The Deepening Partisan Split Over Sexual Misconduct

While the leadership of both parties views sexual misconduct as a political problem to minimize, the Republican and Democratic bases could not be farther apart.

Senator Al Franken listens at a committee hearing at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on June 21, 2017. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

Earlier this week, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait asked his fellow liberals to imagine that Roy Moore were a Democrat. “It’s easy to feel superior about this when opposition to grotesque treatment of teenage girls lines up neatly with your own party’s well-being,” he wrote. “If you’re a liberal, ask yourself what you would do if the circumstances were reversed.”

Thanks to Al Franken, we can now answer that question better. The details of each man’s offense differ: Moore is accused of pursuing teenager girls while he was in his 30s, and two women have accused him of sexually assaulting them when they were teenagers. Leeann Tweeden, a broadcaster for KABC in Los Angeles, said Franken kissed and groped her without her consent. Still, each party’s reaction is telling. Each is split, but in opposite ways.

In the GOP, the people taking the harshest line against Moore are congressional leaders like Mitch McConnell. They want Moore to withdraw from his Senate race largely because they fear Democrats will use him to tar other Republican candidates as sexist, as they did in 2012 when Todd Akin, the GOP’s Senate candidate in Missouri, said it was impossible for women to get pregnant from  “legitimate rape.” But McConnell and company have been stymied by local Alabama Republicans—and Donald Trump-supporting media personalities like Steve Bannon and Sean Hannity—who won’t abandon Moore. In the GOP, it’s the Washington establishment that wants Moore gone. Grassroots activists and the right-wing media want him to stay.

In the Democratic Party—so far—it’s largely the reverse. As of Thursday night, not a single Democratic senator had called on Franken to resign. While decrying his behavior, they’ve mostly called for an investigation by the congressional Ethics Committee, which isn’t all that punitive given that the committee—as The Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey has noted—has “not issued disciplinary sanctions against anyone in nine years.”

The pressure on Franken to resign is coming from the bottom up. While Alabama Republican politicians have stuck with Moore despite pressure from Washington, in the Democratic Party, it’s local Minnesota Democrats who are demanding that Franken go. On Thursday, Minnesota State Auditor and gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Otto called on Franken to resign. So did Megan Thomas, who runs the Minnesota party’s Feminist Caucus.

Prominent liberal journalists are also urging Franken to resign. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg has said he must leave the Senate. So has Mark Joseph Stern in Slate, and a host of liberal celebrities. (For her part, Tweeden has said she accepts Franken’s apology.)

Both parties are divided between people who are reacting politically and people who are reacting ideologically. In the GOP, the politically minded—who run the congressional Republican Party—want Moore to go because they fear his impact on the party’s chances next fall. But the ideologically minded Alabama conservatives—and the media personalities who influence them—want Moore to stay in the race because they see the attack on him as part of a broader assault by the liberal media. The steering committee of the Alabama Republican Party is standing behind Moore. And in so doing, it likely represents the view of conservative Alabamans as a whole. A JMC Analytics poll taken between November 9 and 11 found that 37 percent of self-described evangelicals in Alabama actually said the charges against Moore made them more likely to vote for him compared to only 28 percent who said the charges made them less likely to. Moore’s supporters see the attacks on him as part of a culture war, which they’re determined to wage even if costs their party seats.

In the Democratic Party, by contrast, the politically minded—Charles Schumer and company—don’t want to imperil a safe Senate seat if they don’t have to. Ideologically minded liberals, by contrast, fear that letting Franken stay in his job will make it easier for other sexual harassers to escape punishment. If Franken stays, writes Goldberg, “The current movement toward unprecedented accountability for sexual harassers will probably start to peter out. Republicans, never particularly eager to hold their own to account, will use Franken to deflect from more egregious abuse on their own side.” For Goldberg, sustaining the post-Weinstein cultural and moral reckoning is more important than ensuring a Democratic seat in the senate.

The Moore and Franken battles constitute yet more evidence that the bases of the two parties are even more polarized than their leaders in Washington. In dealing with sexual harassment, congressional Democratic and Republican leaders aren’t that far apart. Both see eruptions like Moore and Franken’s as political problems to be managed so they don’t hurt the party as a whole. The larger gulf is between grassroots liberal activists who want to change men’s behavior, no matter the political fallout, and conservative activists who see sexual-harassment claims against Republicans as a conspiracy by the liberal media.

In both parties, power is devolving from top to bottom, from political strategists to ideological activists. Mitch McConnell can’t tell Roy Moore what to do and, I suspect, Charles Schumer won’t be able to tell Minnesota Democrats either. The result: If I had to bet which man is more likely to be in the Senate next January, I’d put my money on Roy Moore.