By Wednesday, it was obvious: Al Franken had to go.
New revelations kept coming about inappropriate treatment of women, both before and during Franken’s service as Minnesota’s senator. The episode count was up to seven and seemed likely to go higher. A picture had emerged — albeit one Franken says is flawed — of a man who repeatedly indulged in uninvited touches for a thrill or a laugh at a woman’s expense.
But the accumulation of credible stories was not what is shoving Franken into premature political retirement, as he announced Thursday. Neither was his exit the result of pressure from his Minnesota base. With a few notable exceptions, DFL disappointment with Franken had not risen to a chorus of “He’s gotta go.” (The fact that their views didn’t appear to matter in Washington has many Minnesotans miffed, judging from my social media Outrage-o-meter.)
Rather, the push over the edge came from Franken’s fellow Democrats in the Senate. More than half of them, led by women and including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, declared en masse nearly three weeks after the first Franken story broke that he needed to get off the stage.
The former comedy writer was spoiling their message.
Democrats want to brand their party as a bastion of fairness and opportunity for women, particularly in the eyes of the huge millennial generation, now fully of voting age. Party leaders are keen to be the beneficiaries of the anger that erupted within that cohort when a man who bragged about groping women defeated the first major-party female nominee for president.
In the Senate, Democrats want to be able to stand on high ground as they call out Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, accused of hitting on teenagers half his age while serving as a county prosecutor. They want to keep reminding the nation that a dozen women accused then-candidate Donald Trump of misconduct, without having to fend off the rebuttal, “What about Al Franken?”
Franken had become a branding liability in his Democratic colleagues’ eyes. They undoubtedly heard the lament rising from some in Minnesota that it’s unfair to ask Franken to resign while Trump still serves and the Republicans are sticking with him. And that Minnesota voters sent Franken to the Senate and ought to be the ones to decide his fate.
Those arguments didn’t matter. Franken had given Senate Democrats a chance to one-up the GOP in sticking up for women, and they were going to seize it.
Franken’s resignation, and that of Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers earlier this week, leaves “What about Bill Clinton?” as Republicans’ best deflective comeback when charges are made about GOP sexual harassers. But that line has lost its snap.
Anyone who’s been awake in America in the past two months is aware that a tectonic shift is occurring in male-female relationships in workplace settings. What was acceptable — or at least survivable with a sufficiently humble apology — 20 years ago is no longer tolerable today.
The change feels abrupt and, to many, harsh. Social change is like that. For years, progress is so slow that it’s called glacial. Then an ice sheet falls into the sea.
Finally, it appears that enough women have acquired enough standing in American life to call out the grabbers and gropers and make them stop. Employers finally know that they are too dependent on women as employees, customers and shareholders to disregard demands for respectful treatment.
America is in the naming-and-shaming phase of this cultural adjustment. Franken’s political demise Thursday may prolong that phase. The Franken episode will serve as a template for other women with #MeToo stories to tell and other institutions that must respond.
But this phase will play out in time. When it does, my hope is that those who seek full and fair opportunities for both genders won’t think their work is done.
Purging the predators isn’t enough. Neither is a three-hour seminar every year or two about keeping one’s hands to oneself. Lasting cultural change will require a movement — a sustained, committed effort in the myriad places where men and women interact to bend each place’s norms and customs toward mutual respect and dignity.
The Franken saga could spur such effort in the professional spheres in which he achieved so much: entertainment and politics. And change in those visible and influential fields could be the catalyst for much more. That possibility may seem like weak solace to Franken and his defenders today. But years from now, it could be this story’s welcome epilogue.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer. She can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.