In what has become one of the most bizarre and oddly sad chapters in political journalism, Bob Woodward, one of the principal architects in the dismantling of the Nixon Administration, got his panties in a bunch with the Obama Administration over an op-ed piece he wrote for The Washington Post, in which he accuses Obama of “moving the goal posts” with respect to the sequester.
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.
Of course there are just two tiny little problems with Woodward’s reasoning: 1. He completely glosses over the undeniable fact that the sequester would never have been necessary had Republicans not held the debt ceiling hostage; and 2. The Super Committee comprising members from both parties never had any restrictions on how to come up with the necessary deficit reduction. As Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine correctly pointed out, “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.”
But if Woodward’s selective amnesia was disappointing, what happened next was one for the ages. Woodward accused the Administration of threatening him over the op-ed piece. “I mean, it makes me very uncomfortable to have the White House telling reporters, you’re going to regret doing something that you believe in,” Woodward said.
The alleged perpetrator was Gene Sperling, one of Obama’s senior economic aides. The White House quickly issued a statement denying that Woodward was threatened. The whole thing was on the verge of deteriorating into a he said / he said until Politico released a transcript of the actual email exchange between the two.
From Sperling to Woodward:
Bob: I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today. My bad. I do understand your problems with a couple of our statements in the fall — but feel on the other hand that you focus on a few specific trees that gives a very wrong perception of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here.
But I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying that Potus asking for revenues is moving the goal post. I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim. The idea that the sequester was to force both sides to go back to try at a big or grand bargain with a mix of entitlements and revenues (even if there were serious disagreements on composition) was part of the DNA of the thing from the start. It was an accepted part of the understanding — from the start. Really. It was assumed by the Rs on the Supercommittee that came right after: it was assumed in the November-December 2012 negotiations. There may have been big disagreements over rates and ratios — but that it was supposed to be replaced by entitlements and revenues of some form is not controversial. (Indeed, the discretionary savings amount from the Boehner-Obama negotiations were locked in in BCA: the sequester was just designed to force all back to table on entitlements and revenues.)
I agree there are more than one side to our first disagreement, but again think this latter issue is different. Not out to argue and argue on this latter point. Just my sincere advice. Your call obviously.
My apologies again for raising my voice on the call with you. Feel bad about that and truly apologize. Gene
From Woodward to Sperling:
Gene: You do not ever have to apologize to me. You get wound up because you are making your points and you believe them. This is all part of a serious discussion. I for one welcome a little heat; there should more given the importance. I also welcome your personal advice. I am listening. I know you lived all this. My partial advantage is that I talked extensively with all involved. I am traveling and will try to reach you after 3 pm today. Best, Bob
About the only thing missing from Sperling’s “threat” was an engraved invitation to dinner and flowers. I’ve been in sales for the better part of two decades and I know a threat when I see one. If this is a threat than half the bosses I’ve worked for should’ve been locked up.
It’s hard to believe that someone as experienced and savvy as Bob Woodward could so thoroughly embarrass himself over something so innocuous as a heated exchange. Putting aside the fact that Woodward was writing an op-ed piece which, in and of itself, was open to challenge, not just by the Obama White House, but by Woodward’s own book, it is widely accepted that journalists often get push back from politicians when they do stories, especially when those stories tend to not be flattering. It’s part of the job.
To its credit, most of the press corps has called out Woodward. This is what Bret Baier of Fox News had to say about it. “It was a cordial exchange for the most part, and Sperling is actually apologizing for a heated telephone conversation they had earlier in the day.” Hint, when someone, anyone, from Fox News actually sides with the Obama Administration, you know you’re in no man’s land.
To add insult to injury, Woodward compounded the incident further by going on Sean Hannity’s show Thursday night on Fox News, digging the self-made hole deeper. The manner in which Woodward sucked up to Hannity was painful to watch.
My guess is that Woodward has some serious damage control to tend to. Already he is starting to backtrack on his claims, saying he never actually used the word threat. He’s even blaming Politico for putting words in his mouth, as though anybody could do that to a reporter of Woodward’s supposed stature. If you watch the CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer, it’s pretty obvious what Woodward is inferring. This has now become a major embarrassment for him and he has no one but himself to blame.
Forty years ago Bob Woodward, along with his colleague Carl Bernstein, exposed the corruption in the Nixon White House which brought about the end of that presidency. It would be a cruel irony if this escapade ended up being his own epitaph.