Among congressional Republicans, especially House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), a certain mythology has taken root on the fiscal negotiations from the summer of 2011. Unfortunately for the party, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has just helped debunk the GOP’s story.
The Democratic version of events happens to be the accurate one: Republicans had threatened to crash the economy on purpose unless their debt-ceiling demands were met, and in the hopes of resolving the crisis, President Obama offered Republicans an overly-generous, $4 trillion “Grand Bargain,” which included entitlement cuts and new revenue. Boehner was inclined to accept it, but his caucus balked, forcing the Speaker to walk away from the table.
Not so fast, the GOP says. In the Republican version of the story – which happens to be factually wrong – Boehner wanted to accept Obama’s offer, until the president started making unreasonable, last-minute demands, which the Speaker couldn’t accept. Boehner tells this story so often, it’s no longer clear if he even realizes he’s lying.
Either way, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza has a fascinating new piece on Eric Cantor, which helps pull back the curtain on the talks from two years ago.
In June of 2011, the President and the Speaker began working toward a Grand Bargain of major tax increases and spending cuts to address the government’s long-term budget deficits. Until late June, Boehner had managed to keep these talks secret from Cantor. 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 re-election, when they might be able to negotiate a more favorable deal with a new Republican President? Boehner told Obama there was no deal. Instead of a Grand Bargain, Cantor and the House Republicans made a grand bet.
The bet failed spectacularly.
It did, indeed. The gamble was, Obama would lose. Instead, the president won re-election fairly easily, and the White House, freed from re-election concerns, will never, ever offer Boehner another deal as generous as that one again. Republicans took their fight to the electorate, and the public made their preference clear: the American mainstream sides with Obama’s agenda, not the GOP’s.
But Cantor’s candor also tells us something important about the larger narrative.
For nearly two years, the Speaker of the House has said Obama walked away from the Grand Bargain, which helped created a toxic political environment that hasn’t faded. Republicans were prepared to take the plunge, we’ve been told repeatedly, but it was that rascally president who was too afraid of the Democratic base to follow through. Plenty of pundits, some of whom really should know better, actually believe this version of events. They even use it as an example of failed presidential “leadership”
But now, it’s the House Majority Leader who’s willing to say it’s a “fair assessment” that Boehner’s tale is, and has always been, untrue. It wasn’t the president who balked, it was Cantor who “talked Boehner out of accepting Obama’s deal.”
Cantor didn’t want to solve the fiscal problem he and his party helped create during the Bush/Cheney era; Cantor wanted to leave the problem untouched so his party would have something to whine about during the 2012 election campaign.
It amazes me that the Majority Leader was willing to admit this – it makes Cantor look amoral and it makes Boehner look remarkably dishonest – but I’m glad he did it anyway.