Eric Schneiderman Falls. Trump Allies Gloat. Democrats Seethe.
Posted May 9, 2018 10:00 p.m. EDT
The moment of political reckoning began a day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, when millions of marchers protested his policies and treatment of women. That outpouring of energy has rippled through elections during the last 16 months, as women have turned out in force to vote — and often to punish the Republican Party.
But for Democrats, the process of confronting sexual misconduct in politics has also grown complicated and emotionally fraught. If Trump’s election ignited this national conflagration, the president himself has largely escaped consequences for his behavior so far. And a number of the politicians exposed as predators and abusers have been men whom the left once viewed with admiration.
Trump and his advisers have reveled openly in the #MeToo-era downfall of prominent Democrats, most recently Eric T. Schneiderman, the Democratic attorney general of New York state who cast himself as a heroic opponent of Trump and a crusader for women’s rights. After four women accused him of physical abuse, Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s chief political aides, tweeted: “Gotcha.”
The White House’s exultation grated on politicians and strategists in both parties, who view Trump as a fatally compromised messenger on women’s rights. As galling as some Democrats’ hypocrisy may be, a president accused by more than a dozen women of groping and forcible kissing can only make things uncomfortable for his party by engaging in a political tit-for-tat, some Republicans outside the White House say. Amanda Carpenter, a Republican strategist who has been critical of Trump, said the administration’s gleeful reaction to Schneiderman’s resignation on Monday had been off-key and politically myopic. “There’s no expression of sympathy for those women,” Carpenter said, referring to Schneiderman’s accusers. “It’s win-at-all-costs power politics.”
But Carpenter, a former aide to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, said voters might not turn to Democrats as an alternative to Trump unless they do more to inspire confidence. “Democrats keep falling for this fantasy that because Donald Trump’s personal character issues are so awful, that voters will naturally rally to their side,” she said. “You have to give people a reason to rally.”
For Democrats, the White House’s gloating strikes the rawest of nerves: Already, there is a mood of seething frustration among liberals, who see themselves as aggressively policing misconduct on their side, while Trump and his party approach it with comparative indifference. Most of all, Democrats fear that Trump could escape political repercussions for his actions — and that accused offenders on the left like Schneiderman might ease the pressure on the president.
Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster who recently conducted a survey on the politics of sexual harassment for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, sees an opposite scenario unfolding. Far from letting Trump off the hook, Matthews contends that each new case of sexual misconduct — in either party — is likely to heighten voters’ demand for a comprehensive response.
And the voters most engaged on the matter, she said, are younger women who lean Democratic.
“It will probably energize millennial women, who tend not to vote as often in midterms,” Matthews said, adding of the Schneiderman case: “It’s just further evidence that this is a widespread problem.”
The primary elections in four states on Tuesday appeared to underscore Matthews’ assessment: There was not just energetic voting by women, but also energetic voting for women. Nineteen Democratic congressional primaries had at least one woman on the ballot. Women won in all but three of the races. And in Ohio, Democrats nominated Rachel Crooks, a woman who has accused Trump of forcibly kissing her, for a seat in the state Legislature.
Jess O’Connell, a former top official at the Democratic National Committee and Emily’s List, the influential Democratic women’s group, said voters alarmed by the mistreatment of women might be likelier to embrace female candidates. She predicted those voters would mostly support Democrats, but allowed that sexual misconduct was a problem that crossed party lines.
“Women make up just over 20 percent of elected officeholders and men are nearly 100 percent of this problem,” O’Connell said. “I think this is pretty straightforward for women.”
Less straightforward, for Democrats, has been the experience of cleansing their own ranks as Trump heckles them from the West Wing. The party has pressured a succession of liberal men to resign amid a range of allegations, including Schneiderman, former Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and former Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, who was the House’s longest-tenured member. Rep. Ruben Kihuen of Nevada, a first-term Democrat, rejected calls to resign over harassment accusations but dropped his bid for a second term.
Republicans have nudged a number of lawmakers to quit, too, including Reps. Trent Franks of Arizona, Pat Meehan of Pennsylvania and Blake Farenthold of Texas. In almost every case, lawmakers in both parties first projected Trump-like defiance before relenting under pressure, after a period of weeks or months. (Schneiderman, facing some of the gravest allegations — choking and violently slapping women — lasted three hours.)
But Republicans acknowledge that Trump has encouraged a culture of permissiveness in the party when it comes to matters of sexual harassment and worse. The president campaigned for Roy S. Moore, an alleged child molester, who was defeated in a special election for the Senate in Alabama last year. Associates of Trump said at the time that he viewed Moore’s claims of innocence as a proxy for his own denials of wrongdoing.
More recently, the White House has declined to address a political crisis in Missouri emerging from an allegation of sexual coercion against Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican. And the Republican National Committee, which succeeded last year in pressuring Democrats to divest themselves of donations by Harvey Weinstein, has declined to return campaign contributions from Stephen Wynn, the casino billionaire and Trump friend who has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment and rape. Ilyse Hogue, a prominent liberal activist who is president of Naral Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights group, called it “incredibly frustrating” to see a disparity between how the parties handle sexual misconduct. Predicting that Republicans would pay a price for seeking to protect Trump, Hogue said she believed that on these issues “the pendulum actually is swinging in the right direction.”
“He hangs over this conversation every minute of every single day, for so many women I know,” Hogue said of the president. “The fact that he sets himself up as immune to consequences really ups the ante.”
Hogue and other Democratic leaders also acknowledged, however, that their party’s internal moment of reckoning was probably still incomplete. And it is all but certain to touch other men, like Schneiderman, who are outwardly impeccable in their commitment to standing with women — and opposing Trump.
Melissa Mark-Viverito, a former speaker of the New York City Council who attended a luncheon last week honoring Schneiderman as a defender of abortion rights, said Democrats should have zero tolerance for men like him. Mark-Viverito, who went public during the 2016 election with her own experience of being sexually abused as a child, called for Schneiderman’s resignation instantly on Monday night.
“This is unacceptable and we have to shut this stuff down,” she said, adding of Democrats: “We definitely have work to do.”