Washington DC -- The political theatre surrounding debt talks took a strange twist this weekend at the White House when Republicans stormed out of the meeting, accusing President Obama of having the cooties.
With both the broad outlines and specifics of the debt ceiling negotiations having been settled for weeks, both Republicans and Democrats faced a common challenge: how to sustain audience interest until the last minute when the deal would be signed.
The original script for "Epic Clash" (as the mini-series became known inside the The White House) called for increasing levels of acrimony with a series of strident accusations and "disconnects" leading to dramatic break offs in the talks. But when Republican House Speaker John Boehner stormed out of talks last Friday, and ratings of the series plummeted, a script rewrite was the only real option, especially with the unfolding News Corp hacking scandal diverting audience attention. Even the carefully choreographed performance of a "visibly angry" Obama at his "hastily called press conference" failed to engage viewers who already had started settling into their weekend rituals of beer and baseball. Suddenly, the White House script writers knew they needed a game changer to revive audience interest.
Focus groups made clear their disgust with the political process describing it in terms that had leaders of both parties concerned. "Boring" was the most damning indictment and the White House scriptwriters worst fears were confirmed when it became clear that the tired themes of "increased taxes vs spending cuts" were not sufficiently entertaining to keep the audience involved in the unfolding drama. Their market research report tellingly concluded, "Viewers need a character based subplot with a more visceral appeal and personal hook to sustain their level of interest, although the solvency of the U. S. government is at stake."
According to informed sources that requested anonymity, the so-called Cooties Option (Code Name: CO) had been on the table since the talks began months ago, but President Obama had initially dismissed it as "silly" and "demeaning of the political process." One well placed source was even more blunt, saying "neither party wanted anything to do with it."
But when Obama faced a revolt from fellow Democrats for caving into Republican demands, suddenly the "Cooties Option" came into play again. It presented Obama with the ability to box Republicans into a corner as not only unreasonable, but also completely "off their rocker." Obama harbored reservations about latent "racist overtones" of the Cooties Option, but those concerns were blunted when research showed that the "Cooties Theme" had been used effectively in comic strips such as Calvin and Hobbes and Dilbert as well as popular movies like Grease, and Pulp Fiction and several episodes of The Simpsons, all with significant ratings boost and no significant racist backlash.
Republicans were at first cool to the cooties option too. But it became clear that they risked alienating their conservative base for capitulating on Grover Norquist's "no new taxes pledge." Suddenly Republicans, too, started to see the Cooties Option in a more favorable light, especially since it tied in well with the Tea Party wing of the party that essentially loathes President Obama. Much of their hatred was based on Obama's persona, especially his intellectual snobbery and the color of his skin. Republican market research showed that these factors could be accentuated by implanting into the brains of their base the notion that President Obama really does have the cooties and repeating the allegations through several news cycles. Rupert Murdoch, and others in the conservative media immediately seized upon the Cooties Option as a way to deflect media attention from their own unfolding scandals.
So in the aftermath of the disappointing audience reaction to the Boehner walkout last Friday, the script writers, began feverishly exploring ways to integrate the CO into the talks. The original CO script called for Republicans and Democrats to engage in a playful game of tag in the Cabinet Room of the White House, with the game quickly careening out of control, cascading into a scene of political mayhem. Unfortunately the Cabinet Room, didn't have enough physical space between chairs to permit the kind of free flowing movement that a game of tag requires. In addition, Republicans felt, perhaps correctly, that it was "contrived" and "not sufficiently dignified" for politicians to be engaging in what is ostensibly child's play, when the fiscal fate of the nation and potential collapse of global financial markets was at stake. So the game of tag was scuttled from the script, but the Cooties Option remained.
How well the Cooties Option will play with the audience and what the verdict of history will be both remain unclear. Preliminary Nielsen ratings suggest it may have been a stroke of genius ... just the kind of inspired scriptwriting that was desperately needed to revive the sagging ratings until the final deal is announced on August 1st.
Said one source, "Eight days is an eternity when you're trying to keep an audience interested." Financial markets appeared to react favorably to the Cooties Option too. The S&P broke its losing streak and coded signals from Moody's Rating Agency suggest that the Cooties Option may have been just what the country needed to restore audience engagement and investor confidence in the U. S. government at a time of grave ratings crisis.
News Behind the News -- by John F. Ince reporting for Crock News