Y’all know how much I like a crazy theory. Well another one popped into my head over the weekend. Many have bemoaned all the attention paid to Anthony Weiner’s career suicide over the past two weeks. But I actually think that the obsessive focus of the national media and the Washington news corps in particular on the former congressman from New York instead of on the budget and deficit talks being led by Vice President Biden gave those talks and their participants a bit of space to focus on their work rather than responding to the latest annoying thing someone said in the media, especially on television.
In short, it’s hard to bake a cake when folks keep opening the oven via the 24-77 news cycle and the incessant who’s up-who’s down chatter of cable news. The pieces over the weekend in The Post and the New York Times heralding a new tone of civility among Democrats and Republicans in the Biden talks seemed to buttress my theory’s foundation. So, I put it to the test by asking around. Not everyone bought it. But it wasn’t totally dismissed either.
“Honestly, it’s an interesting theory, but I don’t know,” White House press secretary Jay Carney responded via e-mail. “I think in general the Weiner story has been a distraction, as the president said.” Don Stewart, communications director for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was a smidge more supportive of my theory. “There’s probably something to that,” he said. ‘It’s also good that we’re not right up on the deadline like during the [Continuing Resolution] debate. But as someone whose office is right down the hall from the press stakeouts for the Hill meetings with Biden, I can tell you there were still plenty of reporters trying to get something, anything.” And all I could get out of a House Republican leadership aide on my supposition was, “I hope that’s correct.”
“I actually think that’s sort of a brilliant observation,” said Matt Bennett, senior vice president for public affairs at the think tank Third Way. “The talks over the budget got ugly in part because they dominated the news cycle. Everyone condemned Weiner for becoming a ‘distraction,’ but this time that might have been a very good thing.
“Every day there were dueling press conferences and a blizzard of releases, each blaming the other for the stalemate and accusing the other side of extremism,” Bennett continued. “Though the president largely stayed above the fray, there was constant gamesmanship, with one side alleging progress and the other side claiming deadlock. The leaders were playing each other off their caucuses.”
Ryan McConaghy, director of the economic program at Third Way saw a similar dynamic: “Absent the scandal, the progress of negotiations would have been the leading story, getting parsed and dissected by the punditariat,” he said. “In negotiations like these, where both sides will eventually have to give, it’s a lot easier to make progress at the negotiating table if you don’t have to go out and aggressively play to the base through the press every single day.”
But the idea that Weiner coverage gave the Biden talks a bit of breathing room didn’t get much love from the strategists I reached out to. “I’d love to find a silver lining in the whole Weiner thing but I don’t think this is it,” a Democratic strategist keeping tabs on the talks told me. “I like the oven analogy,” one Republican strategist told me, “but I don’t see the two as being related really.”
What the folks I talked to did agree on is that the principals in the Biden talks, particularly the Republicans, recognize the importance of getting a debt and deficit deal done. “Among the other, more significant reasons for cooperation are the fact that extreme fringes aside, at the end of the day the principals in the room understand the gravity of the situation and the need to avoid flirting with default,” McConaghy told me. The Democratic strategist quoted above complimented the Republican leadership for its ability to “control their Tea Party fringe,” and added, “As a senior administration official said to us recently, Cantor and [the Republican] camp are taking this very seriously.”
Comparing the brinksmanship over the continuing resolution with what’s happening now, another Democrat with close ties to the White House told me, the “big difference with [these] talks is [that] serious Republicans don’t want a default, while they really didn’t care about a government shut down.” But there’s still hard work to be done to ensure that default doesn’t happen.
Stewart said a deal won’t get worked out “if there isn’t a serious effort on long-term entitlement reform.” A point made by McConnell on “Face the Nation” yesterday. There’s also the insistence by Democrats on increased tax revenue as part of the deal.
“By all accounts, they also haven’t crossed the long bridges on entitlements and revenue yet,” McConaghy said. Ezra Klein gave a good overview on Friday of what’s being bandied about on both fronts. But getting across those long bridges that McConaghy talked about is still a ways off. We’ll see if the absence of the obsessive focus on the Weiner sexting scandal will speed or impede the effort to get a deficit deal done.