Two new accounts of how the country ended up in what seems like permanent fiscal-crisis mode offer very different views of who bears most blame for the mess that is now bringing us the sequester.
In one corner there’s The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, who quotes House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor as saying it’s a “fair assessment” that he talked House Speaker John Boehner out of accepting a major tax-and-spending deal with President Obama. Lizza concludes that “by scuttling the 2011 Grand Bargain negotiations, Cantor, more than any other politician, helped create the series of fiscal crises that have gripped Washington since Election Day.”
In the other corner is The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, who fingers Obama. Woodward told Politico that based on his reporting for his book, “Obama deserves more of the blame for scuttling the grand bargain of 2011 that would have put sequestration to rest long ago. ‘He changed the deal, and it blew up,’ Woodward said. ‘I mean, you look at the facts, and even by the White House accounts by his aides, he was making a last-minute change.’”
In Lizza’s chronicle, Cantor urged Boehner to take tax and spending issues to the voters and “have it out” in the 2012 campaign. “Why give Obama an enormous political victory, and potentially help him win reelection, when they might be able to negotiate a more favorable deal with a new Republican president? Boehner told Obama there was no deal,” Lizza writes.
So instead of the grand bargain, we got the sequester, across-the-board spending cuts designed to be so abhorrent that Congress would never let them happen, and the bipartisan congressional super committee, which failed to come up with an alternative. So the sequester will become reality on Friday.
Looking back, it seems clear that Obama could have handled his end better, either by not asking for an extra $400 billion in tax revenue on top of an $800 billion already in the mix, or by explaining better to Boehner the pressure he was under from his party to make that request. And Boehner, instead of walking away, could have said he was not interested in the latest counteroffer and they should continue to work on the package under discussion.
Obama blindsided Boehner with a counteroffer that was a nonstarter, that much is clear. Boehner, for his part, adopted Cantor’s skepticism, brushed off the president and took the argument to the voters. “Instead of a grand bargain, Cantor and the House Republicans made a grand bet,” Lizza writes. “The bet failed spectacularly.”
You could make the case, as Cantor did, that a grand bargain would have been a big boost for Obama’s reelection chances. You could make an equally strong case that it was not helpful for Mitt Romney to have to defend signature GOP budget proposals to cut social programs and protect tax breaks for the wealthy.
There are really only two firm conclusions to draw: Both sides in the 2011 budget talks blew it, big-time, and aside from agreeing to one tax-rate hike early this year, Republicans have decided to largely ignore the fact that they lost the argument.