In the world of media giants, the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward has reached a legendary status with few rivals. If there’s a journalistic award to be won, Woodward has received it, including multiple Pulitzers. His Watergate coverage 40 years ago is, quite literally, the stuff of legend.
But even reporting icons sometimes make mistakes, some of them rather inexplicable.
Over the weekend, there was quite a kerfuffle when Woodward, to the delight of far-right bloggers, jumped into the debate over this week’s sequestration cuts, challenging some of the White House’s key assertions. For one thing, Woodward insists the sequester was President Obama’s idea. For another, Woodward wants the public to believe Obama is “moving the goal posts” by expecting Democrats and Republicans to reach a compromise including both spending cuts and revenue from closed tax loopholes. As far as the Washington Post reporter in concerned, sequestration cuts were supposed to be replaced entirely with different spending cuts, just as GOP policymakers demand.
Let’s take these one at a time. The first point, which Republicans and reporters find needlessly fascinating, is quickly becoming farcical. Tim Noah argued that the White House came up with the sequestration policy “in roughly the same sense that it was Charles Lindbergh’s bad idea eight decades ago to fork over the equivalent in today’s dollars of $840,000 to a German-born carpenter named Bruno Hauptmann…. The sequester was a ransom payment.” Noam Scheiber added that saying the sequester was Obama’s idea is “like saying it was your idea to give wallet to mugger when he said, ‘Your money or your life.’”
Republicans were threatening to crash the economy on purpose and Obama was scrambling to satisfy their demands before GOP lawmakers pulled the trigger and shot the hostage (which is to say, shot us). The sequester then became part of the plan that Republicans proceeded to vote for and brag about, before they came up with the “this is all Obama’s fault” talking point in the hopes of winning a bizarre public-relations fight.
After Republicans created a crisis, both sides created the sequester, and both sides now consider it dangerous. The point that matters, even if Very Serious People in Washington are reluctant to acknowledge it, is that only one side is prepared to compromise to resolve the problem.
Which leads us to Woodward’s second, and more dramatic, error.
For the Washington Post legend, Obama is “moving the goal posts,” since everyone realized in the summer of 2011 that the sequestration cuts were supposed to be replaced with a different set of cuts – and no new revenue. It’s unfair, Woodward argues, for the White House to suddenly expect a balanced compromise when that was never part of the original plan.
Woodward is plainly, demonstrably wrong. It’s not a matter of opinion and it’s not an answer found in a fuzzy gray area in which both sides have a credible claim.
When the Budget Control Act became law to end the Republicans’ debt-ceiling crisis in 2011, a “super-committee” was created to find an alternative to the sequester. Was the committee’s mandate to find a cuts-only policy? Of course not – even Republicans accepted the fact that some revenue would be part of a solution. President Obama, when signing the BCA, explicitly said, “You can’t close the deficit with just spending cuts…. It also means reforming our tax code so that the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations pay their fair share.’”
Brian Beutler added that Woodward “is just dead wrong.”
Obama and Democrats have always insisted that a balanced mix of spending cuts and higher taxes replace sequestration. It’s true that John Boehner wouldn’t agree to include new taxes in the enforcement mechanism itself, and thus that the enforcement mechanism he and Obama settled upon – sequestration – is composed exclusively of spending cuts. But the entire purpose of an enforcement mechanism is to make sure that the enforcement mechanism is never triggered. The key question is what action it was designed to compel. And on that score, the Budget Control Act is unambiguous.
First: “Unless a joint committee bill achieving an amount greater than $1,200,000,000,000 in deficit reduction as provided in section 401(b)(3)(B)(i)(II) of the Budget Control Act of 2011 is enacted by January 15, 2012, the discretionary spending limits listed in section 251(c) shall be revised, and discretionary appropriations and direct spending shall be reduced.”
Key words: “deficit reduction.” Not “spending cuts.” If Republicans wanted to make sure sequestration would be replaced with spending cuts only, that would have been the place to make a stand. Some of them certainly tried. But that’s not what ultimately won the day. Instead the, law tasked the Super Committee with replacing sequestration with a different deficit reduction bill – tax increases or no.
At a certain level, Woodward, despite having written extensively on the subject, seems somewhat confused about the specific details. In his op-ed, he wrote, “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….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.”
But that simply doesn’t make any sense. The sequester didn’t include revenue, so it’s unfair to expect the sequester alternative to have revenue? Why is that, exactly?
What’s especially troubling is that Woodward’s own book is at odds with the argument he presented in the new op-ed.
But wait, it gets worse. Woodward, who for whatever reason doesn’t seem to care for the president, made an unfortunate mistake and got caught. And if Woodward acknowledged his missteps and corrected them, it would have been easy to simply move on. Even journalistic legends make mistakes.
But in this case, after learning of the criticism, Woodward emailed Politico’s Mike Allen with a defense that made matters worse, flubbing several key, basic details, suggesting he’s even more confused about the debate than was evident from his mistaken op-ed.
Republicans seem thrilled with Woodward’s errors because they reinforce the story they’re eager to tell. But relying on mistakes to bolster a bad argument only makes Woodward and Republicans look worse.