Sunday, June 12, 2011

Weiner's Hubris Means There Is One Fewer Democrat to Fight Bad GOP Policies

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

I was speaking to a friend of mine who lives in Anthony Weiner's district, and we both had the same reaction to the congressman's Twitter scandal. Oddly, though, the element of Weinergate we both zeroed in on has been largely unrepresented in the news media's coverage.

Specifically, we were upset that one of the few Democrats in Congress with the nerve to consistently speak out against bad Republican proposals--and, more importantly, for traditional Democratic ones--had done something so colossally foolish, reckless and arrogant that he had undercut his position as a champion for good policy. The importance of the role that Weiner played in the political battles of the last several years seems to have been lost in a sea of stories on the more prurient and strategic aspects of the brouhaha.

To me, in the wake of Weiner's foolishness, the big question is: How will the Democrats proceed without one of their most steadfast and articulate spokesmen in Washington?

There is so much at stake in the next 17 months leading to the 2012 elections. The Tea Party-dominated, increasingly ideological Republican party is in the middle of a crusade to turn the clock back to the 1920s, a time when corporations could operate unfettered by protections for individuals, workers had few rights, there was no social safety net, and the wealth disparity between the wealthy and the rest of the citizenry was huge (as it has become again after the Bush years).

Since the Republicans won the House and many governors' mansions and state legislatures across the country in 2010, they have moved in concert to attack a woman's right to choose, unions and the social safety net, using fears about deficits to drive spending cuts, all while refusing to consider any revenue-related solutions, including scaling back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy (even as the Bush tax cuts exploded the deficit and did nothing to help the economy, as Republicans claim).

Even though Democrats control the Senate and the White House, they have often been reluctant to fight back. They backed down when Republicans threatened to shut down the government if the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy weren't extended, and they've allowed the Republicans to set the agenda on spending, deficits and other issues, especially since January.

But not all Democrats capitulated to GOP demands, and Anthony Weiner stood out front of that small group. Weiner was a staunch advocate for traditional Democratic principals. He was an articulate and passionate proponent of health care reform, championing his proposal of Medicare for all without fear. He also was out front in opposing the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. He displayed strength and steadfastness in the face of Republican pressure.

Who will stand up for Democratic idals now?

I'm not writing to defend Weiner's behavior. My advice to his wife would be to hire a good divorce attorney. But his private failings have nothing to do with his service as a member of Congress. He didn't break any laws, and he probably didn't even violate any House rules. It's been hard to watch Republicans call for his resignation, even though the GOP said nothing when David Vitter essentially admitted to using the services of a Washington madam.

But, of course, by engaging in such reckless, irresponsible and stupid behavior, Weiner has made it impossible (whether he resigns or not) to continue his influential and important advocacy for Democratic policies and opposition to damaging Republican proposals. And that's the true loss, on a national basis, to come from Weiner's idiocy.

The rush of major Democratic House figures like Nancy Pelosi to call for Weiner's resignation was disappointing but not surprising. Weiner often pushed them to show more backbone in battling Republicans and pushing for Democratic solutions to problems. Democratic leaders in Congress, from health care to stimulus to financial regulation to the extension of the Bush tax cuts, acted timidly (and seemingly out of fear), quick to capitulate to Republican demands. At the same time, Weiner was bold and steadfast. He exposed the weakness of leadership, and I'm sure they were none too happy about it. And I'm sure that history played a roll in the quick calls for Weiner to step down.

But if Democratic leaders get their wish (and, to a large extent, even if they do not), Weiner won't be there anymore to stand up to the Republicans as they try and remake the country, Tea Party style. That is, to me, the single most important consequence of the Weiner scandal.

The irony is that it's not really risky to stand up to the extreme right-wing policies Republicans have advanced since taking over the House and governors' mansions and state legislatures across the country. On a state level, when, after campaigning on jobs, Republican governors and legislators instead started paying back their corporate and religious-conservative benefactors with a virtual conservative wish list of policies (going after abortion and unions, mainly), the result has been massive buyer's remorse. The governors in Ohio, Michigan, Florida and Wisconsin saw plunging approval ratings, and in Wisconsin, six Republican senators already face recall elections (the efforts to recall three Democratic senators have not been certified by the state elections board due to apparent fraud).

On the federal level, when Paul Ryan proposed satisfying the decades-long conservative dream of ending Medicare, and Republicans in the House and Senate voted for it, voter backlash was strong and instantaneous, leading to a Democrat winning a special election for a House seat in a heavily Republican district in Western New York.

(And yes, I know Ryan's plan retains a program called Medicare, but his voucher-based approach would effectively kill what Medicare has been since its formation, leaving it Medicare in name only. Paul Krugman did a fantastic job laying out how Ryan's new Medicare would result in completely different--and inferior--medical coverage for seniors.)

So standing up for mainstream Democratic ideals (individuals over corporations and the wealthiest two percent) and opposing the far-right initiatives Republicans are pushing (like busting unions and killing Medicare, as well as prioritizing taking away a woman's right to choose over job creation) has turned out to be good politics (not just good for the country).

This is something Anthony Weiner not only understood, but reveled in. He didn't just speak out for Democratic solutions to problems (and against Republican proposals that were bad for the country), he did so confidently, strongly and happily.

Now, thanks to his Twitter activities, we've lost that voice. And sadly, there are few Democrats in Washington who have demonstrated Weiner's strength and resolve. That is the tragedy of the Weiner scandal, that it will be that much easier now for the Republicans to roll forward with a truly odious agenda, one that will be damaging for the country.

That is the story I take away from Weiner's downfall. It's less fun than the prurient stuff the news media latched onto, but I think the tabloid fodder should stay on the late night talk shows where it belongs.