Spitzer, Weiner and the Cost of Politics as Entertainment

by Mike Dorf

As someone who supported Scott Stringer in earlier campaigns, I confess to having had mixed emotions upon learning that former NYS Governor Eliot Spitzer had entered the race for NYC Comptroller.  On the one hand, I felt bad for Stringer, who is an earnest, hard-working politician and, prior to Spitzer's entry into the race, was a lock for the position.  On the other hand, I was as amused as the next guy.  First Mark Sanford successfully runs for Congress.  Then Anthony Weiner runs for Mayor.  And now Spitzer.  The jokes pretty much write themselves.

There are differences, of course: as Frank Bruni's astute NYT column today notes, Sanford won his congressional race because he was a Republican running in a heavily Republican district; Bill Clinton weathered the Monica Lewinsky scandal because he had large reserves of public good will, by contrast with both Weiner and Spitzer, neither of whom was ever much loved by the public (and both of whom were actively disliked by their peers); and Spitzer and Weiner sinned differently from one another and are repenting differently.

Should Weiner or Spitzer or each win his respective race, over time the policy matters with which he has to deal will come to overshadow his past misdeeds--although that's more true for Weiner than for Spitzer: the Mayor of NYC is in the public eye constantly, whereas nobody pays much attention to the Comptroller, unless he is engaged in a criminal enterprise.

For now, however, it is hard to deny that the attention Weiner and Spitzer are receiving from the media is more because of the past scandals than it is despite those scandals.  Spitzer's entry is too recent to have generated polling data, but for Weiner, the media attention almost certainly has translated into public support.  Yes, his large political war chest is helping, and it's impossible to know how the world would have unfolded if he had not sent his lewd photo, but should he ultimately become mayor, it will be possible that he will have won as a result of his scandal.

Is that a problem?  Apart from life imitating art, one might be tempted to say not necessarily.  If Weiner turns out to be a better mayor than, say, Christine Quinn would have been (never mind how we could know that), then we might say "all's well that ends well."  And yet, perhaps I'm just becoming a curmudgeon/scold as I age, but it does strike me that treating politics as a form of entertainment is, on the whole, bad for democracy, even if it occasionally and accidentally produces public officials who do a good job.  Coverage of whether Weiner or Spitzer is sincere in his remorse, whether it matters to voters, whether there are other shoes left to drop, etc., tends to crowd out coverage of actual issues, like whether, and how aggressively, to pursue plans to shield NYC from future catastrophes caused by rising sea levels.