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Why Weiner's no-sex scandal has him hanging by a thread

It never gets old.

The political sex scandal occupies such an integral place in the American experience that it should get a wing of its own at the Smithsonian.

The past month has been particularly fecund in revelations of gasp-worthy behaviour by the power elite. Dominique Strauss-Kahn (allegedly) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (definitively) became examples of foreign-born bigwigs whose reputations were soiled on U.S. soil.

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Then new details of John Edwards's shameless duplicity emerged in his six-count indictment last week on charges of violating campaign finance laws to hide the affair he was having during his last presidential run.

New York congressman Anthony Weiner, perhaps proving that one's patronymic is destiny after all, is the latest to join the bad boys' club.

There's only one problem with this so-called sex scandal, however. Apparently, there was no sex.

Unlike Mr. Edwards and Mr. Schwarzenegger, the newlywed Mr. Weiner did not get physical with any of the six women to whom he has admitted sending sexually suggestive photos of himself and talking (lewdly, one presumes) on the phone. He never even met them in person.

"In an era where we are more and more tolerant and less and less embarrassed by various sexual content – we see more of it on TV and are more explicit about it in our daily conversations – we're making scandals of things that wouldn't even have been that scandalous in the Victorian era," Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, remarked in an interview.

Mr. Edwards, the ex-North Carolina senator and 2004 Democratic vice-presidential candidate, and Mr. Schwarzenegger, the former governator of California, cheated on their wives the old-fashioned way – mano-a-mano. They even fathered children with their mistresses.

So why is it that Mr. Weiner's political career, which had him eyeing the New York City mayor's office in 2013, is now hanging by a thread?

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Is it because he lied for several days about the May 27 photo of a man in bulging grey underwear that was sent from his Twitter account to a 21-year-old Seattle admirer?

Of course, the conservative blogger who broke the scandal also claims to possess an "extremely graphic" photo that Mr. Weiner allegedly sent to one of his Internet muses. The mere threat of it becoming public may make it impossible for Mr. Weiner to regain control of his own narrative.

Still, it hardly seems fair. Bill Clinton, who officiated at Mr. Weiner's wedding to one of Hillary's long-time aides, did not just lie about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. He did so under oath. Yet, he not only held on to his White House job, he left office with a 65-per-cent approval rating – proving Americans are not nearly as prudish as their reputation.

Mr. Weiner, 46, is not as powerful, or as good a politician, as Bill Clinton. Known among Democrats for his prickliness and grandstanding, the six-term congressman has made few friends in his 12 years in Congress.

If he does not resign of his own accord – so far, he has refused to step down – his party appears determined to force him out. Minority House of Representatives leader Nancy Pelosi has called for an ethics investigation into Mr. Weiner's conduct. If that does not do him in, the Democratic-controlled state legislature is likely to eliminate his Brooklyn-Queens district when it unveils redistricting boundaries for the 2012 elections.

Democrats have plenty of reasons to hold this against Mr. Weiner. The party appeared to have gained the upper hand over Republicans in the contentious debate over Medicare reform, last month winning a special election in an upstate New York district long held by the GOP.

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The honeymoon lasted three days, overtaken as it was by Weinergate.

Now, as Americans fret over the stumbling economy, their country's intractable debt problem and an unending war in Afghanistan, the biggest story on Capitol Hill involves the online indiscretions of the Democratic congressman with, as Prof. Thompson put it, the "phonologically felicitous" surname.

Mr. Weiner would become the second New York congressman this year to lose his job for sending revealing auto-portraits to women he's met online. Republican Chris Lee resigned in February, mere minutes after news broke that the married 39-year-old had sent a shirtless photo of himself to a woman advertising on Craigslist.

Mr. Weiner "should resign not because he's potentially lecherous – because that would mean a lot of politicians would not be working – or because what he did was so outrageous," Prof. Thompson said. "He should resign because I don't think anybody should be representing [voters]who is that incredibly clueless."

Even Meagan Broussard, the 26-year-old Texas woman who commented that Mr. Weiner was "Hottttt" on his Facebook page, was taken aback when he started sending her photos and messages that "were very personal with his business." One picture showed him shirtless with framed photos of his wife and Bill Clinton clearly identifiable in the background.

If there is anything shocking about Mr. Weiner's behaviour, it is that he did not know better. Rule number one of electronic communication: Nothing is private.

"I don't think he's a bad guy," Ms. Broussard told Good Morning America. "I just think he's got issues. Just like everybody else."

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