It was like nothing anyone had ever seen before. A politician, having already resigned from Congress in a scandal over sending lewd pictures of himself over social media, was having a press conference, in the midst of a run for New York City mayor, to acknowledge having sent more lewd pictures of himself over other social-media platforms–after he resigned in disgrace. The news organization that broke the story was called The Dirty. The nom de sext the politician used: Carlos Danger. (Spanish speakers: would that surname be pronounced “don-HAIR”?)
It was like something we’d seen a million times before. A politician was caught in an adulterous sex scandal. His wife, excruciatingly, was standing by his side and spoke nervously to the press to say that her husband’s “mistakes” were a private matter between them. Husband and wife together asked the press and public to give them some space and move on.
The difference between those two ways of seeing this latest media frenzy could be the difference between whether or not Anthony Weiner’s campaign and career stay alive. Is it a new transgression, proof that Weiner was a sexting recidivist whose promises of redemption were baloney? Or was it more of the same old scandal, one more shoe dropping when we already knew he had a closetful? Was the fact that the latest online fling happened just a year ago—after his downfall, after the birth of his new baby, after he told the media he was getting his act together—a key timeline point, as the media coverage held? Or was it just another, later example of past failings he’d already admitted to, as Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin argued?
I don’t know, and any pundit who tells you they do is deluded or, at best, guessing. From where I was sitting, yesterday’s press conference was excruciating: Weiner trying to sound as forthright as possible while avoiding having words like “nude” or “sext” or “Carlos” come out of his mouth; Abedin uncomfortably asking a city to look past the failings of man who put her in the position of talking about his crotch-shot-sending history in public.
But I also remember the last time Weiner’s career was absolutely, without a doubt over, except it wasn’t. How many pundits predicted, in summer 2011, that Weiner would not only run again for mayor in 2013 but be close or ahead in the polls? Voters are unpredictable about political men’s scandals. Sometimes they punish, then forgive, as with Mark Sanford in South Carolina. Sometimes the scandals don’t matter until suddenly, all at once, they do, as with Herman Cain. (I should note, by the way–as often news coverage doesn’t–that not all sex scandals are the same: a consensual affair is a different thing from sexual harassment, e.g.)
A decent-sized subset of New York voters, so far, have failed to give a crap about Weiner’s past, hugely publicized, humiliating failings. At minimum, that should be a sign not to assume they’ll care this time, until proven otherwise.
Maybe one reason scandals like this play out unpredictably now is that we have social and technological currents pushing in opposite directions. On the one hand, voters are increasingly willing to look past private scandals, especially in polarized elections; it’s a long way since the day when monkeying around on a boat was guaranteed to sink a candidate like Gary Hart. Many Americans, at least, are willing to separate private life from public acts.
On the other hand, it’s more and more possible for dirt to leak out, in more and more explicit and embarrassing ways. Photographers used to have to catch politicians in the act; now a guy like Weiner can shoot the selfies for them. Even if voters and the mainstream press want to decide that a candidate’s personal cheating is none of our business, there are too many ways for it to pop up–ahem, as it were–until it becomes our business whether we like it or not.
So you have a public that is often willing to be laissez-faire and practical-minded about scandals: Who cares if the guy’s a louse? I just need him to get the job done! At some point, though, that can turn on the same candidate: if voters decide that the scandals itself are bad and endless enough that they’ll keep him from doing his job, they can be just as practical-minded about cutting him loose. It becomes a meta-calculation: I don’t care about your personal life, but if I get the idea enough other people care to make you ineffective, sorry–it’s just politics.
Which is why the old-news-vs.-new-news definition is so vital for Weiner right now. Is he the same old sleazeball or a brand-new kind? Has he fallen victim to arrogance and narcissism, or is the media reveling in another sleazy-but-irrelevant circus? In that sense, it’s possible that the inevitable overplaying of this story could be the best thing Weiner has going for him. (Or the best thing besides Huma.)
Don’t get me wrong: when your biggest photo op of the day involves flesh-colored pixellation, you have not had a good day. But Anthony Weiner’s best hope right now may be for his voters to decide that the press has made itself even more ridiculous than he has.
Disclosure: As I’ve discussed at length before, I believe in journalists’ being open about their voting choices when writing about politics, and I’m a registered New York City Democrat, so here you go. I’m not planning to vote for Weiner in the primary–at this point, I’d probably vote for Christine Quinn–but for reasons unrelated to the adventures of Carlos Danger.