Review | The Price of Politics by Bob Woodward

The Price of PoliticsAND NOW: something completely different than our typical posts of late on time travel, different worlds, and wizards.

Politics. (And just like that we loose half our readers…or more).

Just a short while ago, the US of A was in the throws of yet another manufactured crisis–the sequester! A long word with a very simple meaning (automatic spending cuts from the federal budget), it evoked cries of gloom and doom and the end of America as we know it.

The hype was a little obnoxious, even if the debate was very substantive and important. The story of how we got there is told by Bob Woodword in The Price of Politics.

The roots of the cuts go back to 2011 when President Obama failed to convince Congressional Republicans to raise the debt limit and enact a tax hike to cover the increased debt White House staffers–specifically Jack Lew and Rob Nabors–went to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and suggested sequester as a triggering mechanism. If a deal was not worked out by a certain date (March 1, 2013), then automatic cuts would happen. Reid liked the idea so much that he bent over in his chair and put his head between his legs like he was going to vomit. Seriously. (If my sarcasm it isn’t picking up, know that Reid was not a fan…)

No one thought it would fail. It was so bad that the other side will have to compromise, everyone thought.  Neither Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress and the President in the White House–assumed that no one would let sequestration happen.  Because the cuts were disproportionately high on defense spending, Democrats thought that Republicans would never let sequestration happen.  And Republicans thought that there was no way that the President would allow such broad, across-the-board cuts happen, either.

They we’re all of them deceived, even if just by their own hubris.

If reading The Price of Politics it doesn’t disabuse you of any trust you have in our elected officials ability to compromise, I don’t know what will.

The Price of Politics inexhaustibly details the negotiations over the summer of 2011 leading up to the debt crisis in early August of that year.   They began long before we heard about them in the press–months in advance, in fact–and included more than a few meetings between Vice President Biden, Rep. Eric Cantor, White House staff, Senators Kyl, Reid, Baucus, and McConnell, House Minority Leader Pelosi, and, at the center of it, President Obama and Speaker Boehner.

Most of them end up looking inexperienced and unskilled in negotiation  especially the President, his staff, and, to some extent, Speaker Boehner. And why? Because  both sides fail to listen to the other and throughout  remain entrenched in partisan dogmas that prevent them from finding compromise. Crucial negotiations and conversations repeatedly took place over the phone or after media leaks, with offers from each side repeatedly ignoring what the other had told them was an unfeasible option for them. Republicans would not settle for a bargain that did not rein in entitlement spending and Democrats would not agree to cuts to Medicare or Medicaid. Democrats would not do a deal that didn’t include tax hikes and the end of the Bush tax cuts, but Republicans were unwilling to allow any new tax revenues except through tax reform.

Neither side would shift to a middle ground.

English: White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanu...Early in the book, Woodward talks about the philosophy of the first White House Chief of Staff under President Obama, Rahm Emanuel. “F&#@ them! We have the votes.” With it, Democrats shoved healthcare reform through Congress rough shod and in spite of public opinion opposing it. When Republicans took back the House, the Obama White House never really learned how to compromise, but merely seemed to think that compromise meant talking with their opponents about what the White House insisted they do. No surprise, then, that Republicans could never really find a common ground with the White House. As Republicans often complained after being given yet another proposal that ignored their needs, “How are you, the White House, supposed to know what’s good for Republicans?”

Surprisingly, one of the few people who came across as the most flexible and able to make a deal was Vice President Biden. A character I have often thought of as a blowhard, gaff-prone Democratic operative often proved to be the person who could work with Republicans to find a feasible solution. Woodward often referred to him as a “McConnell whisperer” because of his relationship with the Senate Minority Leader and his ability to negotiate.

In the end though, as Woodward puts it, never has so much effort been made for so little result. The President won in being able to put off any more negotiation until after his reelection, and we ended up with a status quo result. Federal spending and revenues were left at the same place as before and on March 1–today–automatic across the board cuts amounting to 2% of the budget will go into effect at 11:59 PM.

What are our elected officials doing about it? Jetting across the country wasting valuable time telling the American people that it’s the other sides’ fault. No wonder no one trusts politicians.

Attack of the Books! is participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, a month long quest to post every day. Each day should match a letter of the alphabet. Today is the letter P (as in Price of Politics).

About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.

  • This could be a really interesting read for someone who follows politics closely, like my brother for instance. I’m interested to the extent that I know it affects so many aspects of our lives so I keep my ears open for news about spending cuts and law changes etc. but I’m not sure I could motivate myself to read a whole book on it. I prefer to escape into the realms of fantasy and sci-fi and pretend everything is shiny and happy in the real world 🙂 I became disillusioned with politics long ago and think most political parties are as bad as each other, to be honest. We’ve had the same kind of troubles here in England and most of them have their roots in dishonesty, deceit, greed and incompetence, so we don’t really trust our government either.

    • It’s true: reading a whole book on the mind-numbing minutia of seemingly endlessly repetitive meetings is…mind-numbing. (And I admit listening to large chunks on CD while in the car).