Eugene Robinson Live

Jun 03, 2014

Chat with Post columnist Eugene Robinson about his latest columns and political news.

Hello, everyone, and welcome to our regular get-together. No preliminaries today -- you know what's in the news: climate change, coal, Bergdahl, Taliban, politics. Let's get started.

Gene, does negotiating with terrorists to free a man that went AWOL really the best message to send? Wouldn't this provide incentive for terrorists to go out of their way to capture American's that are on foreign soil? Also, I was under the impression that the President had to notify congress 30 days in advance to do such a thing? Am I reading the law incorrectly? I thought the President even signed the law into action.

That's a lot of questions in one. The policy of our armed forces is that we bring our people home. I believe this is a promise we make to the men and women who sign up to fight for their country. I believe it was right to bring Bergdahl home regardless of whether he deserves a tickertape parade or a court martial. We can decide that later. If he were known beyond a shadow of a doubt to be a traitor -- not just a deserter, but a traitor -- that would be different. That is not the case here, as far as we know. It's never a great idea to negotiate with terrorists but almost all countries do it all the time; they just pretend not to. I don't think terrorists need an incentive to go after Americans. I believe Congress has a point about the law, although it's unworkable to notify them so far in advance; Obama made this point when he signed the bill -- just like George W. Bush, he issues "signing statements" when he believes parts of a law are unconstitutional. Perhaps the courts will ultimately decide.

I’m not an Obama basher by any means; I voted for him twice. But this latest event with Sergeant Bergdahl appears to be another foreign policy disaster for the president. Not only may the swap of five Gitmo detainees for Bergdahl have been illegal, but it certainly appears that the U.S. negotiated with terrorists. The Obama Administration says that’s not what this was, but I don’t know what else you could call it. It’s not just Fox News who’s critical of Mr. Obama this time. And it gets worse. It’s not like the administration traded five detained terrorists for the release of a bona fide war hero. Now Bergdahl’s service has come into question. Men who served with him say he was an intentional deserter and the search for him cost the lives of six American soldiers. There’s even speculation, admittedly unsubstantiated, that he collaborated with the enemy. I guess the Obama Administration didn’t know of Bergdahl’s questionable actions when they put this into motion. They must have cringed when the news of Bergdahl’s desertion became public. I like Obama, but he hasn’t impressed me in the foreign policy arena lately.

Would you really feel differently if Bergdahl were an apparent hero? He suited up and went to Afghanistan to fight, just like thousands of others. He put himself in harm's way. If he deserted, he should face the consequences of that act. But are we really going to decide based on e-mails or tweets whom we bring home and whom we don't? As for negotiating with terrorists, again, everybody does it all the time. It is legitimate to question the deal itself -- whether these five Taliban guys should have been released. My view is that after so long in Guantanamo, away from the action, they will be non-factors. But of course I can't read the future.

Having never served in the military I feel it's hard to judge someone who did. However, if Bergdahl deserted his post, and 6 soldiers died trying to find him, I find that despicable, and hope he faces the full force of the law.

I agree. Get him home first, then court-martial him if warranted.

Hi Eugene -- thanks for taking questions. I have to admit, I haven't been following this story very closely, other than to know that the Republicans are mad about it (just as they are about everything Obama does). That aside, what do you think of the president's actions? Bold move or big mistake?

Neither. I think the president probably felt he didn't have a choice. We are in the end game in Afghanistan. Troops are going to be coming home. Prisoner exchanges are the kinds of loose ends that always get wrapped up at the end of a war. If not now, it might never have been possible to get Bergdahl home.

Gene, I appreciated your column today, but I want to raise an issue that you didn't address. The top 5 coal-producing states are Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. Other states, including Ohio, also contribute to the mining of coal. My question: The democratic candidate for president for 2016 (Probably H. Clinton) will include global warming and coal pollution in their polemic, but how should she deal with blue states (Illinois, for example), and purple states (Pennsylvania and Ohio, for other examples) where coal production means jobs? How do you tell these folks that their culture--their way of life--is on the chopping block?

The Democratic nominee probably isn't going to win Wyoming. In WVa and Ky, coal is such a big issue that the new carbon regs may hurt the Democratic nominee no matter what. In the other states you mention, coal-mining regions may be angry but that's not where most of the votes are.

There is probably a 50/50 chance he goes down tonight. I know liberals say this shows R's are killing their own, but the fact is this man has been in office nearly 40 years. Can't an argument be made that it is time for new blood in the congress?

I was on Morning Joe this morning and watched clips of Cochran and McDaniel, and I wondered whether this isn't the real issue in Mississippi: A young, vigorous challenger taking on an aging senator who has been in office for four decades. Sometimes it's that simple.

For what it's worth, the talk that he walked intentionally has been pretty well known in military circles since 2009, so the idea that the president didn't know is silly. Anything beyond that, however, is pure speculation, and doesn't change that we bring our people home. He should absolutely be held accountable for any crimes a court convicts him of under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said this morning, we're supposed to be a country of innocent until proven guilty. It's OK to be upset about HOW he was brought home. It's not OK, in my opinion, to be upset THAT he was brought home.

Well said.

Eugene: Same sex marriage is now legal in about 20 states, but in half those that is the result of court rulings, not legislation or voter referendum. Are marriage equality advocates repeating the mistakes made by abortion rights activists 40 years ago? Then it appeared public opinion was shifting, a few states had loosened restrictions on abortion, and the next generation, it was assumed, would embrace reproductive rights as a basic right. So the courts intervened rendering the democratic process moot. Forty years later, we're still fighting over abortion - in fact, opponents of abortion rights have scored some significant victories lately at the state level. How do marriage equality advocates avoid a repeat of this situation?

Two reasons why I think the analogy does not fit. First, as my colleague Bob Barnes pointed out in an excellent story recently, these unanimous U.S. District Court rulings have been made by a rainbow nation of judges -- liberal and conservative, Obama appointees and Bush appointees, etc. -- and they all cite the recent rulings by the Supreme Court, which under John Roberts is not exactly a cauldron of social experimentation. Second, polls show that public opinion has shifted on gay marriage more rapidly than anyone might have expected. A consensus is forming in favor of gay marriage. Not everyone will like it, but most people will.

FWIW, many of the top coal states are also big into natural gas now, a rather less carbon-harmful fuel. I do think we'll see more of a move to natural gas and away from coal in the next decade.

We're already seeing it. Power companies are building new natural gas plants these days, not new coal plants, for obvious reasons -- the gas boom. We're the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. Coal was on a downslope anyway, but this new rule certainly gives it a push.

You're not saying that the states would have refrained from passing laws restricting abortion if only the courts had stayed out of it, surely?

No. But that's what the courts are supposed to do when rights are being infringed. In 1967, the result of the "democratic process" was that 16 or 17 states still had laws on the books making interracial marriage illegal. The Supreme Court's Loving v. Virginia ruling intervened. I believe the vast majority of Americans are happy that this intervention took place.

"negotiating with terrorists" is one of those dog-whistle phrases that we need to get rid of. The situation is never really just that simple, and it shuts down all reasonable argument as quickly as mentioning the person who spawned Godwin's Law.

The phrase is used to perpetuate a fiction. 

Gene, Ordinary, reasonable people are rightfully frustrated when reporters refuse to follow any line of inquiry that refutes the current media obedience to "false equivalence in news". If a political figure were to declare that he "knows for a fact that the moon is made of green cheese", our current crop of "offend no one" reporters would turn the story into a "he said, she said" difference of opinion and take no sides on determining whether said politician's statement is laughable and ludicrous. What's that you say, no reporter would ever stoop so low as to legitimize the stupidity of the "moon is green cheese" people? Try substituting a politician saying "I know for a fact that the earth is 6,000 years old" for "I know for a fact that the moon is made of green cheese" and watch as reporters scramble to accommodate and legitimize the anti-science idiocy that passes these days for informed discourse. Until reporters start laughing out loud at the falsehoods dispensed by stupid and/or ignorant politicians, our nation is doomed. Where is H. L. Mencken when we need him? Many thanks! Perplexed in Arlington

I'm a longtime foe of "on the one hand, on the other hand" journalism. There are not always two sides to every story. Sometimes there are three sides, or four, or more. Sometimes there is one. We shouldn't need fact-checker columns to adjudicate what's true and what's not. I thought that was what reporters were supposed to do.

 

And what I'm supposed to do about now is sign off. My time is up for today. Thanks for participating, as always, and I'll see you next week.

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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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