the national interest

The Weird Philosophy of Bob Woodward

US journalist Bob Woodward takes part in the TV show
How many hours do you have to spend hanging around parking garages before gas fume inhalation becomes a problem? Why is that question the photo caption here? Oh, no reason. Just a random thought. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

Over the weekend, Bob Woodward wrote a column for the Washington Post arguing that sequestration was invented by the Obama administration and that, since it entailed only spending cuts, Obama’s demand to replace it with a mix of revenue increases and cuts amounts to “moving the goalposts.” House Republicans, desperate for some validation of their “Obamaquester” talking point and gleeful to receive it from America’s most legendary reporter, immediately e-mailed the entire world.

The first part of Woodward’s claim — that Obama’s side came up with the sequestration idea — is very narrowly true, but it’s a meaningful point only if you ignore everything that happened before and after. The reason Obama came up with sequestration is that House Republicans had threatened a global economic crisis by refusing the raise the debt ceiling, so the two sides needed a way to get them to lift the debt ceiling. If a mugger demands your wallet, you say you left the wallet at home but offer your watch, it’s a wee bit unfair to describe the plan to give him a watch as “your idea.”

Woodward’s second point — “moving the goalposts” — has been torn to shreds like a hunk of meat tossed into the lion cage. Brian Beutler points out that the law didn’t call for spending cuts to be put into place, it called for “deficit reduction.” David Corn adds that Boehner himself conceded the possibility, however remote, that sequestration could be replaced with some mix of higher revenue and lower spending. Dave Weigel points out that Woodward’s own book says the same thing. There’s nothing left at all to the point Woodward is trying to argue here.

To understand where Woodward is coming from, you need to recall his book on the 2011 debt ceiling negotiations. That book was notable because it concluded that Obama was responsible for blowing up the big deal to reduce the deficit by spooking John Boehner and mishandling the negotiations. Woodward’s interpretive line here runs in contrast to every other account of the episode, which shows Obama was always ready to offer highly generous terms to Boehner, but Boehner simply concluded his party’s base, represented by Eric Cantor, would not accept higher revenue in any form.

As it happens, Ryan Lizza has a long profile of Cantor out today, and in it, Cantor actually confesses to killing the Grand Bargain:

On July 21st, Boehner paused in his discussions with Obama to talk to Cantor and outline the proposed deal. As Obama waited by the phone for a response from the Speaker, Cantor struck. Cantor told me that it was a “fair assessment” that he talked Boehner out of accepting Obama’s deal. He said he told Boehner that it would be better, instead, to take the issues of taxes and spending to the voters and “have it out” with the Democrats in the election. Why give Obama an enormous political victory, and potentially help him win reëlection, when they might be able to negotiate a more favorable deal with a new Republican President? Boehner told Obama there was no deal.

The key to understanding why Woodward is making such obviously tendentious claims is a line from his book, which was flagged by Noam Scheiber in his scathing review:

[P]residents work their will — or should work their will — on the important matters of national business,” Woodward adjudges. “Obama”—unlike Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — “has not.”

What Woodward is saying here is that the failure to strike a deal is Obama’s fault by definition. There is no set of imaginable facts that would cause Woodward to conclude that Congress bears responsibility for an agreement. It’s a truly bizarre way of thinking, but also a common one, combining elements of BipartisanThink and the Cult of the Presidency. Fellow venerable reporter Ron Fournier has been insisting that Obama ought to somehow mind-control Republicans into accepting higher revenue. “His aides and allies will ask, ’Exactly what can he do to get the GOP to deal?,’” writes Fournier, “That is a question best put to the president, a skilled and well-meaning leader elected to answer the toughest questions.” Hypnosis! Jedi mind tricks! Whatever! Fournier’s job is to demand that Obama do something that flies in the face of everything we know about the ideological makeup of the Republican Party and the nature of free will, not to explain how it could happen. David Gregory, among others, heartily endorses Fournier’s argument.

Woodward’s strange way of understanding this issue survives because it is something that he and certain people need to believe, for professional and ideological reasons.

The Weird Philosophy of Bob Woodward