U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner at an event March 23, before tweeted photos created a scandal for the New York Democrat. (Photo: Center for American Progress)

Cambridge Day is part of a project called Voices of MainStreet — a weekly, nationwide Q&A in which editors at the money and lifestyle site MainStreet.com ask questions and bloggers answer them. For this entry, I was asked about politicians’ private lives and news coverage.

The saga of Anthony Weiner is just the latest reason why we have to ask ourselves not just “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” but “What’s the matter with us?”

Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, and the 2009 movie that came out of it, looks at a state that votes conservative Republican candidates into office because of issues such as abortion, religion and gay rights (opposed, in favor and opposed, in that order, is the voting orthodoxy there) even though those are largely private matters — especially for a political party that prides itself on being in favor of “small government” — and keeps out of office candidates that would be of more benefit on public matters such as infrastructure and earning power.

As a country, we tear down politicians who have transgressed in their personal lives and more often than not ignore actual scandals of governance. 

There are real issues going on, after all. An economic crisis whose roots in government are deep and will be tough to dig up and eliminate. A Republican effort to kill Medicare and replace it with an entirely different program called Medicare. A nationwide effort to gut collective bargaining rights, which have done far more for the middle class than any dozen modern politicians of any party you can show me.

This is the stuff I care about. If you want me to care about a politician’s private life, you have to show me where that politician’s been a hypocrite or moralizer shown to be false. There’s been a slew of politicians caught in gay sex scandals that have me dancing jigs (and my friends will tell you: I don’t dance) because they were the same guys voting against gay rights. To hell, shame and eventual obscurity with people who condemn others for their own behavior — again, especially in the party of “small government,” which these days wants to be just small enough to poke around in our private lives and do nothing actually productive.

Getting on with it

But instead of paying attention to the issues, the country more or less shut down for two weeks to deal with a U.S. representative who sent pictures of himself to other adults, apparently all consenting. No laws have been broken, although you wouldn’t know that from the firestorm that erupted, giving the Democratic leadership either need or cover to get rid of Weiner and keep on doing the weak, minimal job they’ve been doing all along. 

(Which is not to say Weiner was a great legislator. He was more of a spokesman, and his record on the actual business of writing and passing legislation is weak. But while he may not have been producing much of substance, good lord, he certainly wasn’t the problem.)

The story from Democratic leaders right up to the White House was that Weiner’s indiscretions and the media coverage that followed were distractions from work that needed to get done, and that looked pretty accurate when the networks turned off their cameras and left a press conference being held by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi when she said she wasn’t going to talk about Weiner. But Pelosi and many other prominent Democrats were so eager to have Weiner gone that the scandal just seemed like an excuse to get rid of him.

Josh Marshall, over at Talking Points Memo, was dead on in calling this “fundamentally a moronic story.” He was right again in a post Friday called “So get on with it”:

“If I’m understanding their plan, the House Dems felt they needed to get rid of Anthony Weiner because he was getting in their way of telling the public about the House Republicans’ plan to phase out Medicare and replace it with vouchers. Well, he’s gone. So I guess it’s back to making that case 24/7? Right?”

We’re going to be waiting a while for that.

If it feels like we been here before — a media firestorm over a sex act between consenting adults that distracted us from the real business of running the country — sure, we’ve been here before. The difference is that Bill Clinton got impeached and still didn’t leave office. And we were all better off for it, at least until George W. Bush took over and turned a surplus into a deficit.

What’s the matter with us?

Just stupid, really.