Could Petraeus scandal enable fiscal cliff deal by diverting media glare?

With media locked on the melodrama involving the ex-CIA director and his biographer – and now ensnaring other top officials – the looming fiscal cliff wrangle is receiving less attention than anticipated. That could help.

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    This July 2011 file photo made available on the International Security Assistance Force's Flickr website shows the former Commander of International Security Assistance Force and US Forces-Afghanistan Gen. David Petraeus shaking hands with Paula Broadwell, co-author of 'All In: The Education of General David Petraeus.'
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Everyone was expecting this to be a week of high drama in Washington: In the wake of his reelection, President Obama would begin official negotiations with congressional Republicans to fix the so-called “fiscal cliff,” the combination of automatic spending cuts and massive tax increases scheduled to hit at the end of the year.

Both sides have indicated a desire to work together, but the policy preferences between them remain stark, and a deal is far from certain. If they fail to find a solution, the ramifications would be potentially disastrous for the nation's economy.

Under normal circumstances, this kind of high-stakes maneuvering would be the subject of intense media scrutiny, with nonstop cable news coverage, and partisans on both sides trying to gain leverage in the press and behind the scenes.

Recommended: 'Fiscal cliff'? 'Sequester'? Your guide to Congress's code language.

Instead, what we got this week was a different kind of drama entirely – one that’s more reminiscent of high school, but that has sucked up virtually all the oxygen in the nation's capital.

We’re referring, of course, to the adultery scandal involving former CIA Director David Petraeus and his biographer, Paula Broadwell – a mess that has now expanded to ensnare other officials, with the discovery of a trove of apparently inappropriate e-mails between Gen. John Allen, the top US commander in Afghanistan, and another woman, Jill Kelley, who was also on the receiving end of threatening e-mails from Ms. Broadwell.

It has all played out like a real-life episode of “Homeland,” Showtime’s popular CIA drama. As New York Rep. Peter King (R) commented in a recent television interview: “It has the elements, in some ways, of a Hollywood movie, or a trashy novel.”

And naturally, it’s the kind of story the chattering class simply cannot resist. That’s primarily because it involves sex, but also because there’s a suspicious timeline (who knew what when) involved. Most important, because of the critical nature of Mr. Petraeus's and General Allen’s positions, it has raised real questions about whether national security might have been put at risk – or, at least, whether these high-level officials were unduly distracted from their extremely important, taxpayer-funded jobs.

The scandal has created a big, unexpected problem for the president, who now has to scramble to fill two top personnel gaps on his national security team.

But there may be one silver lining: It is, so far, allowing the fiscal cliff maneuverings to proceed with only a fraction of the attention they would otherwise have received. And that may ultimately be more conducive to getting a deal.

As The New York Times’s David Brooks writes Tuesday: “The liberal left wing, like the Tea Party types, has an incentive to build television ratings by fulminating against their foes. But President Obama and John Boehner have an incentive to create a low-decibel businesslike atmosphere. The opinion-entertainment complex longs for the war track. The practitioners should long for the deal-making track.”

At the moment, this so-called “opinion-entertainment complex” is currently getting all its entertainment needs (and more) supplied by reports of thousands of apparently inappropriate e-mails sent between Allen and Ms. Kelley, as well as an unnamed FBI agent who was removed from the case for sending shirtless photos of himself to Kelley, and new details on how Petraeus and Broadwell tried to hide their own communications by using a pseudonymous Gmail account in which they drafted, but never sent, racy emails to each other.

And that giant distraction may, in fact, be providing both sides in the fiscal cliff negotiations with an unexpected respite from the spotlight. The issue's not being ignored, of course, and it will likely gain more attention toward the week's end, as Obama and congressional leaders actually sit down together. But for now, the fiscal cliff story is on the back-burner – and the absence of a media feeding frenzy surrounding the negotiations may be the best thing going for those who hope a deal will actually get done.

Recommended: 'Fiscal cliff'? 'Sequester'? Your guide to Congress's code language.
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