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How Anthony Weiner Isn’t Like Bill Clinton

• July 30, 2013 • 6:00 AM

Anthony Weiner showing his support at a New York City gay pride parade in 2009. (PHOTO: THOMAS GOOD/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

On why the Democratic base was (eventually) able to forgive President Clinton for his infidelity, but probably won’t give the New York City mayoral hopeful the same pass.

Recent polls show New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner’s support tanking in the wake of new sexting revelations. Polls that had him at over 50 percent favorability last month now show him at 30 percent, and he has gone from frontrunner to underdog status for the September Democratic primary. These polls were specifically conducted among registered Democrats, meaning that Weiner’s liberal supporters are abandoning him in droves.

A number of journalists have drawn comparisons between Weiner’s scandal and that of President Bill Clinton. See, for example, Ta-Nehisi-Coates’ excellent recent post on the subject and some fascinating comments afterwards.

The nation had heard rumors about Clinton back in the primaries in 1991, but those were largely being pushed by people with either political or financial axes to grind.

There’s an important difference here, though, between the two episodes. Democrats never really abandoned Clinton. While many found his behavior disgusting, they nonetheless continued to approve of his job performance and rallied to his defense during the impeachment. Why were the same liberals who are now abandoning Weiner (and who were also so quick to cast John Edwards aside) so passionate and earnest about defending President Clinton during his impeachment? Is this hypocrisy? Is it that the scandals are fundamentally different? Is it that Clinton was just a far better politician than Weiner and knew how to manage a scandal, even if it was one largely of his own making?

I think it’s fair to draw comparisons between the two scandals, although, if anything, Clinton’s was probably worse, as it involved a) actual physical contact with another person and b) lying under oath to keep it a secret. And sure, we remember and revere Clinton as a highly skilled politician today, but to wag your finger on national televivion and state defiantly that you “did not have sexual relations with that woman” and then completely reverse that statement half a year later does not actually attest to great political acumen. So why will Weiner suffer more politically for his scandal than Clinton suffered for his?

Basically, because Clinton was already president at the time.

Yes, the nation had heard rumors about Clinton back in the primaries in 1991, but those were largely being pushed by people with either political or financial axes to grind, and, probably more importantly, there was no paper trail, virtual or otherwise (except for a non-salacious and possibly doctored tape). Clinton more or less admitted publicly to having strayed on occasion, and he and Hillary said that they’d moved past that and that their marriage was strong. So he got a pass. Democratic activists functionally struck a bargain with Clinton, with them willing to help him get elected on the condition that he’d keep his pants zipped. And this arrangement worked, at least for a while.

His infidelity really didn’t again surface as an issue until 1998, when he had already been president for a term and a half. By that point, Democratic activists and other liberals had a lot invested in Clinton. They’d backed him repeatedly, and he in turn had produced a pretty solid record of accomplishment. The economy was booming, the deficit was turning into a surplus, he’d signed trade agreements and handgun restrictions into law, signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, fought valiantly for health care reform, etc. It was possible at that point to see Clinton’s indiscretions as something that the country just needed to tolerate in exchange for having a competent and productive chief executive. To toss Clinton over the side would have meant disregarding the progress he’d made, and it would have also meant giving into journalists (who were delighting in the sexual details while piously calling on Clinton to resign) and Republicans (who seemed to be elevating presidential fellatio to the level of treason). So even though Clinton had broken his bargain, liberals stuck with him.

Why are liberals tossing Weiner aside? Why not? Unlike Clinton in 1998, Weiner is far from indispensable. There are other competent people running for mayor. He has no political power today, and no particularly impressive record from his days as a member of Congress to draw upon. His main activity then was to antagonize Republicans—certainly a valid goal for some, but hardly the sort of thing you go to the wall to defend. As Coates writes: “It is wholly sensible that those of us who believe the liberal project is about more than embarrassing Republicans would not want Anthony Weiner as a pitchman.”

With Clinton, it could be argued that his dalliances were the price we had to pay for progress. With Weiner, his dalliances are the price we pay for … what exactly?

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

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