A good story is nothing if it doesn’t leave you with some kind of moral – some sort of lesson to walk away with as a reward for one’s journey. And, after reading Bob Woodward’s newest book, The Price of Politics, I can happily report that its teaching is both entirely clear and exceedingly useful: Never, ever, go into politics.
After almost 400 pages of meticulously researched and pieced-together narrative describing negotiations over federal spending, budgets, and debt ceilings, one gets a deep and demoralizing sense of just how politics works in these days of statistical expertise. Spanning from President Obama’s takeover in 2009 to the summer of 2012, Woodward puts you right in the middle of the confidential meetings that culminated in the setting of our looming “fiscal cliff” – or the “trigger” compromise, as they refer to it.
The main thrust of the book focuses on two competing forces: On the one hand, there is the self-important and occasionally aloof President Obama, who, in the words of Larry Summers, just never had “the joy of the game” when it came to politics; on the other hand, there were the competing forces of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) – both struggling for control of a party that was trending more and more to the “extreme” side of conservatism.
The president is presented as a man with grand visions. “He thought and spoke in terms of FDR,” Woodward writes, “and some in the White House wondered if he had Roosevelt envy.”
Regrettably, this was not a time for an FDR – it was a time for a Lincoln, a Reagan, or a Clinton; it was not a time for power and intimidation, but for negotiation and compromise.
Yet time and again, Woodward shows readers a president who, “simply didn’t understand how Congress worked and didn’t know how to negotiate.” Instead of working to create lasting relationships with congressional leaders, President Obama chose to force meeting after meeting – preferring to put himself in the position of Legislator-in-Chief instead of President of the United States.
At one point, as negotiations really began to break down in the summer of 2011, Speaker Boehner confronted President Obama by saying, “Mr. President, as I read the Constitution, the Congress writes the laws. You get to decide if you want to sign them.”
For Obama, this sort of talk amounted to what he called a “hijacking” of the presidency. That Obama has little or no respect for the Constitution should, at this point, be more or less common knowledge, but it comes through remarkably clear throughout the entire book. When confronted by House Republicans with the prospect of cutting into Medicare or facing financial default, Obama saw it as an act of blackmail that would “forever change the relationship between the presidency and the Congress.”
Naturally, nobody on his own side would be good enough to mention that these are precisely the things that Congress is supposed to be doing.
But while Obama’s adherence to the Progressive notion of an all-powerful presidency was troubling, he was far from the only guilty party.
Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, strained negotiations with his connection to the newly-forming Tea Party sect in the Republican Party. With their ideological opposition to any form of tax increase whatsoever, the very mention of raising revenue for the federal government was enough to shut down numerous meetings throughout the negotiations.
In comparison, Speaker Boehner was seen as the moderate voice – and his tendency to seek private negotiations with the president and staff often drove a wedge between himself, Cantor, and the party as a whole.
“The disconnect between Boehner and Cantor,” Woodward explains, “was a topic of conversation among White House staff. The tension was so obvious … that [it] felt awkward being in the same room with the two of them.”
While the two would eventually reconcile with many of their public differences, the relationship pushed negotiations away from compromise and pulled the speaker back into a more ideologically rigid position – one more compatible with the Tea Party conservatives.
As a whole, the book is admittedly a bit narrow in scope. The entire debate behind Obamacare, for instance, is mostly omitted – it is only mentioned as a bargaining chip in the larger discussion of spending and deficits.
But the picture that Woodward paints is a vital one, and highly indicative of the times we’re living in. After years of expanding the scope of government under progressive politics, both Democrats and Republicans have created a system of government that exists despite either one of their efforts. To touch certain parts, to make the hard cuts that are necessary to create a long-term budget surplus, is now deemed “politically dangerous.”
At the same time, the conservatives who finally stand up to and say “enough” are making it impossible to negotiate with a Democratic party that has built itself up on handouts, redistribution, and safety nets.
Add to this the newly Republican obsession with big military spending, and the whole game is a mess.
The Price of Politics, then, shows us exactly that: The costs we face for endorsing such an unsustainable course for the country as a whole. These are the lines we have drawn, and nothing would have been done without the votes of a willing citizenry.
All considered, I thoroughly recommend reading the book, if only for the sake of trying to understand just what “politics” looks like in this day and age. Hint: it’s a lot more math than you’d think.
But more than that, it’s a reminder that these are human beings out there. And, for all of their shortcomings, the truth is that many of them are out there doing their damndest to make sure we have a country that we can be proud of one day. You realize that, for every guy who takes some bad money, there are three other guys who spent the last month away from their family so they could hammer out numbers to a budget that could save you some tax money next year.
There’s still a nobility to it – this master science called politics – and Woodward gives us the inside look into the men and women who have made public service a part of their life’s work.