The wagons are starting to circle around Al Franken

Isn’t it interesting that last week, when there was one accuser, the calls for Franken to quit were loudest. Now that there’s a second accuser, they’ve begun to quiet down. You would think it’d be the opposite.

It’s almost as if the initial “Franken must go” stuff was disingenuous, a cry that was safe to make when it was most likely to go unheeded. After CNN’s report on what Franken allegedly did seven years ago at the Minnesota State Fair raised the odds of more misbehavior surfacing, this is no longer an easy opportunity to virtue-signal. If Democrats don’t grudgingly line up behind him, Franken really might go. More importantly, if they don’t draw a line in the sand in front of Franken, many other Democrats (and Republicans) may be forced out for worse sins than what Franken’s accused of if the exposes get rolling on Capitol Hill. Gotta defend the tribe, and defending the tribe starts at Franken.

For an example look no further than the New York Times’s newest left-wing columnist, Michelle Goldberg, who wrote a piece last week about believing Juanita Broaddrick and followed it up with one arguing that Franken should step down. A few days and one new accuser later, Goldberg’s having second thoughts. Imagine the second thoughts she’d have about Broaddrick’s credibility if Clinton were still in office and the party stood to lose something by blowing him up.

My thinking last week, when the first accusation emerged, was: cauterize the wound. It doesn’t matter that Franken’s transgression wasn’t on the same level as the abuses that the Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore or Donald Trump have been accused of. That photo — the unconscious woman, the leering grin — is a weight Democrats shouldn’t have to carry, given that they’ve lately been insisting that it’s disqualifying for a candidate to grab a woman sexually against her will. It seemed cruel to expect Democratic women to make Jesuitical arguments that the shadows under Franken’s hands meant he wasn’t really touching Tweeden’s chest. Especially since, with a Democratic governor in Minnesota, the party would maintain control of Franken’s seat.

But even as I made the case for resignation, I was relieved that it seemed as if Franken might stick around, because I adore him as a public figure. It’s easy to condemn morally worthless men like Trump; it’s much harder to figure out what should happen to men who make valuable political and cultural contributions, and whose alleged misdeeds fall far short of criminal. Learning about all the seemingly good guys who do shameful things is what makes this moment, with its frenzied pace of revelations, so painful and confounding.

It’s Franken’s bad fortune to represent a state with a Democratic governor, making him somewhat expendable in the Senate. If a Republican were set to appoint his replacement, he’d need to be hit with something much stiffer than ass-grabbing and an unwanted French kiss to force him out. Collectively left and right could probably codify the unwritten rules that already exist to guide assessments of whether sexual misconduct is a firing offense. The less expendable you are, the more you can get away with. Senators and congressmen whose replacements are likely to come from the same party might be forced out for light groping or unwanted sexting. Senators and congressmen whose replacements are likely to come from the other party can get away with forcible kissing or maybe a dick pick or two before facing resignation if their apology is fulsome enough. Presidents? Nothing short of rape is a problem, and even then his professions of innocence are certain to be believed for 20 years, until a New York Times columnist needs to stake out some moral high ground from which to call for expelling villains in the other party.

Thirty-six of Franken’s female former colleagues at “Saturday Night Live” issued a letter in his defense today insisting that he was nothing but a perfect gentleman around them. Roy Moore’s campaign recently made the same move, trotting out a bunch of women who had only warm things to say about him. That’s nice but there are women who could and would doubtless say the same about every man who’s been credibly accused of misconduct this past month. Every predator treats *some* people decently. (Well, maybe not Harvey Weinstein.) So this proves nothing, but it does help encourage the wagon-circling. And it implies, whether intentionally or not, that if you treat enough women respectfully you’re owed the benefit of the doubt on the few you’ve apparently treated very disrespectfully. We could probably get left and right together to quantify that calculus too.

“We feel compelled to stand up for Al Franken, whom we have all had the pleasure of working with over the years on Saturday Night Live (SNL). What Al did was stupid and foolish, and we think it was appropriate for him to apologize to Ms. Tweeden, and to the public,” the women wrote. “In our experience, we know Al as a devoted and dedicated family man, a wonderful comedic performer, and an honorable public servant.”

“That is why we are moved to quickly and directly affirm that after years of working with him, we would like to acknowledge that not one of us ever experienced any inappropriate behavior; and mention our sincere appreciation that he treated each of us with the utmost respect and regard,” they added.

One silver lining of the Democratic wagon-circling of the past few days is an apparent end to opportunistic “We should have dumped Bill in 1998” pieces. Jonathan Chait wrote a defense of his opposition to Clinton’s impeachment a few days ago and Michael Tomasky is all-in today. (Chait at least acknowledges Broaddrick’s claims before zeroing in on the fact that Clinton’s impeachment had nothing to do with that. Tomasky ducks the subject entirely.) I prefer these honest apologias for bad behavior to the expedient eleventh-hour reversals on Clinton, with the caveat that I assume both Chait and Tomasky think Broaddrick’s claim is credible on its face and would have justified impeachment if given the sort of attention lesser accusations of misconduct are receiving today. In any case, there’s not a Republican anywhere from sea to shining sea who thinks we’d be having this national conversation on sex abuse by powerful men — certainly not as candidly as we’re having it — if Hillary was in office and her administration stood to be badly damaged by revisiting old charges against Bill. Because Trump is the biggest player on the political landscape who stands to be damaged, national media is free to give the topic the attention it deserves. It’d be an ironic legacy if Trump’s election made possible a reckoning with harassment that would have been politically impossible otherwise.