Anthony Weiner’s prospects for political survival have dimmed precipitously in the past few hours with at least six House Democrats calling for him to step down.
Rep. Allyson Schwartz, who holds a senior leadership position on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was the first to say he should quit, although the New York congressman’s prospects looked grim when the Democrat leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, earlier in the week said he couldn’t defend him. Harry has defended seem pretty indefensible things in his time, so his blank counsel to Weiner to phone someone else, if he were considering searching for advice, suggested that the salacious tweeter’s days could well be numbered.
So it hasn’t taken long for House Democrats to decide that they have more to gain politically by calling for Weiner to go rather than refraining in order to see what happens or hoping he would choose to quit without being told to go.
Certainly, there’s little evidence that the media hue-and-cry is going to die down. And why should it? It is great for ratings and allows commentators to offer the well-tried and normally successful mixture of voyeurism and condemnation — a combination that encourages a double quiver of pleasure: we can be entertained by the story while at the same secure pleasure from a self-righteous frown and tut. The UK tabloids the Sun and Daily Mail are brilliant at serving up such fare for their devoted readers.
But in the broad scheme of things should an elected representative quit over such petty stuff? Okay, he lied publicly with his claim that his Twitter account had been hacked. But he didn’t lie under oath during a legal proceeding – Bill Clinton’s great error. Yes, his credibility has been shattered by those bald-faced lies. But credibility can be restored through dint of hard work. Now it is all out in the open he’s not at risk of being blackmailed. Okay, his judgment is questionable, both for sexting in the first place and how he handled the fallout. But none of that means he can’t be an effective representative for his constituents – and learn from past mistakes.
And surely it is up to local Democrats and his constituents to decide at the next primary and election whether they want him to stay or go, whether they can forgive him or not. That’s what elections are for: that’s where accountability happens.
Those arguing for Weiner’s departure point to the speedy resignation in February of fellow New Yorker, Rep. Chris Lee. He was found to have been soliciting at least one transsexual on Craigslist and sending her a shirtless photo of himself. But Lee is one thing and Weiner another. Lee was all family values in his rhetoric and a tub-thumping social conservative. Weiner doesn’t stand charged with sexual hypocrisy. Even so, I see no reason why Lee had to go – that was his personal choice.
Let’s be clear. The pundits are acting as though Weiner is another DSK. He isn’t. And neither am I suggesting that we should follow the pre-DSK French model whereby the political elite is given a pass on bad, poor or over-the-top behavior. That model encouraged a widespread sense of droit de seigneur, undermining the droits des femmes. But there is a world of difference between the allegations leveled against Dominique Strauss-Kahn and what Anthony Weiner was up to — and to treat them as though they were equally egregious lacks proportion. Weiner was engaging in reckless flirtation — the modern, online style — while DSK is alleged to have been attempting to rape. The New Yorker is married but the state of his marriage is a private matter.
The voters of New York’s 9th district will have a chance to hold their congressman to account. (And no doubt his wife will hold him to account, too.) Moralists can content themselves with the fact that his high-flying political career will now be flying at lower altitudes, even if he does survive. And he can forget his chances of becoming Mayor of New York. That’s his punishment.