When John Boehner walked away from a Grand Bargain for the second time last weekend, he claimed he did so because the White House 'demanded" more revenue:
[T]he White House moved the goalpost. There was an agreement, some additional revenues, until yesterday when the president demanded $400 billion more which was going to be nothing more than a tax increase on the American people.
Republicans have hammered this point home. The Obama administration has strongly disputed this characterization. Administration officials say they asked for an additional $400 billion, but explicitly stated that it was not a demand, and offered deeper entitlement cuts as an inducement, As the L.A. Times has reported:
Obama sensed that Boehner was losing GOP support — "bleeding members left and right," said the senior aide.
To compensate, Obama hoped to reel in more votes from Democrats. Securing another $400 billion or so in additional revenue would help solidify Democratic support.
That number was negotiable, as the White House saw it. If Boehner wouldn't agree to that sum, maybe he would settle for less, and they'd make up the difference some other way.
"If you can't do that, then let's have another conversation," said a White House aide, summarizing Obama's part of the call.
I suspected the administration's account was the correct one and Boehner's was wrong, but I couldn't be sure because each side was sticking to its story. (I was actually incredibly dismayed that Obama offered such a terrible deal, but never mind.) Now we know the administration was right because a Republican aide confirms it to Mike Allen:
A GOP official responds: “When they spoke at the White House Saturday morning and again by phone on Saturday night, the message to the President was that Congress is going to forge the path ahead. There was no formal offer made by the President, just a casual walkback of his shifting of the goalposts -- back to the original differences they had. On Sunday, they spoke for two minutes about the work that was taking place on the Hill. There was no formal offer to accept or reject, because we had already moved on.
Why is this so important? Because this dispute has been the hinge for a dramatic turn in the press coverage. Through last weekend, reporters and pundits were generally portraying the situation, accurately, as one in which Obama was proposing compromises and Boehner was rejecting them. But that is a highly uncomfortable position for reporters and centrist pundits to be in. They want to portray a balanced situation in which each side is to blame. They could define balance to avoid making any judgment about the merits of a deficit agreement or a debt ceiling hike, but the media is openly rooting for a Grand Bargain and a debt ceiling hike, so portraying one party as standing in the way was always going to be tricky.
The dispute over the $400 billion provided enough ambiguity for reporters to stop framing the issue as Boehner refusing to accept a Grand Bargain and revert to the comfortable practice of castigating both parties for refusing to compromise. So, for instance, here is a typical sample of the media take, from Washington Post lead analyst Dan Balz:
The president and the House speaker couched their words Monday night in the language of compromise and reassurance. But at the start of a critical week of legislative maneuvering, each delivered a partisan message that cast blame on the other for a breakdown that threatens the nation’s credit rating, its financial markets and the fragile economy. ...
Obama, having been dealt out of the direct negotiations by Boehner, used his time to castigate Republicans for their obstinacy. He accused Republicans of blocking a balanced solution that would cut spending, raise taxes and reform entitlements, all in the name of shaving $4 trillion off projected deficits.
“The only reason this balanced approach isn’t on its way to becoming law right now is because a significant number of Republicans in Congress are insisting on a cuts-only approach,” he said. ...
Boehner was just as clear in casting the president as the obstacle. Obama, he said, came to office and led the country on a spending binge that included “a new health care bill that most Americans never asked for; a stimulus bill that’s more effective in producing material for late-night comedians than it was in producing jobs; and a national debt that has gotten so out of hand, it’s sparked a crisis without precedent in my lifetime or yours.”
He also accused Obama of standing in the way of an agreement. “Unfortunately the president would not take yes for an answer,” the speaker said. “Even when we felt we might be close to an agreement, the president’s demands changed. The president has often said we need a balanced approach, which in Washington means: ‘We spend more and you pay more.’ ”
This is a textbook example of journalism as repeating mutual accusations without making any effort to establish their truth. Obama says Boehner wouldn't agree! Boehner says the opposite! Who's right? We don't care!
But there are verifiable facts in dispute here that can be mediated. Did Obama refuse to "take yes for an answer"? He did, twice! He had a deal with Boehner -- a deal far to the right of other bipartisan Grand Bargains -- only to have Boehner walk away both times. Does Obama in fact want a deal where "balance" means "we spend more and you pay more"? No, he proposes spending cuts. These are facts.
To be clear, I don't think news reporters should be taking Obama's side here. There's a dispute between the parties about the merits of a Grand Bargain vs. a cuts-only approach, and a second dispute within the GOP about the necessity of raising the debt ceiling at all. Reporters can neutrally describe these positions without favoring one over the other. Instead, they've decided to openly cheerlead on those issues, and make it all "evenhanded" by obscuring the facts about which party favors which stance.