The Price of Politics
Simon & Schuster: 448 pp., $30
Mind-numbingly dull in large part and woefully myopic, Bob Woodward’s “The Price of Politics” is destined to be widely purchased but seldom fully read.
“Widely purchased” because Woodward, who has now written 17 books, has become a franchise. His name on the spine virtually guarantees a bestseller. No reporter has better access to Washington’s powerful, and none can beat his record of getting them to divulge secrets.
“Seldom fully read” because “The Price of Politics” represents a terrible mismatch of reporter and subject. The book’s topic, last summer’s standoff over raising the federal debt ceiling, contains no real secrets, thus vitiating Woodward’s great strength. Instead, it calls out for analysis and context, his great weaknesses.
Reporters for this and other news organizations chronicled the negotiations as they happened. And in the year since the debt-ceiling vote, other reporters, notably Matt Bai of the New York Times, have mined the ground thoroughly for what nuggets remained. Because of that, Woodward’s book contains no news of significance. The vast majority of the book’s anecdotes have the flavor of stale bread.
To summarize the action: In the spring of 2011, newly elected conservatives in the House of Representatives realized that a normally routine, but crucial, vote to raise the federal debt ceiling gave them leverage to force their priorities on President Obama and Senate Democrats. Thereupon, feverish negotiations ensued. In the midst of those talks, Obama and House Speaker John Boehner tried to reach a “grand bargain” that would have resolved the government’s fiscal problems for the next decade. The effort to raise the debt ceiling ultimately succeeded, but the broader talks failed.
How close Obama and Boehner came to a deal and why they failed have been the subject of mutual recriminations for more than a year. Woodward sheds little new light on either question. He interviews both men and their top aides, quotes their now-familiar spin at considerable length and states the obvious — their recollections disagree.
Beyond the ferreting out of secrets, Woodward’s other strength is his ability to put readers in the room as the decision makers work. Here, that’s no favor. Being in the room means being trapped as Obama, Boehner and senior aides trade budget proposals in a tedious process that ends not in a bang but a fizzle. Most readers will simply want to get out.
The worst problem, however, is that the intense focus on what is going on in the room blinds Woodward to the far more consequential actions taking place outside. Most important, the tea party conservatives, who launched the debt standoff and sharply limited Boehner’s ability to act, barely make an appearance. When late in the book they rise up and repeatedly block Boehner’s effort to get his own bill through the House, a reader may well wonder where they came from.
Woodward concludes that the budget talks failed because Obama and Boehner lacked the personal relationship and mutual trust to negotiate a deal. He assigns the majority of the blame to Obama, opening the book with anecdotes about how the young president alienated Republicans and business leaders in his first two years in office.
“Presidents work their will — or should work their will — on the important matters of national business,” and Obama failed to do so, he concludes.
That assessment simultaneously misunderstands the subject and vastly overstates presidential power.
Obama is no Lyndon B. Johnson — on that, the record is clear. But the grand bargain talks involved basic questions about the size of government and its role, issues on which the two parties and their voters fundamentally disagree. Bill Clinton, a politician as gregarious as Obama is aloof, couldn’t bridge that gap when he faced a similar standoff in 1995 and 1996. Of all the factors inhibiting agreement, the personal relationships among the men in the room is the most overrated.
Presidents have limited authority in the U.S. political system, and history shows they seldom can “work their will” on more than a handful of priorities. Obama had two in this case: to get Republicans to vote for a debt ceiling increase without eviscerating government safety net programs and to force them to approve a large enough increase to cover the remainder of his term.
Failure to increase the debt ceiling would have caused the U.S. government to default for the first time in history. Obama’s advisers warned that that could cause the financial system to collapse. Failure to get an 18-month extension, Obama feared, would destroy his presidency, allowing congressional Republicans to repeatedly hold him hostage on one issue after another.
As for Boehner, his priority was to keep intact a rebellious Republican caucus and avoid a financial collapse for which he feared his party would take the blame.
Ugly as the process was, both men got what they really wanted. As for those basic questions at issue in the grand bargain talks, if they are to be answered, the resolution will have to come not from a handful of officials in a conference room, but from voters in an election.