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Franken, Conyers scandals may force out old guard at the Democratic Party -- and finally give it a future

  • John Conyers is finally resigning amid sexual harassment allegations, and more Democrat senators are calling for fellow Democrat Sen. Al Franken to step down.
  • This is actually good news for those in the Democratic Party who know it cannot have a future with Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the old guard in the leadership.
  • Younger Democrat women, led by Kathleen Rice, can now assume powerful roles.

Two very good things happened to the Democratic Party this week. They are two things that may carve out a viable future and a possible return to political dominance.

And it didn't have a thing to do with Robert Mueller, Russia, or even tax reform.

It is all about bringing down the party's old guard in favor of a new team that can actually stand for new principles and win elections.

On the surface, all that happened is Rep. John Conyers finally gave in to pressure and resigned and then a growing number of Democratic senators called on fellow Democrat Al Franken to resign.At first take the downfall of the longest-serving Democrat in Congress and a well-known Democrat senator is bad news for the party. But it should be good news for the party because the Conyers resignation and the pressure on Franken mostly comes by force from a new guard.

The old guard, led by House Minority Leader and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, dithered in the face of the pressure to either support or cut Conyers loose. At first, Pelosi stuck by Conyers and defended him, saying he should get "due process." Finally, four days later, she wilted under pressure and called on him to resign. Once that happened, his actual resignation became a foregone conclusion.

But Pelosi is still in trouble. She was at best indecisive just as the entire country is swept up in a focus on sexual assault and harassment. Making matters worse, other Democrats in the House are facing sexual misconduct charges, and some of them insist Pelosi knew about the charges against them well into the past. This trend undermines her ability to lead in this environment.

Leading the challenge against her most loudly is Rep. Kathleen Rice from suburban Long Island, N.Y. She stormed out of a Democratic caucus meeting to address the harassment scandals that Pelosi arranged on Nov. 29. While leaving the meeting, Rice told the news media she "doesn't have time for meetings that aren't real."

She also immediately called on House Speaker Paul Ryan to lift the gag order on Conyers' $27,000 taxpayer settlement with one of his accusers.Most importantly, Rice challenged Pelosi directly, insisting her initial response to the Conyers controversy, "set women back and — quite frankly, our party back — decades."

Many reformers and forward-thinking Democrats have been trying to replace Pelosi as the congressional leader of their party for years. But this effort looks like it has a much better chance of succeeding.

One reason: this movement has the strong principle behind it of taking a clear, no-tolerance stance against sexual misconduct. That's a big deal because the Democratic Party is so heavily invested in the women's vote and this is clearly an important issue for that demographic.

Secondly, the other two serious attempts to oust Pelosi were led by white men, (Rep. Steny Hoyer in 2014 and Rep. Tim Ryan in 2016). Rice's decision to make a major public stink against Pelosi over the harassment issue represents A-level persuasion and strategy on her part. This not only endears her to true feminists, but also to hard-core conservatives who disdain Pelosi and her duplicity. How many issues offer that kind of dual opportunity?

And Rice isn't just a woman, but a woman from a suburban district that connects her better to more voters nationally than the urban elites who back Pelosi and her ilk. The fact is the Democratic Party needs to start representing more non-urban voting and donor blocks to survive. Rice and the female senators leading the charge against Franken offer that chance.

Many of those Democratic women are backed by the same old urban powers. That includes New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and California Sen. Kamala Harris. But look for relative Senate newcomers like Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin and Nevada's Catherine Cortez Masto to take this ball and run with it. And no matter where they come from, any female Democrat in the Senate who predates the Bill Clinton era has an added opportunity now.

Remember, this harassment storm is far from over. There are a total of 264 harassment settlements made by the House's Office of Compliance just since 1997. Many more Democrats and Republicans in Congress seem likely to be forced out as the pressure mounts to reveal the details of those agreements and the names behind them. There's a potential thinning out of the incumbent ranks that could spell doom for Pelosi even if people like Rice weren't challenging her.

But challenging her they are. Rice is also one of a handful of Democrats who pushed back against the Iran nuclear deal that President Barack Obama and Pelosi supported in spite of the polls that showed strong opposition to the deal throughout the process in 2015. This kind of independence will help Rice and others like her as the very idea of Democratic Party orthodoxy withers in the face of highly successful insurgent candidacies like the one launched by Sen. Bernie Sanders.

This goes beyond just the harassment issue. It's also about a movement within both parties' ranks to stamp out hypocrisy and cronyism. Sexual misconduct isn't the only story where leaders of both parties are showing a double standard. The GOP is dealing with duplicity problem with the Senate candidacy of Judge Roy Moore. That's what makes all of them vulnerable.

All of this has more positive potential than the rest of the Democratic Party's continued obsession with trying to bring down President Donald Trump via impeachment and other forms of constant protest. Even if those moves are successful, where does the party go after that? Taking a stronger stand for women and ethics will last long after President Trump is gone.

In that sense, John Conyers and now Al Franken are unintentionally bringing more than just temporary shame to their party. Their downfall, and those learning the right lesson from it, have brought the Democrats a viable future.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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