Politicians’ sense of invincibility

WASHINGTON — During his nine days of lies about his boudoir photography hobby, Rep. Anthony Weiner complained that the issue was a “distraction” from more important matters, such as the debt limit showdown.

I disagree, and not because I find great substance in Weiner’s genitalia. The naked truth is that his Twitter problem has more to do with the perilous state of the nation’s finances than you might think.

Scandals have been multiplying like rabbits lately — leading to a surreal moment Monday night, when former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, D-Mayflower Hotel, now a CNN host, found himself moderating a roundtable discussion of sex scandals.

The conversation went from Monica Lewinsky to Weiner, making reference to Chris Lee (deltoids on Craigslist), Arnold Schwarzenegger (love child with maid), John Edwards (got campaign videographer pregnant), David Vitter (D.C. Madam) and Spitzer himself. “I remember the embarrassing day when you resigned as governor, Eliot,” The Daily Beast/Newsweek’s Washington Bureau Chief Howie Kurtz remarked of the host’s prostitute problem.

The discussion, before Spitzer moved on to “other stories I’ll be drilling down on,” was about Weiner’s “strategy” for political survival. That’s a fun parlor game, but whether Weiner survives is hardly important. Of more consequence is what’s driving politicians to reckless behavior.

Some apologists claim these men simply have more testosterone, and greater libido, than the general population. More likely, it’s the same thing that is causing many more of their colleagues to engage in reckless behavior in their professional lives: a sense of invincibility.

To make it to Congress, lawmakers have already been successful, and lucky. They stood out in their state legislatures, their businesses or their military careers. Once in office, they are surrounded by sycophantic staffers and lobbyist supplicants. Their members-only perks include drivers, special treatment on airplanes and the power to skip metal detectors. Because so few of them come from competitive districts, their lopsided victories and adoring supporters make them even more impressed with their own might.

To amuse themselves, and to test their power, many of them take risks — a small gift, a playful remark, a bit of rhetorical excess — and each time they get away with it they become more convinced of their invincibility. They become thrill-seeking adolescents, taking ever-greater risks until they retire or get caught.

Sometimes, trouble comes in the venal form of Duke Cunningham’s yacht or Charlie Rangel’s villa. Sometimes it takes the carnal form of Mark Foley’s pages or Larry Craig’s men’s room. Sometimes, it’s both: John Ensign’s payments to a mistress.

But while recklessness is pervasive in Washington, most of the time it’s not sexual or financial but professional. President George W. Bush taking the nation to war twice while cutting taxes; President Obama delivering a major transformation of the nation’s health care system without a single vote from the opposition; Rep. Paul Ryan, the House budget chairman, proposing an end to the Medicare guarantee to make more room for tax cuts; Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, gambling that he can go a second straight year without passing a budget at all.

Each man operated as if the normal rules didn’t apply to him. Consider Ryan, who has lived a charmed life in politics, re-elected many times even though he had floated ideas to privatize Social Security and Medicare. So, when Republicans won control of the House and Ryan received the budget chairmanship, he cast aside bipartisan solutions in favor of his biggest risk yet: pushing a voucher plan for Medicare through the House. Ryan figured he was invincible. “The third rail is not the third rail anymore,” he boasted — prematurely.

Nobody gives tearful apologies for this more common form of recklessness. But if anything, these behaviors are more scandalous, because of the consequences. In the fight over the federal debt limit, for example, Republicans decided to roll the dice by declaring they would rather see the United States default than have even a dollar of new taxes. Democrats have been nearly as reckless in resisting real reforms to entitlements. And thrill seekers on both sides are content to push talks to the deadline — part of a regular game of chicken legislators have enjoyed on budget deals.

Lawmakers will have an easier time justifying that to their wives, but it’s the same delusion of invincibility that led Weiner to risk his career. In fact, we’d be better off if lawmakers gambled more with their private parts and less with the public good.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is danamilbank@washpost.com.

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