I admire Nancy Pelosi. The first female House Speaker has endured astonishingly virulent sexism—“Princess Nancy”—and outclassed decades of male speakers on the legislative front. She is one of the most pragmatic members of her party. Yet she still manages to be a fundraising powerhouse in the doctrinaire worlds of Hollywood and tech. Simply put, she’s one of the most remarkable people in politics.
But Sunday morning was not one of her prouder moments. Chuck Todd of Meet the Press asked her what she thought of the 88-year-old Congressman John Conyers, who has been accused of ugly sexual misconduct. “Should he resign,” inquired Todd. “He will do the right thing,” she answered curtly. I’m sorry, but this evasion just won’t cut it. The Democrats need to cut loose the wayward men in their ranks. That includes Conyers (and not just as ranking Judiciary member), Al Franken and whomever else inevitably surfaces.
We are experiencing a salutary change in standards. Powerful males, very much including politicians, no longer get to claim their female subordinates’ bodies as a perk of office. For this revolution to carry forward, “progressive” men must not be granted an exemption. It was a good start when Harvey Weinstein got laughed at for trying to deflect attention onto the NRA, but that progress will stall if a Democratic voter registration becomes a “Get Out of Consequences Free” card. Democratic leaders need to make clear that their party will not be selling indulgences.
How Democrats handle this has high stakes. Cultural conservatives rightly note that political ethics trickle down to society. The GOP is morally bankrupt, so the Democrats have to enforce the new code themselves. If Democrats don’t send the right signal, millions of news consumers will see that our leaders don’t really think the dignity of women is worth it. And they will apply that lesson to their own lives and workplaces.
There’s a more mundane reason to get rid of these guys. Since 2012, Democratic messaging has invested heavily in the “War on Women.” Obama won a lot of women voters on the strength of standing up for their financial and sexual autonomy. The party took the message into overdrive in 2014, to the point where some candidates were all but running single-issue campaigns on it. It will be hard to reboot this strategy if Democrats don’t punish the sexist abuse in their own ranks.
Legacies are complicated, and Conyers will have his honor in the history books. Franken has some work in the Senate to be proud of. But Democrats have a particular responsibility in this moment. It’s time for them to clean (H)ouse.