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06.12.11

Why Anthony Weiner Shouldn't Quit

The congressman's public flogging doesn't fit the crime, and is emblematic of our kick-'em-when-they're-down culture. Peter Beinart on why we need a new rulebook for political sex scandals.

Excuse me for asking, but why exactly should Anthony Weiner  resign? He flirted with women in a crude, dorky and easily traceable way. And he lied about it, which is what married men usually do in such circumstances. Who cares? As far as we know, he violated no law or congressional ethics rule. There's been no allegation of sexual harassment. It's entirely possible that his constituents would reelect him if given the chance. So why is he being hounded from office?

The current line among talking heads is that he must resign because he's hurting the Democratic Party, which no longer can focus public attention on the GOP's efforts to cut Medicare. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy. The main reason the Democrats no longer can focus public attention on the GOP's efforts to cut Medicare, after all, is that talking heads would rather focus on Anthony Weiner's pecs. If pundits are really so upset that Weiner is distracting attention from the nation's budgetary dilemmas, perhaps they should start discussing the nation's budgetary dilemmas and return Weiner's seduction strategies to the obscurity they so richly deserve.

Other critics say Weiner has shown poor judgment in his private life, which casts doubt about the judgment he’ll show in public life. But there’s no necessary connection between the two. Bill Clinton was privately reckless and publicly cautious; with George W. Bush it was the reverse. And if critics are worried about what Weiner’s texting habits portend for his behavior in Congress, why don’t they look at his behavior in Congress? I think he’s been significantly less reckless than those Republicans who continue to try to deregulate every industry they can, even after such efforts nearly wrecked the Gulf of Mexico and the global financial system.

Truth be told, I don’t think the real reason pundits are baying for Weiner’s head has anything to do with his ability to be a good congressman. It’s more primal than that. We live in a kick-them-while-they're-down culture. We love to see the powerful humiliated because it proves that they were no better than us to begin with. Yet we simultaneously imagine that because they're powerful and famous, they don't need the empathy that we'd desire were we in their stead. Instead of being moved by their suffering, we revel in it.

How many of the pundits mocking Weiner have marriages that could survive the kind of scrutiny they have been giving his? The realization that everyone’s private life is messy and flawed should produce humility and compassion. Instead, pundits enter the public arena as disembodied Olympian figures, entitled to render the harshest of verdicts, secure in the knowledge that no one will ever investigate their most intimate of domains.

The realization that everyone’s private life is messy and flawed should produce humility and compassion.

We need a new rulebook. Credible allegations of nonconsensual sex—the kind of thing Dominique Strauss-Kahn is alleged to have done—are absolutely fair game. But when it comes to adultery and virtual adultery between consenting adults, it's way past time that prominent figures in the media loudly declare that it is none of their business, and they won't join the scrum.

Columnists and talk show hosts who obsess over trivialities such as Weinergate should be called out by their peers. And politicians asked about their consensual sex lives by journalists should say that they will answer on condition that the reporters and their editors answer the same questions about theirs. I hope Anthony Weiner figures out his private life; but even more, I hope he survives in public life. Someone needs to stand up to the media mobs that are making American politics both vicious and small. If he has the courage to do so, maybe others will follow.