Weinergate: The Moment Democrats Lost Control of the Debt Ceiling Narrative

You might recall this extraordinary press conference on May 31, 2011, when then-Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) called a reporter a “jackass” in refusing to answer questions about his (false) allegation that someone had hacked his Twitter account.

Instead, he wanted to talk about the debt ceiling: “We are, tonight…going to be casting a vote on something has monumental importance to our economy…I want to focus on that.”

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Later that evening, a staggering bipartisan majority voted down the “clean” debt ceiling increase that President Barack Obama had wanted.

Until that point, Democrats had been in the midst of a full-throttle “Mediscare” campaign, alleging that Paul Ryan’s new budget proposal would literally kill senior citizens. The left had successfully linked Republicans’ reluctance to raise the debt ceiling to Republicans’ enthusiasm to reform entitlements.

Then Weinergate happened–and Weiner, unwisely, kept it going. And on June 2, in the midst of the scandal, Moody’s became the second credit ratings agency to warn of a possible downgrade of U.S. debt. In April, the White House had dismissed Standard & Poor’s warning of a possible U.S. downgrade. By June 2, that was no longer possible.

Americans weren’t quite paying attention. We weren’t paying attention to “Mediscare” anymore, either. We were watching the Weinergate drama.

But in those crucial few days in late May and early June, the terrain of the debt ceiling debate quietly shifted. Instead of being about Republican stinginess, the debt ceiling issue became connected to the broader problem of Democrat spending.

When the dust finally settled a week later, the Democrats had lost one of their most effective debaters–and they had lost the narrative. Going forward, the debt ceiling debate would be about cutting spending, no matter how much the president and his party tried to make it about Social Security checks or raising taxes on the wealthy.

It wasn’t the substance of Weinergate that made the difference: it was the timing. (By the time another sex scandal emerged, involving Rep. David Wu (D-OR), the debate was about the details of legislation, not the broader policy issues.)

Weiner was not targeted in any way to produce that result. The fact that Moody’s issued its warning at the moment Weiner’s story was unraveling in the media glare was pure coincidence. Yet the scandal pushed Democrats off message and gave conservatives a chance to make their case. By the time the president tried to bluff Republicans, they knew he had lost his trump card.

The deal that emerged is bad for both sides–but worse for Democrats, and the debate will remain focused on spending cuts and entitlement reform. Weinergate, silly and sordid as it was, may yet have a positive effect on policy.


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