By Mike Lillis - 06/19/11 10:00 AM EDT
With Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) all but out the door, Democrats have wasted no time trying to shift the conversation back to the economy, healthcare and other issues of greater national consequence.
Party leaders think they have a winning hand in their opposition to GOP proposals to overhaul Medicare, privatize Social Security and slash funding for safety-net programs amid a lingering unemployment crisis.
On Friday, just one day after Weiner announced his resignation, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was back on the attack, hoping to highlight the distinctions between the parties' prescriptions for the country's troubles.
"We do not agree with the Republican plan that ends Medicare while giving away tax breaks to Big Oil; slashes support for seniors in nursing homes while giving away tax breaks to corporations that ship jobs overseas; [and] cuts education for children … while giving tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans," Pelosi said Friday during the annual gathering of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Baltimore, Md.
The focus on Medicare comes as no surprise. The outcome of the special election in New York's 26th District hinged largely on the GOP candidate's support for Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) plan to shift seniors from traditional Medicare into private insurance plans.
The winner, Rep. Kathy Hochul, was sworn in on June 1, giving a boost to Democratic strategists who were newly optimistic about taking back the House in 2012. Five days later, Weiner tearfully confessed to a series of lewd, online relationships with "about six" women who didn't happen to be his wife. The next 10 days were dominated by headlines of the Democrats' "distraction."
Democrats had grown visibly frustrated with the media's focus on the sex scandal – and with their failure to shift the media's glare from the Weiner saga to issues of federal policy.
On Thursday, Pelosi took a jab at the press for prioritizing the sordid episode over other topics.
"I wish that the ardor for information on our jobs initiative would be as strong as it is on this other subject," Pelosi said to a roomful of reporters in the Capitol.
"Not that I don't think it is important," she added. "But over the kitchen table, in America's homes across our country, people feel very concerned about the fact that the manipulation of currency and other unfair trade practices impacts their lives."
By last weekend, the media storm surrounding Weiner's conduct had grown to the point that Democratic leaders coordinated calls for the feisty New Yorker to resign – advice Weiner begrudgingly took on Thursday.
"I had hoped to be able to continue the work that the citizens of my district had elected me to do, to fight for the middle class and those struggling to make it," Weiner said. "Unfortunately, the distraction I have created has made that impossible."
The immediate reaction from the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was telling. Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.) commended Weiner for stepping down for the sake of the party, but focused most of his message on the Democrats' intention to proceed quickly to more substantial topics.
Pelosi reiterated that message in Baltimore Friday, trumpeting the brick-and-mortar proposals that constitute the Democrats' economic agenda, including their "Make it in America" package – a series of bills designed to increase manufacturing and discourage the outsourcing of jobs.
"Creating jobs is America’s top priority," she said, "and we can do so by putting people to work building America."
Some Democrats rejected the idea that the Weiner circus was harming the party's message.
Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.) said the Democrats simply need to amplify their support for popular programs like Medicare and not "let the other party define us."
"I'm not one who thinks this is a distraction," Engel said Thursday.
"We have an agenda, and, you know, we need to put it forward – we need to put it forward if Anthony Weiner's a member or if Anthony Weiner's not a member," Engel added. "Things are distractions only if we let them be distractions."