The Price of Politics is too high: Bob Woodward versus the White House

By Daniel Burton
Several people have asked me about the Bob Woodward kerfuffle.

(I know. The irony. Congressional leaders and the President spend two years negotiating how to deal with the debt, can’t agree on a solution, resolve to on a 2% across the board cut called “sequestration” that almost no one understands–or represents accurately if they do–and people want to talk about a ‘he said/she said’ moment in American politics. Let’s be honest–it’s a lot closer to the school yard politics than the intricate and complex workings of the federal budget).

I just finished reading Woodward’s The Price of Politicsa history of this specific issue and how we got to this point. With that in mind, here are my two-bits.

The Rub

The long and short of it is this: when President Obama couldn’t get Congressional Republicans in 2011 to agree to raise the debt limit and enact a tax hike to cover the increased debt, his staff–specifically Jack Lew and Rob Nabors–went to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and suggested sequester as a triggering mechanism. If a deal was not worked out by a certain date (March 1, 2013), then automatic cuts would happen. Reid liked the idea so much that he bent over in his chair and put his head between his legs like he was going to vomit. Seriously. (If my sarcasm it isn’t picking up, know that Reid was not a fan…)

No one thought it would fail. It was so bad that the other side will have to compromise, everyone thought. Neither Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress and the President in the White House–assumed that no one would let sequestration happen. Because the cuts were disproportionately high on defense spending, Democrats thought that Republicans would never let sequestration happen. And Republicans thought that there was no way that the President would allow such broad, across-the-board cuts happen, either.

They we’re all of them deceived, if just by their own hubris.

So who is right? Woodward? Or the White House

The simple answer is that, in a sense, both are right.

First, Woodward is right that it was a White House, and by extension the President’s, idea to propose sequestration as a trigger if no agreement was reached.

Second, if we look only at the unknowable intentions of the President instead of what he actually did, then he is also correct–he never really intended sequester to happen without some kind of agreement on the budget. In other words, he looked at the consequences of sequester, thought that it would be so bad on the Republicans that Republicans would rather agree to tax hikes than sequester, and said–”Let’s do it.

If it’s easier to visualize, here’s how the Republican spin machine puts it…not entirely inaccurately.

Americans are paying The Price of Politics

If you’ve got the time, and the energy, read Woodward’s The Price of Politics for the whole, long, nauseating story. If it doesn’t disabuse you of any trust you have in our elected officials ability to compromise, I don’t know what will.

The Price of Politics inexhaustibly details the negotiations over the summer of 2011 leading up to the debt crisis in early August of that year. They began long before we heard about them in the press–months in advance, in fact–and included more than a few meetings between Vice President Biden, Rep. Eric Cantor, White House staff, Senators Kyl, Reid, Baucus, and McConnell, House Minority Leader Pelosi, and, at the center of it, President Obama and Speaker BoehnerMost of them end up looking inexperienced and unskilled in negotiation especially the President, his staff, and, to some extent, Speaker Boehner. And why? Because both sides fail to listen to the other and throughout remain entrenched in partisan dogmas that prevent them from finding compromise. Crucial negotiations and conversations repeatedly took place over the phone or after media leaks, with offers from each side repeatedly ignoring what the other had told them was an unfeasible option for them. Republicans would not settle for a bargain that did not rein in entitlement spending and Democrats would not agree to cuts to Medicare or Medicaid. Democrats would not do a deal that didn’t include tax hikes and the end of the Bush tax cuts, but Republicans were unwilling to allow any new tax revenues except through tax reform.

White House Chief of Staff 
RahmEmanuel looks at a newspaper  
in the Oval Office, as President 
Barack Obama talks on the 
phone April 24, 2009.

Neither side would shift to a middle ground.

Early in the book, Woodward talks about the philosophy of the first White House Chief of Staff under President Obama, Rahm Emanuel. “F&#@ them! We have the votes.” With it, Democrats shoved healthcare reform through Congress rough shod and in spite of public opinion opposing it. When Republicans took back the House, the Obama White House never really learned how to compromise, but merely seemed to think that compromise meant talking with their opponents about what the White House insisted they do. No surprise, then, that Republicans could never really find a common ground with the White House. As Republicans often complained after being given yet another proposal that ignored their needs, “How are you, the White House, supposed to know what’s good for Republicans?”

Surprisingly, one of the few people who came across as the most flexible and able to make a deal was Vice President Biden. A character I have often thought of as a blowhard, gaff-prone Democratic operative often proved to be the person who could work with Republicans to find a feasible solution. Woodward often referred to him as a “McConnell whisperer” because of his relationship with the Senate Minority Leader and his ability to negotiate.

In the end though, as Woodward puts it, never has so much effort been made for so little result. The President won in being able to put off any more negotiation until after his reelection, and we ended up with a status quo result. Federal spending and revenues were left at the same place as before and on March 1–today–automatic across the board cuts amounting to 2% of the budget will go into effect at 11:59 PM.

What are our elected officials doing about it? Jetting across the country wasting valuable time telling the American people that it’s the other side’s fault. No wonder no one trusts politicians.

PoliticIt contributor and creator Daniel Burton

Daniel Burton lives in Holladay, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. You can follow him on Twitter as @publiusdb or on his blog where he muses on books, politics and ideas. View additional posts by Daniel, here


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