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Political Rehabilitation & the End of the Culture Wars

Weiner Redux

by DAVID ROSEN

Former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner is back.  Having given up his House seat following being exposed in a 2011 sexting scandal, Weiner bowed out of politics for the last two years.

On May 22nd, Weiner threw his proverbial hat into the New York City mayoral race, one of a half-dozen Democratic candidates seeking to replace Michael Bloomberg in the upcoming election.  In a well-plotted campaign, he’s back in the game.  He harbors a war chest estimated at $5 million and was required to announce his run or forfeit public matching funds.

In a professionally produced video that launched his campaign, he lays out a profile of his life – his childhood in Brooklyn, his Congressional accomplishments and his “middle class” agenda for the city.  Most telling in terms of the scandal that will likely dog his campaign, Weiner opens and closes the video accompanied with his wife, Huma Abedin, an aide to Hillary Clinton.

Weiner’s reemergence on the political scene comes just a couple of weeks after another political figure who was forced from office following a sex scandal, Mark Sanford.  The former governor of South Carolina won a race for a House seat against Elizabeth Colbert Busch.

These two races — involving a Democrat and a Republican, in a blue and a red state — signal the further erosion of the culture wars.  The Christian right remains absolutist with regard to a woman’s right to an abortion.  But some within the Republican right have given ground with regard to gay rights, immigration, teen sex ed and the morning-after pill.

An increasing number of states have legalized marriage equality and the Senate is advancing a somewhat “bipartisan” immigration bill.  These efforts signal the emergence of a new right-of-center “moderate” faction within the Republican Party.

The new Republican moderates seem to recognize that the 2012 election signed a profound shift in the electoral climate.   They seem to acknowledge that the message of Tea Party activists is getting shriller, more fundamentalists.  More insightful, they see Republicans as a shrinking political force due to demographics and as capitalist recovery takes place.  They wonder how to hold – if not gain – ground in the 2014 Congressional elections.  Can it be a replay of what happened in 2010?

* * *

Americans love a scandal involving the high-and-mighty, whether a politician, celebrity or grandee.  It represents all-American schadenfreude, the satisfaction or pleasure that comes from someone else’s misfortune.  U.S. history is rich with political scandals, many involving sex.  More interesting, time — and changing moral values –has led to the rehabilitation of pols and others brought down by a sex scandal.

This shifting value system is personified by former-President Bill Clinton.  His illicit Oval Office tryst with Monica Lewinsky was the grounds for his Impeachment by a Republican-controlled House of Representatives led by Newt Gingrich.  Clinton’s value position has been significantly enhanced by the subsequent revelations about Gingrich, who, while leading the charge against the sitting president, was involved in an out-of-wedlock affair with Callista Gingrich, his current wife.

Today, Clinton has been fully rehabilitated.  He runs the prestigious Clinton Foundation and his wife, Hillary, who stuck with him through the scandal, served as Secretary of State and has a shot at becoming the next president.  One can only wonder whether Weiner, his wife and political confidants reflected on this possibly parallel scenario.

Other pols have not fared so well.  Gingrich flubbed the 2012 election. Al Gore, a well-meaning if inept politician – whatever happened to the “Information Superhighway”? – was deflated after his divorce.  New York’s former governor, Eliot Spitzer, kept his marriage but has floundered as an entertainment figure, jumping from an online columnist, to talk-show personality, to whatever gives him visibility.

Weiner seems to be taking a more strategic – and carefully plotted – play for political rehabilitation.  He reportedly paid $100,000 to David Binder, who worked as an Obama pollster, to determine his political viability.  Binder framed the question in stark terms: “Are voters willing to give him a second chance or not, regardless of what race or what contest?”  According to a New York Times’ story about the poll, “There was this sense of ‘Yeah, he made a mistake. Let’s give him a second chance. …  They want to know that they’ve put it behind them.”

Weiner has plotted a well-crafted campaign that involved a series of steppingstones, each one leading to his formal declaration as a candidate on May 22nd.  The cornerstone of the pre-announcement campaign was a feature spread in the Sunday, April 10thNew York Times magazine.  The puff piece, written by Jonathan Van Meter, reports that Weiner was truly remorseful about the pain and suffer he caused his wife.  This may well be the case, but offered – in a heartfelt declaration – in an influential, primary public-media source, seemed calculated, a steppingstone in a well-crafted campaign.

One can only wonder what was the strategic significance of our oh-so-contrite pol’s appearance a month earlier on NY-1, a local cable news program.  He declared, “I think I’ll be spending a lot of time, here on out, saying I’m sorry.”

It’s still a long way to the Democratic primary and one can only wonder whether he will release his game plan?

David Rosen writes the “Media Current” column for Filmmaker and regularly contributes to AlterNet, Huffington Post and the Brooklyn Rail.  Check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com; he can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net