Al Franken’s crushing betrayal of the progressive cause

So many people were counting on him, and he let them all down.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

The horrible irony of soon-to-be former Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), who announced his resignation Thursday after multiple women accused him of sexual harassment, is that he began his career in the Senate as a warrior against sexual assault.

Moved by the story of an American who claimed she was gang-raped while working for a government contractor in Iraq — only to be told she could not sue her employer thanks to a clause tucked in her employment contract — Franken authored an amendment forbidding such contractors from using such clauses against sexual assault victims. Just months after joining the Senate, Franken convinced his colleagues to attach this amendment to an appropriations bill. It was signed into law by President Obama.

The purpose of recounting this story is not to exonerate Franken, but to bury him.

Franken offered himself as the antidote to an age of Trumpian excess. Compassionate and wonky. Intelligent and hard working. Franken spent his brief political career working on obscure, technical reforms that served the most vulnerable Americans. Franken prevented women from being evicted from federally funded housing because they were victims of domestic violence. He protected LGBTQ children subject to bullying and harassment.

And now, he’s given all of that up because he didn’t have the decency to seek women’s consent before touching them.

Franken leaves office as America is coming to grips with the fact that abusers often keep their jobs and their position of power because they are considered to be too rich, too talented, too important, or too brilliant to let go. And Franken was, indeed, a brilliant lawmaker — easily one of the most hardworking and skilled individuals in either house of Congress.

Let there be no mistake: The man had to go. A lawmaker who does not respect other people’s most fundamental right to autonomy has no business in elective office. It doesn’t matter what else they’ve accomplished.

But the fact that Franken was such a gifted lawmaker only makes his choice to disqualify himself that much more inexcusable.

When the smoke clears from this train wreck, Franken will go home to a comfortable life. Maybe he’ll even write another bestselling book. Meanwhile, the men and women who counted on him — women raped by their co-workers, families struggling to pay their health bills, children contemplating suicide, the homeless — will be left without their champion in Congress.

There was a time when the idea that Al Franken could hold public office was literally a joke. His 1999 book, “Why Not Me? The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency,” tells a satirical story about his own decision to run for president on a campaign of eliminating high ATM fees. (The fictional Franken presidency ends with him resigning in disgrace — an unexpected parallel to real life.) And after Franken decided to run a real-life political campaign in 2008, his own history as a comedian threatened to derail that campaign. Yet Franken’s Senate campaign prevailed — barely — and Franken entered the Senate determined to prove that he was someone who should be taken seriously.

Franken cut his teeth on the kind of wonky, hyper-technical issues that are easily overlooked by less diligent lawmakers, but that can also transform lives when dedicated officials give them the attention they deserve.

Long before the New York Times published a multi-part series on forced arbitration clauses, catapulting a once-obscure issue into a national outrage, Franken made these clauses — which prevent businesses from being sued in real courts and shunt cases into a privatized arbitration system that tends to favor corporate parties — into his pet issue. The anti-rape amendment Franken passed during his early days in the Senate, for instance, limited forced arbitration. And Franken was Congress’ leading voice for the Arbitration Fairness Act, which would have ended forced arbitration altogether

With Franken gone, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has a great deal to celebrate. The man who would have stripped big business of much of its lawsuit immunity will no longer be a thorn in their side.

And Franken was the first Democratic senator willing to trigger a “blue slip” confrontation with Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) — a confrontation that forced Grassley to either halt a Trump judicial nominee’s confirmation process or eliminate a practice Senate Republicans routinely abused during the Obama presidency.

With Franken gone, the conservative Federalist Society, and all of the extraordinarily conservative lawyers in line for Trump judicial appointment, have something to celebrate.

Franken may have been the Senate’s most devastating interrogator during committee hearings. Franken shamed climate deniers in Trump’s cabinet. He caught Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a lie regarding his litigation record. And he often was able to go toe to toe — and study for study — with conservative policy experts.

Trump’s cabinet, and Trump himself, all have something to celebrate with Franken out of office.

Obviously, this issue is not contained to Franken. After the United States elected a man who once bragged openly about sexual assault, there have been a flood of revelations about men who seemed far more admirable than Trump, yet who are also poisoned by a similar disregard for others’ consent. The filmmaker whose work you love turns out to be a serial predator. Famous actors exploit teenage boys. The men who shaped our understanding of the 2016 election treat their female colleagues as objects.

Yet amidst all of these revelations, Al Franken’s betrayal stands out.

It hurts not just because his supporters thought he was better than this, but because so many people were depending upon him. He was supposed to be a progressive champion. But now, in addition to the significant harm he’s allegedly brought to the women who say he violated them, he leaves the vulnerable people he committed to work for — rape victims, sick children, exploited workers, and homeless people — alone.