The Extremely Effective Leak Campaign Against Larry Summers

Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers speaks during a discussion about tax codes and revenue hosted by the Brookings Institute on May 3, 2012, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

I don’t know whether Janet Yellen or Larry Summers will be the next Federal Reserve chair, but I do know that Yellen’s advocates (or Summers’ enemies) inside the process have played things very cleverly over the past 24 hours. As of Sunday evening, I think all of Washington went to bed with the sense that Yellen was the prohibitive favorite and also that people were not particularly interested in this story.

But then yesterday afternoon, someone put it out to Ezra Klein that things had changed and Summers had suddenly become the overwhelming favorite. Wording it that strongly is important, because that becomes news in a way that “actually Larry is still under consideration” would not. And putting it out there in the press in that way is really bad for Summers’ chances of getting the job. After all, lots of people hate Larry Summers! Once “everyone tell the world how you feel about Larry Summers” becomes a legitimate topic, it turns out people don’t feel good about him. David Dayen makes the financial reformers’ case against Summers. Amanda Marcotte makes the feminist case against him. Noam Scheiber says he has “dangerous blind spots” while Felix Salmon says a Summers pick would be “enormously disappointing on many levels.”* But not only does Summers have lots of liberal critics, conservatives don’t like him either.

None of that means Summers won’t get the gig, of course. Appointing Summers director of the National Economic Council cost Obama good will with liberals while gaining him none with conservatives, so he might well do it again with the Federal Reserve. But putting the Summers story out there strongly got the full-throated denunciations written while still giving Obama ample opportunity to back down and just make it look like these “Summers is the guy” stories were erroneous. The White House political people now get a full view of the fact that while Summers’ former speechwriter Ed Luce thinks he’s the best person for the job, few others feel that way. Personally, my view is that these criticisms of Summers are overstated and he’d do a fine job. But I also don’t see any reason to think he’d do a better job than Yellen, and the idea of taking all this heat for the sake of Summers seems very odd to me. Clearly one major goal of the leaking is to clarify the extent to which that’s the case—and it’s been succeeding.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum gives Summers the thumbs-down and Cardiff Garcia makes the case for Yellen. Matthew Klein at Bloomberg doesn’t like Summers. All of which is to say the leaker is very effectively making the point that the media reaction to picking Summers will be bad.

*Correction, July 24, 2013: Matthew Yglesias originally misspelled Noam Scheiber’s last name.