Commentary Magazine


Will the Middle Class Save Weiner’s Career?

As expected, disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner declared his candidacy for mayor of New York City today. The announcement came in a video that acknowledges his “mistakes” along with a testimonial from his wife Huma Abedin who has chosen to play the loyal spouse who stands by her man. But Weiner isn’t relying on the willingness of New Yorkers to buy a redemption tour a la South Carolina’s Mark Sanford. Instead, he’s posing as the defender of the middle class. The question this raises is not whether Weiner will continue to be a punch line for late-night comedians and pundits. That is a given. It’s whether the man who was assumed to be the frontrunner for the 2013 mayor’s race prior to his 2011 Twitter meltdown can recapture his political mojo. And the jury is out on that one.

Let’s understand a few facts about the Weiner candidacy.

First, the reason for his decision to run is based in part on personal compulsion. He’s never really held an honest job in his life. Without politics, he has nothing. But it’s also because Weiner knows the race was his to lose prior to his career meltdown. There’s no one in the current roster of Democratic candidates who even remotely can be said to represent the views or the interests of the outer boroughs. That’s why Weiner—who had an impressive second place showing by running as the candidate of the middle class in the 2005 Democratic primary—was widely believed to be the frontrunner for 2013 before his career crashed and burned. With a formidable campaign war chest and the knowledge that this could be the last time the mayor’s chair is open for at least eight years, Weiner may have thought it was now or never, and that now gives him the best chance to win.

However, the polling that exists on this race should not engender much optimism in the Weiner camp.

The latest Quinnipiac poll does show him not all that far behind the frontrunner, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. The poll shows Quinn in first with 25 percent and Weiner in second at 15 percent, with 27 percent saying they don’t know and the rest scattered among a crowded field. Theoretically, that means that there is plenty of room for Weiner’s share of support to grow and give him a chance to win.

But the poll also specifically asked New Yorkers whether they thought Weiner should run. Nearly half said no. Only 38 percent thought he ought to be in the race. When you consider that he already has what must be almost 100-percent name recognition, that means about half the voters won’t even consider voting for him. That will make it nearly impossible for him to win a runoff, which is mandatory if no candidate gets 40 percent of the vote.

The bottom line is that Quinn is vulnerable, but the consensus is that while Weiner may qualify for a runoff that seems inevitable in a crowded race, he’s probably fated to lose it to any of his likely opponents.

These dismal poll results force us to ask the inevitable question about whether New York’s voters are prepared to accept Weiner’s plea for a second chance or hold his past behavior against him.

There may be some who think the scandal is not as much of factor as the national press thinks, but I think those who think Weiner can rise above his past don’t understand the city as well as they think. Anyone who thinks we’ve heard the last of his bizarre scandal is dreaming. Weiner has already said that there may be more embarrassing photos out there that he sent to women he didn’t know. That means such photos exist, and that it’s a given that sooner or later the press—especially the tabloids that consider the Weiner candidacy a gift from God—will find them.

Many people around the country may think the less religious nature of the average New York voter—especially in comparison to South Carolina—will mean they are more likely to be forgiving of his personal foibles. That assumption may be wrong. There’s good reason to think cynical New Yorkers will find Weiner’s plea for forgiveness to be baloney and actually be less vulnerable to a faith-based appeal for redemption that worked to some extent for Sanford. Weiner and his wife may want to move on from scandal, but it’s far from clear that New York will let him.

Nor can he count on his wife’s patrons—Bill and Hillary Clinton—to help overcome the public’s queasiness about him since they think his behavior only reminds people of their own problems. 

There will be those who watch Weiner’s campaign video which emphasizes public safety and reducing the burden of regulation on business and see him as a commonsense alternative to the big government visions of a hardcore liberal like Quinn, as well as the nanny state attitude of the departing Michael Bloomberg.

But no one should be deceived into thinking Weiner is morphing into a centrist. He wasn’t just one of the most openly obnoxious liberal partisans during his years in Congress. He was also one of the most liberal members on Capitol Hill. His campaign rhetoric is a cynical hodgepodge of all sorts of ideas geared to blur his former image, but anyone who wants to know what kind of a politician Weiner really is can only think back to the week in the spring of 2011 when he went off the rails. His lies and the desperate attempts to smear his critics (he still owes the late Andrew Breitbart for his slanderous claim that his Twitter photos of his private parts was a fabrication invented by the pundit) make Mark Sanford’s Appalachian Trail routine look good by comparison.

The next few months are going to be a lot more entertaining for journalists with Weiner in the mayor’s race. And given his combativeness and innate political talent, no one should write him off. But what is about to unfold may turn out to teach the country something about New York that most out-of-towners don’t suspect: New Yorkers tend to like straight shooters even if they don’t agree with them about everything and tend to despise liars and phonies no matter how loud they are. Weiner may get the lion’s share of the attention in this election, but the assumption that he will be as successful as Sanford is probably wrong.

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