Sexually abusive behavior is very much a bipartisan affair, as we are reminded by revelations of Sen. Al Franken’s ugly conduct toward a fellow female entertainer during a 2006 USO tour and more recent allegations that he inappropriately touched another woman at the 2010 Minnesota State Fair.
This has prompted divisive debate within the Democratic Party about the degree to which such behavior should be tolerated if the politician in question supports a feminist agenda. This debate ignited into a conflagration when Kirsten Gillibrand, New York’s Democratic senator and Hillary Clinton’s Senate successor, recently said that Bill Clinton should have resigned the presidency after the revelation of his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
At that time, leading feminist Gloria Steinem defended Clinton in a New York Times op-ed, decrying his right-wing critics and taking the he-said side against his accusers, in a mastery of nuance and obfuscation that would do Alabama Senate candidate’s Roy Moore’s supporters proud.
In a similar vein, self-proclaimed feminist and rape culture expert Kate Harding recently defended Franken in the Washington Post, arguing that women should resist expulsion of Democrat molesters because (I’m not making this up) there will likely be more revelations of Democrats in Congress with similar skeletons in their closets—and if they’re given the boot, their successors could be chosen by (gasp) Republican governors. A number of former Franken female staffers have also defended their boss, in part, because he was “a champion for women both in the legislation he supported and in promoting women to leadership roles in our offices.”
Some have argued that Franken should not be forced to resign since his behavior does not appear to be systematic beyond the two known accusations and since he acknowledged the egregiousness of his actions in the USO tour incident. (He has not directly apologized for the Minnesota State Fair allegation.) Perhaps—assuming no further incidents emerge.
Regardless, there are big differences of degree in the avalanche of scandalous behavior being reported in the media. Certainly, we can be more forgiving of someone who committed one or two acts of unwanted advances against adult women than of someone who prowled malls for teenagers and yet denies doing anything wrong.
But I do take issue with the idea that women should be more forgiving of certain politicians because they are Democrats and support women’s causes. Feminist Republicans have certainly never received such benefit of the doubt. Recall that Republican Sen. Bob Packwood, the powerful chair of the Senate Finance Committee during the 1980s, was among the Senate’s fiercest advocates for the equal rights and abortion rights. He raised money for women candidates and hired and promoted women to senior positions in his office, many of whom were friends of mine when I worked in the Senate for Bob Dole in the 1980s.
Yet shortly after Packwood was elected to his fifth term, the Washington Post ran a story citing 10 women who accused him of making unwanted sexual advances—a story which led to many more claims from other staffers and lobbyists who Packwood had tried to forcibly kiss or grope. Feminist groups, long his allies, were unforgiving and unequivocal in calling for his ouster. He was forced to resign in 1995.
Packwood’s departure from the Senate was the right result, because it should not have mattered—and didn’t—if he was “good” on women’s issues. Defending or rationalizing abusive (and often) illegal behavior because a politician votes the way feminists like may, in the short-term, be politically expedient for their agenda. But what about its long-term corrosive effect on our culture?
Indeed, Bill Clinton’s lack of accountability for his sexual behavior may have paved the way for President Donald Trump to shake off his own sexual assault allegations. It certainly impeded Hillary Clinton’s ability to shine a light on Trump’s sexual improprieties when her husband had a similarly checkered past. To suggest that the Democratic Party once again circle the wagons only when its politicians are caught with their proverbial pants down would simply add to the cynicism over the seeming hypocrisy and double standards embraced by progressive elites. It would also confirm for many disillusioned Republican women looking for an alternative that the Democrats are not it.
Democrats need to stop making excuses for those who hide their private sins behind a “pro-woman” public persona. How will they respond to allegations surfacing that Michigan Rep. John Conyers, the longest serving member of the House and a prominent figure in the Democratic Party, repeatedly sexually harassed staff members?
There are plenty of Republicans and Democrats who respect women in both the politicians’ personal behavior and policy positions. They are the ones who deserve our support.
Sheila Bair was a senior government official in Republican and Democratic administrations, including serving as chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) from 2006 to 2011.