Is Anthony Weiner past the punchline phase yet?

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Anthony Weiner. ()
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A conversation with "Up" host and Salon writer Steve Kornacki about the pre-candidacy of Anthony Weiner.

Josh: How seriously do you take Anthony Weiner as a mayoral contender?

Steve: I think I take him slightly more seriously than most, at least if my Twitter stream is a gauge, but only slightly. Which is to say, he's got a certain amount of built-in support and the field isn't that imposing—there's room for a new theoretical candidate. Plus, he has some money and a personality that will get him noticed (in good and bad ways). So the idea of him competing in a jumbled field for a runoff slot doesn't seem implausible.

But I have a hard time imagining he'd win that runoff, given all of the baggage. I'm also tempted to just dismiss him as an updated version of the second incarnation of Gary Hart in 1988, when he re-entered the race after his sex scandal.

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Hart was immediately competitive in national and early state polling, although his numbers weren't anything like where they'd been pre-scandal. And his negatives were so high that opinion-shapers/donors in the party stayed away from him and he was basically isolated; he was powerless to stop what became a quick and steady evaporation of his poll numbers. But again, Weiner's got more money and more personality than Hart, so maybe he'd be more durable.

Josh: Weiner would probably feel pretty good about that comparison—he certainly sees himself, as Hart did, as the victim of a deeply stupid scandal seized upon by a superficial political press corps. How do you think Hart would feel about it?

Steve: Well, since he hates being reminded of the scandal, probably not too well! Which gets to a key difference between Weiner and Hart: Weiner has a giant personality. He's a showman. Hart was a deep policy person, an intellectual who believed that logic and strength of arguments should and does correlate with political success. The reality, I'd argue, is that he caught fire for a different reason in 1984—it was the idea of "New Ideas," packaged around a relatively youthful Westerner, that appealed to his voters much more than the specific ideas themselves. I don't know that Hart ever got that. (Maybe he did; I've just never gotten the sense that that's the case.) So Hart was much more substantive, even measured against other presidential candidates, than Weiner ever was.

But I could see the case for Weiner being much more viable, politically, than post-reentry Hart. He can draw attention to himself, he's quick, he's funny, he can stand out on stage with his opponents, especially these opponents. I could see him cutting memorable Wellstone '90/Feingold '92-ish ads. Of course he could also stick his foot in his mouth in a destructive way. But I at least see the potential of his personality winning back some of the doubters, which Hart never had a chance to do in '88. Plus, obviously, standards are different in 2013 than they were back then, especially when it comes to a Democratic primary in New York City.

Josh: Funny, I'm not even sure the special liberalism connoted by "Democratic primary in New York City" is even a necessary ingredient in this sort of comeback anymore. I mean if you're Anthony Weiner aren't you looking at Mark Sanford right now and figuring that the question of whether it's possible to taken seriously after a virally sordid personal scandal has been settled?

Steve: Although Sanford looks like he's on the verge of losing—in a district that an R should never lose (and where the Democrat, Colbert-Busch, will instantly become her party's most endangered '14 incumbent should she win). My sense, though, is that Sanford would be much better positioned now if the trespassing stuff with his ex-wife hadn't come out a few weeks ago.

So in that sense, Weiner is in better shape—Huma's not going to try to sabotage him, as far as I can tell. I think the example that maybe Weiner kicks himself looking at is David Vitter, who took the heat but didn't quit. I suspect Weiner wishes he'd stayed in office instead of folding in '11. There'd still be issues for him, but he wouldn't need to justify claiming a space on the public stage.

Josh: OK, so let's assume this reintroduction tour for Weiner isn't going as awkwardly as it looks, and that it was inevitable that it would take him a while—until, say, he actually enters the race and starts debating the other candidates directly—to get past the questions about his personal circumstances and the middle-school wiener jokes.

I'd argue in fact that he just notched a small victory, giving an interview to the Times about how he's made money since leaving office, resulting in a piece that was considerably more Weiner Proves He Has Business Chops than Weiner Cashes In on Political Connections to Fund Move From Queens to Manhattan

How far can he actually go? Being accepted by New Yorkers as a serious candidate (even one with a serious business background) is of course not the same as getting a critical mass of those New Yorkers to vote for him. How worried should Weiner be, assuming this is all actually about winning the race and not just rebuilding his public profile, about poll numbers that show him with top-tier name recognition but second-tier support?

Steve: I guess the question is what his goal here is. I strongly doubt he could actually win. I also seriously doubt he'd make the runoff, although there's a plausible scenario in which he does. If he knows this and sees this as an opportunity to reintroduce himself to and regain credibility with a mass audience, then maybe it's worth running. If he beats the spread but doesn't win, then he'll be a more mainstream figure going forward, and new opportunities will be there for him in the future. As opposed to staying out, letting the press conclude that there's just too much baggage for him to overcome, and waiting for some future race where he'll have to go through the whole Will New Yorkers Really Accept Him cycle all over again.

Plus, the longer he waits until he runs for something again, the more he risks feeling like a completely past-tense figure, if he doesn't already.

Josh: Well so then the question becomes how many times you can profit by beating the spread. 

Weiner did it kind of brilliantly in 2005, going into the mayoral primary with low expectations and shattering them, and then earning bonus political capital by bowing out of a hypothetical runoff in the name of Democratic unity. It looked like Step One in a pretty impressive master plan, and might have been, if he'd gone on to compete in the 2009 primary, which he had a real chance of winning, and then in the general against Bloomberg, which turned out to be a surprisingly close race. But of course Weiner opted out of that race pretty much as soon as the Bloomberg people starting unloading oppo on him. 

Steve: It's an unprecedented situation, isn't it? A credible candidate in '05 who should have been the front-runner in '09 before the rules were changed, who even after that should have been the front-runner for '13—and who now might be looking to use a '13 race to position himself for '17 or '21? Or maybe some other office that might come up between now and then? I can't think of a parallel, but if he misses the game—and clearly he does—maybe we're overthinking this. The calculation might ultimately just be: This was my life, this should be my life, I have money in the bank and there's an election this year with an underwhelming field, so I'll go do my thing and see where it leaves me.

Josh: Right, Weiner may not have an angle here beyond the idea that he's got nothing much to lose and a lot to gain, potentially, just by giving this a try. 

And maybe the fact that his comeback has been such a circus actually works for him in that, as long as the story is about his personal search for redemption, he doesn't have get bogged down in the policy details.

You've talked about this a bunch— the fact that his public profile and Schumeresque ability to command media attention far outstrips his substantive achievements or appetite for policy. I suspect that's something that would affect his ability to govern more than his ability to run, beyond maybe disqualifying him from ever getting a New York Times endorsement.

Steve: The case you can make in Weiner's defense, even there, is that being a political animal will mean that he's attuned to the demands of the constituencies that elect him. So in theory, that makes him responsive to them and eager to advocate and push for the policies they want, even if he doesn't really care about those policies. Then again, it's a formula for governing every day by making decisions based only on immediate political imperatives.