It was a little tweet that started a big fight.
At five minutes before noon on Wednesday, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer took to Twitter with a 140-character announcement: “POTUS has requested a Joint Session of Congress at 8 PM on 9/7 to lay out his plan to create jobs, grow the economy, and reduce the deficit.”
In a matter of seconds, Pfeiffer’s online followers chimed in to note a conflict. The long-planned, twice-rescheduled GOP presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library was to begin on Sept. 7 at the same time.
An afternoon of shenanigans ensued. Partisans revved up their partisanship. Political analysis begot political analysis. The debate’s sponsors, NBC News and Politico, sent word that their show would go on. President Obama sent House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) his official request to address Congress. Boehner sent back his official recommendation that Obama postpone.
By nightfall, after hours of awkward silence, the president agreed to accept the speaker’s recommendation and deliver the speech on Thursday night. That ended the threat of the nation seeing Washington’s partisan wars played out as a split-screen drama with Obama on one side, live from Washington, trying to jump-start his presidency, while on the other side eight Republicans, 2,700 miles away in Simi Valley, Calif., tried to keep it sputtering.
As he bowed to GOP demands that the speech be moved, Obama took the opportunity to slam Congress and make a political point: “It’s been a long time since Congress was focused on what the American people need them to be focused on,” Obama wrote in an e-mail to supporters. “I know that you’re frustrated by that. I am, too.
“That’s why I’m putting forward a set of bipartisan proposals to help grow the economy and create jobs — that means strengthening our small businesses, giving needed breaks to middle-class families, while taking responsible steps to bring down our deficit.”
Politico Editor in Chief John F. Harris, one of the GOP debate’s scheduled moderators, said earlier in the day that the potential “side-by-side contrast” of the debate and the jobs speech on the same night would have been akin to the first general-election debate of the 2012 cycle.
The political theater would have been extraordinary. The last similar juxtaposed presidential drama on TV occurred in 1997 (unless you count the morning this April when Donald Trump called on Obama to release his long-form birth certificate, and moments later, Obama released his long-form birth certificate). Back then, as President Bill Clinton delivered his State of the Union address, many stations showed side-by-side coverage of a California jury as it prepared to deliver its verdict in the O.J. Simpson civil trial.
The White House said the GOP debate did not factor into its planning. Nor, press secretary Jay Carney said, did any other television events, “whether it’s the wildlife channel or the cooking channel.”
“It is coincidental,” Carney told reporters, adding: “Obviously one debate of many that’s on one channel of many was not enough reason not to have the speech at the time that we decided to have it.”
“Again, there’s one president. There’s 20-some odd debates.”
Of course, there can be only one debate that’s Rick Perry’s first debate. And that’s why, with the Texas governor overtaking former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in the polls, so much attention is being paid to next week’s forum at the Reagan Library.
The Republican candidates responded in different ways. Rep. Ron Paul threatened to officially object to the joint session on Wednesday and force a recorded vote on whether to hold it.
“It is undignified that the president of the United States would resort to such transparent tactics to step on our Republican debate,” said Jesse Benton, a top adviser to the Texas congressman. “The real losers here are the American people, who deserve the opportunity to watch both the president and the GOP contenders.”
Romney’s campaign seemed to think the American people would have had an easy time choosing. “Viewers have a choice between GOP candidates talking about the future of America or Barack Obama talking about the future of his presidency,” spokeswoman Andrea Saul said.
Romney, continuing his float-above-it-all strategy, didn’t directly address the situation himself. But that doesn’t mean he was offline. On Wednesday afternoon, he tweeted a picture of himself posing with a Southwest Airlines crew. He thanked them for “an easy flight” to New Orleans.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) appeared on the Fox News Channel to accuse Obama of “hiding his speech” and “trying to divert the American people away from hearing from the presidential candidates.”
Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. was tweaking the final draft of his jobs speech and wondering if his 5 p.m. rollout could somehow compete with the hullabaloo inside the Beltway.