What’s the proper response to Sen. Al Franken’s bad behavior on a USO trip before he was a senator?
I have no idea. Neither does anyone else. Not just because some of the details have been contested, but because we’re mostly all at sea right now.
The good news is that we appear to be finally moving somewhat closer to a consensus that sexual assault and sexual harassment are serious offenses, even when the behavior may not quite rise to the standard of a crime. We’re also perhaps moving closer to a consensus that we should trust women who make these complaints. That’s all good.
But knowing what to do about a lot of it within politics is going to take some time. How do we calibrate punishments that are appropriate for the level of the offense? Sure, that can be easier if the accusation is criminal. But what if it’s short of criminal? Does it matter how long ago something happened? Does it matter if it was a single reported offense, or a pattern? Does it matter exactly what happened, and if so: how?
And that’s all before we get to partisan interests. As writer Jonathan Chait has argued, it’s not necessarily a violation of political ethics to take into account the consequences of driving someone out of office, or accepting a lost election, even if one believes an action was truly heinous. That is, Republicans might legitimately be more likely to oppose the confirmation of Clarence Thomas back in 1991 or to seek his resignation now than they would have been to urge him to resign when Bill Clinton or Barack Obama was president. Note that this argument does not absolve partisans of accepting the evidence before them - only to change what they’re willing to have done about it.
But that only gets us so far. Even if we are to accept (and not all would) that there are times when it is politically ethical to support someone despite the facts in cases such as those of Clarence Thomas or Bill Clinton, there presumably are limits - either in the severity of the misbehavior or in the scale of the likely political effects.
We also don’t really have a reasonable array of punishments available. Is it meaningful to censure an elected official? Republicans didn’t think so in 1998, even though Democrats wanted to censure Clinton. With Donald Trump, we’ve seen some people decline the opportunity to be honored at the White House; could that be formalized in some cases? Could anything analogous be done for members of Congress? I don’t know.
And then there’s the trickiest part of all: If believing women who make accusations is the right thing - and I believe it is - are there exceptions when those accusations are made in the political arena, where we know false charges of all kinds are made with some frequency? Plenty of Democrats in 1998 hesitated to believe accusations against Clinton in part because they had heard years of accusations that he was a serial killer, a drug runner and a Soviet plant (yes, those were all real accusations, a mild version of the latter having been voiced by George H.W. Bush during the 1992 campaign - during which Bush himself faced wild accusations from third-party candidate Ross Perot).
I don’t have answers to very much of this. Just a bunch of questions, and perhaps a suggestion that if we truly want to take this subject seriously, it’s probably time to try to work out some of the tough calls.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.