What New York Rep. Anthony Weiner did was disgusting and weird, and his direct lies and attempts to cover it up were inexcusable. But the news that he plans to resign after pressure from fellow Democrats (including, somewhat indirectly, President Barack Obama) raises extremely thorny questions about what the standards are, exactly, for drumming politicians out of office after a sex scandal. Mr. Weiner is out because he talked about sex and sent lewd photographs on Twitter and lied about it in a press conference. More than a decade ago, President Bill Clinton had actual sexual contact with an intern and lied about it under oath (though his evasive language allowed him to cling to a laughable claim of truth). Democrats did not force him out of office and, in fact, rejected House Republicans' charges of impeachment.
What's the difference?
Much of it is probably timing and circumstances. Mr. Clinton was a president at the height of his powers overseeing a booming economy. Mr. Weiner is a congressman most of the country had never heard of before this incident who is serving at a time when his party is reeling and the economy is in the tank. Mr. Weiner also suffers by comparison with the immediately preceding sex scandal, in which Rep. Chris Lee (coincidentally, also of New York) resigned after responding to a "woman seeking man" ad on Craigslist with a shirtless photo of himself. If a man's bare chest is cause for resignation these days, then the significantly racier fare Mr. Weiner engaged in, including dirty talk with a former porn star — plus the lying — makes it much harder to hang on in office.
But is it fair? Mr. Weiner's conduct was terrible but not illegal. Unlike Republican former Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho — he of the "wide stance" in a Minneapolis airport bathroom — he was not arrested. Senator Craig did not resign. Unlike Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, a Republican, Mr. Weiner did not patronize prostitutes. Senator Vitter did not resign and has subsequently been re-elected. Unlike former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, Mr. Weiner did not disappear and neglect his duties. Governor Sanford did not resign. Unlike Republican Sen. John Ensign, who did eventually resign, Mr. Weiner did not pay anyone off to keep quiet.
Various questions have been raised about whether Mr. Weiner ever used a government computer or BlackBerry to engage in his tweeting habit, but even if he did, that would not raise the stakes of his offense to anything close to the levels of the Craig, Vitter, Sanford or Ensign scandals.
Mr. Weiner engaged in sleazy personal behavior and lied to cover up his embarrassment, but compare that, for example, to the conduct of New York Rep. Charles Rangel, a Democrat, who failed to report income on his taxes, paid below-market rates for four apartments in apparent violation of city regulations, used congressional letterhead to solicit contributions for a favored charity, and more. He was censured and, under pressure, resigned his committee chairmanship, but he remains in Congress.
Given the standards, Mr. Weiner's fellow representatives are perfectly justified to condemn his actions. They are well within their rights to say they want nothing to do with him. They can, as Mr. Obama did, say they would resign if in his situation. But the pressure he faced to go is hard to square with how his predecessors in scandal — particularly Mr. Clinton — were treated.
We condemn Mr. Weiner's actions and his lies, and if he was from Baltimore, we would certainly not endorse him for office. But he's not from here. He's from New York, and ultimately, it should be up to his constituents to decide (as the voters did for Senator Vitter and Congressman Rangel) whether they want him to represent them. A recent Marist poll suggests they do — 56 percent of registered voters in his district said they don't want him to resign. But the only way to really test the proposition is an election, and, fortunately, his resignation means there will be one in his district soon.
New York law calls for special elections to replace members of Congress who resign. If Mr. Weiner is in fact leaving office of his own free will, then that is up to him. If he is leaving under protest, he should turn right back around and file to run in the special election. The matter of his personal future should be between him and his wife, and his political future should be between him and his constituents.