We Don’t Need Another Hero

But in this year’s oddball elections, it helps to sound like one.

Former U.S. Congressman and New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner rides the subway between campaign events in New York, May 23, 2013.
New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner rides the subway between campaign events on May 23, 2013

Photo by Brendan McDermid/Reuters

The roll-out of Anthony Weiner’s midlife crisis-cum-mayoral campaign has gone about as well as the candidate could have hoped. He announced it via video, beating the tabloids’ print deadlines, evading eponymous puns for one precious day. When he met the press, he juggled questions about his younger and more vulnerable days without a droplet of flop sweat. “People may decide they want to come forward and say, here’s another email that I got or another photo,” he yawned in a radio interview, repeating a stock line. “I’m certainly not going to do that.”

Good for him and better for us, but there’s still something amiss with that schlocky launch video. Weiner runs through the highlights of his 12-year congressional career, and claims he “led the campaign for real health reform, that regular people can afford.” 

There’s no citation, not even some footnote crediting a roll call vote or a Center for American Progress blog comment. What was “real health reform?” Weiner’s campaign didn’t clarify for me. Luckily, having been awake for much of 2009 and 2010, I recall the congressman as a frequent cable news advocate for a bill that didn’t pass—single payer, Canada-style, cradle-to-grave care. Weiner even introduced a Medicare repeal amendment and dared Republicans to support it, to prove that they wouldn’t “stamp out the scourge of government-run, government-administered, single-payer health care.”

So Weiner was good at wrangling press. We knew that. “Who’s better?” he told a reporter in 2010. “Like, why do you even walk around the room? I’ll give you your money shot and you can go back and file.” That’s a skill, sort of, when most members of Congress are Bergman-movie-boring. Being flashy and ineffective—actually, bragging about how flashy and ineffective you are—is strategically sound, from campaign to campaign, as long as those campaigns are directed at voters who hate Congress and don’t pay a ton of attention to its mechanics.

Exhibit A: Weiner on health care. The ideal Weiner bill never got a vote, and Democrats dropped it before their November 2009 passage of the “public option” package. The debate moved to the Senate. There, liberals were attempting to add a “Medicare buy-in” to the bill, letting people under the retirement age pay to enter the system. Weiner endorsed it. “Extending this successful program to those between 55 and 64,” he said, “a plan I proposed in July, would be the largest expansion of Medicare in 44 years and would perhaps get us on the path to a single-payer model.”

Liberals fumed, because Weiner—for what, a spot on a TV show?—had given away their blueprints. Within a week, Sen. Joe Lieberman (who’d backed a Medicare buy-in during his 2004 presidential campaign) bailed, telling reporters that “Congressman Weiner made a comment that Medicare-buy in is better than a public option, it’s the beginning of a road to single-payer.” He was spooked. Perhaps Lieberman, whose final term was a symphony of dyspepsia, was always going to cut the rug out from under Democrats. But Weiner’s grandstanding didn’t help.

But grandstanding serves a purpose. Legislating? Tougher to say. One of the only other semi-competitive elections in America this year is the special Senate election in Massachusetts. Democrats, after some trauma and trepidation, nominated a 37-year veteran of the House, Rep. Ed Markey. Republicans passed over two relatively experienced candidates and nominated Gabriel Gomez, whose ads remind us he’s a “businessman, Navy pilot, Navy SEAL,” and promise to support a three-pronged reform plan of term limits, “no budget no pay,” and banning members of Congress from ever becoming lobbyists.

Two of these ideas, in practice, are hilariously useless. Republicans passed a version of “no budget no pay” this year, which prompted the Senate to pass “a budget,” which the House didn’t move on. The “ban” on congressmen becoming lobbyists for at least two years after their term ends is easy enough to evade if, like Scott Brown, you merely join a lobbying firm and don’t register as a lobbyist. Doesn’t matter: Gomez contrasts his agenda with the fact that Markey hasn’t passed a bill of his own in a while. “If you’re saying the longer you’re down there the more effective you’re going to be,” he told a TV interviewer, “well name me one [piece of] legislation that Congressman Markey has sponsored in the last 20 years that’s become a bill.”

This was brilliant jujitsu. As a Republican strategist triumphantly pointed out to me, even a reporter debunking the story had to admit that the “assertion, read narrowly, is true.” It was true because Markey merely influenced and shaped bills that ended up being passed, with new names and bylines, in the Senate. Sure, Markey’s used the telltale phrases “fought for” or “campaigned for” to beg a little credit for bills that didn’t pass. But Gomez is asking voters to deny him credit for anything that doesn’t bear his name, a wise bet predicated on a general disinterest on the mechanics of our hated Congress.

That’s sort of the point, though. Voters absolutely hate Congress. They have hated Congress for decades, with a brief, troubling pause after 9/11 when they felt a terrified flutter of jingoism. Partisans, the people who vote in primaries, react more strongly to grandstanding than to dull details like “whether the bill passed or not.” This is the phenomenon haunting Senate Republicans. They’ve watched Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul run ahead of party strategy, get defeated, get derided, attack the rest of the party for “squish” tendencies, and end up punished with more grassroots amour and media attention. “Mr. Obama is betting the GOP keeps running into his fixed bayonets,” sighed the Wall Street Journal’s Kim Strassel, “shouting ‘repeal!’ with their last, spent breath.” RedState’s Erick Erickson pronounced Strassel the “Senate GOP’s stenographer.”

Weiner isn’t running for Senate. If he wins the mayor’s office, he has more executive power than most governors or presidents. (There’s no City Council filibuster to worry about.) In his 64-bullet-point manifesto he dreams of New York as a “single-payer laboratory,” fulfilling that crazy dream smothered by his MSNBC mid-day hits. He failed so spectacularly that he’s bound to succeed. You might not believe it. You’re not the average voter.