Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Woodward Blowback

There’s been quite a bit of blog chatter about the Woodward article I cited in my last post.  And the chatter has a point.  Ezra Klein was very polite---Woodward is one of Klein’s colleagues at the Post, after all, and a senior colleague with a historic resume.  Yes, it’s the same Woodward who, with his partner Bernstein, broke the Nixon Watergate story four decades ago.   But Klein respectfully disputed Woodward’s last paragraph, in which he claimed that Obama was “moving the goalposts” by requesting revenue increases in any new budget deal to replace sequester.  Since I cited the Woodward article, I think I should also cite Klein’s response, and support its premise: Obama is not moving any goal posts or changing any part of the dialogue when he asks for new revenue.  It’s what he asked for in 2011 when the sequester was passed, what he asked for before the 2011 debt ceiling debate ever arose, what he asked for during negotiations, and what he has asked for ever since.  A combinations---a “balance”, in his words---of new revenue and expenditure cuts has been his constant theme, and the Republicans’ constant theme has been resistance to any new revenue at all, and those two goal posts have bounded the playing field from the start.  So far no one has moved them.

Klein was far too nice.  Klein’s words:

I don’t agree with my colleague Bob Woodward, who says the Obama administration is ‘moving the goalposts’ when they insist on a sequester replacement that includes revenues. I remember talking to both members of the Obama administration and the Republican leadership in 2011, and everyone was perfectly clear that Democrats were going to pursue tax increases in any sequester replacement, and Republicans were going to oppose tax increases in any sequester replacement…

Think back to July 2011. The problem was simple. Republicans wouldn’t agree to raise the debt ceiling without trillions of dollars in deficit reduction. Democrats wouldn’t agree to trillions of dollars in deficit reduction if it didn’t include significant tax increases. Republicans wouldn’t agree to significant tax increases. The political system was at an impasse, and in a few short days, that impasse would create a global financial crisis.
The sequester was a punt. The point was to give both sides a face-saving way to raise the debt ceiling even though the tax issue was stopping them from agreeing to a deficit deal.”

Klein “doesn’t agree”, emphasis is mine.  

No.  It’s not possible for anyone with a working memory to agree with that paragraph.  It’s completely, absurdly, insanely wrong.  And other writers have not been nearly so restrained.  This is from Timothy Noah in The New Republic, on whether this bad idea was Obama’s:

“That’s true in roughly the same sense that it was Charles Lindbergh’s bad idea eight decades ago to fork over the equivalent in today’s dollars of $840,000 to a German-born carpenter named Bruno Hauptmann. Faulting Obama for inventing the sequester is like faulting Lindbergh for inflating the local price paid for carpentry work in Hopewell, N.J….

Lindbergh drove a harder bargain than Obama did. Hauptmann demanded a current-dollar equivalent of $1.2 million, but he got only $840,000. The House Republicans got $2 trillion in spending cuts, which is what House majority leader Eric Cantor had repeatedly said he wanted, and they avoided the tax increase they didn’t want... Except for having to accept defense cuts in lieu of entitlement cuts, the Republicans got all the ransom they demanded.

On the other hand, Lindbergh’s partial payment to Hauptmann failed, tragically, to save his young son’s life. Obama’s full payment to the Republicans did avert a default on U.S. Treasuries and the onset of a global depression.”

But the real problem is not just that the claim is cross-eyed, through-the-looking-glass wrong, it’s that Woodward has to know that.  No one could have lived through the debt ceiling stress in this town without understanding that the whole sequester concept was a way to avert the immediate crisis created by the Republican House majority without waiting for a final agreement on terms: that was explicit, in fact.  The same deal created a Congressional Supercommittee (remember that?) whose whole job was to find a bargain between the President’s stand that revenues had to be raised and the Republicans insistence that tax rates should decline.  The Supercommittee, of course, failed.   But there was never anything secret about the intent.  Obama made it clear at the time, and Congressional Republicans made it clear that they understood.  Not only that, Obama ran on raising taxes for people with incomes over $250,000 in 2008, and ran on it again in 2012, and both times he won the election.   

Why would Woodward have offered this strange, false history?  Klein, diplomatically, just says he disagrees.  The rest of the blogosphere, those who bothered to write about it, took a sterner stance, and one that I think is closer to the truth: either Woodward has contracted some kind of early dementia, or he is flat out fabricating this idea, knowing it is not true but saying it anyway.  I don’t believe that he has lost his mind.  So I have to go with the alternative view: he has, apparently, joined forces with the Fox News alternative-reality construction team.  

Could anything be sadder than this? 

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