Things change. Sometimes they change fast. Just ask Al Franken.

Two weeks ago, he was riding high – a second-term senator with star power, boasting a best-selling new book and a highlight reel of “moments” fit for sharing on social media. He had become a sought-after fundraising attraction for his colleagues, and there was even talk about him running for president.

On Monday, he shuffled up to a bank of microphones and humbly apologized for things that he says he doesn’t remember doing, but still regrets because he understands that he made some women feel uncomfortable.

He promised to earn back the trust of his constituents, and someday he may. But he shouldn’t expect many invitations to campaign with Democrats next year or to be mentioned on any lists of presidential contenders.

It’s more likely that he’ll serve out the next three years like a ghost – there but not there, too toxic for friends and too tempting a target for enemies to be given much of a public role.

Franken got caught in a rogue wave of cultural change that he wasn’t ready for, and it’s important for the rest of us to understand why. Something has changed, but what?

Was it the rules? No. The things that Franken is accused of doing – forcing a woman to kiss him in one case, and grabbing strange women by the buttocks when he posed with them for pictures in three other cases – were always against the rules as most people understood them.

Is it fair that Franken has to pay such a high political price when he’s not Washington’s worst offender? No, but it’s not fair that so many women have been groped and belittled by men who had power over their livelihoods, either. This would be the wrong time to start being fair.

Franken’s supporters, including many women, say we should have a sense of proportion in the public response to cases like his. What Franken is accused of is gross, they argue, but the conduct that Donald Trump bragged about to Billy Bush on the infamous 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape would be criminal. The same with Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who has been credibly alleged to have sexually assaulted teenagers when he was in his 30s.

It’s not morally inconsistent to have one set of consequences for one set of facts and a different set for more severe cases, writes Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post. Making these kinds of distinctions is something adults do all the time.

But how long do we want to spend parsing how much butt-grabbing is acceptable conduct for a U.S. senator? Is just a little all right? What if he means it as a joke? Should there be a different standard for senators who violate women but vote the right way on women’s issues?

I wish Franken had spared us that conversation, but he decided to take the more familiar path: Apologize exactly as much as you have to and wait for the next scandal to distract everyone. It worked for Bill Clinton. So far, it’s worked for Donald Trump.

Franken had a chance to be a hero. Instead of punting to the Ethics Committee and grimly going back to the Senate, he could have resigned on the day the first charge was made public. (He had to know more would be coming.) He could have set the standard against which others will be judged – the standard that everyone should have been measured by all along.

The comic’s timing was off. He missed what is really different about this historical moment.

These days, when women come forward with allegations against powerful men, most people believe them. That’s not how it’s always been – and that alone is more protection against future harassment than any court could impose. Stories like this should put everyone on notice.

It will be sad to see a diminished Al Franken, but he’ll be a useful reminder of how much has changed. And how fast.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at:

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Twitter: gregkesich

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