Personal conduct aside, I feel confident that, more so than most senators, Al Franken is someone who got into electoral politics for the right reasons. Before he ever became a candidate, he was generous with both time and money in supporting progressive causes. His breakthrough political book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, was a breath of fresh air at a bleak time for political media. And it’s not just funny — it’s a smart, well-informed book that he wrote alongside a diligent team of researchers.
In the 2008 cycle, he was very much the candidate the state and local Democratic Party wanted to challenge Norm Coleman, and his narrow victory was crucial to every significant legislative achievement of the Obama years. In the Senate, he was funny but humble. The hallmark of his time as a politician was that — self-conscious about the idea that he was really just a celebrity comedian — he genuinely put in the work to be well-informed about policy and an active participant in committee work.
His decision to resign under a cloud of scandal in December 2017 was entirely in keeping with his approach to politics over the past 15 years, displaying seriousness about the moral weight of political work and a willingness to put cause above ego.
The aftermath, unfortunately, has been different. Starting with his resignation speech, Franken began to cast himself as the real victim in the story, and it soon became apparent that several Senate Democrats regretted having pressured him to quit. Many of his fans on the internet feel he got a raw deal, especially under circumstances when conservative men accused of much worse occupy positions of power. And now, nearly two years later, Jane Mayer has published a long New Yorker story re-sparking the debate by arguing that Franken was wronged.
Al Franken resigned for the good of the country
The substance of Franken’s post-resignation retroactive defense is — despite the extraordinary length of Mayer’s exposition — incredibly simple to sum up: What he did just wasn’t that bad.
It’s true that other men have done worse things and gotten away with it. What’s more, Franken was in a way a victim of circumstances. If Minnesota had elected a Republican governor in 2014, there’s no way progressives would have pushed him to resign under circumstances that would have gifted a Senate seat to the GOP.
But Minnesota didn’t have a Republican governor. Under the circumstances existing in the country, resigning his Senate seat was costly to Franken, but it cost nothing to the Democratic Party. He was replaced by Tina Smith, a perfectly well-qualified politician, who cruised to an easy reelection in the context of a Democratic wave year when the GOP had a dozen higher-priority Senate races. She now gets to run as a scandal-free incumbent in what will probably be a more challenging year for a Minnesota Democrat.
Had Franken just brazened it out à la Ralph Northam and Justin Fairfax in Virginia, he almost certainly would have gotten away with it. He would have gotten yelled at from both directions for a matter of months, but the news cycle eventually would have moved on. If he ran for reelection in 2020, progressives and feminists would have supported him over his GOP opponent and would have had a strong interest in minimizing the severity of his misconduct — noting that nothing he was accused of is nearly as grave as the allegations against Donald Trump or Brett Kavanaugh.
But the fact is, due to the taint of scandal, he would have had a harder time winning than Smith will. And him sticking around under fire would have made it less likely that Doug Jones could have beaten accused child molester Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate special election. Not only would Moore in the Senate have been awful on its own terms, but a padded GOP majority would be more likely to have pushed through harmful cuts to the social safety net. What’s more, Franken’s presence on the Judiciary Committee would have been a source of trouble for Democrats during Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.
These are exactly the kinds of policy outcomes Franken fought against years before he became a politician. He got into elected office at a time when it seemed to most observers that running for Senate was the best way for him to advance his ideals. And he got out of elected office at a time when it seemed to most observers that resigning from the Senate was the best way for him to advance his ideals. That was the right thing to do, and his friends who’ve convinced him he made a mistake are increasing the anguish of Franken and his family for no good reason.
America needs more public virtue, not less
If Franken would think about this clearly, he could be an important example both for men who have done some bad things in their life and for people interested in public service more broadly. Sexual harassment of women is a serious problem. It is serious enough that even “lesser” or “not so bad” versions of it are, in fact, bad.
In other contexts, this is not a matter of dispute. If you break someone’s leg for no reason, you don’t get to say, “Well, it’s not like I’m a serial killer,” and then go about your day, even though it is true that breaking legs is not as bad as murder. Establishing the precedent that you don’t need to be history’s greatest monster to still have done something wrong that requires atonement is important.
But even more than that, there is real value in Franken’s initial instinct to sacrifice his ambitions for the sake of the greater good — it was an ethical, appropriate, public-spirited choice that on its own terms could and should have been the first step in a process of restorative justice that ended with Franken resuming his role as a well-regarded progressive writer and performer. Instead, by retroactively denouncing his sound initial decision to resign, Franken is forfeiting the goodwill he earned. And by continuing to retroactively grind his grievances with his critics, he has become a source of problems. Insisting that he is the real victim in all this becomes the opposite of atonement and ultimately makes the public rehabilitation he clearly craves impossible.
Yet the facts of the case are simple — his conduct was wrong, and it came to light under a series of circumstances when the best option for the causes Franken believes in was to step down, and so he stepped down. It’s true that he could have fought on, and perhaps from a purely self-interested perspective, he should have. But politicians aren’t supposed to be purely self-interested. At a critical moment, Franken actually did something selfless and correct. He deserves to be congratulated for it, but instead, he’s chosen to trash the potentially redemptive thread in the story and make things worse.