In the news business they’re known as the Friday Night Follies – say you’re a politician who has something that needs to be made public, but it will cause no end of trouble, so you announce it after five in the afternoon, Eastern Time, on a Friday. As a rule, you manage the news by keeping the startling stuff under wraps until late Friday afternoon. The national broadcast news shows for Friday have by then been set in stone – timed and rehearsed for the twenty-two available minutes in the half-hour. The nifty graphics have all been worked out. And the cable news shows for the whole weekend have all been booked and set up – and of course the Stewart and Colbert shows don’t air on Friday night. And too, no one much reads the newspapers Saturday morning, so even if a big story breaks, there’s no broadcast echo chamber to keep it alive – and the cable news folks know that people, if they are in on the weekends, watch sports if they watch anything at all, so they run “in-depth” backgrounders or light fare, and MSNBC runs those endless hour-long canned prison shows.
But sometimes it’s not that at all. Sometimes you break really bad news late on a Friday afternoon because it is best held back until after the markets close. You don’t want to announce something awful at ten in the morning and have the Dow drop two thousand points with no bottom in sight, and then have half of America spend the weekend wondering, come Monday, how they will manage with their retirement completely wiped out, again, and whether they will even have a job by Monday afternoon. You save the bad news until after the markets close. You want to give investors and traders – two different sorts of folks, really – time to calm down. They can’t do anything rash and stupid when the markets are closed, after all – and yes, panic may be unavoidable, but when you have no way to act on it, it does tend to slowly wane. When the markets open Monday you might get grim resignation, not panic. At least that’s the idea.
But Friday, July 22, something was up. There were all the news stories that Obama and Boehner had been meeting and working out a deal on raising the debt ceiling, so the issue of whether or not the country would descend into a roiling economic meltdown of historically dire proportions – as the Onion put it – was being settled. Something was being worked out. America would not default on its debts. We would not willingly, and for no real reason, choose to be just one more pathetic third-world deadbeat nation, and there’d be no worldwide economic apocalypse as the world’s richest and strongest and most successful nation declared sovereign insolvency.
But it seems Boehner had stopped returning Obama’s calls that morning. He wasn’t available. He wasn’t in. And a few hours after the markets closed, Boehner finally did pick up. He told Obama he wasn’t going to talk to him anymore. He was walking out on the negotiations, although no walking was involved. He just told Obama he had nothing further to say to him, at all, and he had just told the national press that very thing – and maybe if Obama had watched the news he’d have known that.
It was a bit rude, but it seemed calculated to play well to the American public – people do admire uncompromising strength, or something. And rude always polls far better than gracious. America loves a winner who just sneers and takes what he wants. Call it the Charlie Sheen or George Bush gambit. No one likes a wimp. And the New York Times reported it this way:
Negotiations over a broad deficit reduction plan collapsed in acrimony on Friday after Speaker John A. Boehner suddenly broke off talks with President Obama, raising the risk of an economy-shaking default. The latest turn in the summer’s epic clash between the White House and Congressional Republicans came little more than a week before the government hits its borrowing ceiling, and set off accusations from both sides about who was to blame.
A visibly angry President Obama, in a hastily scheduled White House news conference, demanded that Congressional leaders come to the White House on Saturday morning. “I want them here at 11 a.m. tomorrow,” he said. “They are going to have to explain to me how it is that we are going to avoid default.”
Will Boehner even show up? He later, rather grumpily, said he guessed he would. But Obama wasn’t kind. Obama said Boehner had stopped returning his calls when it became clear that rank-and-file House Republicans would simply not agree, ever, to raise revenues on wealthy Americans – never, never, never. Boehner couldn’t control his caucus. The Tea Party crowd had him by the balls, although Obama didn’t put it that way. There were Obama’s concessions on reducing future spending for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security – stuff Obama’s side had hated to do, but he could deliver. What could Boehner deliver? Nothing – and if the Republicans insist on some sort of draconian deficit-reduction agreement as part of the essential vote to raise the government’s debt limit, which will be reached August 2, 2011, well, Obama was game – and the other side was just dicking around.
Boehner did say this – “In the end, we couldn’t connect. Not because of different personalities, but because of different visions for our country.” And that was nice, but worthless. Boehner said Obama wanted to raise taxes too high and would not make “fundamental changes” to entitlement benefit programs like Medicare. He wants that Paul Ryan thing where the elderly get a small and ever-decreasing voucher to go out and buy private health insurance on the open market, if anyone decides it’s worth their while to offer such a product to the old and sick.
But there’s more to it:
According to a White House official, Mr. Obama had agreed over the coming decade to cut $250 billion from Medicare spending and $310 billion from other domestic entitlement programs, like farm subsidies and education programs. And Mr. Obama was willing to change the formula for Social Security cost-of living adjustments, which many economists say would more accurately reflect inflation, for savings of about $125 billion more.
All of Mr. Obama’s concessions on the benefit programs were contingent, however, on Mr. Boehner and Republicans agreeing to higher taxes for wealthy individuals and corporations.
And that was that. It was over. The Republicans were offered everything they wanted, and far more, but they would not take it – it was more important to make sure millionaires and billionaires keep their historically low taxes rates. It was matter of priorities. And Obama was not happy:
At the news conference, Mr. Obama said Republicans were forfeiting an “extraordinarily fair deal” to trim the deficit and raise the debt ceiling. “I have gone out of my way to make compromises,” the president added.
“Essentially what we had offered Speaker Boehner was over a trillion dollars in cuts to discretionary spending, both domestic and defense,” Mr. Obama said. “We then offered an additional $650 billion in cuts to entitlement programs Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. We believed that it was possible to shape those in a way that preserved the integrity of the system, made them available for the next generation and did not affect current beneficiaries in an adverse way.”
But the Republicans said that the White House pushed for more revenue midway through the talks – Boehner said the White House “moved the goal posts.” Maybe that was so, or maybe this was negotiating. Define negotiating. And there was this:
Earlier Friday, in a public event at the University of Maryland, in College Park, Mr. Obama for the first time addressed, and ruled out, the idea that in an emergency the Constitution would empower him to raise the debt limit to prevent default and, as he put it, “basically ignore” the federal law requiring that the debt ceiling be set by statute.
The argument of “the constitutional option,” which President Bill Clinton, like Mr. Obama a former constitutional law instructor, endorsed this week, is based on the Fourteenth Amendment’s provision that the validity of the United States debt “shall not be questioned.” “I have talked to my lawyers,” Mr. Obama said, and “they are not persuaded that that is a winning argument.”
So that door is closed, and the Times quotes Senator Mark Pryor calling this a cliff-hanger moment:
“The unthinkable could happen,” said Mr. Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat. “The 80 million bills the federal government pays could come to a screeching halt. That means millions of seniors may not receive their Social Security checks in the mail. Troops may not receive paychecks.”
“Americans and leaders all over the world are now watching,” he added. “The question for Congress remains: Will we rise to the occasion, or will we fail?”
It’s not looking good, and concerning Obama’s after-market-close press conference, Andrew Leonard adds this:
There are very few people outside of the House Republican caucus who can understand why in the world Boehner would reject the offer Obama had put on the table. … President Obama expressed, in no uncertain terms, his very irritated disbelief that the Republicans were walking away from a deal that he characterized as “extraordinarily fair” – a deal that required him “to take a lot of heat from his own party,” a deal that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi “were very unhappy with.”
“They sure did not like the plan that we were proposing today, but they were at least willing to engage in this conversation” said the president. “I have not seen this capacity on the part of the House Republicans.”
But Leonard notes that we have been here before:
Just two weeks ago, Obama was offering a package of spending cuts that made his own party extraordinarily nervous. Boehner walked away. This week, by all accounts, the president offered a deal even more generous, and spurred a near-revolt in his own party. Just 20 minutes before Obama’s press conference, Sen. Bernie Sanders called for him to be primaried! And now Boehner is walking away, again, declaring that the only basis for a deal has to be the Cut, Cap and Balance bill passed earlier this week by the House, but rejected Friday morning by the Senate.
And so we go around again. The only differences: There’s less time before the deadline hits, Republicans rejected an even better deal than they had been previously offered, and Obama’s reaction to their intransigence came out considerably stronger. You could even say he was mad. And I’ve got to say, mad works for him.
And Obama asked if the Republican Party can say yes to anything:
The answer to that is obviously no, if what House Republicans are being asked to agree to include any semblance of a compromise with Democrats. Let’s be clear here – the Cut, Cap & Balance bill is not a compromise. It is far more extreme than the Paul Ryan budget, which proved to be hugely unpopular with the general public. It would force massive cuts in government programs that are enduringly popular. Enacting it would turn into a sure political disaster for the Republican Party.
John Boehner has been around the block. He has to know that. But what has been established beyond all doubt in the last two weeks is that Boehner cannot deliver his caucus. After Obama finished speaking, Boehner addressed the nation and repeated the boilerplate from his letter: “The White House won’t get serious. We will.” But to anyone who has followed the ins and outs of the last few weeks of negotiation, his stance is nonsense. The truth is that Boehner simply cannot make a deal. His caucus forbids it. Compromise with Obama would mean the end of his political career.
But Leonard sees that, oddly enough, Boehner’s decision to walk away from negotiations gave Obama an opportunity “to deliver the kind of defense of the social welfare state that his supporters have been hungering for.” And that had to do with why he and the Democrats were insisting that some revenues be part of any deal:
“If you do not have any revenues, if you have no revenues at all, what that means is more of a burden on seniors, more drastic cuts to education, more drastic cuts to research, bigger cuts to services for the middle class. It doesn’t ask anything of corporate jet owners, oil and gas companies, and people like me, who’ve done very well.” Republicans, he said, were demanding “a package that would effectively require massive cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and domestic spending, while not asking anything from the wealthiest of this country.”
“If that’s their only answer it’s going to be pretty difficult to figure out where to go.”
And Leonard adds another jab:
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Boehner’s decision to abandon ship is that it almost ensures that financial markets will be in a state of shock come Monday morning. In effect, that would appear to strengthen the Democratic hand. Does Boehner really want to be remembered as the man who steered the United States straight into the abyss?
By the end of his press conference, Obama was sporting a steely glare that many of his supporters would like to see more often. And there was little disguising the contempt in his voice when he delivered his final line.
“At some point, I think, if you want to be a leader, then you’ve got to lead. Thank you very much.”
Damn – it was just like that scene in the old movie – without Michael Douglas and Annette Bening, of course.
But there are two sides to all stories, so they say, and John Dickerson explores that:
If you look to Washington for compromise in which each suffers some pain to get a mutually beneficial result, then you should credit the president for doing more than the Republicans. To anyone who has reported on this process over the last few months and in the fevered past few days, it was clear that Democrats were going to be taking the bigger hit to the things they cared about. Obama didn’t even want spending reductions tied to the debt limit vote. The Tea Party changed the national political conversation. To catch up with the country’s desire to cut spending, the president offered Republicans $3 trillion in cuts including offering to trim entitlements. His base, which includes people who think cuts of any kind are suicide, was furious at the size and kind of what Obama was offering.
If you hold this view about the way Washington should work, then you will find the president’s words at the end of his press conference stirring. He was as angry as he has ever been in public as he talked about “ordinary folks who are struggling every day.” He continued: “They know they’re getting a raw deal, and they’re mad at everybody about it. They’re mad at Democrats and they’re mad at Republicans, because they know somehow, no matter how hard they work, they don’t seem to be able to keep up. And what they’re looking for is somebody who’s willing to look out for them. That’s all they’re looking for.”
And as for John Boehner saying that the White House has “refused to get serious about cutting spending” – well, that doesn’t seem to be true:
The White House was willing to cut $3 trillion and take on programs that are as cherished by Democrats as tax cuts are by Republicans. That’s serious, though it may not have been as serious as Boehner would have liked. Still, if you look to Washington for opposition to tax increases, and to hold steadfast to this position even when public opinion is running against you, then you should reward Boehner.
And that’s the other side here:
In this anti-tax worldview, the fact that Obama was willing to suffer a great deal more political pain is irrelevant, as are the niceties of compromise in divided government. The problem is the economy, and if you believe that tax increases of any kind will make the economy worse, then you are duty-bound to oppose them. It doesn’t matter what the other side offers. Proof of how nervous Boehner was about losing support from the anti-tax caucus – which is to say, just about every Republican member of the House – came in several emails from his office arguing with the White House characterization of the deal as it was being negotiated. Boehner’s office said that it was not true, for example, that he had considered letting the Bush tax cuts expire. To be seen as flirting with a tax increase is far worse than the benefit to be gained from being seen as flirting with compromise.
The polls show that the majority of voters – and particularly independent voters – wanted a “balanced approach,” in the president’s phrase. This should put Obama in a pretty good political position. But just because people have that opinion doesn’t mean they will vote based on their opinion. Those conservatives who hate taxes and who cheer Boehner, in contrast, are more likely to vote based on their feelings.
But Dickerson sees this as the state of play:
Both sides said default was not an option. If this is really true then the anti-tax forces should feel encouraged. Their side is likely to win. With a fragile economy, the president can’t risk not getting a deal. He would get the greater share of the blame if there was a failure. He’ll either have to agree to a short-term deal, which he has said he would not agree to, or he’ll agree to a lot of spending cuts with no tax increases, which will irritate if not infuriate his party.
Obama loses. It’s the collapse of the world economy otherwise. What choices does he have? And even if all but twenty percent of America disagrees with the Republicans on all this, everyone will admire their brass balls, as it were. Do what we want… or we blow up the world. Cool.
And Salon’s Joan Walsh knows this:
If we didn’t know it already, it shows that the president has a lot of patience, and a lot of faith in the value of compromise. I don’t know whether he’s just posturing when he says he’s willing to talk about entitlement cuts. He might genuinely believe those programs need to be cut. Or maybe he believes Social Security and Medicare must be “strengthened,” and if he trades some (slight) cuts that he truly believes won’t hurt (many) people (very) much, he can do better things that will help more people with the political and fiscal capital he gains in a “Grand Bargain.” At this point, though, that is faith-based politics at best. There is absolutely no evidence that anything of the kind will work. The only thing he hasn’t done so far is act like a staunch Democrat – and take cuts to key Democratic programs off the table. That might not work either, but we don’t know, because it hasn’t been tried.
But there’s a boarder point:
The president sincerely believes that the intense polarization of American politics isn’t merely a symptom of our problems but a problem in itself – and thus compromise is not just a means to an end but an end in itself, to try to create a safe harbor for people to reach some new common ground. I actually have some sympathy with that point of view. But having now watched two smart Democratic presidents devote themselves to compromise with Republicans, only to be savaged with increasing intensity, I’ve lost faith that compromise itself holds some healing magic. Maybe it just emboldens bullies.
And Andrew Sullivan simply calls this America’s Cold Civil War:
The Republican refusal to countenance any way to raise revenues to tackle the massive debt incurred largely on their watch and from a recession which started under Obama’s predecessor makes one thing clear. They are not a political party in government; they are a radical faction that refuses to participate meaningfully in the give and take the Founders firmly believed should be at the center of American government. They are not conservatives in this sense. They are anarchists.
Their fiscal anarchism has now led to their threat to destabilize and possibly upend the American and global economy because they refuse to compromise an inch. They control only one part of the government, and yet they hold all of it hostage. I cannot believe they are prepared to allow the US to default rather than give an inch toward responsibility. Except I should believe it by now. Everything I have written about them leads inexorably to this moment. Opposing overwhelming public opinion on the need for a mixed package of tax hikes and spending cuts, drawing the president into a position far to the right of the right of his party, and posturing absurdly as fiscal conservatives, they are in fact anti-tax and anti-government fanatics, and this is their moment of maximal destruction.
And then Sullivan really piles on:
Boehner and McConnell have one goal and it is has nothing to do with the economy. It is destroying this president and this presidency. They are clearly calculating that the economic devastation their vandalism could create will so hurt the economy that it could bring them back to power through the wreckage. And they will use every smear, every lie, every canard possible to advance this goal. The propaganda channel dreamt of by Roger Ailes in the Nixon era will continue to pump poison into the body politic, until they defeat the man whose legitimacy as president they have never truly accepted.
Coming from abroad, this country seems as if it is beyond dysfunctional. It looks like a banana republic on the verge of economic collapse. Now that Nixon’s dream has come true and the GOP is fundamentally the party of the Confederacy, it was perhaps naive to think they could ever accept the legitimacy of this president, or treat him with respect or act as adults in the governing process.
But this is who they are. I longed for Obama to bridge this gulf in ideology. But he cannot bridge it alone, especially when the GOP is determined to burn the bridge entirely, even when presented with a deal so tilted to the right only true fanatics could possibly walk away from it.
And so the very republic is being plunged into crisis and possible depression by a single, implacable, fanatical faction.
But other than that it promised to be a wonderful weekend. But of course on Monday you wake up in a banana republic on the verge of economic collapse.