Bob Woodward's new book, "The Price Of Politics," his 17th, is the close-up story of how governance in Washington is broken and the country suffers.
More broadly, the book addresses what seem to be unending presidential and congressional campaigns, the American economy and its parlous state of disrepair.
"The Price" is replete with the usual Woodward fare: notes, documents, emails and interviews that describe in detail that the United States is on the edge of a fiscal cliff and our sherpas, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, don't know which way is up. They have lost our compass and disagree about who dropped it into the crevice of deepening debt.
Woodward tells us that "… neither President Obama nor Speaker Boehner handled the debt limit crisis particularly well. Despite their evolving personal relationship, neither was able to transcend their fixed partisan convictions and doctrines. Rather than fixing the problem, they postponed it."
(On a personal note, I can say that shutting the government down is a disgrace for a mature democracy. I worked at Treasury when President Bill Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich disagreed about Medicare, education, public health and the environment in 1995 and 1996. Their disagreement shut the government down for a total of 28 days. It was a disaster.)
Specifically, Woodward writes in detail about something that did not happen, extending the federal debt ceiling. Describing a process that failed is tough, but Woodward is tougher. He lets us in on more than most may want to know about the rancor within our government and how comity disappeared with the appearance of the Tea Party.
Ideological sharpshooters on both Republican and Democratic sides have blinkered the lights of compromise on Capitol Hill. Cadging personal or philosophical points within the Beltway by politicians is a no-win game for the rest of America.
About this Woodward writes, "… President Obama lost control of negotiations to extend the federal debt ceiling in the summer of 2011, and on July 23, the four top congressional leaders asked him to leave a meeting he had called in the Cabinet Room of the White House."
Woodward continues the recounted dialogue: "Mr. President," House Speaker John Boehner said, "As I read the Constitution, the Congress writes the laws. You get to decide if you want to sign them."
"Fine, talk," the president said. ‘Knock yourselves out if you can get a deal. … Just do it – if you can."
"Boehner later told Woodward, ‘Oh, God, if you could have seen the look on his face. I'm surprised he didn't storm out of the room.' " Later he told the same reporter about the White House, "There's nobody in charge."
Within weeks, the relationship between Obama and Boehner had gone south. They were shouting at each other in phone calls. "He (Obama) was spewing coals. He was pissed," Boehner told Woodward of one conversation.
Not only that, but Boehner told Woodward about his being Speaker, "… I need this job like a hole in the head. And I don't think what the president understood or some others understood is that I didn't really care." If he lost the speakership, he said, he would be comfortable. There was blame on both sides. Woodward tells us that the president was risk-averse and that Boehner never closed the deal with House Republicans by establishing firm leadership.
Larry Summers, who was Obama's director of the National Economic Council, left the job – according to Woodward – critical of Obama. Summers thought the president wasn't "ideologically driven." After the fact, Summers disagrees with Woodward's characterization of his view.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had a clear view of what a default would mean. According to Woodward, In a July 29, 2011, meeting, Geithner warned against a default at all costs. "It would have massive effects," Geithner said …."The cascading impact would be unknowable ….The one pillar of stability, the United States, the rock in the global economy, could collapse ….something that would lasting for generations."
Geithner basically told the president to hold his nose and approve the bill. Obama disregarded his treasurer's advice, saying that he was ready to risk default in order to put an end to the series of budget crises that had regularly brought Washington to stalemate, according to Woodward.
Woodward writes that Vice President Joe Biden tried to help. On May 5, 2011, "he convened the first in a weeks-long series of meetings between congressional Democrats and Republicans to discuss reducing the federal deficit and setting a new debt ceiling." He worked with Eric Cantor, Boehner's minority leader deputy, and they hit it off personally, but came to no resolution themselves.
By July 19, 2011, the White House and Boehner agreed on an outline of a deal, but a group of senators, the Gang of Six, released a deficit reduction plan of their own which couldn't get Democratic support. After that, Obama wanted changes too. Nobody got what they wanted. Most of all, the country got nothing from the "grand bargain" that never was.
Woodward is clear in his implication that the country is being exploited by its governing class. Those who need the most get the least while Washington argues on.
Michael D. Langan was chief of staff for U.S. Rep. John J. LaFalce and later senior adviser to the undersecretary for enforcement at the U. S. Treasury Department.
The Price Of Politics
By Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster
428 pages, $30