Democrats wrestle with alleged misconduct in their own house
Democrats, increasingly uncompromising on social justice, are torn between their moral convictions and political necessity.
Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. questions Attorney General-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 10, 2017, during the committee's confirmation hearing for Sessions.Alex Brandon / AP
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WASHINGTON — The wave of sexual misconduct allegations is now lapping at congressional Democrats and suddenly putting the party in a bind.
Democrats, increasingly uncompromising on social justice 20 years after circling the wagons around Bill Clinton, find themselves torn between their moral convictions and a political necessity to win back power and advance a pro-women agenda.
"On the one hand, you want to be a party that has zero tolerance for this," said Democratic strategist Rebecca Katz. "But on the other hand, there's a lot of important work to do — like stopping this tax bill — and we can't do that if our people are dropping like flies, while the other side is refusing to hold their people accountable."
"I worry that by doing the right thing, and forcing our people to resign while Republicans do nothing, Democrats will just be giving up seats — which is going to be terrible for women. But then again, who wants any of these guys in power?" she added.
President Donald Trump on Tuesday gave Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore the benefit of the doubt and argued that what matters most is keeping the seat in the GOP's hands and making sure Democrat Doug Jones, whose positions on crime, gun control and immigration the president trashed, doesn't get to the Senate.
At virtually the same time, Democrats moved quickly to call for a House Ethics Committee investigation into their most senior member and one of the last living civil rights heroes, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., after he admitted to reaching a financial settlement with a former staffer who had accused him of sexual misconduct.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., insisted there will be "zero tolerance for harassment."
Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., called on Conyers to resign, becoming the first of his Democratic colleagues to do so. Rice said in a statement on Wednesday that she had reviewed the allegations against Conyers and concluded "they’re as credible as they are repulsive."
"Harassment is harassment, assault is assault. We all know credible allegations when we hear them, and the same is true of hypocrisy," she added.
Conyers has denied any wrongdoing. At least two House Democrats — Reps. Gregory Meeks of New York and Raul Grijalva of Arizona — have said he should step down from his post as the top Democrat on the powerful House Judiciary Committee while the ethics probe is underway.
As they confront some of the first allegations against them in the post-Harvey Weinstein era, Republican and Democratic politicians are setting a precedent for how the parties are likely to handle future allegations, with many expecting more to come.
Two women have accused Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., of groping them, prompting Democratic leaders and Franken himself to call for a Senate Ethics Committee investigation, which has forestalled most high-level talk of resignation for the moment.
Democrats in the House followed a similar strategy of deferring to the Ethics Committee for Conyers, creating a playbook they are likely to follow in the future.
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"Obviously, there are bad actors on both sides of aisle — mistreatment of women is not a partisan issue," said Jess McIntosh, the executive editor of Shareblue Media and a former official at the Democratic women's group Emily's List.
"That said, there is a huge partisan point that needs to be made here," she continued. "The difference between the allegations against Al Franken and Roy Moore are starkly different and their responses are even more so."
Partisans will always feel a tension between doing what's right and doing what's politically expedient, as Democrats are all too aware as they look back uncomfortably on their own defense of Clinton.
Since then, the party has moved to the left on social issues and elected more women to its top ranks, but it is still struggling with how to balance competing interests when one of their own is accused of wrongdoing.
"We're really grappling with this," said Democratic strategist Tory Brown, a co-founder of the Pastorum Group. "As many Democrats as there are, there are as many opinions on this."
While some Democrats insist on swift and unsparing justice to draw a bright line and avoid charges of hypocrisy, Brown noted that others in the party want a more nuanced approach, even though it would force Democrats into the uncomfortable territory of weighing different alleged crimes.
"Varying levels of misconduct require different levels of approach," Brown said, adding that while zero-tolerance is easier, "it's not going to provide any sense of real justice."
Female victims should be at the center of any conversation about punishment, she said, noting, for instance, that Franken accuser Leeann Tweeden accepted his apology. "If we're going to believe women on the accusations, then we've got to believe them in what they want to happen," Brown said.
Many Democrats see a generational divide as well, and some say only half jokingly that they'll now never work for a man over a certain age who came up when politics was more of a boy's club.
Republicans, of course, have their own divide on this issue.
Voters elected Trump after numerous women accused him of sexual harassment or assault, and they may now put Moore in the Senate despite the nine women accusing him of behaving improperly when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.
Almost every Republican in the Senate, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said they believe Moore's accusers and have called him unfit for office. They said he should step aside and have threatened to expel him if he does not and wins.
But Trump, most Alabama Republicans and many in the party's conservative grass roots have stuck with Moore.
"A United States senator from Alabama is going to have a huge effect on national public policy issues, and the votes that will be cast on the Senate floor will determine the future of our country. That is my primary concern," Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., told reporters to explain his continued support for Moore.
"We want the votes in the Senate to get this tax bill through," White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway said on Fox News this week.
Today's Democratic base seems unlikely to make a similar calculation, since it views upholding the principle of believing accusers and punishing bad men a paramount goal in and of itself. Of course, it's also easier to stand on principle when out of power.
"The current movement toward unprecedented accountability for sexual harassers will probably start to peter out" if Franken doesn’t resign from the Senate, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote, because Republicans "will use Franken to deflect from more egregious abuse on their own side, like what Trump and Roy Moore are accused of."
Major progressive groups like Indivisible and CREDO made similar arguments, as did MoveOn.org, which was founded to defend the Clinton White House amidst the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Katie Packer Beeson, a former aide to Mitt Romney and George W. Bush who has broken with her party over Trump, said Democrats need to be consistent.
"I have aggressively called out Republican bad actors like Trump and Moore, and Democrats have celebrated me for it," she said. "I would like them to do the same thing with Bill Clinton and Al Franken."
The stakes are relatively low in Franken's case. If he resigns, Minnesota's Democratic governor would replace him with a Democrat, who would likely win re-election. Barack Obama won Conyers' Detroit district with 85 percent of the vote.
But what happens if a Democrat from a red state is accused of misconduct? Or, as New York Magazine's Jon Chait asked, what if a Democratic majority in the Senate were to hang in the balance? Or if, as with Clinton, a Democrat White House was under fire? What if Roe v. Wade were on the line?
Those are the kinds of difficult questions the party, and especially its younger members, are finally starting to address.
"It sounds like a loud messy conversation — which is what this conversation needs to be," McIntosh, the former Emily's List official, said.
Alex Seitz-Wald is senior digital politics reporter for NBC News.