Why disgraced politicians are like summer blockbusters

The Week
Americans initially gravitate toward the familiar, be it Anthony Weiner or the summer's 37th superhero movie.
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Americans initially gravitate toward the familiar, be it Anthony Weiner or the summer's 37th superhero movie.

Anthony Weiner has more in common with Superman than you might imagine. It's not just that they've both been photographed in their underwear...

Anthony Weiner's mayoral campaign has imploded. But before a raft of new revelations about Weiner's post-Congress sexting misadventures, he had a real chance of becoming the next mayor of New York City.

In the meantime, Eliot Spitzer — Weiner's fellow New Yorker, whose fall from grace was also well-documented — still has a good shot at becoming the city's next comptroller.

Despite their baggage, both men began their campaigns with a headstart on the competition. That headstart was provided not because they showed an aptitude for success in their previous political positions. And it was surely not because they were highly respected. In fact, both men resigned in disgrace from public office. Weiner resigned from Congress after admitting he sent lewd pictures of himself out on the internet (though only after he repeatedly lied about it on national television); former Gov. Spitzer resigned after it was reported that he had been sleeping with prostitutes.

Neither man left his position of power with his dignity still intact, and yet both did well in the polls. At least for a while.

The key to Spitzer's current success, and Weiner's earlier success, is that both men have national brands — tarnished, admittedly — but national brands nevertheless. And that's enough to give them a powerful advantage over their opponents.

Dorie Clark, an expert on branding and author of Re-inventing You: Define Your Brand, Re-Imagine Your Future, recently spoke to me about the importance of branding. "Branding," she said, "is a way for companies or individuals to distinguish themselves in the marketplace and ensure that when consumers think about them, there's a specific set of qualities that come to mind."

We see the power of branding everywhere we look, from the movies (with sequels and known franchises dominating the theaters) to television (where Law and Order and CSI have spawned countless spinoffs) to political coverage itself (with reporters with famous last names like Luke Russert and Megan McCain receiving prominent attention). The same is true in politics. What else explains the proliferation of so many flawed candidates?

"Having an established brand," Clark said, "is an easy shortcut for consumers who are pressed for time and may not want to spend forever researching things." Both Spitzer and Weiner have established brands. Liberals might argue that they were successful politicians in their respective positions of power, but those successes were easily overshadowed when they were both forced to resign. But despite how their terms in office ended, it's still much easier to latch on to them than their opponents or other candidates who are less known nationally.

Spitzer — a former governor and television host — and Weiner — a telegenic former congressman — still have national prominence. And those public profiles have brought more media attention and fundraising dollars into their campaigns than would otherwise exist.

Who outside of New York City, for instance, would know anything about the comptroller race if Spitzer hadn't thrown his hat into the ring? If any of his opponents win, the large-scale coverage the race has received will instantly disappear and such a position would become more localized. Someone like Spitzer keeps the media interested in the campaign and in the position. Some people who will likely vote for him are supporting his brand, knowing full well he'll be a more public figure in the media than any of his opponents. He could bring more power and relevance to the office than any of the others could.

Voters also appreciate a redemption story that they're familiar with. It's easier to accept Spitzer's flaws than to research his opponent's indiscretions or wait for them to appear after that person is elected. Chances are also exceedingly likely that the ambitious Spitzer isn't running for this office to settle there. If victorious, he could use this position as a launching pad for something bigger. Local voters know he can achieve something bigger — after all, he already has — so they can be on the ground floor of his redemption campaign if they support him in this lesser office.

"Having a brand [like a film sequel or a famous last name] is a safe choice," Clark said during our interview. That may be true, but it denies other entities or candidates the opportunity to achieve greatness. If we settle for mediocrity — or flawed candidates — because they aren't "that bad" or because we've already forgiven their mistakes, we lose sight of the lesser-known candidates who could do amazing things — and make lesser mistakes — when given the opportunity.

Weiner and Spitzer betrayed the public's trust when they were in power. Weiner continues to betray such trust, launching his latest campaign knowing that he continued his electronic sexual liasions long after he resigned from office.

Isn't it time we give other fresh candidates a try? After all, we won't know what they can accomplish until we do.

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