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THREAT-LEVEL-GATE©: Bob Woodward’s Awful Hope-Y’All-Won’t-Notice-Ryan-Lizza’s-Report Ploy

Bob Woodward, the legendary Watergate reporter turned reliable chronicler of insider accounts of political events, has made a series of bizarre assertions over the past week.
— Matthew Yglesias, Bob Woodward Trolls the World, Slate, today

Yglesias then summarizes last weekend’s exciting Woodward-related events, and then updates us:

Things moved into the absurd Wednesday night when it was revealed that National Economic Council director Gene Sperling had concluded an email disagreement with Woodward with the observation that in Sperling’s view Woodward would come to regret clinging so tenaciously to an untenable position.
As if determined to prove Sperling right, Woodward chose to start talking around town about how Sperling had threatened him—a ridiculous interpretation that the ridiculous conservative media has been running with—rather than sticking with the obvious interpretation that Woodward’s reputation among journalists is going to suffer from flagrant wrongness. It would be interesting to see Woodward try to hash this out with, say, fellow Post-ie Ezra Klein, but instead he’s going the full wingnut and will be appearing on Sean Hannity’s show Thursday night to advance the agitprop agenda. In retrospect, this whole affair was foreshadowed by the release of Woodward’s latest book last fall. It made much less of a splash than many other Woodward books. Most well-informed observers agreed with Noam Scheiber that it was marred by anti-Obama bias, but under the circumstances of the time, it didn’t get the right geared up either. By essentially doubling down on the worst qualities of that book, Woodward has managed to make himself the center of attention again.

Surprisingly, though, Yglesias doesn’t mention that earlier this week, New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza published a journalistic scoop that undermined the thing about Woodward being a reliable chronicler of insider accounts of political events.  Lizza quoted none other than Eric Cantor, who conceded that Boehner, at Cantor’s urging, reneged on the 2011 grand bargain deal at the last minute, for political reasons.  

Uh-oh.   

So, do you think Woodward might have decided to ratchet up the off-the-rails stuff a-few-fold yesterday because yesterday (or maybe the day before) was the day when Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker story broke?  Yeah?  You think?

Yes, that’s right.  Bob Woodward, the legendary Watergate reporter had turned a reliable chronicler of insider accounts of political events, and has now been exposed as a reliable and gullible tool of Republican insiders.  But he hopes no one will notice that.

What I find interesting about this is that apparently the Washington Post has pulled the plug on Woodward’s unfettered use of it as a forum in which to spread false statements of fact. Thus he was relegated to seeking out Politico as his venue for the “breaking news” this time.

Progress.

I can’t help wondering, though, whether Sperling was right that Woodward might come to regret his flagrantly false reporting on what the sequester agreement is.  He hasn’t yet, though. He’s still cowering with fear from that threat, but determined to press on nonetheless.

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By the way, you really, really need to see Alexandra Petri’s threat-level piece on this. Seriously.  (Just be sure you’re not eating anything you might choke on when you do.)

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Why Does Washington Post Columnist David Ignatius Say Obama Should Have Allowed Default On The National Debt in Aug. 2011? He Doesn’t Say Why, So Someone Should Ask Him.

To me, one of the big mysteries of the sequester blame game is why some in the punditry keep echoing John Boehner’s proud Obama-proposed-the-sequester line, without pointing out what the only alternative was.  The most baldly ridiculous of articles in that narrow genre is Washington Post columnist–and, I suspect, not coincidentally, Bob Woodward colleague–David Ignatius’s piece, in a column posted yesterday afternoon and published in today’s paper, in which Ignatius says in effect that Obama should have allowed a default of the federal government’s debt obligations in Aug. 2011 because the only alternative–”Obama’s sequester legislation”–is worse than what the result of a default would have been.

Seriously.  He does try, hard, to disguise that that is what he’s saying.  But the sleight of hand he uses is so flagrantly, well, a sleight of hand that he doesn’t succeed.  Here’s what he says:

Much as I would criticize Obama, it’s wrong to say that both sides are equally to blame for what’s about to hit us. This isn’t a one-off case of Republicans using Obama’s sequestration legislation to force reckless budget cuts. It’s a pattern of behavior: First the Republicans were prepared to shut down the government and damage the national credit rating with their showdown over the debt ceiling; then they were careening toward the “fiscal cliff.” This isn’t a legislative tactic anymore; it’s an addiction.

Soooo … he acknowledges that the Republicans were prepared to shut down the government and damage the national credit rating with their showdown over the debt ceiling. He just doesn’t mention that the impending debt default and Obama’s sequestration legislation–Obama presumably having become a member of the House for a few days back then and joined the Republican caucus–are, y’know, related.

So, since apparently Ignatius’s editors–Bob Woodward’s colleagues–didn’t ask him this, I will:  Since, without Obama’s sequester legislation, the government would in fact have shut down, and the damage to the national credit rating (among other things) would have been significant–and so, this is what Obama’s sequester avoided–why do you think Obama’s sequester legislation was worse?  Might it be that Bob Woodward said so?

Of course, I also think the news media should pose that question to Boehner next time he preens that the sequester was Obama’s idea and that he therefore “owns” it.  Since Obama also owns the avoidance of default on the federal government’s debt in aug. 2011, and since Boehner & Friends own the attempt to throw the world’s financial system into chaos in Aug. 2011, it does seem to me that ownership of the sequester might be a good thing, and ownership of the alternative to the sequester a bad thing.  Obama might want to point this out in, say, a 10-minute primetime TV address on these constant trumped up financial crises, and especially right now, the current one.  But, well, that’s just not something he would actually do.

Meanwhile, Post Columnist Matt Miller today does pinpoint where Obama is to blame in this: Agreeing to the mere $600 in increased tax revenue from the wealthy as part of the “fiscal cliff” resolution rather than simply allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire and having the new Congress write new tax legislation in the first two weeks or so of January.  Indeed.

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Offer Woodward a Buyout, Mr. Graham. And This Time Force Him to Take It. [UPDATED]

In followup to this post of mine from earlier today, I want to point out Ezra Klein’s post from last night titled “On the sequester, the American people ‘moved the goalposts’.” It begins:

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. What no one knew was who would win.
“Moving the goal posts” isn’t a concept that actually makes any sense in the context of replacing the sequester. The whole point of the policy was to buy time until someone, somehow, moved the goalposts such that the sequester could be replaced.

He then notes:

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. The hope was that sometime between the day the sequester was signed into law (Aug. 2, 2011) and the day it was set to go into effect (Jan. 1, 2013), something would…change.

There were two candidates to drive that change. The first and least likely was the supercommittee. If they came to a deal that both sides accepted, they could replace the sequester. They failed.

The second was the 2012 election. If Republicans won, then that would pretty much settle it: No tax increases. If President Obama won, then that, too, would pretty much settle it: The American people would’ve voted for the guy who wants to cut the deficit by increasing taxes.

The American people voted for the guy who wants to cut the deficit by increasing taxes.

And then there’s the coup de grâce:

In fact, they went even further than that. They also voted for a Senate that would cut the deficit by increasing taxes. And then they voted for a House that would cut the deficit by increasing taxes, though due to the quirks of congressional districts, they didn’t get one.

He ends his post by saying:

Here in DC, we can get a bit buried in Beltway minutia. The ongoing blame game over who concocted the sequester is an excellent example. But it’s worth remembering that the goalposts in American politics aren’t set in backroom deals between politicians. They’re set in elections. And in the 2012 election, the American people were very clear on where they wanted the goalposts moved to.

So Klein first makes clear, from his own direct, first-hand knowledge, that Woodward’s central representation of fact is false. He then deconstructs the very meaning of Woodward’s essential opinion claim by pointing out that it’s nutty.  

The Washington Post for the last several years has been engaged in numerous rounds of cost-cutting efforts, mainly through layoffs and buyouts.  Yet it continues to pay this has-been an almost-certainly-outsized salary, because 40 years ago he played a key role in breaking open this country’s worst (by far) political scandal, and thus cemented the Post’s status as a rival to the New York Times.  

But this episode highlights that that has become counterproductive.  

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UPDATE: Oh, dear. Turns out that Woodward took a buyout from the Post all the way back in 2008.  Who knew?  After all,  the preface to that now-infamous reporting–er, opinion-piece–published this weekend says he’s an associate editor.  And he gets paid only about $2 per word!  Maybe when his current contract runs out, the Post will start requiring him to pay the newspaper $2 per word to allow him to publish his outstanding reporting there.  Or at least will start requiring him to fact-check what he publishes there. 

Given that this info was easily available on the web before I posted this post yesterday, the Post might consider hiring me to write for them.  Looks like I qualify.

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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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