WASHINGTON — Democrats have been quick to support the “me too” chorus of women — and some men — who have stepped up to allege sexual misconduct and name names. But now “me too” stains the Democrats, too, putting them in an awkward place as they calibrate how forcefully to respond.
Allegations against Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan are part of the newest chapter in the hot-potato politics of sexual predation for the party, which has its own fraught history on the subject.
The latest revelations have prompted a hard look back at the way Democrats and their allies once circled the wagons around President Bill Clinton, dismissing allegations that extended to serious assault as mere dalliances or the tales of “looney” women.
In her 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton drew a clear line on behalf of women who allege sexual assault, saying flatly: “You have the right to be believed.” But she equivocated when asked if her husband’s accusers from another decade should be believed, too: “I would say that everybody should be believed at first until they are disbelieved based on evidence.”
The pressure is on now to act without equivocation.
Franken’s prankish photo of his hands over a napping woman’s breasts on a military plane, combined with her allegations that he kissed her forcibly on another occasion, prompted swift condemnation from throughout the party’s ranks and inspired calls for an ethics investigation that the senator-in-hiding supported, too. Then a second woman came forward, alleging Franken grabbed her buttocks during a photo op at a state fair.
In a story published Wednesday by the Huffington Post, two more women alleged that Franken touched their buttocks during campaign events in 2007 and 2008.
The women spoke on condition of anonymity. Franken said in a statement, “It’s difficult to respond to anonymous accusers, and I don’t remember those campaign events.”
It reported that his office paid more than $27,000 to a woman who alleged she was fired because she rejected his sexual advances. On Tuesday, Conyers denied he made that settlement — but his office later acknowledged it while still denying that the allegations were true. The House Ethics Committee has initiated an investigation.
Democrats, predictably, have spoken fiercely and with one voice against Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama who is accused of disrobing a 14-year-old girl in his house when in his 30s.
Some Republicans have demanded Moore quit his candidacy “if” his accusers have told the truth about his approaching teenage girls. Others have concluded the accusations are more credible than his denials. But a few, like Alabama’s GOP governor, have suggested that even if he did prey on a 14-year-old girl decades ago, the need to protect the Senate’s Republican majority is a higher priority. President Donald Trump repeatedly noted on Wednesday that Moore has denied the allegations and insisted that Alabama must not elect the Republican’s “liberal” opponent in a Dec. 12 special election.
In this sexual misconduct frenzy of unmasking figures in entertainment, media, sports and politics (#MeToo on Twitter), all sorts of episodes on the spectrum of misbehavior are being lumped together, from the boorish and juvenile to the allegedly criminal.
Grabbing a woman’s behind at the state fair isn’t in the same league as molesting a child.
Still, the Democrats have a predicament.
“They don’t want to look tolerant on this issue by saying, ‘He wasn’t as bad as so and so,'” said Dan Lublin, a political science professor at American University.
“They need to appear strong,” he said, and not focus on gradations in misbehavior. “They’re going with ‘unacceptable.’ And it is a dilemma, because you don’t know how far that will go.”
Kathleen Dolan, chair of the political science department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said the party’s history with this issue is important to remember.
“Certainly, Democrats, from an ideological perspective, and on gender egalitarianism, should be the party or people we’d expect to be taking the lead on awareness of the decades-old problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault,” she said.
“That’s complicated in part by the history of the party debate when Bill Clinton was in the thick of his stuff. … There’s evolution, because the Democrats could perhaps with some accuracy say in the ’90s we tolerated so much of what we shouldn’t have.”
Indeed, Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, whose Senate seat was once held by Hillary Clinton, now says she believes Bill Clinton should have resigned for his improprieties.
Only now is there movement to bring sexual misconduct out of the shadows in Congress, where people in both parties say it has been widespread.
Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, who sponsored legislation to overhaul the system by which sexual complaints are made and settled on Capitol Hill, described Congress as “a breeding ground for a hostile work environment.” Last month she shared her own story of being sexually assaulted by a high-level aide while she was a staffer.
In a stunning public hearing last week, Speier and Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock shared stories of current lawmakers harassing staff members. Comstock said she was told that an aide recently left her job after a congressman exposed himself to her. Support for mandatory training to prevent sexual harassment in Congress has received bipartisan support.
The Conyers allegations, made in a leaked settlement, lay bare the opaque nature of that process.
In order to file a complaint with the Office of Compliance, accusers must first enter into mediation, with a nondisclosure agreement attached, followed by a mandatory 30-day “cooling off” period. After completion, a victim may either file a formal complaint or a federal lawsuit. The process is so arduous that many victims either settle or decide against going through the reporting at all.
“My view of this law is that it is very stacked in favor of members and others accused of sexual harassment, to the detriment to someone who has suffered sexual harassment or other discrimination at the Capitol,” said Debra Katz, a Washington employment and whistleblower attorney.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, sees a common thread in the response to very different allegations, dating back to Anita Hill’s accusations against Clarence Thomas on his way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
No matter the nature of allegations, she said, the reaction to them is driven more by political party than by the merits.
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