THE OBLIGATORY WEINER POST
While the Anthony Weiner scandal raises a number of public policy issues, perhaps the most important one is whether politicians who are caught engaging in tawdry behavior should resign from office. On this issue, I tend to stand with the Republicans. While there are some famous exceptions to this principle (see, e.g., Senator Vitter), Republicans generally tend to favor asking their politicians to go away if they are caught red-handed. But the Democrats are different – their attitude is more like “boys will be boys, and politicians are no different than anyone else.”
Well, they’re right in a sense: like any other employee, politicians have to live up the standards of their job. You can’t be a rabbi, get in front of your congregation, and proclaim Jesus as God. That would work in a church, but not a synagogue. Similarly, if you’re a politician who wants to retain your credibility, you can’t allow your sex life to be a subject of public ridicule. To their credit, the Republicans seem to understand that. It’s one reason they are able to win so many elections despite a platform that only makes sense for the well-heeled.
According to the conventional Democratic wisdom, political sex scandals are much ado about nothing, and they have no bearing on how a politician carries out the nation’s business. Turn on MSNBC in the evening, and you will hear one Democratic pundit after another trivialize the significance of Weiner’s conduct, just as they trivialized the misconduct of Bill Clinton back in the 1990s. To the knee-jerk progressive, people’s sex lives are their own business, not the nation’s, and as long as we don’t assault anyone or have sex with minors, we’re basically permitted not only to engage in deviant behavior but even to lie about it. In other words, the argument goes, since it violates politicians’ privacy to ask them if they have engaged in sexual deviancy, the only sane answer is to deny the allegation (whether it’s true or not) and get back to more important issues like the economy or foreign policy.
This is one instance where the old saw is correct that the Republicans are hard-headed realists and the Democrats utopian dreamers. From a utopian standpoint, the Democratic position is unassailable. Preferably, we’d live in a culture where everyone would ignore everyone else’s sex life. That way, if we have a promiscuous but inspired statesman like JFK, the public could get all the benefits of his leadership without knowing about his salacious private life, and we could count on the members of our media to recognize that certain topics are simply off-limits.
But now back to planet Earth. The days of the media turning a blind eye to the peccadilloes of public figures are long gone. Plus, as Weinergate demonstrates, even if the mainstream media were to play ball (which it won’t), the Internet will ensure that all the news that people care about will be widely disseminated. Believe me, as long as people care about sex (which is pretty much until our species ceases to exist), they will care about the sex lives of their political leaders. If you don’t agree, just turn on the TV and look at the crap that people watch. Sex sells and tawdry sex sells even more. Perverts enjoy it for the obvious reason, and everyone else enjoys it because it makes them feel better about themselves knowing that there are people out there even more pathetic than they are. Right now, there are few people who don’t think that Anthony Weiner is more pathetic than they are. I call that the loss of credibility.
To be sure, there is much that can be said in Weiner’s defense. First, he engaged in no blatant act of hypocrisy when it comes to sex. He is not like those right wing schmucks who publicly talk about “family values” but privately engage in extra-marital sex. Nor is he like Elliot Spitzer, who enforced the same types of anti-prostitution laws that he himself violated. So score one for Weiner on the hypocrisy front. Second, Weiner’s apologists are correct that it is a whole lot less egregious to lie publicly about one’s sex life than about the other topics on which politicians are asked to comment. As discussed above, we all recognize that in the ideal world, our sex lives would be private, and if someone asks a question that is none of their business, are they really entitled to an honest answer? Perhaps so, but it is not a frivolous issue to raise.
So no, the issue here is not about Weiner’s hypocrisy, nor is it about the lies he told to cover up his tawdry behavior. Moreover, the issue is also not about whether he technically broke some ethics law by using government facilities to engage in an inappropriate text or tweet; I’m sure that any such violations of that nature would be nothing in comparison to what Charlie Rangel did, and all Rangel got was a slap on the wrist.
In short, the issue here isn’t “the cover up.” Nor is it “the crime.” The issue is Weiner’s credibility, judgment and character. In other words, can he do his job effectively once he proves himself to be a complete horse’s ass? Because seriously, what kind of public figure responds to strangers who admire him by sending them pictures in order to show off the size of his package? It’s one thing to be the quintessential pervert. It’s one thing to be the quintessential narcissist. But when you respond to your fans by proving yourself to be the quintessential perverted narcissist … it will be pretty difficult to be taken seriously when you talk about the national debt or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I’d just as soon have a rabbi who has accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.
If any of you are Weiner apologists, keep in mind that we are not talking about your average Congressman. He’s not just another back-slapping, and ultimately do-nothing, politician. And this is why progressives like me – and the women to whom he would show off his pectorals or his package – had been so impressed with him as a politician. He seemed to have balls. But it is one thing to show your balls, and it is another to SHOW your balls. And this is especially true when part of your M.O. as a politician has been to grab the limelight every chance you get.
When Weiner made himself one of, if not the single, most prominent progressive spokespeople in Congress, he gave up the right to anonymity. He gave up the right to engage in perverted acts in the public domain. In short, he gave up the right to say “sorry for what I did, but I’m not resigning” if and when he gets caught doing what he gave up the right to do. You see, the problem is that when Weiner did get caught, he acted like a man who was really just sorry that he got caught. Otherwise, why refer to the pictures he sent as a “joke?”
Perhaps what Weiner meant is that his pictures have turned him into a joke. Specifically, they have turned him into a real-life version of Steve Stiffler. If you haven’t seen the American Pie movies, Stifler is one hell of a funny character. He’s the high school boy who acts and speaks like he’s God’s gift to the vagina. It’s impossible to respect the guy, but he does make you laugh precisely because of what a total asshole he is. He is the guy the movie writers chose to get peed on precisely because nobody could possibly have any empathy for this guy. Who can empathize with someone who sends pictures of his package to girls half of his age in order to show off its size?
Sorry. That was Weiner, not Stiffler. But you get the idea.
In any job worth doing, once you lose your credibility, you’ve lost your ability to be effective. So, my fellow progressives, you can talk all you want about how Weiner has not behaved with the moral turpitude of countless other statesmen who have kept their jobs. But I suspect that those guys aren’t being compared to Steve Stiffler. And if someone peed on them in the well of Congress, we would react with horror, and not hilarity.
Sorry, Anthony. I think your 15 minutes are about up. See you in the movies.