for calling him out, instead of blaming him for grabbing women's heinies in the first place.
In one sense, it's understandable why so many Democratic donors and voters feel frustrated by Franken's resignation. It does feel unfair that Franken faced serious consequences for groping women -- including the likely end of his political career -- while Donald Trump has paid no price for doing much the same or considerably worse, even though he was caught on tape bragging about it. Under the circumstances, it's not surprising that some Democrats want to ask, "If Republicans can do this, why can't we?"
But that impulse reads this situation backwards. Republican willingness to shield sexual harassers and abusers isn't a strength, but an electoral weakness. Republicans know that, which is why they are eager to do whatever they can to convince voters that both parties are equally bad on this issue and that both are willing to shield their sexual harassers and abusers from consequences.
Every time a Democrat lashes out at Gillibrand and defends Franken, they are doing the GOP's dirty work for them. They're supporting the arguments of conservative pundits who suggest that no one really takes sexual harassment seriously, and that Democrats are only feigning outrage to score political points.
It's impossible to convincingly denounce Mr. Pussy Grabber if you're simultaneously making excuses for Mr. Ass Grabber.
In ancient Greek myth, the titan Prometheus gave humanity the gift of fire. Instead of rewarding him for his generosity, the gods tied him to a rock and allowed a bird of prey to devour his liver daily. At this point, that sounds less tedious than the way Gillibrand is being constantly picked at for her role in saving the Democratic Party from the political damage that likely would have resulted if Al Franken had been allowed to draw out his inevitable resignation for months on end.
If Democratic voters and donors are serious about defeating Trump in 2020, they have to let this stupid controversy go. Every time an undecided voter hears a liberal railing on about how Kirsten Gillibrand is evil and Al Franken was railroaded, they are more inclined to believe that no one in politics really cares about sexual harassment, and to conclude that they might as well vote for Donald Trump, who at least isn't a sanctimonious hypocrite about it.
The continued rage in some quarters against Gillibrand exposes an unsavory truth about the Democratic coalition, which is that for all the talk about equality and diversity, there is still a great deal of sexism in the community. Women are allowed into leadership roles these days, but their presence is still treated as conditional and their status is still second class. Too often, they are still expected to tolerate sexual harassment and other inappropriate conduct with a smile, grateful to be allowed in the room at all.
All the defensiveness around Franken suggests that there's still a widespread belief that men are entitled to power, so much so that everyone else is obligated to indulge a little butt-grabbing and some casual humiliation of women as part of the deal.
Gillibrand has become a target because she rejects that paradigm. She offers a counter-vision, where women are treated as full equals and men are held to the same "keep your hands to yourself" standard as preschoolers. That kind of unwavering confidence, in a woman, is still provocative in many people's eyes. When it's coupled with a strong feminist vision, it freaks a lot of people out.
Women who believe they are equal and do not apologize for that are a new and (to some) frightening phenomenon. It will clearly take some getting used to.
It might take decades to reach Gillibrand's vision of gender equality, but in the meantime, there's the problem of getting rid of Trump. Whoever gets the Democratic nomination in 2020, the entire party will look like a nest of hypocrites if this silly controversy keeps getting rehashed every time Gillibrand sticks her head out in public. If Democrats want to make a strong argument against Trump's sexism in 2020, the harassment of Gillibrand over Al Franken has to stop, and soon.