Ron Fournier, Tim Geithner, And The Perils Of Relying On Book Excerpts

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Ron FournierNational Journal's Ron Fournier illustrated in his latest column why it's a bad idea to rely on excerpts from a book for one's commentary rather than actually reading it.

In 2011, a "grand bargain" to lower the long-term debt by $4 trillion by cutting entitlement spending and raising taxes fizzled when Republicans pulled out of negotiations. Some pundits, including Fournier, counterintuitively blamed Obama for Republican refusal to support any bill that increased taxes.

Fournier suggested in a May 12 column that former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's new memoir, Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises, supports that conclusion.

While the book was released today, Fournier clearly has not read it -- he describes it as "forthcoming" and cites excerpts from Politico's Playbook. Unfortunately for Fournier that is a crucial error, as the full text of that section of the memoir makes clear that Geithner blames Republicans, not Obama, for the failure of the debt talks.

Fournier wrote that Geithner's memoir "captures a moment at which President Obama faced a choice between forging ahead with a promise to seek GOP compromise on the nation's debt crisis or bow to pressure from his liberal base. Obama chose surrender." Fournier cites the following paragraphs from Geithner's book, excerpted by Politico, as evidence of that claim:

Dan Pfeiffer, the president's communications director [now senior adviser] and another 2008 campaign veteran, often took the other side of the debate, saying we couldn't afford to alienate our base and split a weakened Democratic Party in pursuit of an imaginary compromise with Republicans who didn't want to compromise.

At another meeting in the Roosevelt Room, I told the president I thought there was a chance that he could break at least some Republicans away from their no-new-taxes mantra and forge a deal to stabilize our long-term debt. It wouldn't be a deal that his base would like, but if he wanted to get anything through the House, he couldn't be bound by the demands of Democrats. "You have a chance to split the Republicans," I said. "But only if you're willing to split the Democrats...."

I remember during one Roosevelt Room prep session before I appeared on the Sunday shows, I objected when Dan Pfeiffer wanted me to say Social Security didn't contribute to the deficit. It wasn't a main driver of our future deficits, but it did contribute. Pfeiffer said the line was a "dog whistle" to the Left, a phrase I had never heard before. He had to explain that the phrase was code to the Democratic base, signaling that we intended to protect Social Security.

Based on the Politico excerpts, Fournier concluded:

Obama decided not to split the Democrats--or to seriously seek compromise. Yes, he did propose a modest adjustment of entitlement spending in exchange for tax cuts on a "grand bargain," but that now appears to have been a mere signal (or dog whistle) to debt-fretting independent voters. It was a game. Liberals played their part and objected to the reforms. Republicans played their part and said they would never raise taxes. Despite advice from Geithner, fellow Democrats, and top Republicans who recognized the GOP negotiating ploy, Obama seized on it as an excuse to surrender to his base.

In fact, Geithner made clear that Obama had sought to "seriously seek compromise," only to be abandoned at the negotiating table. Here is the very next paragraph in Geithner's book following the exchange about Social Security (Kindle location 7177):

On July 21, Boehner, remarkably, stopped returning the President's calls. He soon announced he was abandoning the grand bargain. This time, his rationale was that the President had moved the goalposts by asking for an extra $ 400 billion in revenues. But that was just a pretext; the negotiations were fluid. We had raised the revenue target, and their drafts still were calling for unacceptable political scalps, but the President hadn't drawn a line in the sand. The problem was that most of Boehner's caucus was unwilling to accept any new revenues, and many had pledged never to vote to raise the debt ceiling; he once told us that he was more interested in doing big things than being Speaker, but ultimately he was unwilling to split his caucus and risk his job. The President, by contrast, was willing to alienate some of his Democratic allies to pass an agreement he believed would be good for the country.

In another portion of the same chapter that was not included in the Politico excerpts, Geithner excoriated Republicans for being unwilling to consider tax increases and wrote that Boehner was undermined by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. He wrote (Kindle location 7143):

There were plenty of twists and turns in the debt-limit talks, but the basic narrative didn't change much. House Republicans wouldn't accept new tax revenues, and neither the President nor the Democratic leadership in the Senate would accept deep cuts in entitlements as part of a $4 trillion "grand bargain" without new tax revenues. For all their soliloquies about the tragic debt we were leaving our grandkids, Republicans didn't consider it tragic enough to justify the elimination of a single tax break. They weren't prepared to break their no-new-taxes pledges to cut a deal with a president their supporters loathed. Plenty of ink would be spilled on tick-tocks investigating who moved which goalposts, trying to unravel the mystery of who killed the bargain. At the time, though, it didn't feel mysterious.

There was a weird dynamic to the talks, because Boehner truly seemed to want a deal, while Cantor and his colleagues seems to be watching Boehner to make sure he didn't cut a deal. I found the Speaker's obvious discomfort with the far right wing of his caucus sort of appealing; it was too visceral to be entirely tactical. He always warned that their intransigence might scuttle any compromise, that they would consider any deal he cut with the President inherently suspect.

UPDATE: After the publication of this piece, Fournier's column was updated (see the original version cached here and at Government Executive) to acknowledge that "Geithner ultimately exonerates his ex-boss, blaming House Republicans for refusing to accept tax increases and crediting Obama with being 'willing to allienate some of his Democratic allies.'" No indication is given that the addition was made, though a separate correction has been appended to the article.

Fournier tweeted a link to the Media Matters piece shortly after its publication with the note, "Where @mmfa confuses #journalism with stenography." He also tweeted that Media Matters is "paid to distort."

Here's the relevant paragraph of the current version of Fournier's piece, with the added sentence bolded:

Obama decided not to split the Democrats--or to seriously seek compromise. Yes, he did propose a modest adjustment of entitlement spending in exchange for tax increases toward a "grand bargain," but that now appears to have been a mere signal (or dog whistle) to debt-fretting independent voters. It was a game. Liberals played their part and objected to the reforms. Republicans played their part and said they would never raise taxes. Despite advice from Geithner, fellow Democrats, and top Republicans who recognized the GOP negotiating ploy, Obama seized on it as an excuse to surrender to his base. Geithner ultimately exonerates his ex-boss, blaming House Republicans for refusing to accept tax increases and crediting Obama with being "willing to allienate some of his Democratic allies."

Posted In
Budget
Person
Ron Fournier
Show/Publication
National Journal
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