Sequester: Who gets the blame?
So the economic plan to cut federal government spending that was deliberately devised to be so draconian that no sane Washington lawmaker would allow it to happen — has happened. And even before the egregious aspects of this plan take hold, our national news media are mainly obsessed with the blame game.
One of mainstream media’s most famous journalists, Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, wrote an explosive column on the subject of blame last week. He identified President Obama as having been the first to propose the sequester, which Woodward defines as “the term for the $85 billion in ugly and largely irrational federal spending cuts.” In challenging the president’s veracity in claiming the cuts were first proposed by Congress, Woodward handed Republicans and Obama’s critics a beautifully gift-wrapped weapon in the ongoing partisan budget wars. And near week’s end, Woodward said a senior White House figure “threatened” he would “regret” this column.
Actually, what Woodward wrote was complex — which I’ll get to in a moment. But in the no-nuances world of Facebook and Twitter-style journalism, the headline is the story. In this case the headline would be: This really bad idea was the president’s, and he’s being deceitful when he says Congress proposed it.
Woodward is now an associate editor of The Washington Post, a newspaper whose editorial page seems to be increasingly conservative, especially as it now advocates Middle East policies reminiscent of Bush II’s neo-conservatives. I don’t know Woodward’s or his paper’s motives. But there appears little doubt that he wished to call out the president. Yet if you read his analysis carefully, it contains important information about the sequester that explains not just who proposed it — but when it was done and why.
As for the who, Woodward writes, “My extensive reporting for my book ‘The Price of Politics’ shows that the automatic spending cuts were initiated by the White House.” He goes on to say they were the “brainchild” of Jack Lew (then White House budget director, now the new treasury secretary) and congressional relations chief Rob Nabors. Woodward gives us the exact time and date — 2:30 p.m., July 27, 2011 — when with the president’s blessing, the idea was first presented to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Woodward includes what The Boston Globe later stressed, that this was not an original idea. During budget crises of the 1980s a similar tactic was first used by Republican Sens. Warren Rudman and Phil Gramm and Democrat Fritz Hollings. Then as now, the idea was to create consequences so unacceptable that the Senate, however reluctantly, would be forced to take reasonable action. It didn’t really work then either.
The when is very important, because July 2011 is when tea party-dominated House Republicans refused to raise the national debt limit to pay for spending the United States government had already incurred — unless their demands for drastic budget cuts were met. In other words, these people were willing to threaten the full faith and credit of the United States, with the real possibility of far-reaching consequences for the entire world economy, if they couldn’t have their way.
Obviously, that also explains the why, although Lew further refines the reason. Woodward quotes, but then dismisses, what Lew said last fall: “There was an insistence on the part of Republicans in Congress for there to be some automatic trigger (for major budget cuts).” That is key. It meant in order to prevent the disaster of a debt default, the tea partiers were demanding mandated, automatic budget cuts.
The answers to the who, when and why questions amount to major mitigating circumstances for the president. And Woodward himself tacitly concedes in this parenthetical aside: “(The Republicans are by no means blameless and have had their own episodes of denial and bald-faced message management.)” Yet, still he makes the case that as Obama proposed this onerous budget slashing, he can’t escape the blame for it.
In framing the issue that way, I strongly believe Woodward got it wrong. What the White House did in 2011 was a reaction to unprecedented and unacceptable demands from a group, able and willing to inflict potentially extreme economic harm to this country, to advance its own narrow political goals. How then could the president’s proposals, extracted with a figurative gun to the country’s head, be factually identified as the cause of the present crisis? In this political hijacking, aren’t the tea partiers who held America hostage responsible for the ultimate consequences of their actions?
Of course, Woodward’s conclusions are now offered as proof of Obama’s culpability — especially by those who perpetually condemn the “liberal bias” of the mainstream media. Recently, Fox News’ Sean Hannity railed against what he called the “lap dog, kiss-ass media” who never challenge Obama. Meanwhile, Karl Rove wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Obama is a once-in-a-generation demagogue with a compliant press corps.”
Hannity and Rove know all about a “lap dog” and “compliant” press corps. Their careers blossomed during the first term of President George W. Bush — a period when the White House press corps was being ridiculed for its obsequiousness on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” among others. And while the news media didn’t start the disastrous Iraq War, it can certainly be argued that if they had properly done their jobs, the White House hard sell of Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction would have been a lot less likely to have succeeded.
Over the years, I’ve had pleasant personal interactions with Bob Woodward. And I worked with Carl Bernstein, when for a time he was ABC News Washington bureau chief. I respect them both. Their reporting on Watergate set a very high bar for journalists everywhere. That said, I feel that Woodward’s effectively making Barack Obama the sequester villain was a real stretch. But it does prove one thing. There is no longer, if there ever was, a liberal bias in the mainstream media — and especially not in the editorial pages of The Washington Post.
Barrie Dunsmore is a former ABC News foreign correspondent. He lives in Charlotte.