When a popular Democratic politician leaves office under the cloud of scandal and disgrace, the foremost question on his mind is when–not if–the media will begin reconstructing his career for him. There was the lionized Bill Clinton, who was impeached. Then there was former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, whose rehabilitation included a CNN show and a regular spot in Slate, where he proved to be an utterly conventional polemicist and shallow political thinker.
And now we have the effort by the New York Times to resuscitate Anthony Weiner, whose congressional career was marked by erratic public temper tantrums and an inability to control himself or the volume of his voice. He left Congress after being caught in a sex scandal involving a college girl, and then falsely accused conservatives like Andrew Breitbart of making the story up. At every step in the scandal Weiner chose the least honorable path. Before the scandal ended his congressional term, Weiner was considered by some to be a favorite for the next New York City mayoral election. Now, two years after the scandal, he says he still wants to be mayor, and may in fact run for the Democratic nomination this year for the fall general election. Could he actually win?
The forces working against Weiner are well known. He is a charmless boor, a bully and an egomaniac and a tactless geyser of spite and malice. But there are also forces working in his favor that seem to give him a chance.
As the Times article notes, Weiner has a campaign war chest of $4.3 million plus the $1.5 million in public matching funds he would get if he runs. But even more beneficial to Weiner’s chances is the weak field currently in the race, especially on the Democratic side. The presumptive favorite is City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. But current Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been sending the clear message that he would prefer someone with more stature and perhaps a national profile, and has been undermining Quinn from the very beginning.
A bigger weakness for Quinn is geographical: Quinn represents the Manhattan neighborhoods of Chelsea, SoHo, and Greenwich Village. In the world of New York City identity politics, she might as well represent Guam. Ever since Weiner left the stage, there has been chatter about an opening for a candidate “from the boroughs”–New York-speak for an ethnic outer-borough candidate who can appeal to minorities. Weiner was presumed to be that candidate, being a Jewish congressman representing a district in Brooklyn and Queens. (Weiner’s old seat was won in a special election by a Republican after the intervention of Ed Koch on his behalf.)
A look back at the last half-century or so of New York mayors tells you that Quinn would be an outlier. Bloomberg came from the business world. He was preceded by the Brooklyn-born Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani was preceded by David Dinkins, a Manhattanite but one with deep ties to the city’s black community. Before Dinkins came the late Ed Koch, who was born in the Bronx and served four terms in Congress representing the Westchester suburbs. Koch was preceded by Abe Beame, a product of the Brooklyn political machine. Before Beame was the liberal Republican John Lindsay, the first truly post-Tammany city mayor who won a three-way race that included William F. Buckley.
It’s conceivable that even a badly flawed candidate from the boroughs could give Quinn a run for her money. But aside from whether he would win, a run for mayor would be a logical move. On this, Weiner benefits from what would seem to be a weakness: he doesn’t really know how to do anything else. From his perspective, he isn’t exactly flush with career options, so taking a shot at public redemption has quite the upside.
Additionally, as the article notes, if Weiner runs and loses, he could always run again having already used this election to repent his sins and excise the stench of scandal. Of course, there is always the possibility that an unlikable, obnoxious politician with a history of dishonesty and self-destruction like Weiner would just get right back in his own way, further embarrassing his family and cementing his reputation as a toxic has-been.
If Weiner decides the rewards far outweigh the risks of running, Quinn shouldn’t get too confident: often the most dangerous opponent is the one who thinks he has nothing to lose.