I notice that when Congressman Anthony Weiner is asked about resignation—usually on the fly, generally while hurrying past a scrum of reporters—that aura of contrition quickly evaporates. “No, I’m not resigning,” he declares, and the narrowed eyes and pursed lips familiar to viewers of his C-SPAN tantrums are suddenly in evidence.
Should Weiner resign? I have no opinion. It appears to be true, as he suggests, that he has broken no laws and (so far as I am aware) done nothing in violation of House ethics rules—which, in any case, can be arbitrary and capricious. Weiner has been demonstrated to be a liar, a buffoon, a cad, and a person of questionable judgment; but if that were cause for political self-immolation, we would lose a shockingly high percentage of Congress. As a technical matter, there is no cause (that I yet know about) that would compel his resignation from Congress.
The fact is, ‘voluntary’ resignation is not only a subjective matter, but largely out of Weiner’s hands. If he were the sort of person who believes that, under the circumstances, he should give up his congressional seat and slip quietly into obscurity, he likely would not have sent bare-chested photographs of himself to admirers on Twitter. And my own view parallels H. L. Mencken’s observation that “democracy is the notion that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” The voters in Weiner’s New York City district have repeatedly elected him to Congress, and should enjoy the full benefits of their judgment. Moreover, from a partisan standpoint, it is far better to have Weiner in Congress, personifying the Democratic Party, than swiftly and conveniently removed from the picture. Republicans should be careful what they wish for.
If he should do so, and in the absence of future revelations, Weiner will resign for two reasons: If his party in Congress decides that his continued presence is a political liability, and hence intolerable; or if the Democratic Party in New York withdraws its support and demands that he surrender his office. Both of these scenarios are based on political calculation—and, of course, on whether Weiner is persuaded that it would be in his long-term interest to comply.
On the other hand, in the absence of any legal liability, or adverse ethics judgment, Weiner may choose to defy his party (and, perhaps, public opinion) and remain in the congressional seat to which he was popularly elected. There is precedent for this in the New York delegation. When Congressman Adam Clayton Powell became a fugitive from civil justice in 1967, his party's leadership in the House stripped him of his chairmanship of the Education and Labor Committee, and invited him to retire. Powell, however, chose to ignore his party and weather censure. Such defiant behavior initially appealed to his Harlem constituents, but by 1970, even Powell had worn out his welcome, and he was defeated in that year's Democratic primary by an insurgent reformer—Charles Rangel!