In the grand narrative of the 2020 presidential race, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and former Sen. Al Franken have found themselves on a political seesaw. As her political fortunes have crashed in recent months, Franken's — if he has any — appear to have inched up.
No, the former Democratic senator from Minnesota is not ready for full resurrection yet. But his memory haunts his party like a resentful ghost with his claim that he was pressured to resign without due process.
One casualty of that haunting now appears to be Gillibrand's presidential bid. She withdrew last month from the crowded Democratic field after failing to raise enough money or support in the polls to qualify for this week's Democratic debate. Her poll numbers rarely rose above 1%.
A major reason for that withdrawal has been reported for weeks. Democratic voters and donors blame her for a cardinal sin in party politics: She turned against Franken, one of the party's most popular and promising rising stars, beginning a campaign that led him to announce his resignation in December 2017 without the due process of the Senate ethics investigation that he requested.
To be sure, she was not the only Democratic senator to call for Franken's resignation as, over the course of a few weeks, eight women accused him of inappropriate behavior. But Gillibrand was the first and remains staunchly anti-Franken, in accordance with her promotion of appropriate sexual conduct and women's rights, for which a "60 Minutes" profile memorably labeled her "the #MeToo senator."
Most of that behavior involved groping, touching and what delicately has been described as coercive kissing. In general, it was the sort of jovial aw-shucks behavior of which the top-tier candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden has been accused.
Much of Biden's hands-on behavior occurred over his decades-long political career, often in front of cameras, and drew mostly amusement or bemusement at the time. The emergence of groper-gate as an issue in this campaign says a lot about how standards of tolerance have changed in regard to what qualifies as sexual misconduct in these #MeToo times.
Franken resigned under pressure from his Senate colleagues. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer gave him a deadline to quit after three dozen Democratic senators called for him to step down.
At the time, Democrats were waging a major campaign against Roy Moore, the Republican nominee in a special Alabama U.S. Senate race who was accused of improper behavior with teenage girls as young as 14. A full ethics investigation into Franken's behavior could take years. Pressure on the senator to remove himself immediately was intense.
But now some of those Democrats who called for Franken's departure have second thoughts, according to a major investigation by Jane Mayer in the July 29 issue of the New Yorker, which she described in a tweet as "How @alfranken got railroaded."
"We needed more facts," Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., told Mayer. "That due process didn't happen is not good for our democracy."
"If there's one decision I've made that I would take back, it's the decision to call for his resignation," former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota told Mayer. "It was made in the heat of the moment without concern for exactly what this was." Six other Franken colleagues expressed similar regrets.
But one who kept her zero tolerance attitude toward Franken's allegations was Gillibrand, even though she has moved to the left on such other issues as gun safety and immigration. Now even her own supporters say her zero tolerance hurt her prospects, especially as Democrats try to unseat a president who mocks such behavior standards as "political correctness."
Talk about your teachable moments. It's easy to see with the 20-20 vision offered by hindsight how the Franken situation could have been handled better. As feminist author and New York magazine writer Rebecca Traister told the Nation's Jeet Heer, Franken could have taken, say, a three-month leave to learn how his behavior might have caused discomfort.
Then he could come back with a "bang-up speech on gender, power, harassment and powerful men's responsibility to do their own reckoning."
I agree. I have a theory that the current back and forth over #MeToo standards is a corrective phase. The major scandals surrounding Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and other wealthy and powerful men can lead to overreaction and rushes to judgment, especially in ambiguous situations.
To maintain the respect that serious charges deserve, we need standards that calibrate punishment in relation to the seriousness of the offense. Not every situation is a 10 on a scale of 10. Sometimes zero tolerance makes less than zero sense.
Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him e-mail at cpagechicagotribune.com.