Al Franken has promised under pressure to step down from the U.S. Senate “in the coming weeks.” He was not accused of such grave crimes as rape or preying on underage children. He was accused instead of grabbing, fondling, lunging at and humiliating seven women. If true, and I think we see a pattern here, this would make him a pig, a bully and a hypocrite. His departure, while personally sad, is no loss to American democracy.
It was not mad Puritanism that chased him from office; it was his colleagues’ finally, belatedly announcing and establishing standards of behavior. This is not an unreasonable or unhelpful thing to do.
Journalists and political figures of my generation have been wryly remembering what we had to put up with in the old days—how a woman couldn’t get on an elevator with Sen. Strom Thurmond without being pinched or patted. All true. But even Thurmond would not have survived a photo of him leering over a sleeping woman and posing—deliberately, perhaps sadistically, so the moment could be memorialized—as he grabbed or simulated grabbing her breasts, which is what Mr. Franken did. The Franken case represents not a collapse of tolerance for flawed human behavior but a rise of judgment about what is acceptable.
People speak of mixed motives and say it’s all brute politics. The Democrats are positioning themselves for the high ground should Republican Roy Moore be elected. They’re aligning themselves with the passions of their base, while clearing the way for a probe into sexual-harassment accusations against the president. New York’s Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who led the charge that forced Mr. Franken’s departure, hopes to run for president in 2020 as a champion of women, so the move was happily on-brand. I don’t doubt all of this is true. Little in politics comes from wholly clean hands.
The speech in which Mr. Franken announced he would leave was too clever. Rather than a quick, dignified statement in which he put the scandal on his back and bore it away, he spoke on the Senate floor for 11 minutes. He milked it. Modesty was called for, but he wasn’t modest. He spoke of hard work and sacrifice, said it often wasn’t fun, asserted he “improved people’s lives.” Of the charges: “Some of the allegations against me are simply not true. Others, I remember very differently.” He seemed to want the female Senators who’d asked him to step down to feel guilty. As a senator, “I have used my power to be a champion of women, and . . . I’ve earned a reputation as someone who respects the women I work alongside every day.”
He named as a key issue fighting for “kids facing bullying.”
He took a hard shot at President Trump and Mr. Moore, finding “irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assaults sits in the Oval Office, and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party.” The latter is not true, and a professional like Mr. Franken would know it. If Mr. Moore had the full support of his party, the polls would not be close, and Mr. Moore’s supporters would not be daily denouncing Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican establishment.
The bitter tone was odd in a speech summing up a political life, but perhaps he means to extend it. We’ll see. He spent a lot of time lauding the people of Minnesota.
Mr. Franken’s weakness as a political figure was having no sympathy for those who disagree with him, not bothering to understand how the other side thinks, while always claiming for himself the high moral ground. This now common attitude frays political bonds; once it was considered poor political comportment.
Mr. Franken is a media master who has spent his entire adult life in front of a camera. He will no doubt go on to write books, teach, go on television. “I’ll be fine,” he said. Who would doubt it? In coming years he may slyly position himself as the victim, long ago, of a mindless moral backlash. He is talented and this may come to be believed.
As for the Alabama Senate election, in a strikingly good New York Times essay this week, Commentary’s Sohrab Ahmari told Christian conservatives, especially those who’ll vote next week, some things they needed to hear. Mr. Ahmari stated forthrightly what many, including in this space, have been casting about for and not quite achieved.
Calling himself “a staunch social conservative,” Mr. Ahmari addressed evangelicals and social conservatives—“people I consider allies”—about their embrace of Mr. Moore, the subject of credible charges of sexual predation.
The question of how social conservatives “should practice politics in the age of Trump” has again presented itself, Mr. Ahmari observes. The president offers them “an appealing menu of policies and judicial nominations,” and it is understandable that they’d find them attractive “after a decade during which the left embraced a new, aggressive mode of secular progressivism and continued its war against tradition long after it had won most courtroom and ballot-box battles.”
But “vulgar populists” exact too high a price, Mr. Ahmari adds—namely, “complicity in the degradation, conspiracism, thinly veiled bigotry and leader-worship that is their stock in trade.” A public culture “informed by the Bible and traditional morality is essential to America’s constitutional order,” but the answer is not to accept “a terrible bargain” by backing men such as Moore.
Putting conservative judges on the federal bench “is not the only path to political success in America.” Mr. Trump picked Neil Gorsuch, to his credit. But any of the 2016 GOP contenders would have picked someone similar. We look to our leaders not only to enact policies but “to represent our nation on the global stage with the dignity that their offices demand.” American exceptionalism takes a hit every time the president demeans someone on Twitter; the Senate will be harmed if Mr. Moore is seated.
“Idolatry of class, nation, race and leader is a constant temptation for people of faith, and too many are succumbing to it today,” Mr. Ahmari writes. Supporters of Messrs. Trump and Moore are deeply and understandably pessimistic: “Many fear that under secularism’s relentless onslaught, Judeo-Christianity will be banished,” in time, from the public square. “I feel similar angst.”
But in our time “the Christian idea bested Soviet Communism, an ideology that was far more hostile to religious faith than America’s Enlightenment liberalism has ever been.” In America, Christians have “the First Amendment and freedom of conscience.” And there are other reasons for optimism. The sexual abuse scandals themselves suggest liberals may be rethinking “some aspects of the sexual revolution.”
Noting that “Christians are called to live in faith, hope and charity,” Mr. Ahmari urges them not let fear drive them to tie their fate to insufficient and inadequate leaders.
It is sound if hard advice: Don’t let your fears—even wholly legitimate ones—drive you. Hold on, have faith, retain standards.
In the short term this can be difficult. In the long run it’s the only way to win.