Gwen’s Take: Why Are Grand Bargains So Elusive?


U.S. Capitol; Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

I’ve been afflicted this week with a disorienting sense of déjà vu that affects any reporter who has covered Washington long enough. Even the most consequential and operatic standoffs begin to seem eerily familiar.

Cable networks begin the countdown clocks. Lawmakers race to the microphones to denounce the president and each other. The president issues his scolding in turn, and we wait impatiently for a dramatic last-second, Spiderman-like denouement.

Yet hanging over all the drama is the nagging possibility that this time, the superhero might miss the rescue. The debt ratings agencies, which started sending out frantic warning signals this week, are clearly beginning to have this worry.

But, yes, we have been here before. It took a look back through our vault of Washington Week roundtables to be reminded why the latest standoff — this time over whether to raise the nation’s borrowing limit — seems to be following a well-worn script.

We didn’t have to look far. The Friday before Christmas in 1995, my predecessor Ken Bode convened a panel of reporters to figure out what was happening behind the scenes in a budget standoff that had by then led to the second of two government shutdowns. This one would continue for 21 days, and as Bode and his panel gathered at the able, lawmakers were about to leave town for the holidays.

“Can they get away with this?” Bode asked them.

Steven V. Roberts, now a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, was then covering Congress for U.S. News and World Report. After 25 previous years working for The New York Times, he too had seen this play out before.

In describing what he called the “truly poisonous atmosphere that exists in Washington today” — 15 years ago, mind you — Steve sketched out a scenario that ought to sound familiar to anyone tracking the debt ceiling debate today.

“I talked to four Republicans this week…who flat out said the President (Clinton) is a liar; flat out.” He said, incredulity coloring his voice. “I talked to a senior Democrat who said when he gets on an elevator with Republicans these days, he feels uncomfortable. He cringes.

“But it’s not just between Republicans and Democrats,” he continued. “The extremes in both parties — the more conservative Republicans; the more liberal Democrats — think that anybody in the center, anybody who’s a pragmatist that wants to get a deal done, is a heretic, is a sellout.”

Flash forward to today’s debate. House Speaker John Boehner sneaked into the White House twice for private meetings with the president. Members of his own party recoiled. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell proposed a complicated middle-ground solution. Tea Party Republicans accused Boehner of selling out. The White House floated the idea of cutting spending by tackling Social Security and Medicare. House Democrats said that was a non-starter.

And the rhetoric was take-it-or-leave-it. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called GOP House leader Eric Cantor “childish.”

McConnell declared, “The president has presented us with three choices: smoke and mirrors, tax hikes, or default.” And at least two other Republicans — Representatives Tom Price and Michele Bachmann — employed the same terminology, surely not by accident.

President Obama gave as good as he got. “We might as well do it now,” he said, speaking to reporters, not lawmakers. “And pull off the Band Aid. Eat our peas.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney was left to play good cop. “Despite everything,” he said, “progress has been made.”

Perhaps. It could be that negotiators are chiding each other in public and getting down to brass tacks once the television cameras are ushered out and the doors are closed.

But between all the grand public denunciations and the unfulfilled grand bargains, it’s hard to see past the word clouds. If so much were not at stake, voters could be forgiven for losing patience with the whole exercise.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.