The general consensus on Anthony Weiner’s scandals, both back in 2011 when he resigned from Congress and now this week as he runs for mayor of New York, is that he acted immorally. He betrayed his wife by engaging in online relationships, and betrayed the public trust by disgracing his office. But while his resignation from Congress was probably inevitable, merely breaking the sixth commandment has never been much of an impediment to reelection. A recent study found that about half of all scandal-plagued members of Congress win their next election. But this new set of revelations probably dooms Weiner for good. It’s not just because of the timing, or because he sexted more (amazingly!) after his resignation. It’s because the details make him look like a sad little man.
Attractiveness plays a major role in the success of elected officials, but we don’t talk about it very much. That’s because the attractiveness of politicians isn’t really physical attractiveness. It’s more of a Kissinger kind of attractiveness: some combination of charisma, power, station, and personality. A bunch of diehard liberals I know attended a Rick Santorum speech and were entirely seduced by him — even though they vehemently disagreed with him on nearly every issue. To get elected, politicians have to cultivate an image of utter confidence and ease, to walk into a room and instantly become the center of attention, admired and desirable. That’s attractiveness, even if it’s not mere physical beauty.
And that’s where the details of Weiner’s scandals really damn him. Sure, we don’t like that he cheated on his wife. But we really don’t like that he cheated on his wife in such a gross way. Arguably, it wouldn’t have made much difference if he was married. To see anyone acting like Weiner did is a massive turn-off to voters. No one likes dick pics, much less admires them, and grown adults who can’t use Twitter right deserve particular shame. We want our elected officials to seem strong, and everything Weiner did was so embarrassing that he looks weak. He not only flirted with people on Twitter, he then voluntarily sent those people unattractive half-naked pictures of himself under an indescribably ridiculous Facebook alias. If the dude has lost our respect, how can he get anything done in government?
If you don’t think the details of Weiner’s scandal (or Spitzer leaving his socks on) are really the issue, look at former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford. He didn’t send dick pics, but had a respectable mid-life crisis affair. The circumstances surrounding his scandal (“hiking the Appalachian trail”) were embarrassing, but once the details came out, he looked pretty good. His love e-mails were actually kinda romantic, and contained no truly cringe-worthy moments. And consequently, he won a House seat earlier this year. If Weiner had been more conscious of the inevitability of all this getting out and acted accordingly, maybe he’d be looking at a comeback too. But in politics, if you act like a loser, you tend to lose.