The Weinstein Effect has hit Capitol Hill, and the first politician to be accused of sexual misconduct in this charged moment is a Democrat: News radio anchor Leeann Tweeden on Thursday accused Minnesota Senator Al Franken of kissing and groping her without consent during a USO tour in 2006. “You forcibly kissed me without my consent, grabbed my breasts while I was sleeping and had someone take a photo of you doing it, knowing I would see it later and be ashamed,” she wrote in a blog post.
Franken first told reporters, inadequately, “I certainly don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann. As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn’t. I shouldn’t have done it.” After widespread criticism, he issued a more forceful statement: “It’s obvious how Leeann would feel violated by that picture. And, what’s more, I can see how millions of other women would feel violated by it—women who have had similar experiences in their own lives, women who fear having those experiences, women who look up to me, women who have counted on me.”
This year, Franken emerged as an outside contender for the presidency in 2020. The former Saturday Night Live comedian, elected in 2009, is an effective and studious senator who’s earned the respect of his peers—and, lately, the fear of his opponents, as he’s been one of the Senate’s most ruthless interrogators of Trump nominees and one of his party’s most entertaining critics of the president. Now, his job is in serious jeopardy—he’s facing an ethics investigation, which he himself called for—and he’s out of the 2020 conversation.
Who’s next? Because there will be more allegations against Hill politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike. And it’s safe to assume that all of the accused will be men. That is one of many reasons—in fact, the least of the reasons—why Democrats should resolve right now to nominate a woman for president in 2020. Bernie, Biden, Brown, Booker—sorry, guys. You’re all sitting this one out.
Amid this wave of sexual misconduct allegations across American society, Democrats have been doing a lot of soul-searching about the presidency and legacy of Bill Clinton. Should he have resigned from the presidency once his affair with Monica Lewinsky, a clear abuse of workplace power in a workplace, became known in 1998? Vox’ Matt Yglesias believes so. Should liberals have believed Clinton accusers like Juanita Broaddrick, as Michelle Goldberg argued in The New York Times?
The answer to both questions is yes, but there’s limited utility in these arguments today. His presidency ended nearly 17 years ago, and his political star has steadily waned ever since. With Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump last year, his last chance to regain any real power within the party evaporated. The party must still reckon with the accusations against Bill Clinton, but they likely don’t impinge on the party’s future—not in the way that the accusations against Franken do, for instance.
Bill Clinton’s misconduct is most relevant in dissecting the 2016 election, and what Democrats should—and shouldn’t—deduce from it. Hillary Clinton ran a historic campaign that received more votes than any white man in American history, including her opponent, yet she lost. There were many reasons for her loss, first and foremost the very existence of the undemocratic Electoral College. Sexism was also clearly a factor: She won 54 percent of women, versus just 41 percent of men, the biggest gender gap in more than four decades. Millions of American men simply couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a woman.
But many of those men, and indeed many women, couldn’t bring themselves to vote for this particular woman—a Clinton. She was hobbled by her husband’s behavior in myriad, unfair ways. From the 1990s through today, she has been variously accused of enabling her husband’s sexual misconduct, of being too weak to curtail it, and of silencing his accusers. Last year, his misdeeds was weaponized against her. Whenever she criticized Trump’s sexism, Republicans would counter with Lewinsky; Trump even tried to seat Broaddrick and three other accusers in his V.I.P. box during a debate.
It’s ironic, and deeply wrong, that the person who really suffered politically for Bill Clinton’s bad deeds was not himself, but his wife. Clinton’s loss should not, however, be taken as evidence that the pervasiveness of sexism in America is prohibitive for a woman candidate for president. No other Democratic woman would be hobbled to such a degree because none of them have Clinton’s unique political baggage—that is, a dirtbag ex-president for a husband. More important, the party’s most promising presidential contenders, especially among those under 70, are women: Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Amy Klobuchar. (Or perhaps Oprah?)
Republicans are putting on a good show of handwringing over Roy Moore, the Senate candidate from Alabama and accused predator of teenage girls. But nothing they do can change the GOP’s record against women’s rights and its acceptance—some might say outright embrace—of sexism. They can expel Moore from the party, and Donald Trump, whom they nominated for president after he bragged about committing sexual assault, will still be the most powerful man in America. And that’s just fine with most Republican voters.
Democrats can’t afford to be so morally lax, since they stand for gender equality.
Moreover, women are the core of the party’s base, and the most energized faction of the anti-Trump forces. The Guardian reported this month that, “while established progressive organizations have seen important upswings in membership and provided important guidance and resources, the most striking and novel aspect of the resistance has been the creation of an astounding number of new grassroots groups, at least six times the number the Tea Party could boast at its height. Locally focused, self-organized, and overwhelmingly led by women, these groups show every sign of digging in for the long haul.”
The Democrats have much better record than Republicans in electing women: 78 of the 104 women in Congress are Democrats, comprising a third of all Democratic representatives and senators combined. This gender between parties has been growing steadily since the early 1990s, and is likely to widen under Trump.
Barack Obama, his “you’re likable enough” remark to Hillary Clinton notwithstanding, was as good a man as he was a president. But Trump has shown America the consequences of electing an unabashed sexist. He rolled back the Obamacare contraception mandate for employer-provided health insurance, allowing exemptions for moral or religious reasons; he halted an Obama-era rule that would have required companies to report how much they pay women versus men; Education Secretary Betsy DeVos eliminated Obama-era guidance for how colleges should handle sexual assault complaints, raising the burden of proof for women; and so on.
Trump, like so many other male bosses in America, has also shown a preference for hiring men. As The Guardian reported earlier this year, “80% of nominations for top jobs in the Trump administration have gone to men—putting Donald Trump on track to assemble the most male-dominated federal government in nearly a quarter-century.” We know all too well, thanks to the #MeToo stories pouring out every day, that a male-dominated workplace fosters a culture of sexual harassment—and often worse. Good thing there’s a simple, proven solution for this scourge: put more women in positions of power.
That’s yet another reason why Democrats should elevate women to leadership roles across the country—in municipal government, statehouses, governor’s mansions, Congress, and, yes, the White House. But electing a woman president is ultimately crucial as a rejection of the 2016 election. It wasn’t just that Hillary Clinton failed to break the glass ceiling, but that she lost to so blatant and vulgar a misogynist as Trump. Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, tweeted in response to the Jeff Stein tweet above:
This echoes a sentiment expressed a few days after the election by Rebecca Traister in New York magazine: “The enormity of the upset came at the end of what had already been a traumatic election for the women and immigrants and people of color to whom Clinton was trying to appeal, and who had spent months being derided, threatened, groped, caricatured, insulted, and humiliated by Donald Trump and his supporters.” For the women who are the heart of the Democratic coalition, it’s a personal affront to have as president—the embodiment of the nation—a man who who is so openly contemptuous of their humanity. Trump’s election ripped wide a wound in America, and only a woman president can heal it.