It took days for Democrats to call on Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) to resign in 2017 amid allegations of sexual misconduct, weeks for them to push Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to resign amid mounting allegations of improprieties.
For Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, it took less than five hours for the shocking revelation that his medical school yearbook page included a picture of men in black face and a Ku Klux Klan costume to evolve into demands for his resignation.
Democrats have adopted a zero-tolerance policy in the age of Trump, working with almost laserlike precision to oust the president and shedding any perceived obstacle to defeating him in 2020. And while President Trump has stretched the limits of what Republicans can say and do with impunity, he has limited what Democrats are willing to sweep aside among their own ranks.
“We’re in a new era, a new age,” said Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state lawmaker who is African American. “Would we have moved as fast if Hillary Clinton were president? I don’t know.”
But there is also a quieter concern that the party has come to react too quickly. Some of Franken’s supporters are still bitter over how the end of his career played out, and several senators have said they regretted pushing him to leave office.
The new atmosphere can catch even the most seasoned politician off guard. The accused feel denied any sense of due process. Supposed allies quickly turn into enemies. And, they argue, Republicans are refusing to play by the same rules.
“I think there’s a rush to judgment that is unfair to him,” Joe Lieberman, the former Democratic vice presidential nominee, said Monday on CNN about Northam. “One, he says he wasn’t in that picture. Two, I think we ought to fairly ask him, did he know the picture was on his page of that yearbook. And then three, really, he ought to be judged on the context of his whole life.”
“I think he deserves a chance to prove what really is his essence,” he added. “Not to rush him out of office, unfortunately for political reasons.”
But Lieberman is in the distinct minority in a party newly animated by women and nonwhite candidates and voters, who have provided the ballast for swift decisions.
The race to judgment marks a remarkable shift for the party. It took decades for Democrats to grapple with President Bill Clinton’s indiscretions, and opinions on the matter still vary. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) filibustered against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was a onetime member of the Ku Klux Klan — two things for which he later apologized — but became the longest-serving senator in history before his death in 2010.
Now, hints of scandal trigger quick demands for resignations across the country. In North Carolina, top Democrats, including Gov. Roy Cooper, called on a Democratic state lawmaker to resign last year amid allegations of sexual harassment. The lawmaker, Duane Hall, refused to resign but was handily defeated in a primary a few months later.
Democrats say the environment has shifted, and requires new strategies. Information travels at a rapid pace, and activists have new platforms on social media to express their displeasure. Campaign advisers say they are pelted by questions from reporters to respond to the latest scandal, so a lack of action stymies efforts to focus elsewhere. And Democrats insist that, both to counter Trump and maintain favor with their key voter groups, they must claim the moral high ground.
“If we’re going to carry the message and carry the call forward, we have to make sure we’re holding ourselves to account,” said Guy Cecil, chairman of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA. “I reject any idea that we’re not holding our own people to a higher standard. You cannot call on a Florida secretary of state to resign for black face because he’s a Republican and let our party get away with it.”
“I don’t think there’s any question that Trump’s racism, Trump’s xenophobia, Trump’s sexism has made many people more aware and made their sensitivity more heightened,” he added. “And I think that’s a good thing.”
Democrats also say that calling for purity in their own party allows for a sharper contrast with Republicans who strongly support Trump despite accusations against him of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women and the varied insults he has leveled against minorities.
“I can’t deal with the racism of Donald Trump and Steve King if I’m afraid to call out my own,” Sellers said, referring to the Iowa congressman who has defended white supremacy. “It lends credibility to his racial transgressions if you’re not willing to cut off your own cancer.”
Northam’s meandering attempts to explain himself have also had an impact. He initially suggested he was in the photo on his yearbook page, and apologized for it. That disclosure is what triggered the cascade of calls for his resignation.
Only the next day, on Saturday, did he say that he was not in the photo.
Julián Castro saw the news breaking on Twitter, and quickly decided that Northam should resign. The former San Antonio mayor was the first Democratic presidential candidate to declare so.
“It doesn’t matter if he is a Republican or a Democrat,” he wrote on Twitter at 7:07 p.m. Friday. “This behavior was racist and unconscionable. Governor Northam should resign.”
Another presidential candidate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), agreed 30 minutes later.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who was the first senator to call on Franken to resign, initially hesitated when asked about Northam by reporters during her presidential swing in New Hampshire.
“I haven’t seen them, but I have heard of them and they sound very disturbing and racist,” she said. “I think he needs to explain to the voters of Virginia what that was about and I think he needs to apologize.”
Within about two hours, she went further.
“There aren’t two sets of rules for our friends and our foes: Right is right and wrong is wrong,” she wrote on Twitter at 9:51 p.m. Friday. “Having seen the photo, I believe Governor Northam should resign.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) joined in, followed by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former vice president Joe Biden waited until Saturday morning to call for Northam’s resignation.
“I’m pleased that with the #MeToo movement — and with greater sensitivity to concerns of people of color and the LGBTQ community — that people are being held accountable more often these days for their words and their actions,” Castro said in an interview.
“In Trump we have a spectacular example of disrespect,” he added. “I’m confident that a lot of Democrats understand that we need to do the opposite of that. That we need to show respect and be inclusive and not tolerate sexism or racism or homophobia.”
Castro said he had no second thoughts as he watched Northam say that he wasn’t in the photo.
“I also believe that it likely was him, that photo,” he said. “If it wasn’t you, you could probably conclusively remember that — and the fact that he could not after he suggested he was in the photo doesn’t add up.”
Yet a party that is moving swiftly to oust anyone with suggestions of racism or sexism could soon confront more questions: Virginia’s Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would take over if Northam resigns, held a news conference on Monday to deny allegations that he sexually harassed a woman in 2004.