Thursday, March 25, 2021

BTRTN: Cuomo Next Step... Investigation, Resignation, or Just Be Judged Like a Republican?

At one level, it’s an open and shut case: Cuomo should resign. But in a world of situational ethics, here’s the situation: Republicans have no ethics. Democrats care more about the higher moral ground than winning, Republicans act on precisely the opposite notion. Steve thinks the Cuomo situation has Democrats debating the virtue of virtue.    

The big question with Governor Andrew Cuomo is the next step: should he resign, be afforded the opportunity to remain in office until an investigation is completed, and/or should the state legislative branch proceed with impeachment? They are not mutually exclusive: an investigation could to lead to impeachment, and a resignation would not obviate the need for an investigation.

The situation in Albany is particularly fraught, because – for starters – there is not just one issue on the table. For most people, the key allegation facing Cuomo is that he has created a toxic workplace environment in which young female staffers have felt pressured to discuss their private lives and sexuality with the Governor. There are additional allegations of inappropriate touching that the Governor adamantly denies. Wholly separate from the issue of sexual misconduct are allegations that the Governor’s administration was deceptive in reporting COVID nursing home deaths, and accusations that Cuomo verbally abused and threatened reporter Susanne Craig and legislator Ron Kim.

Fraught, further, because the Governor has made it perfectly clear that he has no intention of resigning, even as a wide swath of state leaders, including both U.S. Senators and a majority of the state’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives, have already concluded he must do so.

Where other politicians might have been buried under such an avalanche of allegation and condemnation, Andrew Cuomo has, thus far, taken the incoming and remained not merely afloat but rather buoyant. The Governor is drawing on the mighty reservoir of good will he accumulated when he stepped into the role of de facto President of the United States during the worst of the initial pandemic panic. While Donald Trump was urging us all to inject ourselves with Lysol, Cuomo was the daily voice of vital accurate information, urging utmost caution while remaining calm, and humanizing the suffering and fears as the pandemic raged unchecked.

The result? Even as U.S. Senators Schumer and Gillibrand and others call for his resignation, the citizens of the state Cuomo leads are not so sure. A poll conducted by Siena College completed on March 12 reveals that a full 50% of New York State voters say that Cuomo should not resign, while only 35% believe he should. That kind of data is certain to make the Cuomo feel insulated in the near term.  Some point out that Cuomo’s favorability rating has plummeted due to the scandals… all the way to 43%. Note the irony that Cuomo’s approval nadir is pretty much exactly the number Trump maintained for his entire Presidency.

Given popular support and the notion that Cuomo is owed his day in court – if only the court of public opinion -- it seems reasonable to hold off demands for resignation until the completion of an investigation.

But the problem is that in all the posturing coming out of the Governor’s office these days, we see an attempt to create a narrow definition of sexually inappropriate behavior that he believes would exonerate him. It seems as if every statement on this topic from the Governor’s office includes the strident assertion that at no time did Cuomo ever “touch anyone inappropriately.”

Hey, try to operate a business in New York State and claim that the only definition of sexual misconduct that counts is when a boss physically forces himself (sure, or herself, but it’s usually himself) on a subordinate.

Newsflash: Governor Cuomo does not get to define what constitutes “sexually inappropriate behavior” or a “hostile work environment.”

Forget, for a moment, the things he adamantly denies having done. Just read what he admits to:

“I have teased people about their personal lives, their relationships, about getting married or not getting married. I mean no offense and only attempt to add some levity and banter to what is a very serious business. I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended. I acknowledge that some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent that anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.  To be clear I never inappropriately touched anybody and I never propositioned anybody and I never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but these are allegations that New Yorkers deserve answers to.”

Wow. Just try making that your defense when you are hauled in for a deposition by counsel for an employee suing your company for sexual harassment in the workplace. Concede that you said a bunch of highly inappropriate things that appear to have made subordinates in your organization extremely uncomfortable, and then blame them for failing to realize that you are really a sweet guy who didn’t mean anything untoward.

Based on the allegations of those in Cuomo’s employ, the Governor’s statement would seem to imply that ogling, offering opinions on wardrobe, asking prying questions about personal relationships and sexual preferences is all ok. It’s just how our office works. Cuomo seems to be saying that he may have occasionally asked a question or two about a young woman’s personal relationships and perspectives on attraction and intimacy, but that’s all part of building good working relationships and esprit de corps. Caring bosses care about the gestalt of their employee’s lives, motivations, and happiness, right?

The problem is not “unproven accusations.” It is that Cuomo is pleading “nolo contendere” to the charges of women who have accused him of using the power of his office to create an environment in which he felt free to express his own sexual interests and curiosities, and that he expected his openness to be reciprocated.

Geez, Governor Cuomo, if we have stated your position reasonably accurately, just take out the damn pen, sign the resignation, and let’s get this whole mess behind us.

But here’s the funny thing.

Behind closed doors, any number of very progressive types – people who might agree with everything just said – are pausing. Some are quietly musing whether it really is wise in our highly polarized world of politics for Democrats to force Cuomo out, if only because that could raise the small but existent possibility that the Republicans could use the scandal to take the Governorship in 2022. Some simply feel that Cuomo should not resign without the completion of a full inquiry, if only to create a precedent for Democratic politics going forward. Finally, some wonder whether Democrats continue to damage themselves by holding themselves to a set of moral and ethical standards, while Republicans brazenly ignore fact and principle to maintain a vice-like grip on power.

Sooner or later, every discussion of sexual misconduct in politics finds its way back to Al Franken. His case is viewed by many to have been a wrongful rush to judgment that denied a man who may well have been unfairly accused the opportunity to clear his name.

In 2018, Al Franken succumbed to intense bipartisan calls for his resignation for reports of sexual misconduct. It began with an accusation by a conservative talk show host about Franken’s behavior during a 2006 U.S.O. Tour, long before Franken entered public service. Subsequently, a number of reports surfaced, many anonymously, and the nature of the complaints ranged from inappropriate touching during photo ops to more serious charges of unwanted and unsolicited efforts by Franken to kiss women.

Franken, in his defense, resorted to some standard lines – perhaps not all that different from Cuomo -- about being a “warm person, I hug people,” apologized to any and all who claimed to have been a victim, but was firm in stating that his recollections of the incidents were different from those of his accusers. Franken himself called for an investigation, but before it could begin, he was abandoned by Democratic colleagues and given little choice but to resign. In the months that followed, a number of Senators who had called for his resignation publicly announced that they felt regret about their actions, and that Franken’s case should have been investigated before action was taken.

There was no good place to stand on the Franken controversy. There’s never dignity in words to the effect of “well, that sexually inappropriate behavior wasn’t all that bad.” People can talk about different standards in different eras and different careers, but it sounds hollow.

The sturdier line of defense in the Franken case was that there was a great deal of question about the legitimacy of some of the accusations, particularly when it was learned that Republican Dirty Trickster Roger Stone was pumping the stories in Right wing news media.

Let’s be clear on where the Franken and Cuomo cases differ. For all of the swirl of accusations about Franken, no one was accusing him of using the power of his office to extract sexual gratification in any form from persons who were his subordinates. The allegations about Franken largely dated back to a period far before he was in public office, and the small number of claims about inappropriate touching during photo ops on campaign events – none ever fully investigated, let alone with proven malign intent – cannot be equated with actions taken with paid employees on one’s own staff, while in office.

A dispassionate look at Franken's case will then, in turn, circle back to the elephants in the other room. Donald Trump, then the sitting President of the United States, was already the subject of over two dozen accusations of physical assault by women willing to go on the record, and Trump had been quoted on videotape bragging that his role in a reality tv show gave him permission to crudely force himself on women. No Republicans called for Trump to resign. No Republicans felt there was any need for investigations. Indeed, Republicans attempted to dismiss ethical and moral questions as irrelevant, asserting that the voters who elected him President knew of the allegations and voted for him anyway. This, mind you, was simply an early manifestation of the Republican notion that reality and objective facts are now matters of opinion and can be voted on. 

Let’s be clear on one point: no one is saying that questionable or inappropriate sexual conduct is an exclusively Republican issue. That would be, uh, malarky, as there is all too much video of the current Democratic President rubbing too many shoulders in his long career. But take a look at Biden’s two-minute April, 2019 video in which he squarely addresses the issue of allegations about his past behavior before announcing his candidacy. He is sincere, he offers an explanation for what he perceived to be a style of interaction with constituents, voters, human beings. Compare Biden's stance to Trump's relentlessly belligerent, dismissive, and threatening reactions to his vast array of accusers.

The question is not whether such behaviors exist on both sides. It is how the two parties react to and deal with such behaviors by their respective elected officials, and the degree to which one party actually gains political advantage from its utter abdication of ethical principle and its moral bankruptcy.

Silly, na├»ve me. Here I am, getting worked up about the nuances of how Democrats attempt to deal with the very real issues of sexual misconduct, when Republicans don’t even bother.

Everything that you have just read is based on a quaint notion that we still live in a world where there are objective notions of right and wrong. There are principles.

And this is where Andrew Cuomo appears to be way ahead of me.

In his reaction to this scandal, Cuomo is simply embracing the Republican playbook: deny, stall, wait it out until the next news cycle brings a fresh atrocity that blows your scandal off the front page.

Geez, Trump took it farther: Trump would actively create the next scandal in order to cool down the reaction to his previous one.

What Cuomo has realized is that our post-factual world is also a post-ethical world. So many of the decisions we see in government appear to be pure political calculation and zero moral principle. We have lived so long in a world of situational ethics that we now discover that there is no situation for ethics. How else can we explain why anyone would ever bother to listen to Lindsey Graham? The man literally says the precise opposite of what he said in the past, and then thinks you’re the stupid one if you wouldn’t do the same thing he did.

Andrew Cuomo believes that he can just run out the clock, content to avoid the humiliation of resignation, and he’s making the bet that when a final report is issued in three months, all this will be ancient history. He will not be impeached or removed from office. Today's big scandal will end up as a paragraph on his Wikipedia page.

He is just rope-a-doping until the public turns its attention to the more egregious shock du jour, and boy, is he right about that. Incredibly, in the mere weeks since Cuomo issued his formal statement on the allegations of his sexual misconduct, there have been two horrific mass shootings in the United States.

Why should Andrew Cuomo resign? It’s so much easier to play it the way Republicans do. 

“He said, she said” is what Republicans said about Brett Kavanagh. It’s what they said about Clarence Thomas. Republicans were fine running Roy Moore for the U.S. Senate after three women had accused him of sexual assault. Two of the women were minors at the time of the incident. 

Republicans live in a world where no sexual misconduct – nothing – ever rises to the level that a Republican should be held the least bit to account, let alone resign.

And, yes, Republicans are the people who thought it was fine when Donald Trump ridiculed the physical appearance of Carly Fiorina (“look at that face!”) and Heidi Cruz. Republicans were fine with Trump bragging to Billy Bush that he could “grab women by the pussy.” Republicans were fine with Donald Trump entering the locker rooms of his beauty pageants while contestants were changing. Republicans were fine that 26 woman have come forward to accuse Donald Trump of sexual misconduct. Mind you, the vast majority of these allegations are not about “hostile work environments” or verbal abuses – horrid as those things are – these allegations were about physical assault: Trump actually forcing himself upon women with inappropriate touching, unwelcome kissing, and, yes, there is one accusation of rape.

None of this caused Republicans to demand that Trump resign, and – as we all well know – a full seventy million people wanted to re-elect him.

So here’s the lesson in morality and ethics that we teach our children.

We have on the one hand, Al Franken, who, in the face of an accusation, expressed remorse for unintended hurt, apologized for any and all inappropriate action, and who only sought to clear his name through an investigation into incidents remembered differently. We demanded his resignation without any investigation.

On the other, we have any number of Republican leaders, people who label their accusers as liars, announce that they will sue them, deny any wrongdoing, even in the face of repeated incidents, and who refuse to even consider resigning, certain that the opposing party lacks the will or mechanism to do anything about it. 

The issue is this: Democrats still believe that we must hold their elected officials accountable for inappropriate sexual conduct, even as that risks weakening our political might to accomplish the things we believe in. Republicans believe that preserving their political power in order to implement their agenda is vastly more important than punishing or even acknowledging corruption, deceit, or sexually inappropriate behavior.

And the real issue for Democrats is that today, the most accurate descriptor of Andrew Cuomo is “Republican.”

 

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