Anthony Weiner, Pragmatic Idealist

I worked for a different newspaper back in January 2006, and as the low man on the totem pole, I was handed our ticket to President Bush’s State of the Union address and told to go—not to write a story but just to “show the flag.”

I stopped paying attention to the speech early on and, from my front-row perch in the balcony, scanned the sea of representatives below to see if any of them shared my disinterest. Lots of them did, it turned out, and no one—it wasn’t even close—was as preoccupied with his BlackBerry as Anthony Weiner. 

It made sense: Mr. Weiner, at the time, was four months removed from his near-miss bid for the Democratic mayoral nomination and, everyone knew, was already running again for 2009. He needed his House seat for credibility’s sake, but he obviously had other things on his mind.

Which is why his sudden prominence in the congressional debate over health care reform may seem, at first glance, somewhat random. 

Mr. Weiner has been all over the news this summer promoting legislation that would create a single payer health insurance system similar to the ones in Britain and Canada. His arguments are largely academic—the plan has zero chance of being enacted—but the crusade itself is very un-Weiner-like.

This is a man who’s always been more interested in the kinds of meat-and-potatoes economic issues that resonate with his middle-class Brooklyn and Queens constituency. It’s an approach that made him the favorite of white outer-borough voters in the 2005 mayoral primary and that, presumably, would help him with the same crowd in a future citywide bid.

These are not, by and large, voters who are passionate about single payer; if anything, they’re likely to look with suspicion, maybe even hostility, on anyone peddling “socialized medicine.”

So what is Mr. Weiner up to? Is this just the case of a once-ambitious politician, his mayoral dreams thwarted by Michael Bloomberg’s destruction of the term limits law, discovering idealism and devoting himself to converting an unlikely constituency to a noble idea?

Probably not. Actually, it’s pretty good politics, and it actually improves Mr. Weiner’s standing for the 2013 mayor’s race—which, once again, everyone assumes he wants to enter. This time, there won’t be any last-minute term limits shenanigans to force Mr. Weiner to the sidelines and there won’t be a candidate of Mr. Bloomberg’s stature standing in his way.

Unlike ’05, when he began as an unknown candidate running far behind Fernando Ferrer, Mr. Weiner figures to enter the ’13 Democratic contest as a heavyweight. With a solid outer-borough base now, his challenge is to expand his appeal to other Democratic constituencies between now and the next mayor’s race.

Single-payer is the perfect tool for this. The issue has no resonance with Mr. Weiner’s base, but it’s wildly popular among Manhattan liberals and liberal activists in general—groups that haven’t felt any particular kinship with Mr. Weiner in the past. These voters are fixated on the national health care debate, and to them Mr. Weiner has been a revelation: a refreshing common-sense voice who’s shown far more “backbone” than, say, the Democratic leaders who are about to surrender on the public option.

Of course, Mr. Weiner might be a little less of an absolutist if he were part of the Democratic leadership (or if he were angling to be), but he’s not. His long-term political ambition is still rooted in New York, not Washington. So using a congressional debate to score points with an important New York constituency takes precedence over actually trying to broker a compromise among his House colleagues.

It helps, too, that national media outlets love voices like Weiner’s. He has staked out a clear, unflinching and controversial position on the hottest national issue of the day—and he’s willing to defend it aggressively on hostile turf.

Yes, city elections are won and lost on city issues (well, usually they are; there was Ed Koch with the death penalty back in 1977) and single-payer probably won’t be an issue in the ’13 mayor’s race.

But by talking it up now, Mr. Weiner has built valuable goodwill with liberals. When they hear him talk about city issues in the future, they’ll be far more receptive to what he says.