Calling the GOP's bluff: Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Jul 05, 2011

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news in a live Q&A. In his latest column, "Obama calls the GOP's bluff," Robinson writes,"Obama's in-your-face attitude seems to have thrown Republicans off their stride. They thought all they had to do was convince everyone they were crazy enough to force an unthinkable default on the nation's financial obligations. Now they have to wonder if Obama is crazy enough to let them."

Have a question about this column or more? Ask now.

Hello, everyone. Welcome to our weekly chat, which today seems likely to be dominated by an esoteric number that should be entirely noncontroversial: the U.S. debt ceiling. In today's column, I argued that President Obama should stand up to GOP bullying. I noted that if all else fails, Obama can play the constitutional card and assert that the 14th amendment compels him to ignore Congress and do whatever is needed to ensure that the "validity of the public debt... shall not be questioned." Forcing the GOP to abandon its ridiculous posture of "now new tax revenue, ever" would be worth the controversy that will ensue. I imagine others have opinions about the subject, so let's get started.

How your unexplained view of the President's alleged power under the 14th Amendment on the debt can be squared with Art. I, Sec. 8 of the Constitution that gives Congress -- and Congress alone -- the power to borrow money on the credit of the United States. Seems to be a direct conflict. You also need to explain why the President could not direct the Treasury to maintain all debt payments and then pay other operations of government from what remains in revenues, since revenues exceed the debt obligations. And the answer that that would involve picking winners and losers is not a credible response. A lack of political will on the part of the President is not the answer to whether or not he has the power to do so.

That is the kind of conflict that could only be resolved by the Supreme Court -- assuming that Congress decided to appeal to the high court, which might or might not happen. President Obama could tell Treasury to pay the debt first and fund the government from what's left over, but there's a difference between what he could do and what I believe he should do.

This is a very interesting idea and one that is receivng attention for good reason. Some detractors are saying that in order for the administration to proceed, it will have to get a legal opinion supporting this from the Office of Legal Council and that this would be binding. However, the Supreme Court declined to give advisory opinion - binding or otherwise - early in our history. Since when has this function been taken over by an executive branch agency? nd in any case, can the adminstration go ahead with this action regardless?

I don't believe the Office of Legal Counsel is mentioned in the Constitution. The responsibility, and the decision, would reside with the president, in my view.

According to Glenn Kessler in the Post, these items if fully repealed (assumes hedge-fund people don't find a way around things) would net about $50 billion over ten years. That's pretty lame in the context of the President's own budget deficit of $1.4 trillion for this year alone. People are, frankly, laughing at that list in the context of the overall deficit. It looks to me as if the President is not serious when this is what he comes up with. Don't you agree?

The president decided -- prematurely, in my view -- to open negotiations with an offer that gave Republicans almost all of what they wanted. He decided to look for more tax revenue in closing unpopular loopholes. I wish he had begun with a more forceful opening bid, but I suspect his true aim is to compel Republicans to give up their absolute insistence on no new tax revenue, ever. If we are going to regain our fiscal footing, this is a must.

Don't the Republicans hold the cards since they control the House? With a week or two before the deadline they pass a bill and either the Senate or the President has to stop it. If the bill doesn't pass, the Democrats take the blame since they haven't passed a competing budget the public can examine and choose. As the old saying goes, you can't beat something with nothing.

The Republicans did pretty well in last year's election by offering nothing -- except criticism of the Democrats. I wouldn't be so sure of about who gets blamed. Democrats have compromised, demonstrating that they are reasonable. Republicans have not. People get that.

Would you describe yourself as a patriot, a super-patriot, or a liberal?

A liberal super-patriot, of course.

Why do you behave as though this is the only time that you will be allowed to get your precious tax hikes? Have you ever considered the possibility that Americans want to see that the government can actually make any cuts at all before we sign up to have more of our money wasted? Would you continue to pour money into an insolvent business before they demonstrated that they could be fiscally responsible? You seem to be the one who is making "outrageous demands" and "bullying" those who disagree with your views by likening them to hostage takers.

I find it hard to square the final sentence of your post with the first three.

I would like to hear the response from Republican members of the house to the question ‘what federally-funded entities in your district should have their funding reduced or cut? Would they be enthusiastic about announcing the good news: the VA hospital will be shut, or our students will be losing their tuition assistance? Will they pledge that their district will lose more funds than any other district in the state? How long will Republicans blame the President when the problem is their own cowardice?

I'd like to hear that, too. I've been critical of the far-right Republican governors, but at least they are prepared to deal with the consequences of their budget cuts. Republicans in Congress always want to cut the funding for the VA hospital in somebody else's district.

Great column today. I wonder if President Obama will actually call the GOP's bluff. The seriousness of the situation if the debt ceiling is not raised may give the President a chance to cave in again to the GOP's demands. If he does cave in, I then would think that he planned to all along. What is your take? Thanks.

I would be really disappointed. The president has a lot riding on this. He's going into a tough election next year and needs his base energized -- not in open revolt. It would be foolish of him to raise expectations that he was going to fight if he didn't really intend to.

Gene, in your view, which would be more perilous, a Constitutional crisis involving the debt ceiling or a default involving the debt ceiling? It appears that the GOP has led us to one of these choices.

A default would be much worse. If those were my only choices, I'd save the nation from economic catastrophe first and argue the nuances of constitutional law later.

I love your column and usually agree with you, but I hate to say that I think David Frum got it right in his column today (yikes!) when he said that Obama is caving to the GOP crazies on the debt ceiling, like he has in some previous battles, and that his base should be in revolt. Your thougths?

I think Frum is right in saying that President Obama, as is his habit, opened negotiations by putting a truckload of concessions on the table. The line he drew last Wednesday would leave us with a deal that is overwhelmingly favorable to the Republican side. If he holds that line, though, I don't think there will be a revolt. I think he can make the argument that the important thing is to get the Republicans to abandon their absolutist anti-tax position.

Gene, Always enjoy reading your columns, even if I seldom agree. You repeat the "taxes on millionaires and billionaires" talking point of the President. I assume you are aware that raising taxes on actual millioaires and billionaires will not raise all that much revenue, relatively (b/c there are, in reality, not that many of them out there compared to the general population), and that if you actually read the plans submitted by the administration and Dem congress-persons, they consider a "millionaire" to be a couple earning over $250k.

Um, I assume you actually read the column. It notes your point.

Eugene -- isn't it clear as day that the Republicans will fold like a cheap suit -- because their wealthy constituents would be destroyed by the market tremor that would assuredly result from a failure to lift the debt limit? Apparently, Obama is setting the early deadline so that failure to meet it will start the tremor and force the Republicans to relent.

I can't imagine that Republicans are as nonchalant about the prospect of default as they pretend to be. And yes, I think the president is upping the pressure. The markets, I believe, will make their feelings known before we get to August 2.

Gene, thanks for taking questions today. Mine is simply: doesn't the public see through all these charades of the GOP? And aren't they going to make them feel the consecuences at the next polls?

Republicans are in a political squeeze. If they do the reasonable thing, they face charges of betrayal from the Tea Party base. If they continue to be unreasonable, they lose the independents who gave them their victory last fall.

It has been clearly established that a failure to raise the debt ceiling would be catastrophic. However, what is less certain is who would suffer the most politically as a result. Historically, regardless of the circumstances, if something has a negative effect on the economy, the president is considered by a majority of the public to be the main culprit. In this instance however, it seems to be universally understood that in the unlikely event that the ceiling isn't raised, the GOP will be fully eviscerated by the press and in the polls for its insanity. Do you agree with that assessment? Or is the American public just so out of touch with the reality of the political climate that Obama would bare the brunt of the criticism?

You neatly sum up the uncertainty about who would get the blame. I tend to think that people will look at the deal that was being offered -- 83 percent budget cuts, 17 percent tax increases -- and decide that the Republicans were being unreasonable. But I can't be sure.

I was struck by how David Brooks and Richard Cohen both made a point of calling out the more extreme wing of today's GOP. Brooks' will probably have more impact since he is a conservative calling out conservatives, but I wonder how much effect, if any, will the pundit and intellectual class have on bringing the 2 sides together to make a deal? You seem to think Obama calling them out is a good strategy, others have said that he made it harder for a deal to be struck. I consider myself a fiscal moderate with more progressive social leanings and I voted for Obama and still support him. I care less about who "wins" or "sets" the debate and more about getting a deal done that doesn't wreck the recovery and keeps us from defaulting. So I guess my comment is -- it seems that the farthest wings of both parties are somewhat responsible for the debt impasse. You can't say everything is on the table expect tax increases, just like you can't say everything is on the table except Medicare cuts. I feel like us middle of the roaders are not heard and get screwed by the wings of the parties every time.

I appreciate your thoughtful observations, but let me caution against seeing a false equivalence here. Democrats don't want to see Medicare cuts, but they accept the concept of entitlement reform -- just not turning Medicare into a voucher program. Republicans have taken an absolute pledge on taxes, despite the fact that simple arithmetic says this is untenable.

How would world markets and other countries react to a default,or even the hint of a possible default by the United States Government?

Shock, horror, despair. An actual default is literally unthinkable.

From passing an increase in the House of the debt ceiling coupled with an identical (or greater) reduction in spending using those items already identified in the Biden talks? How could BO or the Senate Dems object to savings that have already been identified in that context?

By pointing out that these "savings" represent real benefits, services and jobs for real Americans. By saying it is unfair that all the sacrifice be made by the middle-class and the poor and none of it be made by the wealthy.

Since it is true that the Supreme Court will not issue advisory opinions, we are left with the scenario of expending political capital and will to make the decision, a person with standing to challenge that decision, and then the normal process of appeals that could land the decision in the Supreme Court. Please note, however, in addition to advisory opinions, the Court is loathe to umpire disputes between the other Branches (and defer to the electorate in subsequent elections). Nonetheless, this is a Con Law scholar's dream come true!

Indeed. And you are correct that this is the kind of inter-branch dispute that the Supreme Court hates to referee. One would expect that  "non-activist" justices would be especially reluctant to dive in, especially after making cleear their general deference to executive power.

Politically I think it would be reckless of the President to use the 14th as a way to solve the debt ceiling debate. Also would just highlight his inability to get the gov't to do it's job. Not totally fair as the freshman GOP seem to be running things now, not the President, but the President is the one who will be blamed. And if conservatives who oppose the President based on the fact he is "radical" using the 14th to try to resolve debt issue would give them all the fuel needed to convince independents he is indeed a radical.

If, as I suspect, there are negative rumblings from the markets as the deadline approaches, the constitutional option will seem a lot less radical.

Not even remotely as lame as balancing the budget by eliminating funding to NPR and the NEA.

Don't forget Planned Parenthood.

The poster telling you to chill out has a point, hyperbole notwithstanding. Most Americans recognize that the government will simply spend as much money as it can get away with regardless of whether it makes fiscal sense. I mean, I'm a Democrat who thinks the GOP is trying to destroy America . . . but I also live in Chicago. So I know for a fact that politicians would waste or steal every single cent we have if they could.

Yet Chicago is in many respects a very well-run city (the schools being an exception). Politicians aren't all bad. We'd never have gotten this far if they were.


And that's as far as we'll get today, folks, because my time is up. Thanks for a lively hour, and I'll see you again next week.

In This Chat
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.
Archive of Eugene Robinson's columns
Recent Chats
  • Next: