U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner’s admission that he had inappropriate online exchanges with several women adds his name to a list of politicians who endured embarrassment to stay in office or saw their careers ruined over sexual scandals.
The outcome largely depends on a politician’s record and the “shock value” of the act, said Andrew Kohut, president of the Washington-based Pew Research Center.
“If the politician has been successful and has earned a lot of credit with the public for his performance, then the public will say ‘That’s his personal problem, and we still find him acceptable,’” Kohut said.
For Weiner, a popular Democratic seven-term congressman from Brooklyn with aspirations of being mayor of New York City, the outcome may be mixed.
“He’s cooked, done, finished” in any quest to be mayor, said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Hamden, Connecticut. “In his district, I’m inclined to think he can hang on.”
Weiner, 46, who has been married for almost a year and said he doesn’t plan to resign his House seat, tearfully apologized at a June 6 news conference in New York for sending the photos and messages. Yet he also said the admission shouldn’t reflect on his performance in office. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, has called for an ethics committee investigation.
“Did he look like a dope, like a silly adolescent? Yeah, but is that enough to kick him out of Congress? I don’t think so,” Carroll said.
Similar opinions were found in a telephone poll conducted within hours of Weiner’s news conference, of 500 New York adults, 379 of whom were registered voters. The NY1-Marist poll, sponsored by the New York news channel NY1 and the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, New York, found that 56 percent of those surveyed don’t want Weiner to run for mayor, while 51 percent believe that he shouldn’t resign from Congress. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Representative Allyson Schwartz, the Pennsylvania Democrat in charge of recruiting candidates to run for the House in 2012, today became the first Democrat in Congress to call on Weiner to resign.
“Having the respect of your constituents is fundamental for a member of Congress,” she said in a statement. “In light of Anthony Weiner’s offensive behavior online, he should resign.”
Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine called on Weiner yesterday to give up his House seat.
“Lying publicly about something like this is unforgivable, and he should resign,” Kaine, who is running for the U.S. Senate in Virginia, told a Charlottesville television station.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to defend Weiner’s behavior, telling reporters yesterday that his advice to the congressman, if he called, would be “call someone else.”
“I wish there was some way I can defend him, but I can’t,” said Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus attacked Democratic leaders for not pushing Weiner harder to resign.
‘He Should Go’
“Do we really need an ethics committee investigation to determine if this guy’s a creep or not?” Priebus said today at a Bloomberg Breakfast. “I think he should go.”
Weiner first won election to his House seat in 1998. Since then, Carroll said, he has worked the district “door to door” -- and won re-election to a seventh term last November with 61 percent of the vote.
Over the last five years, sex scandals led to the resignation of four members of the House of Representatives and ruined the careers of a former vice presidential nominee and presidential candidate, two governors of New York, a governor of South Carolina and two U.S. senators.
The most obvious survivor of sexual dalliances is former President Bill Clinton, whose affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky was fodder for comedians long after he left office.
Polls showed that while many thought Clinton’s acts were “sleazy,” they still considered him a good president who was smart and charming, Carroll said. “Even if you go into a room hating him, you come out 20 minutes later and you are ready to make him the pope.”
Whether politicians can survive politically depends on who they are and where they come from, said Carroll. In a large media market like New York City, he said, coverage of the Weiner story could fade in a few days.
The situation was different for another former House member, Christopher Lee, a Republican from Upstate New York, who resigned his seat in February after the website Gawker reported that the married lawmaker had e-mailed a shirtless picture of himself to a woman he met through the website Craigslist.
Sustained public interest in a story doesn’t bode well for politicians, as was the case with then-South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, said Kohut.
In June 2009 Sanford, a Republican, confessed to an extramarital affair and to visiting his lover in Argentina without informing his staff or his security team of his whereabouts. He remained in office until his term ended in January of this year, though he was censured by the state legislature and those final months took on a sideshow quality.
“The longer the saga goes on, the greater the fallout,” said Kohut.
It also doesn’t help if politicians have portrayed themselves as moralists and then get caught up in a scandal, he said.
In March 2008, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, resigned after his dealings with prostitutes were exposed. In his previous career as New York’s attorney general, he crusaded against illicit activities.
House Republican leaders suffered some political damage before the 2006 elections amid suggestions that they didn’t react aggressively enough after learning that then-Representative Mark Foley, a Florida Republican, sent inappropriate e-mails to a teenage congressional page. Foley resigned over the incident.
An exception is Senator David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican who was identified in 2007 as being a client of an escort service. He was re-elected last November with 57 percent of the vote.
“There have been so many in recent times that some of them have lost their shock value,” Kohut said.