Why Anthony Weiner is America's Boris Johnson

"Carlos Danger" is the man New Yorkers just can't let go of.

New York is in the grip of two things right now. The first is a dripping heatwave; nearly 40 degrees last weekend, humid, a relentless creeping heat; not even night brings respite from the temperature. The city is drenched in sweat. 

The second thing gripping New York is comeback fever.

There is an election of metropolitan government offices this November, and before the election comes the primary, and all eyes are on the Democratic primary this time around for two posts in particular. The first is Mayor, of course; the mayor of New York is one of the most powerful people in the country, replacing the quietly powerful Michael Bloomberg who has been in the job since 2002; and the second is comptroller, the second-most powerful position in the city.

Current frontrunners for both of these positions are two men with one thing in common – they are both repentant sinners, asking the for electoral forgiveness for tabloid-splash sex scandals that ruined earlier careers. 

The headline act, running for mayor, is former congressman Anthony Weiner – the name, as everyone and their intern have already pointed out, is an all-too-easy punchline – who fell from grace as in 2011 for accidentally tweeting a picture of his briefs-clad penis instead of direct-messaging it, which led to a storm of other revelations which quickly drove him from his job. By all accounts, Weiner was not unfaithful in real life – he just maintained a series of candid online relationships. But: his name is Weiner. Tabloid catnip.

Running for comptroller, and sharing Weiner's ticket if he wins the nomination, is the former Governor of New York and fiery former state attorney-general before that, Eliot Spitzer, who resigned in 2008 when information surfaced about his lavish prostitute habit.

But America, more than anything else, loves a penitent sinner. If recent polling is any indication, they love them more than one who has never sinned at all: the day after it emerged that Weiner had used the name “Carlos Danger” to send sexual pictures and messages to a 23-year-old blogger as recently as last summer, not just after his resignation from Congress but while he was planning his comeback in a long and soul-searching interview with the New York Times magazine, a Quinnipiac poll placed him four points ahead of his next rival Christine Quinn – though it should be noted that barely overlapped with the latest developments, so may not fully reflect the public mood. Spitzer, in the same poll, leads his closest rival 48-33.

“The problem isn't adultery, or perversity. It's wielding your position of authority to subjugate the women who dream of a piece of the pie,” tweeted Lena Dunham about Weiner, but she's got the situation all wrong. A politician who sends a picture of his penis to someone online is getting not a sadistic thrill but a masochistic one. Weiner volunteered for the ultimate vulnerability, and his public flagellation since has been an extension of that. He has a self-destructive streak.

Ironically, that may well turn out to be the making of him. Were it not for the "sexting", far fewer people would recognise the name of Anthony Weiner. He would be a decent but undistinguished part of the Democratic congressional machine who would have had to get famous, as it were, the hard way. The office of Mayor of New York would be far beyond his reach.

These scandals now have a formulaic familiarity to them now. First the news breaks; then a sacrifice is demanded: a stepping-down, a public humiliation. An apology from a podium, flanked – in Weiner's case – by a nobly suffering spouse, his wife, Clinton aide Huma Abedin, whom he married less than a year before the scandal first broke. A period of grace must follow, out of the public eye. But then, after that sentence has elapsed, the Penitent Sinner is welcomed back, often – as here – more popular than ever. Bill Clinton was the template for all of this; impeached after lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, he ended up leaving office with the highest approval rating of any President since the Second World War.

It also helps Spitzer and Weiner that New York loves an outsider. As candidates famous in their own right, even if the fame is more like infamy, neither of the two have to toe any party line. Scandal revealed, paradoxically, lends the two an air of candour that evades other politicians. Weiner, with his worn-out punchline of a name, is famous: and America worships fame more than anything else. Spitzer, for his sins, just comes across as a straight-shooter. The conclusion has to be this: America is a country that more readily gives a second chance than a first.

Londoners will know only too well how this goes. Our own Boris Johnson was elected almost entirely on the strength of name recognition, and is able to shrug off scandal after love-child scandal; he is a loveable rogue. It is down this well-trodden path that 'Carlos Danger' now hopes to tread; he hopes, like Johnson, to turn the joke to his advantage.

It's possible that he may have fluffed his second chance by continuing to sin during his period in the dog-house – but the smart money is still on him and Spitzer to win come November.

Anthony Weiner. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty
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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.