Rush Limbaugh is fulminating. The New York Times editorial page is indignant. All the ingredients of a political firestorm are in place.
And yet, the Timothy Geithner controversy seems to be fizzling.
It’s not that the usual voices are silent. But faced with a made-to-order personal financial scandal, there’s been only a half-hearted response in the political echo chamber, and the consensus among Washington and media elites seems to be that the economic moment is too serious to be distracted by Geithner’s tax problems.
It’s easy to imagine how things could have turned out differently.
Bill Clinton saw two nominees for attorney general go down when the public responded with fury to revelations that they’d hired illegal nannies. George W. Bush lost a cabinet nominee in the same way. And in 2006 members of Congress found themselves on the wrong end of totally unexpected outrage over a deal to lease American ports to a foreign company, Dubai Ports World.
In many or most of these cases, media commentators and even members of Congress initially reacted with shrugs. Only later, after public anger flared, did Washington join the frenzy.
To date, only a few major voices have spoken out to criticize Geithner. And if there’s a reserve of populist resentment over his appointment, it hasn’t yet erupted into the national media, as in previous nomination controversies.
“I was the top item in the news each night,” recalled Linda Chavez, whose nomination to be Bush’s first labor secretary was withdrawn. “I kind of considered it a feeding frenzy and that hasn’t happened this time.”
In the hours after the disclosure that Geithner had paid more than $48,000 in back taxes and interest, only a handful of his critics on either the right or the left tried to take a swing at the nominee. Conservative blogs, and liberal websites that have complained about Geithner’s nomination, remained virtually silent about his tax issues.
“This does look like an honest mistake,” Tom Brokaw said on the “Today Show.”
Things didn’t stay that quiet: New York Times Maureen Dowd became the first commentator to express indignation over Geithner’s problems Wednesday morning in a column titled: “Tim Geithner! Why are Rich People so Cheap?”
“Americans expect the man who’s in charge of the IRS to pay his own taxes,” Dowd wrote. “Obama has proselytized about a shiny new kind of politics, and it’s déjà vu all over again with the smart being dumb, the rich being greedy, the powerful being sketchy.”
Dowd’s views were echoed by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who blasted Geithner during his Wednesday broadcast, sarcastically dismissing Obama’s description of Geithner’s behavior as an “innocent mistake.”
“Obama has thoroughly reviewed Treasury Secretary-select Tim Geithner’s situation and given it his blessing. Everything’s okay!” Limbaugh cracked.
In the same populist tone, Limbaugh declared: “Imagine if it were reversed and I was the one making the mistake. I mean, there would be penalties. Whew! I shudder to think.”
Jay Leno joined the fun on his late-night show, joking: “Whenever politicians don’t pay their taxes, ‘Oh, it’s an honest mistake.’ Huh? You know what they call it when you and I don’t pay our taxes? ‘Exhibit A for the prosecution.’”
The chorus of Geithner-critics got a few more members Thursday, suggesting the controversy may not have played itself out just yet.
The managers of the conservative website Redstate.com published a post Thursday afternoon titled: “Leona Helmsley Went to Jail. Tim Geithner Might Go to Treasury.”
“Average Americans do not get to cheat the tax system and become Treasury Secretary,” they wrote. “Either no American should be prosecuted for cheating on their taxes or Mr. Geithner should be rejected as Treasury Secretary.”
In more measured tones, the Times’ editorial board said a Senate report on Geithner painted “a picture of noncompliance that is considerably more disturbing than his supporters are acknowledging.”
Still, the great majority of commentators – and, to all outward appearances, the majority of lawmakers who actually have to vote on Geithner’s nomination – seem convinced that the New York Fed president is still fit to run Treasury.
And for whatever reason, voters don’t seem any more interested in Geithner’s problems than they were two days ago. There are scarcely any traces of a more intense public anger starting to burn.
Jake Siewert, who served as White House press secretary in the Clinton administration, said that the current financial crisis was likely overshadowing the tax issue in Americans’ minds.
“In another time it might have caught fire a bit more,” Siewert said. “I think people want him to succeed. People want someone in that job. There are big decisions to be made today.”
Chavez agreed, adding that some Obama critics might be reluctant to challenge a nominee who is generally viewed as a moderate, middle-of-the-road pick.
“I’m sort of looking around and saying, who else could Obama name that could be as good as Geithner?” Chavez explained. “If there’s no public outcry, if people aren’t flooding members of Congress’s telephones with messages, then I think he’s going to go through.”