Eugene Robinson Live

Feb 26, 2013

Live chat with Eugene Robinson about politics and his latest column.

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Hello, everybody, and welcome. Well, here we are, less than 72 hours away from the latest totally unnecessary crisis. This is the stupidest artificial crisis to date, and that's saying something. But stupider, more useless fights-to-the-death look sure to follow. Today I wrote about climate change -- because it's important, and also because I just couldn't bear to write about the sequester again. Did I mention what a stupid waste of time and energy it is? Let's get started.

I'm sure you're loath to criticize your colleague, but just this week David Brooks has said that 1) Obama has no plan to replace the sequester (he does), 2) Obama should go to the center, with a Rubinesque plan (his plan is actually further to the right than Rubin's), and now 3) Obama should stop talking about big government vs. small government and start talking about investing in the future (that's pretty much what he has said in both inaugurals and every SOTU -- verbatim). I don't say this to pick on Brooks in particular (although he's clearly bugging me lately), but why can't the chin-stroking, "very serious people" just accept the fact that the two sides are not equally to blame? How can they continue to state their preferred policy positions as "moderate" without acknowledging that pretty much everything they say Obama has in fact already proposed?

For the umpteenth time, let me go on record as a to-the-death enemy of false equivalence. Over these past four years, Democrats have been willing to compromise and Republicans have not. That is true in the case of the sequester. There is only one aspect of the sequester in which the both-sides argument is correct, and that's the question of origin. It doesn't matter who suggested it first. Both the House Republicans and the president approved the legislation that set up this unnecessary crisis. So in that limited sense, yes, both sides can be blamed. As for the Brooks column, generally I believe there's enough media criticism in the world without my having to add my two cents' worth. But I'm guessing he might be wishing for a do-over.

Please don't let this important issue fall from the news stories again until there is another horrible slaying. If over 80% of the American population favors background checks, why isn't something done in Congress? Over 80%, please do something!

I'll get back to the subject very soon. Gun violence is real, unlike much of the nonsense that preoccupies Washington these days.

Though political chatter has President Obama coming out of this better than R's, I have my doubts. During his first term, when the two sides failed to negotiate an agreement, I believe his job approval plummeted too. Plus, the infamous low approval rating of Congress usually doesn't translate into distaste for MY congressperson. Thoughts?

The White House almost always wins these standoffs, in terms of public perception. Approval of Congress is already down in the 20's or teens, depending which poll you believe. Soon it will be just friends and family. Maybe you see the upside for House Republicans in losing some of what little approval theyhave left, but I don't.

There are huge rural sections of our country dependent on coal mining. I don't think it's enough to put in new EPA regulations that will properly control carbon emissions and put an end to new coal plants, though I agree that climate change leaves us no choice. We have to have an economic helping hand for these workers and regions, some kind of major redevelopment to keep them going. Otherwise they are down to a kind of life-or-death dynamic where the government that represents them, too, acts like they are a well-deserved casualty and don't matter. What do you think the government should do to help this transition?

The government ought to do education retraining, temporary support if necessary. One thing Democrats and Republicans both claim to support is finding ways to correct the mismatch between the skills workers have and the jobs that are available.

I am not a D or an R, or that political (I know, why live in DC), but I find the R demand for Presidential Leadership to be so odd (almost in a bogus kind of way). The issue is not that the President isn't leading, it's just that he is not leading towards where the R's want to go. I find this the same issue with emerging Democracies - politicians in this country want everyone country to be democratic, but then complain when those same people vote for leaders that the US doesn't really like. These are no win situations and to quote my favorite movie "sometimes the only way to win, is not to play."

You're right about the "presidential leadership" meme, which is a joke. It's only "leadership" if you lead in the direction I choose. But we have a pretty good idea, through polling, what Americans think about the issues -- and the nation's views are much closer to the president's than to the Republicans'. We saw that at the polls in November, and we'll doubtless see it again.

Are you more interested in being a cheerleader for Obama or pointing out that both sides have not as of yet proposed real changes. If Obama really cared about this tax increase it should have been in the original proposal. Then he would have the right to hold republicans to including it. Since it wasn't part of the deal I see no reason why it needs to be included now (even though its something the left wants). Both sides need to have real discussions about targeted cuts and not add on dream amendments. Anything outside of that is unfair and unrealstic..

What are you talking about? Please recall that in the negotiations leading up to the "original proposal," Obama was seeking between $1.2 trillion and $1.5 trillion in new revenue, to balance against about $3 trillion in budget cuts (all over a decade). The president got less than half of what he wanted. Meanwhile, we've had two rounds of very substantial budget cuts -- adding up to much more than the new revenue agreed so far. The "original proposal" calls on the president and Congress to work out a deal or face the sequester. Congress needn't consider further budget cuts off limits, and neither should the president consider new revenue somehow out of bounds. The difference is that the president is willing to negotiate the ratio. Congress is not.

I actually believe each agency could and should go through their expenditures and cut the money. BUT I think they should be able to pick and choose how to cut. American households have been making individual cuts on cable TV, trips to Starbucks, vacations etc. I just can't believe SOME money can be cut, just cut it smart.

I doubt Congress will cede so much of its power of the purse. For many House Republicans, I think the only thing worse than failing to cut spending would be to let President Obama decide what cuts to make.

The Post editorial this morning insisted that the President needs to lead, particularly on the issue of entitements, a wonderful sentiment in terms of a political third rail of politics. Do you agree with the editorial?

Um, no. Obama has said he wants to do what is necessary to make entitlements sustainable in a way that does not crowd out needed "discretionary" spending. This will require changes to the programs -- and also new revenue. As long as a majority in the House takes the position that not a cent of new revenue can be raised, why should Obama come up with an entitlements plan only to have it rejected? He has tried negotiating by starting somewhere in the middle, and it hasn't worked.

The chances EPA has to get rid of coal in favor of gas? Zero, zip, nada., for the same reason we haven't chosen electrical or hybrid cars over good ol' gasoline cars: economics. "Green energy" is too expensive and inefficient (see Solyndra) to make it worthwhile. Heck, even in supposedly green-mad Europe, coal is making a comeback because it's cheap, plentiful, and easy to distribute.

Gas is cheaper. That's why it is already replacing coal in power generation -- here in the United States, at least, where we have enormous natural gas reserves. The thing to worry about is becoming too dependent on cheap gas -- rather than contiinue to develop renewal energy sources that do not pump carbon into the atmosphere. But as a transitional measure, the migration from coal to gas lowers emissions substantially.

Eugene, I wanted to get your take on recent GOP- controlled states that are considering changing the assignment of electoral college delegates to district-by-district (favoring GOP) instead of population (winner take all). More directly though, I'm curious if you think this is something that the President should use the Bully pulpit to discuss? I feel like yes, he should - because it is a national issue that threatens democracy. But I worry that many on the GOP side would accuse of him of just interfering in state affairs- and that it would lead to MORE support to change the electoral system for the worst.

In most of the states where this change was being considered -- for nakedly partisan reasons -- leading Republicans have had second thoughts and effectively deep-sixed the idea. It remains in play in Pennsylvania, however, last I heard. The name of the game shouldn't be that the party that controls a statehouse gets to rig that state's electoral college vote. That's a very dangerous road to go down.

I hope and pray that the Administration makes it cuts, across the board, in republican districts whose congressmen think sequestration is a wonderful idea. Can the cuts be guided that way? It would bring me so much joy!

Er, I don't think that would be exactly legal. But I do think that if the cuts hit across the board, constituents in GOP-held districts will let their representatives know how they feel.

So Obama didn't sign the sequestration deal? Did he get everything he wants? Of course not, however he agreed to a deal. To say that he can make up new requirements because he didn't get everything the first time makes him sound like a spoiled child (which is a great way to describe today's politicians). Republicans didn't get everything they wanted either, and made a substantial concession in raising taxes on the rich. Should they hold out to get everything they want too? Thanks for showing you don't get it.

If you are suggesting that the president somehow agreed not to seek more revenue, that is simply not true. If you're suggesting that he tacitly made that agreement by signing the sequester deal, then it would be equally true that by accepting the spending cuts they won, the House majority was tacitly agreeing not to seek further cuts.  And by the way, why is the House leadership trying to "blame" anyone for the sequester and demanding talks to avert it? If all the GOP majority wants in cuts, why not pop the Champagne?

When did this self-threatening style of negotiation start and when will it end? This is the second time in 3 months the country has put a gun to its own head and threatened to pull the trigger if the two parties didn't agree on a solution to a problem. The idea was that this would be an effective incentive. But does anyone think it's working well? It sends the markets into turmoil and seems to increase the divide between the parties.

Right, correct, absolutely... And we have more of these artificial crises to come. I can only speak for myself, but no, I don't think it's working particularly well.

Eugene - appreciate your insight. Can you offer a perspective on how this sequestration impasse might end. Some of my co-workers think that once people are really affected by the cuts (long lines at airports, national parks closing, etc.), probably in the next couple months, but not right away, pressure will force the Congress to do something. I am hearing from my government-employed friends that they are generally being told they will be furloughed for one-day a week (missing 2 complete paychecks in a year). I thought the idea of the gov't workers being cut so much might make it end sooner, but my co-workers disagree. Where do you think the tipping point will be?

If it happens, then I could see House Republicans quickly offering a bill to restore most of the defense cuts and maybe a few other programs. That wouldn't be acceptable to Democrats, and maybe the Senate would come up with its own bill. Then maybe there would be weeks of protracted and bitter wrangling before there's finally bipartisan agreement... to kick the can farther down the road. Or maybe it all gets worked out when the whole government is threatened with a shutdown at the end of March. Or maybe they kick the can when the debt ceiling needs to be raised.

That's the optimistic scenario.

I've been in DoD as both an active duty member and civilian employee for over 30 years. Defense spending is treated as some sort of sacred cow by Republicans, but anyone who works for DoD knows there is plenty of room for cuts. There are whole programs, weapons systems and commands that are obsolete or duplicative that could and should be axed.

I think that's true. I also think that at this point, we have to see defense spending not just as a way to keep the nation safe from harm, but also as a source of jobs at a time when the economy is still struggling. But do I think we'll be less safe on March 2 if the sequester happens? No, I do not.

 

Looks like we might find out. That's all for today, folks. Thanks for your participation, and I'll see you again next week, assuming the sky doesn't fall.

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Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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