Americans love a sex scandal. Natural disasters can rage across the world, wars can break out, but people still tell jokes about Bill and “Har” Monica Lewinsky. Sex is how Americans learn about politics in the same way that Americans learn geography from war.
In 2005, Republican Congressman Mark Foley was caught sending sexual text messages (“sexting”) with pages as young as 16 or 17. The allegations violated Florida law, and investigators came after him, but were unable to convict him. His career as a lawmaker is over, but the Republican congressman faced no legal charges. The underage boys he was inappropriately messaging were people he worked with, and vulnerable to harassment and physical abuse. He went on to have sex with some of them once they were of legal age of consent.
South Carolina Republican Governor Mark Sanford told the world in 2010 he was on the Appalachian Trail when it turned out that he was with his mistress. As he was using public funds to arrange his meetings, he lost his governorship. He returned to public service in 2013 as a representative for the district that he had represented in the late nineties.
In 2010 Anthony Weiner was poised to be the next progressive firebrand. He challenged people on Fox News and dressed down republican colleagues when most Democrats stay quiet. His first sex scandal broke when he accidentally tweeted publicly a picture of the outline of his impressive penis in his underwear. The intended recipient was a legal adult outside of his marriage, and that was enough to destroy his career. His career as a politician was destroyed by the incident. Anthony Weiner has recently been sentenced to 21 months in prison for sexting a fifteen year old girl. His wife and Clinton’s closest confidante, Huma Abedin, has made it clear that she is leaving him this time, though she stood by him during his first scandal.
New York Democratic Governor Eliot Spitzer faced a similar issue when he was going after Wall Street malfeasance, dubbed the “sheriff of Wall Street.” He resigned in 2008 when it became public that he spent some time with a very expensive Emperor’s Club escort. He managed to make a comeback in 2013. Though his position as New York City Comptroller is not nearly as prestigious as governor, he nevertheless struck a chord of fear in the financial sector.
This pattern would suggest that there is a double standard for Democratic and Republican politicians. Despite running on family values, defending traditional marriage, and opposing immoral sexual conduct, Republicans seem to have sex scandals written into their platform. Newt Gingrich, John Ensign, and a slew of others have been caught having affairs; Gingrich even divorcing his wife while she was recovering from cancer treatment. Despite being vehemently anti-homosexual, Republicans like Phillip Hinkle and Larry Craig have been caught soliciting or having sex with men. Thought leader and Evangelical preacher Ted Haggard, who used to have the ear of President Bush, was caught having sex with his male meth dealer. Rush Limbaugh has had several wives. Bill O’Reilly’s children have accused him of being absent, despite his claim that absentee fathers are the scourge of the black community, not systemic oppression.
Most people don’t care about a politician’s sex life, and they shouldn’t. But when it’s part of your party’s platform that imposes a greater duty to adhere to traditional sexual values. When John Edwards’s career was destroyed by his affair during his wife’s cancer treatment, but Newt Gingrich gets to run for president again and also be a surrogate for Donald Trump (himself presented in the campaign with his five children from three wives), it exposes the hypocrisy of the supposed “family values” party.
It is true that Edwards used campaign funds in his affair, but he was crucified for f*cking around on his cancer-riddled wife, not for economic mismanagement. Gingrich initially said that his wife sought the divorce, but his divorce papers tell a different story, including that he considered his wife “not young enough or pretty enough to be First Lady. And besides, she has cancer.” Edwards expressed contrition, while Gingrich attempted to weasel out of accusations that he abandoned his wife in her sickness by claiming that she initiated the proceedings.
Mark Foley was sexually harassing boys in his charge, while Anthony Weiner had an online relationship with someone whom he never met in person, yet Weiner is going to prison while Foley went to rehab. The problem is deeper than Republicans getting away with being a giant boys’ club stereotype out of a Benny Hill skit.
Weiner’s crime was sexual misconduct with a minor, but his sin was challenging power. Not only did he stand up to the banks that crashed the economy, his emails were the impetus for James Comey to reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, one of a million factors that Clinton loyalists blame for her loss. His marriage to Clinton’s right-hand woman was already on the rocks from his previous scandals. When it came time for him to gather allies and circle the wagons, there were none to be found.
The Clintons have been the major force in the Democratic party since the nineties. Bill Clinton set the agenda for the Democrats by joining the Reagan Revolution in its war on the poor. They joked about “eight years of Bill, eight years of Hill,” the creation of a political dynasty. When Hillary lost the nomination to Barack Obama in 2008, rather than fade away like other candidates, she got appointed Secretary of State, part of padding her resume for another run at the presidency.
Weiner may have made a comeback once the scandal and the shape of his member was forgotten, but while Foley and his allies in Congress refused to turn over evidence of his wrongdoing, Weiner found himself alone. After fighting Wall Street and endangering the decades-long power establishment in his party, he was nearly as vulnerable to the legal system as an average citizen.
Despite the complexities of finding justice in punishment, Weiner certainly deserves to face consequences. Seducing a minor electronically may not be the same as committing physical acts with them, but it’s taking advantage of your power as an adult and, in Weiner’s case, as a public figure. But why does it seem that Democrats face more public scorn than Republicans, despite being the party that doesn’t turn their supposed morality into political currency?
Simply put, the politicians that face more scorn are the ones who challenge established power. John Edwards used his background of economic hardship to raise the conversation of “two Americas…one, for all of those people who have lived the American dream and don’t have to worry, and another for most Americans, everybody else who struggle to make ends meet every single day.” Politicians in both parties market themselves with poor upbringings or hearken to their parents as a connection to parts of the country, but Edwards made the mistake of promising to America, “it doesn’t have to be that way.” Gingrich worked as a lobbyist for powerful companies, while Edwards made promises to the people for a better life. So although both of them betrayed their wives in a time of illness, Gingrich got to continue serving power, while Edwards faded into obscurity.
Weiner, Spitzer, and even Edwards challenged power by word or deed. Spitzer was able to make a comeback, much like Republican politicians in similar circumstances, because he did not alienate powerful allies. Edwards has faded into obscurity without a lobbying firm to buoy him like Gingrich.
But Anthony Weiner, who deserves to face consequences for taking advantage of a young woman, will face penalties worse than a man who sexually harassed his underage pages. Weiner is not suffering for his crimes, he is suffering for his sin, the sin of being not only a progressive champion, but a thorn in the side of the Democratic power machine. Republicans wash their sins away by crying out to God and claiming that they will abase themselves in repentance, but what really saves them is their proximity to power. Weiner has lost any allies that he had, and will pay for it.
The frustration is not that Weiner will face prison, but that he is being punished for the sins of an entire class of elites who will watch each other’s backs through thick and thin, but throw a member to the wolves if he dares to violate the precepts of loyalty to power.