Politics

05.22.13

Sex Scandals Stop Mattering, as Anthony Weiner Rises Again

After a sex scandal, a onetime fighter for the middle class learned to love crony capitalism.

Just because you have nothing to lose doesn’t mean you deserve to win.

A shameless Anthony Weiner entered the New York City mayor’s race Tuesday with a web video fueled by naked ambition, released at the very unmayoral hour of 1 a.m. Maybe his email was hacked.

But the carefully choreographed video—beginning with closeups of his young child, and ending with his long-suffering wife, Huma, giving a Nancy Reagan–esque adoring gaze—was anything but a mistake. In between the images intended to inoculate him from the scandal, Weiner made clear he wants to pick up where his nearly successful 2005 insurgent campaign left off, as a “fighter for the outer-borough middle class.”

Video screenshot

Watch our annotated version of Anthony Weiner's campaign ad.

But that posture doesn’t come as naturally now. As the video shows, Weiner no longer lives in Queens but in a tony Park Avenue South apartment, where his landlord is a major Democratic donor. He has declined to show his rent records, but whatever he’s paying for an apartment that would run you or me $13,000 a month or so comes from his lucrative and apparently effortless postscandal consulting career—along with money Huma collected during her last few months as a senior official at the State Department moonlighting as a private consultant. Weiner “didn’t have to do very much or work very hard to drum up business,” he told The New York Times. Success is part of the New York story, but even in Weiner’s own account his financial ascent seems to have been fueled more by crony capitalism than skill or work product.

Still, Weiner’s resurgence raises the larger question of whether sex scandals matter anymore. There’s little doubt that Mark Sanford’s success reclaiming his old House seat in South Carolina after a similar interregnum helped inspired Weiner’s audacious mayoral bid. But the shift goes deeper than Sanford.

While Eliot Spitzer hasn’t (yet) attempted a political rebirth, his ascension to briefly host a primetime show on CNN and then Current TV was swift and would be considered a promotion by most politicians not aiming for the White House. David Vitter’s sins were quickly forgiven by Louisiana voters and as were Edwin Edwards before him. Still, Bill Clinton stands as the granddaddy of them all. After being hounded into impeachment by conservative hypocrites including then–speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Bubba successfully convinced Americans that his outsized talents justified separating his public service from his private failings. He now stands as one of America’s most beloved politicians, with his wife (Huma’s old boss) considered the prohibitive favorite for the White House in 2016.

But it shouldn’t be too much to expect our elected leaders would at least try to hold themselves to a higher standard than a high-school student. And the grim spectacle of Weiner, jaw clenched, sexting strangers pictures of his junk—so self-serious and strange—does not fall into the broad category of everybody-does-it sins of the flesh. 

Anthony Weiner
Weiner poses for a portrait in New York on May 2. (Anthony Behar/Sipa)

Even if you disagree with his liberal politics and haranguing style, Weiner is talented and intelligent, which makes his self-immolation all the more unfortunate. But this self-inflicted scandal is not a tragedy as much as it is a sign of toxic hubris. 

As with Sanford, there is reason to think that Weiner still has a base of support. Politicians now see a sex scandal as something with little lasting impact other than an increased Q Score, a temporary setback that builds valuable name recognition. That dynamic is especially potent in crowded fields in one-party towns, as demonstrated by, among others, Weiner, Sanford, and David Vitter. No matter how alienating a politician’s actions, many people still pull the lever for whoever is on their party’s line.

Politicians now see a sex scandal as something with little lasting impact other than an increased Q Score, a temporary setback that builds valuable name recognition.

Weiner’s impact on the New York Democratic primary is less clear than Sanford’s ability to stand out in the 16-person Republican primary for his old congressional seat. He’s likely to siphon some votes from City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, and in a crowded field, he’s hoping, just 20 percent of a few hundred thousand votes might be enough to make it to a runoff. 

Here’s where hubris might get the last laugh. If Weiner had run for a second-tier citywide office like public advocate or comptroller—or even run for the seat in Congress he resigned from as part of his short spell of public penance—his return to office would have been all but guaranteed. But aiming for the top spot is likely a bridge too far. Weiner can shake up the race, prove to local Democratic politicos that he still has an MSNBC base of support, and perhaps play the spoiler, but he is very unlikely to win. A video is one thing, but facing the press, and voters, he’s likely setting himself up for public humiliation—again.