Almost every bookshelf in the U.S. capital holds a thin volume called “13 Days,” Robert F. Kennedy’s account of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The centerpiece is a riveting account of the tedious negotiations to reach a “grand bargain” on the federal budget as the U.S. faced default last summer. Woodward’s implicit theme is that the price was too high -- for the economy, for the political system, for the country.
Like the author’s other books, this is the product of thousands of pages of transcripts from scores of interviews, including in this case 85 minutes each with the two principals, President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, neither of whom emerge as heroes in a chronicle conspicuously, even tragically, devoid of heroism.
If its 380 pages were to be distilled to one sentence it would surely be this: “It was increasingly clear that no one was running Washington.”
The entire trajectory of the administration -- frustrated hope, unrealized change -- was foreshadowed in its first week:
The president called a budget meeting. Representative Eric Cantor, then the minority whip, expressed skepticism about the president’s stimulus plan.
Obama lectured the young Republican: “Elections have consequences. And Eric, I won.” Three days later the president introduced an $800 million stimulus bill.
“We have the votes,” White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said, adding a trademark expletive.
And away they went -- and by “away,” we mean the two sides moved, furiously and fast, away from each other. The administration pressed ahead. Cantor insisted Obama’s plan wouldn’t get a single Republican vote. It didn’t.
“Obama had demonstrated that he believed he didn’t need any other input,” Woodward writes. “The Republicans were outsiders, outcasts. The president and the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate would go it alone. There was no compromise.”
But Woodward’s story is not merely the tale of Republicans versus Democrats.
It is the story of infighting between Democrats from the Northern Plains (Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus of Montana against budget hawk Kent Conrad of North Dakota) and distrust among Republicans (Cantor versus Boehner).
It pits Obama against, variously, business leaders, both chairmen of the Simpson-Bowles debt-reduction commission, House Democrats (including former Speaker Nancy Pelosi), the pharmaceutical lobby that sided with him on Obamacare and, fatefully, House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, now the GOP vice-presidential nominee.
The president’s attack on the Ryan plan with the congressman sitting only 25 feet away in a George Washington University auditorium became a defining D.C. moment, widening the partisan divide.
“The contrast between the cool bipartisan talk at the White House in the morning and the attack on the Republicans was stark,” Woodward says.
Later the disputes would be over the calculations -- political, not mathematical -- made in the heat of debate. Would there be $800 billion (or, later, $1.2 trillion) in revenues, and could the Republicans swallow that? Would there be changes in entitlements, and could the Democrats swallow those? If the Medicare eligibility age rose, would that begin in 2017, as Boehner proposed, or in 2022, as Obama insisted?
Woodward might find himself attacked for rooting for compromise in an era that dishonors compromise. He certainly won’t be accused of skimping on details in an age that rewards skimming along the surface, particularly in political reportage. Some might find all the detail tough going, but if you’re the kind of person who’s desperate to know the vote in a Ways and Means subcommittee hearing, you’ll find the book fascinating.
Ultimately Woodward blames both Obama and Boehner, not for insincerity but for ineffectiveness, and for letting too much of the negotiations be conducted by staff. He asserts, shockingly, that neither man “fully understood” what he was debating.
There’s more. In an era when an entire generation eschews the telephone, these two conducted much of their negotiations on the phone, producing “a monumental communications lapse between the president and the speaker at a critical juncture. They still disagree about what was said and what it meant.”
Woodward criticizes Obama for failing to do the hard things presidents are elected to do, and he criticizes Boehner for a failure of leadership, for failing to bring Cantor to heel -- and for trying to “sneak a debt ceiling bill past Cantor.” In all, he calls Washington political leaders “risk averse.”
Often books like this, peering deeply into the relationships that animate the capital and the maneuvers that characterize Congress, are praised for illuminating how Washington works. This one describes how Washington doesn’t work.
The phrase “the price of politics” is often used to describe the cost -- birthdays and soccer games missed, marriages bent and often broken -- leaders pay for power. This time the phrase means something bigger. The lingering economic crisis is the price we have paid for our politics.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: David M. Shribman at firstname.lastname@example.org.