The weirdest and most unpredictable turn of the great budget war has been the emergence of Bob Woodward as flashpoint, news-driver, and sudden Republican hero. Woodward published an op-ed last weekend asserting that the Obama administration was “moving the goalposts” from its 2011 debt deal with the Republican House. Woodward now reports that he was threatened by an administration staffer, who turns out to be Economic Council director Gene Sperling. “I think you will regret staking out that claim,” said Sperling. In interviews with CNN and Politico, Woodward portrays this dark warning in sinister terms:
Woodward repeated the last sentence, making clear he saw it as a veiled threat. “ ‘You’ll regret.’ Come on,” he said. “I think if Obama himself saw the way they’re dealing with some of this, he would say, ‘Whoa, we don’t tell any reporter ‘you’re going to regret challenging us.’
Threats, by their nature, often involve ambiguous language. (“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” could mean “we’ll shoot him if he refuses,” but it could also mean, “let’s make him a really attractive offer.”) You certainly can’t disprove the possibility that Sperling, a diminutive but feisty policy wonk, was attempting to make Woodward fear being targeted for anything ranging from a tax audit to a drone strike. But the more plausible interpretation, which comes through in Sperling's pleading e-mail, is that Sperling meant that Woodward would regret tarnishing his reputation with an easily debunked claim.
As it happens, Sperling was wrong about that, too. Woodward has, not altogether unjustifiably, amassed enough prestige to withstand a hundred terrible op-eds. Indeed, the latest episode will probably serve only to further burnish his reputation, by demonstrating that an administration fears him enough to threaten (or argue with, or beg) him, and that the reporter who took down a Republican president can make enemies of Democratic ones as well.
To reconcile Woodward’s journalistic reputation with the weird pettiness of his current role, one has to grasp the distinction between his abilities as a reporter and his abilities as an analyst. Woodward was, and remains, an elite gatherer of facts. But anybody who has seen him commit acts of political commentary on television has witnessed a painful spectacle. As an analyst, Woodward is a particular kind of awful — a Georgetown Wise Man reliably and almost invariably mouthing the conventional wisdom of the Washington Establishment.
His more recent books often compile interesting facts, but how Woodward chooses to package those facts has come to represent a barometric measure of a figure’s standing within the establishment. His 1994 account of Bill Clinton’s major budget bill, which in retrospect was a major success, told a story of chaos and indecision. He wrote a fulsome love letter to Alan Greenspan, “Maestro,” at the peak of the Fed chairman’s almost comic prestige. In 2003, when George W. Bush was still a decisive and indispensable war leader, Woodward wrote a heroic treatment of the Iraq War. After Bush’s reputation had collapsed, Woodward packaged essentially the same facts into a devastating indictment. Woodward’s book on the 2011 debt negotiations was notable for arguing that Obama scotched a potential deficit deal. The central argument has since been debunked by no less a figure than Eric Cantor, who admitted to Ryan Lizza that he killed the deal.
Woodward entered the current debate in a way that is fundamentally analytical, not reportorial. His op-ed does not bring to bear any new facts, but merely crams already known facts into an argument so tendentious that not even Republicans thought to make it before Woodward did. Woodward’s argument is that Obama agreed that the failure to secure a debt agreement would trigger automatic budget cuts, or sequestration. Since sequestration did not include tax increases, he claims, Obama is “moving the goalposts” by demanding them.
Obama is moving the goalposts in the sense of trying to alter the terms of the automatic sequestration. But then, so are the Republicans, who also want to alter the terms of the automatic cuts. The 2011 agreement was designed to forestall a debt ceiling crisis and force some kind of agreement on the budget later, the parameters of which the two sides would have to contest. Literally nobody involved believes that Obama agreed, in any literal or figurative sense, that a failure to get a deal before the election meant he would give up trying to include revenue. Woodward’s argument is demonstrably absurd.
Woodward has been forcefully advocating this absurdity in a way that illuminates his role as an Establishment cipher. The Establishment view of the budget war is that Obama’s position is completely correct. (That is, of course, a kind of bias — an important one that defines the Republican anti-tax position out of the debate). But Establishmentarians believe even more strongly in “bipartisanship.” The contradiction between the two beliefs leads bipartisan thinkers to any number of silly mental dodges to escape the paradox. Some of them simply ignore Obama’s position, or deny it altogether. A more common dodge, taken up by Woodward and several other bipartisan types, is to insist that Obama must somehow compel Republicans to abandon their anti-tax ideology. Woodward apparently believes — I write “apparently” because Woodward’s position here isn’t coherent enough to define with any certainty — that Obama should actually ignore the law altogether:
“Can you imagine Ronald Reagan sitting there and saying, ‘Oh, by the way, I can’t do this because of some budget document?’” Woodward said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
“Or George W. Bush saying, ‘You know, I’m not going to invade Iraq because I can’t get the aircraft carriers I need’ or even Bill Clinton saying, ‘You know, I’m not going to attack Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters,’ as he did when Clinton was president because of some budget document?” Woodward added. “Under the Constitution, the president is commander-in-chief and employs the force. And so we now have the president going out because of this piece of paper and this agreement. ‘I can’t do what I need to do to protect the country.’ That’s a kind of madness that I haven’t seen in a long time.”
Now, obviously, ignoring the law would amount to an enormous actual abuse of presidential power, in contrast to the almost-certainly-imaginary abuse of dispatching an economic adviser to try to talk a reporter out of writing a really bad op-ed.
Update: Woodward, who has begun to look a little silly as even many conservatives have backed off their initial support, tells the Post's media reporter he didn't use the word "threat," and generally passes the blame for the brouhaha onto Politico:
Politico wrote that in an interview, Woodward had repeated the “regret” line, “making clear he saw it as a veiled threat.” Pressed moments ago on whether he’d ever used the term “threat” or “threatened” by the e-mail, Woodward responded, “No, I have not….I am uncomfortable because it is not the way to operate,” he said. When asked whether he felt there’d be payback on this front, Woodward declined to get into that matter.
Woodward did not use the term "threat." He used terms like "uncomfortable," "tremble, tremble." This is how Politico reported his interview:
Woodward repeated the last sentence, making clear he saw it as a veiled threat. “ ‘You’ll regret.’ Come on,” he said. “I think if Obama himself saw the way they’re dealing with some of this, he would say, ‘Whoa, we don’t tell any reporter ‘you’re going to regret challenging us.’”
"Threat" does not seem like a totally unfair interpretation of Woodward's account. On the other hand, there's enough space between what he said and "threat" that Politico could arguably bear some portion of the blame for the story's hype.