Earlier today, Bloomberg View columnists Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru met online to chat about scandals, the spat between Senator Rand Paul and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the Pope's suddenly evolving views. Below is a lightly edited transcript.
Ramesh: Congratulations, Margaret, on getting just about every big news story into your column -- although I think you left out the royal baby (no scandals from him yet). I won’t try to argue against your basic point that we pay too much attention to scandals that are easy to understand and titillating, which often means we treat sex scandals more seriously and money scandals less seriously than they deserve. I’ve definitely heard (and seen) more about Anthony Weiner than I ever wanted to.
I think, though, there are some other reasons for the different degrees of attention these stories have gotten. In Virginia, Bob McDonnell is finishing his term as governor; he’s not running for anything, he’s no longer on anybody’s short list for president or veep, and it’s not at all clear that he’s broken the law. And not only does the story lack the interest of sex, it also lacks an interesting personality: Even when he’s involved in a scandal, McDonnell is boring. Change any of these conditions, and people might follow the story more avidly.
Margaret: Sadly, mostly true. But I find Jonnie Williams peddling snake oil and possibly getting the McDonnells to shill for him entertaining, but then I don't get HBO (is your cable bill hundreds of dollars?). The wrinkle in that story I don't understand is the guy who is running for office, Ken Cuccinelli, and who is obsessed with lady parts when he's not taking cruises courtesy of his pal Jonnie, has just announced he will NOT be giving back his booty. Williams catered Cuccinelli's Thanksgiving dinner, took him on cruises and did other nice things for him. Add this to our log of political aphorisms to keep: "There's [sic] some bells you can't unring." We don't expect you to disgorge the turkey, Ken. Hope you don't. But the amount of goodies he received adds up to $18,000. You can ring that bell.
Ramesh: Illustrating your point about how little people are following the story, that's the first I heard about Cuccinelli's decision. I am going to have to stick up for cruises, which can be fine venues for education and the exchange of ideas. (I'm writing this from a National Review cruise that's headed for the Norwegian fjords.) It may turn out that in Virginia, as another old political saying goes, the scandal isn't what's illegal but what's legal.
Margaret: One story being followed (not by normal people or anyone cruising to the fjords, perhaps) is the Rand Paul-Chris Christie flap. It's been hyped, by abnormal people like me, but there's some substance to it. Your party is falling apart, Ramesh. Yesterday, House Republicans refused to proceed on the implementation of the Ryan budget they adopted three months ago. They are eating their own.
Ramesh: What is it Obama keeps saying about his health-care law, Margaret? "Glitches and bumps." Yes, the Republicans are having a bunch of them. On the other hand, people said much the same thing when the House Republican leadership had to pull the farm bill from the floor a few weeks ago. But they ended up passing everything they wanted (alas) after the July 4 recess. The Paul-Christie flap, meanwhile, could eventually lead to a debate that the party and the country need about civil liberties and foreign policy. That debate exists among Democrats, too: Most House Democrats voted against the Obama administration's practices on phone surveillance last week. It's just a little more muted among the Democrats since most of them don't want to take on the president by name.
Margaret: Peace is at hand between Christie and Paul. Paul offered an olive branch, a beer summit (it was semi-rejected by Christie). But each of them got what they wanted from their argument and cable got two days' worth of stories. My favorite other aphorism, this one coined by Republicans to justify withholding money on Obamacare, is "You fund it, you own it." As far as using money to defeat the law of the land (we can't beat you on the field, we'll beat you behind the bleachers), it's a fool's game. Ask Newt Gingrich. When the lights dim at the Washington Monument and class trips get cancelled, Republicans' approval ratings will again drop into the low single digits.
Ramesh: I don't think that using the threat of a government shutdown to defund Obamacare would work, but I also don't think that Republicans are going to do it. I do think that Paul comes out the winner of the exchange with Christie. Neither of them comported himself with a great deal of dignity, but part of Christie's strategy has to be that he's the more serious candidate while Paul is a fringe character. Christie got into a tit-for-tat that put them on the same level, and then let Paul look like the better man by declaring a truce. Not smart. But as you point out, not many people are paying attention -- not when there's always the chance of another Weiner sext making the front page of the New York Post.
Margaret: Weiner is snuffing out all other news and all other useful pursuits, like stories about scandals that really hurt us as opposed to the Weiner story, which only really hurts him and his wife and, in years to come, their son. There were a few nonboring volleys in the Paul-Christie fight like when Paul made a fat joke, claiming Christie really knew how to bring home the bacon. Those allusions didn't work so well for former Governor Jon Corzine who lost to him after airing an ad that showed Christie trying mightily to stuff himself into the back seat of a limo. I disagree with your conclusion about who was elevated. Paul raised his profile and his seriousness when he did his "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" filibuster. He also makes forays into serious policy discussions. But lately he's gone too often for the thrill of the moment as he did last night in a public forum when he went after Senator Lindsey Graham. But enough about politics, let's talk about the Pope! What did you make of that lovely new Pope washing the feet of a Muslim, visiting prisons and embracing gays?
Ramesh: Pope Francis seems to be changing the emphasis of the papacy in a way that ought to appeal to Western liberals, which could be good news if it helps get Catholicism and Christianity more of a hearing from them. In the same interview in which he made his now-famous remarks about gays, he also said he had not moved quickly in reforming the curia. I'm in the heads-should-roll camp, because in the case of the Church the scandals have been deadly serious.
Margaret: I'm all for heads rolling, except for ours. Let me know how those fjords roll. One of us is still stuck in the swamp of This Town in August and envies you.