Bob Woodward’s Seriously Stupid Conflation of “The Sequester” and “A Deal to REPLACE the Sequester”

Good lord.  So much ado about one high-profile journalist’s (deliberate or inadvertent; I can’t tell which) semantics ploy.  

Stellar New York Times White House correspondent Jackie Calmes, in a lengthy article on the provenance of the sequester, explains the controversy:

As this weekend arrived, Republicans were circulating a column by [Bob] Woodward published online by The Washington Post on Friday, in which he wrote that Mr. Obama was “moving the goal posts” from what he had agreed to in the summer of 2011 by insisting that a sequestration substitute have tax increases as well as entitlement-spending reductions.
“Moving goal posts?” the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, wrote in a Twitter message in response, adding that 40 House Republicans in November 2011 signed a letter supporting new revenues as part of a deal. Mr. Carney suggested in a later Twitter message that Mr. Woodward was “willfully wrong.”

Mr. Obama vowed from the day he announced the agreement 19 months ago that he would insist on “a balanced approach” that cut entitlement spending and raised revenues by overhauling tax breaks. “Everything will be on the table,” he said.

The 2011 agreement left unspecified how to achieve the additional $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years. That fall a so-called supercommittee considered revenue increases totaling $300 billion in a Republican plan, $800 billion in Democrats’ offer. With the super-committee’s failure, Mr. Obama and Congress had a year to seek the elusive “grand bargain.”

Woodward’s piece is labeled opinion.  But it is in fact not opinion; it is bald representation of fact.  In other words, it is standard journalism reportage.  Except for the fact that the key representation of fact is patently false, and false in a respect that not only is extremely easy to refute with tangible facts, as Calmes does, but also false in a manner that is flagrant to anyone who recalls last year’s campaign.  Specifically, Obama built his entire campaign last year primarily around the promise to raise income tax rates to Clinton-era levels for people with incomes above $250,000; to close tax loopholes for the wealthy and corporations; and to protect basic social safety net programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as much as possible while increasing spending on certain other targeted programs.  

But it’s also obvious that it’s false because, well, why in heaven’s name would Obama agree to not demand tax increases to replace a sequester that he was proposing precisely because he was not willing to agree to spending cuts without revenue increases? Why wouldn’t he just have agreed to the Republicans’ demands in Aug. 2011 instead of agreeing to agree to those demands at the expiration of the sequester?

Obama wouldn’t, of course.  So the next question is: Why in heaven’s name would this journalist claim Obama did?

Part of the answer is clear to me, upon reading the last several paragraphs of Woodward’s article–where the bizarre claim is made. Here are the paragraphs:

On Tuesday, Obama appeared at the White House with a group of police officers and firefighters to denounce the sequester as a “meat-cleaver approach” that would jeopardize military readiness and investments in education, energy and readiness. He also said it would cost jobs. But, the president said, the substitute would have to include new revenue through tax reform.

At noon that same day, White House press secretary Jay Carney shifted position and accepted sequester paternity.

“The sequester was something that was discussed,” Carney said. Walking back the earlier statements, he added carefully, “and as has been reported, it was an idea that the White House put forward.”

This was an acknowledgment that the president and Lew had been wrong.
Why does this matter?

First, months of White House dissembling further eroded any semblance of trust between Obama and congressional Republicans. (The Republicans are by no means blameless and have had their own episodes of denial and bald-faced message management.)

Second, Lew testified during his confirmation hearing that the Republicans would not go along with new revenue in the portion of the deficit-reduction plan that became the sequester. 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. His call for a balanced approach is reasonable, and he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more. But that was not the deal he made.

Ah.  Reread the second- and third-last paragraphs there, the paragraphs just be the denouement:

Second, Lew testified during his confirmation hearing that the Republicans would not go along with new revenue in the portion of the deficit-reduction plan that became the sequester. 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.

Yes, Mr. Woodward.  Lew testified during his confirmation hearing that the Republicans would not go along with new revenue in the portion of the deficit-reduction plan that became the sequester.  Yes, the sequester was an option the White house was forced to take because the Republicans would not do tax increases.

And, yes, Mr. Woodward, 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.

And the 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.  It did not, of course, include an agreement that there would be no tax increases in the final agreement to replace sequester 18 months later.

If Bob Woodward really believes that Obama agreed in Aug. 2011 to cut the federal budget deficit by about $3 trillion (or whatever the figure is) almost entirely through cuts to (near-elimination of large parts of) the social safety net and other non-defense “discretionary” spending–and that is exactly what Woodward is claiming–then I want to offer to sell him a quitclaim deed to the Brooklyn Bridge.  

My real estate agent moonlights as a Republican congressional staffer–the one who just sold Woodward a bill of goods. Woodward probably will have to get a mortgage, though.  He’s probably out of liquid assets at the moment.

There is, of course, a serious matter here, but it’s not the substance of the agreement between Obama and the congressional Republicans on how to avoid default on the United States’ incurred debt obligations.  It’s why this journalist’s longtime employer, the Washington Post, has given him carte blanche to use it as a forum to disseminate obviously false representations of fact.  And, to borrow a phrase from Woodward, why does it matter?

These are not rhetorical questions, but the Post surely won’t answer the first one, and the second one, though not rhetorical, does answer itself.  At least under any journalistic standards worth having, it does.

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