Look, if a politician admits to, or is convicted of, a serious crime, or if his or her actions run completely contrary to the beliefs that they profess to have guided their voting, then there is good reason to demand their resignation. But a sex scandal that involved no illegal activity—that is not a firing offense. A politician may resign out of embarrassment, as Representative Anthony Weiner did, but that doesn’t justify other politicians from his own party, including the president himself, calling for his resignation.
There have always been sex scandals in politics—from John Adams (who was accused of using his vice president to solicit prostitutes) to Bill Clinton. But voters have rarely ousted a politician because of one. Clinton won the primary and the presidency in the wake of the Gennifer Flowers scandal in 1992. That’s because most voters grant politicians (or movie stars) a certain private license. I remember interviewing voters in West Virginia in 2004 who planned to vote for George W. Bush because of their opposition to gay marriage and abortion. When I asked them about Clinton, they admitted voting for him, and were glad they had. “He was a rascal, but a good president” is the way one voter put it.
The opposition often tries to get voters to reject their rivals for their personal transgressions. The Republicans carried this to a ludicrous extreme when they tried to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998—ostensibly for perjury, but really on the basis of a semi-pornographic report issued by Special Prosecutor Ken Starr. But in the case of Clinton or Republican Senator David Vitter, who admitted to using an escort service, the accused’s political party didn’t play along. That is, until House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, newly minted Democratic Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz*, and Barack Obama succumbed to a campaign against Weiner started by right-winger Andrew Breitbart, accompanied by Republican calls for Weiner to resign.
Weiner’s constituents seem to have stood by him—and if they didn’t, they certainly could vote him out. But the lack of visible protest from Weiner’s district did not impress Pelosi, who claimed Weiner was a “distraction.” From what? Pelosi herself no longer has any power. And the Democrats under Obama have decided to conduct their most critical politics in private, through secret negotiations with the opposition. Wasserman Schultz showed herself to be an unproven choice for a position that was once reserved for “fixers” like Bob Strauss and Ron Brown. Asked by Politico’s Mike Allen why the same standards that led her to demand Weiner’s resignation wouldn’t have justified her asking Clinton, who lied to a grand jury, to resign, she waxed incoherent:
I think that particularly because there was an effort to not tell the truth, I think that because he has engaged in some what I think is some very inappropriate conduct that has distracted his ability to do his job and distracted from almost all of our ability to do our jobs and make sure that we can effectively serve our constituents. I think that the best conclusion is that he should focus on addressing his problems and resign from the House.
Obama also opined that Weiner should resign because he can’t serve the public effectively—that was the same day he presided over a fundraiser in a half-empty Miami auditorium, while Republicans were successfully blackmailing the Democrats and the country over their vote for the debt ceiling. Obama is worried about Weiner being able to serve “when people are worrying about jobs, and their mortgages, and paying the bills,” but he has not raised a finger to defend Elizabeth Warren, his presumed appointee to head the still-born Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Obama’s statement was yet another example of what the late Spiro Agnew called “pusillanimous pussyfooting.” Weiner’s resignation means little, except to him and his family, but the willingness of leading Democrats to cave in the face of the campaign against him will embolden the Breitbarts and Eric Cantors of the world to up the ante.
John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
*This article originally stated the new DNC Chair’s name as Debbie Schultz Wasserman. Instead, the congresswoman’s name is Debbie Wasserman Schultz.