“You know who’s going to get hurt by this?” a member of Congress asked me recently, referring to the about-time uprising of women against predatory men. “Women.” He explained that male members of Congress are now going to be reluctant to hire a woman when they have the option of hiring a man for a job, and that very attractive women would be particularly at a disadvantage in obtaining jobs on Capitol Hill. (Buxom is out.) Self-protection, in other words, might well lead to a new form of discrimination. And this could travel beyond elected politicians, though they’re feeling especially worried now.
Members of Congress have been speaking uneasily among themselves ever since Al Franken was drummed out of the Senate by many of his Democratic colleagues in early December. Nobody wants to talk about it on the record, but politicians in both parties and in both chambers remain disturbed by how Franken was dealt with by some of his Senate colleagues. In particular, a number of Senate Democrats were bothered by how Franken was treated, as was a large but unmeasurable portion of citizens. And some of the unfortunate implications are already becoming clear.
The whole thing happened with startling speed—no deliberations, no process, and no pause for thought, it seemed. The main actors against him got increasingly worked up—and they struck at the first opportunity. The entire episode, from when the first complaint about Franken was aired to when he announced unhappily that he’d leave the Senate, took three weeks; his self-appointed prosecutors turned on a dime, at first supporting and then throwing process (consideration by the Senate ethics committee) to the wind. There wasn’t even a meeting of the party caucus to deliberate and discuss. (Male Democratic senators with misgivings didn’t want to get in the way of the women.) A group of Democratic women senators got up a head of steam; its ringleader, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, declared, a doctrine of “zero tolerance.” “Enough is enough!” became not just an expression of exasperation but a policy.
With this precedent members of Congress (and others as well) became vulnerable to the acts of people not of good will. What is the protection against someone or several people deciding to gang up on a member of Congress by inventing incidents?
What’s particularly disturbing about the Franken affair is that a senator was driven from the seat he was elected to because he’d become inconvenient. The death knell came with the seventh—or was it the eighth?—complaint about Franken touching or patting or whatever some woman’s bottom, or in one case (following the original charge of his forcing his tongue down the complainer’s throat) asking for a kiss. Almost all of these charges were of actions before he came to the Senate and several were anonymous. But it was less these acts—immature and jerky, to be sure—that threatened to overturn the verdict of the voters of Minnesota, than the fact that the charges were continuing to be brought. (An option would be to demand good behavior or else, and leave it to the next election.)
What was the inconvenience caused the Democrats by the sudden spout of complaints about Franken? Well, you see, the Democrats—Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer weighed in, probably sounding Franken’s doom—didn’t want to have to answer the “what-about” question when they attacked the Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore for the documented charges against him of pedophilia or when they attempted a new assault on Donald Trump’s predatory behavior toward women in the past.
Wait. The voters knew about Trump’s aggressiveness toward women when they elected him president. (True, a majority didn’t vote for him, not by a long shot, but are we going to get into the fine points of the Electoral College’s—or Russia’s—role here? Trump won the election.) They’d heard the Access Hollywood tape. The recent calls for Trump to resign over his sexual exploits strike me as pointless. (But of course they yield good publicity.) Obviously, he’s not going to, and Franken’s having been discarded wouldn’t make it even a teensy bit more likely. A senator is forced out of his seat for a talking point?
Politics usually proceeds on the basis of mixed motives. We can’t know which of the senators pushing Franken to go was doing so to get him out of the way of their own ambitions. He’d begun to have around him that hazy presidential talk that also hovers over at least 20 other Democrats. A number of commentators have said that while shoving Franken aside was, well, unfortunate, it was excellent politics for the Democrats to arrange to have a “clean slate” when it came to the matter of sexual hijinks.
Well, at what cost? Is almost any sexual infraction subject to, in effect, capital punishment—the loss of a seat in the Congress? Have Senator Gillibrand and some of her allies thought through what “zero tolerance” means? If loss of a seat over one infraction is considered too dire—if such lenience were to occur—then how many gaucheries would be sufficient to drive an elected official from office? Does it matter what they were? Are consensual affairs to be permitted? How consensual is consensual when the man is the woman’s employer? How are such decisions to be made? Is the punishment to be different if such reports come about at a time when one party isn’t trying to embarrass the other one? Or to decapitate its leader?
Would the same infractions that have already cost a senator his job be considered less serious then? These aren’t hypothetical questions. And they’re all about to become more difficult. Rumors are all over Washington, and are the subject of concerned conversations on Capitol Hill, that at least one major newspaper is planning an expose of a large number of randy, self-indulgent members of Congress—perhaps some 30 or 40 of them, it’s said. Capitol Hill has long and widely been known as a place where Eros and opportunity meet. Now that the subject is out in the open—will that lead to an exodus of lawmakers? The great correction is overdue; can we pull it off without short-circuiting democracy?