Erskine Bowles: Barack Obama Scuttled the Deficit Commission's Work, Not Paul Ryan

Erskine Bowles: Barack Obama Scuttled the Deficit Commission's Work, Not Paul Ryan

The race to define Paul Ryan is on. Democrats greeted his selection with the predictable claim that he was an extremist who wanted to end “Medicare as we know it.” That characterization hit a wall Monday morning when Morgen Richmond, a conservative blogger, released a video of Erskine Bowles praising Ryan and his budget as “sensible, straight-forward, honest, serious.” Wednesday, Politico published a piece by Steven Sloan and John Bresnahan attempting to push back on the Bowles clip, but the claims are undercut by a another Bowles clip from the same speech which lays blame for the failure of the deficit commission on President Obama’s lackluster effort to support it, not on Paul Ryan.

Within hours of its being released, the clip of Bowles praising Ryan made the rounds of blogs and had begun receiving attention, both positive and negative, on Twitter. By Tuesday morning, Bill Kristol at the Weekly Standard was recommending the Romney camp make it into a campaign ad. By Tuesday evening the clip appeared as part of Bill O’Reilly’s Talking Points Memo to make the point that not every Democrat sees Ryan as an extremist.

To his credit, Bowles stuck to his guns in an interview with the Daily Caller published Wednesday, saying: “I think he’s smart. I think he’s intellectually curious. I think he ishonest, straightforward and sincere. And I think he does have a seriousbudget out there–it doesn’t mean I agree with it by any stretch of theimagination. But I’m not going to act like I don’t like him or that Idon’t have some real respect for him.”

Needless to say, the Obama effort to define Ryan wasn’t going well. The inevitable Democratic pushback to the Bowles clip appeared as the top item at Politico Wednesday morning. The new tack is a somewhat scaled back version of the previous one. Ryan may not be an extremist in this version, but he is an inflexible “partisan.” To ensure the point is clear, we are told this twice in the first five sentences of the piece, e.g. “Some Democrats now maintain that the higher the stakes–and the closerSimpson-Bowles got to actually forging a bipartisan solution –the lessflexible and more partisan Ryan became.”

If you’re wondering where all of this is coming from, you finally find out several paragraphs later: “‘There is not a flexibility in Paul Ryan,’ said Rep. Jan Schakowsky(D-Ill.), who served on the commission with Ryan.” Schakowsky is an extreme far-left partisan herself, and on page two of the story we get this bit of framing, “To be fair, the liberals on the commission — including Schakowsky — wererigid in their beliefs as well and were unwilling to targetentitlements and big cuts to social spending.” But the thrust clearly isn’t on Schakowsky’s well-known extremism but on Ryan’s alleged partisanship. It’s not until the tail end of the piece that Politico finally reveals what lies behind this entire effort:

In a Sept. 2011 speech, Bowles gave Ryan high marks for intellectualability and integrity. “This guy is amazing,” said Bowles, a formerWhite House chief of staff. “I always thought I was good at arithmetic.This guy can run circles around me. He is honest, he is straightforward,he is sincere.”

Politico doesn’t identify it as such, but that quote comes from the video that has been circulating on blogs since Monday, the one that created problem for Democrats. Now notice the very next paragraph:

In the days since Romney announced Ryan as his vice presidentialcandidate, Democrats have worked hard to portray the WisconsinRepublican as the biggest roadblock to a successful deal on the fiscalcommission.

So all of the quotes highlighted on page one of the piece are apparently part of a coordinated spin campaign designed to blame Paul Ryan for the failure of the deficit commission. To its credit, Politico doesn’t go all in with that effort. In fact, if you read to the end of the piece, they largely undercut it, making clear that it’s unlikely the commission would have earned 14 votes even if Ryan had been for it. Still, the article does air the accusation that Dems have been trying to get out, i.e. that Ryan’s partisanship is at least partly responsible for the commission’s failure. Is that true?

One person Politico did not speak to for this piece is Erskine Bowles. Perhaps they should have done so, because later in the same 2011 speech from which the praise of Paul Ryan was taken, Bowles was asked why his commission failed. He offered the following answer:


Bowles: [reading a question] In your view what was the primary reason why the deficit commission’s plan was not adopted?

Great question. I’ll just tell you the truth. I didn’t know President Obama as well as I knew President Clinton and one of the primary things in the business world that you learn is know your client. So I spent a lot of time with the President and his economic team trying to make sure we defined success. That was really important to me. I had to know what we had to do in order to get something done. And I had a very firm idea of that. And I can tell you the plan we came forward with not only met the criteria he outlined but it exceeded it in many different ways. So I expected him [Obama] to grab hold of it and say “Wow! This is great.” It’s what Clinton would have done. He would have said he made it up. [Laughter] And Al would have said he invented it.

Bowles goes on to say that Obama eventually had some kind words for the commission’s work, but the thrust of his comments is that President Obama didn’t get behind the proposal, despite it meeting and exceeding his own criteria for success. 

In other words, according to the Democratic chairman of the bipartisan deficit commission, it wasn’t Paul Ryan that doomed the effort. It was Barack Obama.

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