Republican strategy during the sequestration fight depends upon two political givens: widespread public ignorance, and the extreme reluctance of the traditional Washington news media to exhibit “liberal bias” by stressing inconvenient facts.
After all, aren’t “both sides” equally responsible for the current budgetary impasse? And shouldn’t President Obama lead by making the GOP the proverbial offer it can’t refuse?
Exactly what such an offer might consist of remains vague. Mostly, it’s coulda, shoulda, woulda stuff from celebrity pundits like Bob Woodward, the Washington Post editor who spent much of last week on national TV demonstrating that he can’t distinguish a warning from an apology.
“You do not ever have to apologize to me,” Woodward had responded to an allegedly intimidating e-mail from longtime White House source Gene Sperling. “I also welcome your personal advice. I am listening.”
Wow, that must have been scary! Faced with incredulity after the inoffensive e-mail became public, Woodward alibied that he’d never exactly called it threatening.
Which begs the question of why he was talking about it on TV. Look, people frequently wander into newspaper offices describing government plots against them — often spelled out in all caps, with lots of red ink underlines and rows of exclamation points. Most often they’re gently shown the door.
But I digress. Sperling’s point was that Woodward was completely off-base in saying President Obama had “moved the goal posts” by seeking to close tax loopholes enabling guys like Mitt Romney to pay lower income tax rates than his wife’s horse trainers.
Could there be anybody in America who didn’t know that?
Certainly not Bill Keller. To the New York Times editor, Obama’s big sin was building “a re-election campaign that was long on making the wealthiest pay more in taxes, short on spending discipline, and firmly hands-off on the problem of entitlements.”
Keller thinks that had President Obama campaigned on the Simpson-Bowles-style austerity so beloved by “centrist” pundits whose own finances are secure, “he could now claim a mandate from voters to do something big and bold.” Instead, a weakened president now sounds “helpless, if not acquiescent.”
True, Keller does concede that “much of the responsibility for our perpetual crisis can be laid at the feet of a pigheaded Republican Party, cowed by its angry, anti-spending, anti-taxing, anti-Obama base.”
But nowhere in all this sonorous muck will you find a factual account of exactly what the White House proposes to resolve the sequester that congressional Republicans find so abhorrent.
To do so would endanger the whole centrist enterprise, enabling Washington wise men like Woodward and Keller to masquerade as nonpartisan and above the battle.
Which brings us back to Ezra Klein, boy pundit.
When last we encountered the 28-year-old Washington Post blogger, he’d done the unthinkable: phoned David Brooks and informed him that his column lampooning the Obama White House for proposing no plan was bollocks. He directed Brooks to the White House website, where a detailed deficit reduction proposal based upon spending cuts, entitlement reforms and revenue increases has been posted for months.
Also unthinkable, and much to his credit, Brooks admitted the error in the lede of his next column. Evidently, he’d been taken in by Speaker John Boehner, who’s been doing TV interviews for weeks now urging Obama and the Democrats to get off their collective asses.
So was it really possible, Klein wondered, that Republicans didn’t actually know about President Obama’s offer? Curious, Klein got himself invited to a GOP background briefing “with one of the most respected Republicans in Congress.” As a policy wonk, Klein was astonished to learn that Republicans in attendance had no idea that the Obama administration had put “chained CPI,” for example, on the table.
That’s a way of restraining the growth in Social Security payments by reconfiguring inflation. Most liberals bitterly oppose it.
Indeed, Klein found that on a whole range of issues, “top Republicans simply don’t know the compromises the White House is willing to make on Medicare and Social Security.”
So it’s all a big misunderstanding? Or was Klein simply being naive?
The latter, chided friendly rival Jonathan Chait at New York magazine. “If Obama could get hold of Klein’s mystery legislator and inform him of his budget offer,” he predicted, “it almost certainly wouldn’t make a difference. He would come up with something — the cuts aren’t real, or the taxes are awful, or they can’t trust Obama to carry them out, or something.”
That’s precisely what happened. Klein posted a series of Twitter posts from influential GOP consultant Mike Murphy, showing how Murphy downgraded chained CPI from an essential reform to a meaningless “gimmick” within hours of learning that the White House proposed it.
It’s all quite funny, from a cynical perspective, but perfectly illustrative of today’s GOP.
Meanwhile, Klein and Chait’s brand of irreverent, fact-driven journalism is a refreshing change in the clubby world of Washington political reporting.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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