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NYT Magazine: Obama vs. Boehner: Who Killed the Debt Deal?

Author: Matt Bai
March 28, 2012

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Matt Bai goes beyond the months of self-serving narratives and accusations to document a full account of how a historic debt deal went bad.

Almost immediately after the so-called grand bargain between President Obama and the Republican speaker of the house, John Boehner, unraveled last July, the two sides quickly settled into dueling, self-serving narratives of what transpired behind closed doors. In the months that followed, some of Washington's most connected Democrats and Republicans told me in casual conversations that they didn't know whose story to believe, or even what, exactly, had been on the table during the negotiations. A few mentioned, independently of one another, that the entire affair reminded them of "Rashomon," the classic Kurosawa film in which four characters filter the same murder plot through their different perspectives. Over time, the whole debacle became the perfect metaphor for a city in which the two parties seem more and more to occupy not just opposing places on the political spectrum, but distinct realities altogether.

There is a practical reason for this. Both sides knew that if the most crucial and contested details of their deliberations became public, it would complicate relationships with some of their most important constituencies in Washington — or worse. It's one thing for a Democratic president to embrace painful cuts in Medicare and Social Security benefits, or for a Republican speaker to contemplate raising taxes, if they can ultimately claim that they've joined together to make the hard decisions necessary for the country; it's quite another thing to shatter the trust of your most ideological allies and come away with nothing to show for it. Obama and Boehner have clung to their separate realities not just because it's useful to blame each other for the political dysfunction in Washington, but because neither wants to talk about just how far he was willing to go.

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.

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