Posted by: Jeff | August 8, 2010

A Test Case in What Makes Representatives Tick

A little over a week ago, Rep. Anthony Weiner set the media cycle briefly ablaze with an outraged, barnstorming, 90-second rhetorical volley aimed at Republicans in the House who were blocking a health care and aid bill for 9/11 rescue workers. (A lot of dust and debris in the air was toxic, and many rescue workers have been dealing with health problems — as well as resulting legal and financial troubles — for years.) Fast forward to Friday. Controversy has been heating up for a while over the Cordoba Initiative — a planned Islamic center and mosque that would be erected two blocks down and around the corner from the World Trade Center site. I trust readers will be familiar with the dust-up by now. But if not, here’s a decent (though hardly unbiased) primer.

Anyway, Friday rolls around and Rep. Weiner decides to pipe up and finally say something on the issue. And his statement is just about the perfect embodiment of a politician using big words and grand phrases to say absolutely nothing of substance. It’s classic hemming and hawing.

So what gives? How did last week’s warrior of principled fury suddenly devolve into  this Friday’s mealy-mouthed politician trying to have it both ways? Well, when in doubt, look to the structural forces.

Anthony Weiner represents New York’s 9th congressional district, which covers parts of Brooklyn and Queens. As such, supporting the 9/11 aid bill was a political no-brainer for him; his district leans Democrat (though not as far as surrounding districts), it’s an issue of personal and immediate importance to his voters, as Joe noted it’s quite likely a personal issue for him as well, and also worth noting is that it’s in line with his party’s general political and ideological thrust. So all the forces in that instance — his voters’ sentiments, his own sentiments, and the agenda of his party — lined up to favor Weiner’s outburst.

The situation is much different where the Cordoba Initiative is concerned. Both Quinnipiac and Rasmussen recently released polling showing New Yorkers, as a whole, opposed to the construction of the Islamic center and mosque — by 52 to 31 percent, and 58 to percent, respectively. Furthermore, the Quinnipiac pole reveals that, by 46 to 36 percent, Manhattanites actually support the center, which would imply that opposition in the surrounding boroughs — including Weiner’s Queens and Brooklyn — is even higher than the city’s overall average. Opposition also tended to be more highly concentrated among whites than blacks, and the 9th district has a higher percentage of whites than surrounding districts. (However, opposition to the Islamic center was highest of all among Hispanics, so depending on what the Hispanic make-up of the other districts is, it’s not clear the 9th actually stands out with regard to how opposition intersects with race.)

Now, Anthony Weiner may himself be completely in favor of the mosque and Islamic center going up. But his voters clearly are not. And even if Weiner agrees with his voters, coming right out and saying so would still probably put him at odd angles with his party as a whole. (His letter does give the usual vacuous shout-outs to tolerance and freedom of expression and so forth.) Usually, when a politician engages in this kind of not-one-thing-nor-the-other rhetoric, it means he’s caught in a conflict between these sorts of larger forces.

Overall point being, there is no such thing as a principled politician. Weiner has been getting treatment from some progressives and the popular left as an example of a straight-talking truth-teller, unafraid to show outrage, but even he can only make use of those qualities when the larger circumstances allow him. And Weiner, like all representatives in the House, is up for re-election in November. So this is no time for him to be tweaking his constituents.

Politicians never represent themselves. They always represent a complex and often difficult-to-understand intersection between their party’s agenda, their local special interests and donors, and the collective id of their voters. And honestly, that shouldn’t surprise or upset us. They are, after all, representatives. It’s their job.


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