Democrats leave self-promoting Anthony Weiner to defend himself, too

Anthony Weiner. ()
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Anthony Weiner really could have used two specific types of friends last week: the kind who could have vouched for him publicly after the lewd picture that may or may not be his surfaced, and the kind who could provide him with smart, practical guidance for dealing with the resulting media circus.

But when it comes to his life in politics, friends like this are in short supply for Weiner, and it’s really showing now.

Only one Democratic member of the state’s congressional delegation—Louise Slaughter, from Western New York—was willing to issue a loud and unequivocal defense of Weiner.

“I don’t doubt for a moment that it was not him” in the photo, Slaughter said in an interview last Tuesday. Weiner promptly rewarded this loyalty by making his colleague look like a fool, announcing the next day that he couldn’t say “with certitude” that the picture wasn’t actually of him.

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The rest of the state’s Democratic delegation seemed to know better. Most stayed quiet, while others said as little as possible. Gary Ackerman told the New York Post that Weiner’s statement seemed “a little strange,” while Steve Israel said, “I think he should listen carefully to what his lawyers say.” Even Chuck Schumer, who Weiner claims as his political mentor, was careful to say, “I don’t know the details,” while stating that he was “virtually certain” Weiner had done nothing wrong.

This lack of public support is partly the result of all of the unanswered questions surrounding the incident. Even someone who likes Weiner would have to think twice about vouching for him when Weiner has been so hesitant to vouch for himself, and his story about what happened has seemed so odd, and the possibility of new revelations seems so real. It's possible that if Weiner simply apologized for whatever happened he would have made it easier for Democrats to rally to his call for the media to move on from this silliness. But it's too late for that now—he's stuck with a stated version events that created more questions than it answers.

(At the Celebrate Israel parade over the weekend, Governor Andrew Cuomo answered a question about Weiner without the merest pretense that the congressman had explained himself to anyone's satisfaction: "It's going to be up to the congressman how he handles it and then people will have an opinion when they actually have the facts.")

But the lack of support is also a consequence of the me-first style of politics that has defined Weiner’s two-decade career. What offends so many of Weiner’s New York colleagues isn’t really that he’s a camera-chasing self-promoter, even though he is. It’s that he seems utterly uninterested in exerting the same effort behind the scenes to actually achieve anything meaningful. So when he does get attention, which is often these days, it’s usually at the expense of someone else who really did put in the work.

The ultimate example of this probably came last summer, when Weiner hijacked the congressional debate over a healthcare bill for 9/11 first responders, launching a memorable tirade on the House floor against Republican obstruction. It was a classic Weiner move: The rant was played over and over on cable news, certified him as a hero to liberal activists across the country, and only increased his desirability to television producers.

But there were two problems. The first is that it didn’t actually cause Republicans to reconsider and pass the bill; it wasn’t until months later that a watered-down version of the legislation passed during the lame duck congressional session. The second is that Weiner had, essentially, done no work on the bill. By most accounts, his New York colleagues Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler were the real workhorses, the ones who had invested significant time and energy crafting the bill, talking up their colleagues, and struggling to find a way to move it through the House. But you would have never known that by watching cable news, where Anthony Weiner was the undisputed star of the drama.

When it comes to Weiner’s style, the 9/11 bill is the rule, not the exception. He’s a natural showman, with a thirst for the spotlight. (Before turning to politics, he had dreamed of being a television weatherman.) His New York colleagues seem to be on to him, and so do his party’s leaders in Congress, who have watched him become a cable news sensation by, in effect, calling them sellouts.

They, too, have never seen Weiner as a team player who’s willing to work constructively behind the scenes. For his first decade or so in Congress, he was a virtual nonentity, someone who just wanted an important-sounding title so he could run for mayor. It was only when his plans for a second mayoral bid in 2009 were derailed that Weiner began to make noise in Washington, and all of it either on television or in made-for-television House floor theatrics. His shtick is simple: He’s from the “fighting wing” of his party and can’t figure out why his fellow Democrats won’t forcefully confront Republicans on issue X. What irks House leaders is not the ideological purity of this message, but the cynicism.

Maybe this is why Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, would only say that “he’s handling it, I hope” when he was asked about Weiner’s Twitter mess last week. And maybe it's why Nancy Pelosi has had absolutely nothing to say.

It's been obvious that Weiner wasn’t getting any help behind the scenes, either. There was no apparent strategy to his response last week. When the controversy first erupted on Twitter over Memorial Day weekend, he claimed that his online accounts had been hacked. Then, when he returned to Washington a few days later, he held an awkward press conference in which he refused to say whether he’d sent the “crotch shot” from his Twitter account to a college student in Washington state.

His performance was so disjointed and uncharacteristically defensive that many who had previously been ignoring the story suddenly wondered if Weiner was hiding something. After absorbing harsh reviews, he then changed course again, giving a series of interviews in which he insisted he hadn’t sent the picture but wouldn’t say whether it was an image of him. He succeeded, at least, in making the experience as undignified and unflattering for his interviewers as it was for him. But it still seemed like he wasn’t being fully candid. Then he cancelled a speech in Wisconsin and spent the weekend in a bubble, out of view.

What we're seeing now is the downside of operating as a one-man band. It’s not just that Weiner isn’t popular among his colleagues in Washington and in the New York political world. It’s also that he’s unimportant to them. He has no role in setting the party’s congressional agenda and no power base on Capitol Hill. It’s the same in New York, where he doesn’t control a political organization, and lacks either a team of well-paced allies and proteges or the ability to call in chits from well-connected movers and shakers. There is no incentive for anyone in politics to go to bat for Weiner, because virtually none of them depend on him for anything.

There will be no great rallying of the party in defense of Anthony Weiner—the Clinton impeachent, this isn't. If Weiner is going to get out of this mess, he'll have to do so on his own.