Matt Bai, chief political correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, delivered Sunday a 10,000-word epic cover story on last summer's failed debt negotiations between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner: "Who Killed the Debt Deal?" Bai, who appeared on ABC's This Week on Sunday to say the public was missing "all the good things" Obama-care will do for them, and sees a racial element in virtually every GOP attack on Obama, basically sided with the president in his epic tick-tock on the debt negotiation imbroglio that captured D.C. last summer.
It follows the Washington Post's 4,600-word effort on March 17, which leaned toward Obama as the chief culprit in the failed negotiations: "Obama, nervous about how to defend the emerging agreement to his own Democratic base, upped the ante in a way that made it more difficult for Boehner -- already facing long odds -- to sell it to his party. Eventually, the president tried to put the original framework back in play, but by then it was too late. The moment of making history had passed."
Bai's tone is more anti-Republican, with talk of Tea Party "extremists," the presence of a "rigid fiscal conservative" in the Gang of 6 compromise group, and President Bush's indefensible tax cuts, as well as siding with Obama over Boehner in the blame-game:
The Republican version of reality goes, briefly, like this: Boehner and Obama shook hands on a far-reaching deal to rewrite the tax code, roll back the cost of entitlements and slash deficits. But then Obama, reacting to pressure from Democrats in Congress, panicked at the last minute and suddenly demanded that Republicans accede to hundreds of billions of dollars in additional tax revenue. A frustrated Boehner no longer believed he could trust the president’s word, and he walked away. Obama moved the goal posts, is the Republican mantra.
In the White House’s telling of the story, Obama and Boehner did indeed settle on a rough framework for a deal, but it was all part of a fluid negotiation, and additional revenue was just one of the options on the table -- not a last-minute demand. And while the president stood resolute against pressure from his own party, Boehner crumpled when challenged by the more radical members in his caucus. According to this version, Boehner made up the story about a late-breaking demand as a way of extricating himself from the negotiations, because he realized he couldn’t bring recalcitrant Republicans along. Boehner couldn’t deliver, is what Democrats have repeatedly said.
What emerged from these conversations is a clearer and often surprising picture of exactly how close Obama and Boehner came to finalizing a historic agreement, what exactly was in it and why it ultimately fell apart -- including a revelation that illuminates Boehner’s thinking in those final hours and directly contradicts a core element of the version he has told, even to some in his own leadership.
Nothing better illustrated Boehner’s position than his clandestine, convoluted overture to the president on taxes. The offer for $800 billion in additional revenue -- as opposed to, say, $700 billion or $900 billion -- was no accident. On one hand, Boehner’s people must have known that Obama probably couldn’t settle for anything less than that, because Democrats in Congress would demand that any deal recoup the cost of Bush’s least defensible tax cuts. At the same time, Boehner’s aides had calculated that, at $800 billion, they could plausibly argue to their own caucus that the government could raise more money without actually raising anyone’s taxes.
While Bai relayed a few pro-Boehner anecdotes on the difficulty of the House Speaker's position, his main thrust was along these lines:
The speaker’s story about this moment in the negotiations has always been remarkably consistent, and he and his aides have repeated it frequently in recent weeks, including to me. The additional revenue that Obama demanded was a “nonstarter,” he says. He did a “gut check” and decided that he could no longer trust the president, who obviously didn’t have the courage to stand behind the deal they had made. And so Boehner had no choice but to walk away from the negotiations. He and Cantor, of like mind, reached this conclusion together.
It’s a clean story of a man standing by his conservative principles. And yet the additional revenue wasn’t, strictly speaking, a nonstarter. After all, Boehner wanted a deal badly enough to stay at the table for 48 hours after Obama “moved the goal posts,” which casts doubt on his claim that this breach of trust was an obvious dealbreaker. And at some point that Thursday, Boehner and his most senior aides at least entertained what would have been an astounding counteroffer to the president.
What happened, instead, based on extensive reporting, was this: Boehner raised the possibility of his counteroffer with Cantor on that Thursday afternoon, and Cantor dismissed the suggestion out of hand. He had always warned that the White House couldn’t be trusted and would come back for more, and Obama’s reversal on the revenue number had vindicated that view. Cantor made it clear he wasn’t going to support any more counteroffers. He was pretty sure the caucus wouldn’t either. No longer was Cantor content to be the skeptic in the room. He was now certain that the grand bargain was a practical impossibility.
When Boehner finally called back late that Friday afternoon, it was a perfunctory call between wounded suitors. Each man hung up and immediately went out to tell his side of the story, offering the versions -- Obama moved the goal posts, Boehner couldn’t deliver -- that would soon become fixtures of Washington’s double-sided reality. Both were essentially true, and yet incomplete.
Why didn’t Boehner call back earlier on Friday? Any kid who has ever traded a Pokémon card knows that you don’t walk away from a negotiation without at least leaving your best offer on the table. Boehner would say that he had run out of time and was certain Obama wouldn’t budge. But there’s a more persuasive theory, which is that Boehner didn’t want to talk with Obama because he feared exactly the opposite -- that Obama would respond by offering him the original terms from the previous Sunday, and that Boehner would then find himself trapped. He had to now know that, despite his sense of himself as a persuasive statesman who could get his caucus to follow his lead, he couldn’t get any deal past even his own leadership. It was safer for Boehner to walk away and accuse Obama of having sabotaged the deal than to risk that Obama would retreat to the earlier terms on which they had agreed, forcing the speaker to backtrack himself.
Should Obama win re-election, on the other hand, he would face the impending crisis knowing that he had just run the final campaign of his life and that he had 18 months, at best, to solidify his legacy. Boehner might well find himself, two years removed from the Tea Party elections of 2010, with fewer extremists in his own caucus. And for all their residual bitterness and mistrust, they would both know that they still had a draft agreement that left them about 80 percent of the way there.