Today's Weiner story is really about Abedin, and whether (to the relief of friends) she can finally shed a cad who threatened to be a political liability. But since 2011, when he resigned from Congress after news conferences hijacked by Andrew Breitbart and "The Howard Stern Show," Weiner has become an irresistible subject for counterfactuals.
He had raw political talent, the kind that ambitious congressmen hire handlers to get. In 2005, when he was just 40, he made a skillful run for mayor of New York City. Before the fateful tweet, Weiner was building a reputation as a liberal with guts; after the tweet, he was hit with stories that did not even seem fair in retrospect. (The story of his tweets to an "underaged girl" — tweets that were not explicit in any way but sent reporters to a 17-year old's front lawn — definitely qualifies.)
Even in 2011, Weiner's destruction by a sexless sex scandal struck some people as overkill. Vox's Matt Yglesias, then writing for ThinkProgress, suggested that Weiner could have survived had he simply not resigned:
What you need to do to survive infidelity is (a) be an incumbent and (b) don’t quit! David Vitter cheated on his wife with a prostitute. That’s a crime. Bill Clinton cheated on his wife with an intern, and then he lied about it. But they both survived. The key difference between them and Eliot Spitzer is that Spitzer resigned.
In 2013, when Weiner mounted his comeback campaign for mayor, he benefited from the impression that he'd been crucified for less than some politicians easily endure. The documentary "Weiner," which the subject says he has not watched, gets its laughs from the candidate (and his suffering body man) and its pathos from all of the humiliation. TV hosts mocking Weiner start to seem cruel. Voters who won't forgive Weiner seem callous. In one indelibly funny "Weiner" scene, the candidate takes the subway, cranes his neck at people reading headlines about his poll surge, and returns their smiles. The idea: He could have been a contender.
Could he have? There are really two questions here. The first is whether Weiner could have been elected mayor had he not engaged in sexts in the time between his resignation and his 2013 run. That's less likely than "Weiner" (a perfect documentary in every other way) suggests. It's true that Weiner started in the midteens and steadily moved up as he out-campaigned candidates such as Christine Quinn and Bill de Blasio. But New York mayoral elections use a runoff system, and Weiner struggled to break away when voters were asked to choose between him and anyone else. In the July 2013 Quinnipiac poll that marked his highest level of support — right before the second scandal erupted — Weiner was losing to any Democrat he might face in the runoff. His shot at the mayoralty probably did end in 2011.
The second question is whether Weiner had a skill set that New York, or the country, missed out on when he fell. That's harder to answer. But as Josh Barro points out, a reason that Weiner had so few defenders in his own party during the 2011 Twitter scandal was that he had alienated his leadership, showboating on legislation that was not going to pass. Like Spitzer, so hubristic that he told a rival he was a "bulldozer" and treated enemies accordingly, Weiner did not ingratiate himself with his party. Faced with a choice between the colleague they knew and a replacement they didn't, in both cases Democrats went against their colleague.
"Weiner was his party's Ted Cruz," writes Barro. "He made a lot of noise about ideas like single-payer healthcare that turned on his party's ideological base, but he had few actual legislative accomplishments, and he made the hard work of enacting his party's achievable goals more difficult."
In "Weiner," the congressman is portrayed as a self-defeating but generally well-meaning politician who can't be allowed to defeat his past. The media comes off worse than Weiner does, sitting silently when the candidate asks for questions about the policies he's written out and held events to publicize, jumping in when they can ask about his dirty pictures.
As a reporter, I found those to be the most excruciating — and, unfortunately, relatable — scenes in the documentary. But they did not tell the entire story of the election. It was not as if Weiner had a monopoly on ideas or that New York's media did not chase every angle in how the election would change life for New Yorkers.
And it's really not clear what was lost when Weiner sexted his way out of political life. (He's losing his punditry gigs on NY1 and with the New York Daily News thanks to the latest scandal.) Could he have led New York like no one else? His record in Congress doesn't suggest it. You can think that it's insane for a public figure to ruin himself for five years with sex scandals that did not involve having sex, without wishing Weiner ran New York.
The more identifiable tragedy is that so little political venality is punished in the way Weiner's was. There are plenty of whistleblowers who trap public figures in lies; they do not make the cover of the New York Post as reliably as Weiner's catfishers did. I think you can see the legacy of the 2011 and 2013 pile-ons of Weiner in the liberal media coverage of "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver" or Vox — which are designed to explain the news, with the understanding that real news is easily buried under pointlessness and scandal.
Oliver, whose first viral hit came when he played Mystikal's "Danger" to introduce Weiner segments (Weiner used "Carlos Danger" as a nom-de-sext), now packages the "vegetables" of news like no one else. Bernie Sanders, who in any non-Trump year would have been the dominant political phenomenon, got some of his loudest applause when he attacked the press for focusing on frivolity. He didn't invent that critique — way, way far from it — but he revealed how many people agreed with it.