How Bob Woodward's Book Debunks His Big Washington Post Op-Ed

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Feb. 23 2013 5:40 PM

How Bob Woodward's Book Debunks His Big Washington Post Op-Ed

Bob Woodward's been banging the tables of various talk shows for weeks, making the same fairly banal point: The White House proposed sequestration as part of a package to raise the debt limit in 2011. Watching Woodward in action has been disconcerting for the many reporters who covered the story in real time. Did the White House float sequestration as a "trigger" to force a better, later deal from Congress? Yes. Would this have ever become an issue if Republicans hadn't chosen to hogtie the debt limit and hold a sixgun to its head for six months? No. So who cares?

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Banal, like I said, until Woodward's Friday Washington Post column on the topic. The Post blasted this out to its news alert list with the subject "EXCLUSIVE: Obama Misled; He and Jack Lew Planted Seeds For Disastrous Sequester." That cranked it up from banal to outright strange. First, Woodward's been talking about Obama's slippery denial of ownership of sequestration all year. Second, as Brian Beutler points out, Woodward himself gets the point of sequestration totally wrong. Here's Woodward.

Reinforcing Lew’s point, a senior White House official said Friday, “The sequester was an option we were forced to take because the Republicans would not do tax increases.”
In fact, the final deal reached between Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2011 included an agreement that there would be no tax increases in the sequester in exchange for what the president was insisting on: an agreement that the nation’s debt ceiling would be increased for 18 months, so Obama would not have to go through another such negotiation in 2012, when he was running for reelection.
So when the president asks that a substitute for the sequester include not just spending cuts but also new revenue, he is moving the goal posts.
Advertisement

Again, read Beutler: This is just a highly redacted reintrepretation of the long, long negotiations. And it doesn't even appear this way in Woodward's book, The Price of Politics. Early (but shadowy) versions of deals between the White House and Republicans included a mixture of cuts and spending increases. At one point, the negotiators seemed to agree on $800 billion of new revenue from tax increases. Woodward, page 237:

Though couched in budgetary alchemy, the Republicans offered what amounted to $800 billion in new revenue over the next 10 years, to be achieved through major tax reform.

This fell apart for two reasons. First, a bipartisan group of senators proposed a flimsy framework for a "grand bargain" that would get up to $2 trillion from fundamental tax reform. That made Democrats back away from the more realistic deal, because why get $800 billion when you can get $2 trillion. Second, House Republicans made it abundantly clear that they'd kill any deal with any revenue from taxes. Woodward, in the book, calls the people who held this position "propellerheads." He knows that they exist.

With time running out, negotiators settled on the idea of a debt limit hike with a "trigger" that would force people back to the table. The debt limit would be raised in three tranches, meaning that Washington would have at least 18 months to come up with something better. Democrats believed that the "something better" would include tax increases. To get there, they needed a trigger. The trigger was sequestration. To avoid sequestration, a "supercommittee" would convene and come up with, as the Budget Control Act says, "an amount greater than $1,200,000,000,000 in deficit reduction." What made the committee "super" was the power granted to that potential plan -- it would be guaranteed an up or down vote. That, hopefully, would save it from Democrats who opposed any entitlement cuts and from Republicans who opposed any tax increases.

The difference between "cuts" and "deficit reduction" is vital and obvious. Most of the supercommittee's proposed deals included tax revenue as a way to get the reductions. And that was the White House's goal. Woodward, page 327:

The idea was to make all the theatened cuts so unthinkable and onerous that the supercommittee would do its work and come up with its own deficit reduction plan.

To argue that the White House is "moving the goal posts" when it now asks for revenue in a sequestration replacement, you have to toss out the fact that the White House always wanted revenue in the supercommittee's sequestration replacement. This isn't confusing unless reporters make it confusing.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Republicans Like Scott Walker Are Building Campaigns Around Problems That Don’t Exist

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

The World

Iran and the U.S. Are Allies

They’re just not ready to admit it yet.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 16 2014 2:11 PM Spare the Rod What Charles Barkley gets wrong about corporal punishment and black culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 2:35 PM Germany’s Nationwide Ban on Uber Lasted All of Two Weeks
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 1:27 PM The Veronica Mars Spinoff Is Just Amusing Enough to Keep Me Watching
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 1:48 PM Why We Need a Federal Robotics Commission
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 1:39 PM The Case of the Missing Cerebellum How did a Chinese woman live 24 years missing part of her brain?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.