Democrats are doing the right thing with Al Franken

Senator Al Franken

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Senator Al Franken
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Thomson Reuters

  • Sen. Al Franken is widely expected to resign on Thursday.
  • Democrats have taken an admirably swift approach to force him out of the Senate.
  • Despite some gripes from the Democratic base, high ethical standards are good for a party.

The first accusations against Democratic Sen. Al Franken came just three weeks ago. With his announcement Thursday that he will resign from the US Senate, Democrats will have gone from accusation to nudging him out of the Senate in less than one month.

This is admirably swift, especially considering the way the fact set around Franken gradually got worse, instead of hitting in one bombshell. Remember, after the first accusation, even accuser Leeann Tweeden said she was reserving judgment about whether he ought to resign.

Perhaps Democrats should have acted after the fourth accusation instead of the seventh, or in two weeks instead of three. But once a party collectively decides a member is unfit to serve in the Senate, it’s tough to take that decision back. It’s worth being deliberate as long as you are not stalling or excusing.

On the other side of the Capitol building, Democratic leaders have gotten Rep. John Conyers to resign and are trying very hard to push Rep. Ruben Kihuen to do the same. In each of these stories, they have moved toward demanding resignations within days or weeks. You can argue whether each of the moves were quite as fast as they should have been, but they were all pretty fast.

Maybe Democrats are doing the right thing for political reasons: They hope to make Republicans look bad for not holding their own accused sexual harassers and abusers accountable, up to and including the president. That’s fine. The whole point of democracy as a political system is it’s supposed to align lawmakers’ crude self interest with the public interest.

“You’re just trying to show you’re better than the other party so you can win an election” is how it’s supposed to work.

High ethical standards are good for a party

I see a few Democrats griping about unilateral disarmament. Why should Franken resign if Trump won’t? Aren’t we just a bunch of chumps if we hold our officials accountable and they let theirs do whatever they want?

This is the wrong way to think about it.

First of all, high ethical standards are their own reward. A party that stands against sexual harassment is better for the people who work on campaigns and in congressional offices – especially but not exclusively women. A party that lives its values of ethical behavior and equal treatment is also more likely to make laws in the public interest.

High ethical standards also have a political reward. They allow the party to make a stronger argument to the public that it is deserving of trust, and enable the party to more credibly criticize the other side for its failures.

It’s not always good to be as interesting as possible

Franken will be replaced by another Democrat who will vote similarly, who won’t be dogged by this scandal, and who (one hopes) will not grope constituents who pose for photos.

Franken’s replacement will probably produce fewer C-SPAN videos in which he or she totally destroys a Trump administration official testifying before a committee. But these exchanges from Franken were more useful for thrilling a certain kind of liberal fan than for changing political outcomes.

Ideally, Franken’s replacement will be less like him and more like his colleague from Minnesota, Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Klobuchar is skilled at selling liberal ideas to the center. She was an effective advocate for the Democratic platform on healthcare earlier this year in a CNN debate – a venue where one might actually reach the sort of persuadable voters Democrats will need to retake congress.

Minnesota is a once-strongly blue state that has been trending red for decades. While Hillary Clinton won the state last year, she won it by a smaller margin than she won the national vote – the last time a Democratic presidential candidate had run worse in Minnesota than in the whole country was in 1952.

But while Franken was just barely dragged across the finish line in his 2008 Senate race by the strong national political environment for Democrats, Klobuchar won her last two elections in Minnesota by 35 points and 20 points, respectively – showing the right kind of Democrat with the right kind of message can still do really well in the upper Midwest.

That’s the way forward for a Democratic majority, and cutting Franken loose is one step toward walking that way.