Anthony Weiner Isn't Mark Sanford. He's Much Weirder.
Earlier today Bloomberg View columnists Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru met online to chat about the upcoming election in New York City and the comeback of Anthony Weiner, whose political career seemed dead in the wake of his "sexting" scandal two years ago.
Margaret: I woke to good news for journalists: Former Representative (I omitted the "disgraced" which almost always appears before "former") Anthony Weiner is running for mayor of New York. Was Weiner encouraged by Mark Sanford's win in South Carolina? I think there are differences, other than geography, of course. New York isn't nearly as liberal as South Carolina's First District is conservative. Those voters weren't prone to elect Stephen Colbert's sister, who acted as if her brother's show was all the campaigning she needed. And in the South, there is more forgiveness in general. Most country songs are about sinning and confession and redemption.
Ramesh: There's another difference too: Sanford actually had an affair, while Weiner didn't (as far as we know). One might think that would be a mitigating factor, but I think it makes the political impact of Weiner's scandal worse. It was less understandable than an affair; it was weirder. Sanford's conduct was sleazy and dishonest, of course. What strikes me as distinctive about Weiner's behavior, though, was just how immature it was: all that posing in front of a mirror. He was apparently also renowned on Capitol Hill for yelling at aides, kicking chairs and generally acting like a spoiled brat. I think that impression is going to be harder for Weiner to overcome than a reputation as a cheater.
Margaret: Kicking chairs and screaming at the little people are unforgivable. But if people voted on that alone, we'd have fewer incumbents being re-elected. They do become kings of their domain and lords over their serfs. I feel you've come closer to my position on Sanford in that he had the misfortune to fall in love while married to someone else. It's awful but it happens. In the annals of political scandals, other than wide-stance Senator Larry Craig in the bathroom at the airport, there's little to compare with Weiner's weird compulsion of texting pictures of himself to strangers. It may be a first to us, Ramesh, but I can see a generational gap here, where the 18 to 30-year-olds, who routinely humiliate themselves on Facebook and by texting while drunk, will give him the same pass that the Mad Men generation gives to Sanford.
Ramesh: I guess I could live with people giving politicians a pass for texting stupidly when they're young -- but at some point, I would hope they would want their elected officials to grow up. That's the problem I see with Weiner: I'm not at all sure he has. People made all sorts of jokes about Sanford, of course, but his story didn't render him pathetic -- Weiner's does. Again, I think it will be harder to come back from. On the other hand, you take a look at his competition for the mayoralty, and suddenly he seems better.
Margaret: The competition, yes. You can't beat somebody with nobody, not that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is that, but she isn't walking away with the election, either. While Weiner is all too human, Quinn's been at pains to humanize herself (although she's said to share Weiner's ranting at staff problem). A recent story in the New York Times, written after the reporter was allowed access by Quinn, talked about Quinn's overdrinking and overeating and bulimia, which I call oversharing. She also let the Times and a photographer into her Chelsea apartment where we learned she keeps "two rubber duckies" in the tub. There are two more points about Weiner: He has his wife, Huma Abedin, standing by her man. As a longtime aide to Hillary Clinton (a surrogate daughter, she's called) she trained at the knee of the master of scandal-management. What he doesn't have is a pliant New York Times (the coming-back profile of the Weiners in the Sunday Times magazine was a net negative). What he does have is tabloids that will feast on him till election day and beyond. The New York Post has already won the early sweepstakes with "Weiner's Second Coming! Erect me Mr. Mayor."
Ramesh: If Weiner wasn't in the race, Quinn's personality would be getting much more attention. Talking about her alcoholism and bulimia was said to be a way of humanizing her, which is one more thing that makes me despair for the republic. I think Quinn is still the front-runner, but not a very strong one, which means there will probably be a runoff after the primary. And there's one more Weiner vulnerability we haven't discussed: He has said that he can't rule out that there are more pictures of him in circulation. Think the Post could make something out of that?
Margaret: Yes, a near certainty, then. If he can't rule out that there are more pictures, there are more pictures.
(Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru are Bloomberg View columnists.)