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?

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.

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.