Rep. Anthony Weiner's political career is seemingly over following his resignation. What began three weeks ago as an Internet curiosity grew into a cause celebre among right-wing Internet pundits, and quickly snowballed into a tabloid media obsession. Was there any way that the shamed Democratic New York congressman could have survived the scandal? And, if not, what is survivable today?
Weiner's scandal was perhaps the first where the conduct and reaction was mostly online, making it difficult to compare with past scandals. But the basic elements—a sex scandal with lying and a coordinated coverup—are common ingredients of political scandals going back decades. Past politicos have survived much worse. In the example most often cited by Democrats, Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana admitted frequenting prostitutes as part of the 2007 "D.C. Madam" scandal. Not only did Vitter continue to serve, but he was overwhelmingly re-elected in 2010. But when New York Republican Rep. Chris Lee was also caught sending lewd photos of himself online, he resigned quickly under GOP leadership pressure. Democrats also had little patience for Weiner, calling for his ouster once the scandal got out of control.
Media exposure is one of the biggest reasons why scandals like this don't die down, according to some political observers. In the past, philandering politicos could hope that their activities wouldn't gather much notice. "It's just so much harder to avoid being seen, doing whatever it is you're doing," says Chris Deering, a political science professor at George Washington University. Scandals which previously relied on written descriptions in printed media now can thrive through salacious photos in the tabloid-oriented Internet. "I suppose he would have survived it in the pre-Internet days, but that's not where he's living," says Bill Harlow, an ex-CIA spokesman and public relations consultant. "You had the fact that there were pictures, and the misfortune of his name being what it is, adding to the headline-writers glee." [Check out the month's best political cartoons.]
But ultimately, lying to his constituents and his colleagues was the mistake which lead to Weiner's downfall, Harlow says. After having duped his fellow Democrats into defending him, they weren't likely to cut him much slack once the truth came out. "He poured gasoline on the flames," Harlow says. "Once he went down that slope, I think it was definitely a self-inflicted wound." Weiner, who was moving up in the House ranks despite a reputation as a light-weight legislator, lost whatever goodwill he had with his Democratic colleagues, especially as the scandal flattened their political momentum following a special election victory. It made Weiner's survival chances much lower than, say, President Bill Clinton, who Democrats strongly defended as the figurehead of his party when he became ensnared in a sex scandal during his second term.
Deering also noted the social changes of the past decades, including more women in Congress, as another reason why scandals are harder for politicians to survive. "A larger range of behavior became more and more in the public sphere," Deering says. "What used to be OK in the old-boys network isn't OK anymore. I don't think that's particularly a bad thing. Clearly, the level of tolerance has shifted."
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