A hold-your-nose deal for the left: Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Aug 02, 2011

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news in a live Q&A. In his recent column, "A hold-your-nose debt deal," Robinson writes, "The deal struck Sunday to free the U.S. economy from its Republican hostage-takers is impossible for progressives to love. It gets all the big things wrong, starting with the most fundamental: Obama never should have acquiesced to linking a routine hike in the debt ceiling - necessary to pay bills Congress has already incurred - with all the difficult spending questions that should be dealt with in the budget process."

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Hello, everyone. Well, the Senate just passed the bill and the president will soon sign it. We'll then be able to get on to the next phase in our lives, which I hope will be the Era of No Longer Talking About the Debt Ceiling. Well, maybe a little more talking about it today. Let's get started.

Boehner's big lie last week: "government spending kills jobs". We're at the point where the GOP believes if it repeats a lie often enough, the American people will believe it. And I think they've won. None of the talking heads that I saw took on this lie directly -- except for Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, who made the (obvious) point that government spending creates jobs. Why have the Democrats allowed Republicans to frame a completely false narrative?

You sure it wasn't just constant repetition of the phrase "debt ceiling" that was making your head threaten to explode? Seriously, many commentators made that point. Many progressive politicians made that point. Yet somehow the GOP's faux reality has taken hold. Sigh.

Did Obama and the Democrats lose or Obama lose all by himself -- keeping his team off the field?

It takes a village. I think the president could have short-circuited the whole thing by making clear, early on, that he wasn't going to take any nonsense about the debt ceiling and would invoke the 14th Amendment if necessary. That was an option until the end, but realistically the ground would have had to be prepared for such a move. Once we entered the swamp, the GOP won with obstinacy -- even as it lost the public relations battle. Neat trick.

Obama seems to be laboring under the impression that he needs to take the center to win. Except the center is very small. 40% of the country (conservatives, Tea Party, and assorted other Republicans and libertarians) will not vote for him under any circumstance. He's rapidly reaching the point where he is almost equally despised by progressives and liberals (20%). These two groups vote. Of the remaining 40%, many of them can't name the Vice President let alone show up at the polls. He got killed in 2010 because the right hates him and the left doesn't trust him (again, the center doesn't show up). Does he need to lose all 50 states before he might, just might, consider his current strategy was braindead?

I disagree with your arithmetic. I agree that the enthusiasm and trust of progressives will be important, but it's not true that the center is non-existent or irrelevant. Independents have steadily become a larger share of the electorate, and we've seen their impact in the last few elections. They went with the Democrats in 2006 and 2008, then went with the Republicans in 2010 (according to every exit poll). Independents will be important next year.

I would really like to get inside his head. He said he was willing to be a one term president if he could accomplish the things that he wanted. Yet his willingness to capitulate on this deal moves him to the center and beyond and reeks of positioning himself for 2012.

My distaste for this deal is clear, so let me lay out what the White House response would be. They'd say that the president had to get the debt ceiling raised no matter what (I know, I know, what about the Fourteenth Amendment, but leave that aside for a moment). They'd say that given the GOP's unwillingness to be reasonable, it made sense to try to use the Republicans' own stance to leverage this must-do vote into a bigger deal on debt reduction that would be better than any deal struck closer to the election. (I know, the Obama-Boehner plan was hardly a great deal, but stay with me.) They'd say that when a big deal became impossible, they found ways to shape the smaller cuts-only deal so it did not do violence to core Democratic principles and perhaps even did some good (defense cuts; taking the debt ceiling off the table until after the election).

Since Republicans are so hot on passing ridiculous amendments, I'd like to see one to deport any politician who expresses surprise that the government isn't run like a business. If you can't tell the difference between business and government, you have no business being in government.

Yes, let's get rid of that analogy. Let's also get rid of the notion that a government's budget is just like a family's. Unless your family is in the habit of printing money or fighting wars, it's not.

"After all, if you look at historical norms, spending is too high and tax receipts are too low by about the same amount. " My research shows outstanding spending growth with respect to GDP in the last 4 decades.

Tax receipts right now are about 15 percent of GDP. Spending is about 25 percent of GDP. Both should be around 20 percent.

If you love taxes so much Eugene, why don't you just donate your salary to the Federal treasury? Of course you won't. Nobody wants to pay taxes they just want others to pay taxes. Why don't we means test those who want social security? Of course not because I high paid writer like you would have to forgo it right? The Dems lost becasue they are not in the real world. They are in some world where money grows on trees to be picked off and distributed to those who don't have enough. Welcome to the 21st century Eugene - the century of reality. If you don'y like it, retire and write your memoirs.

Writing checks to the IRS isn't my idea of fun, but I understand why we need a government. When I fly on a jet, I want there to be air traffic controllers in the tower. When I eat a hamburger, I'm glad we have food inspectors. When I go to a national park, I'm happy that we have them. Ultimately, I believe some benefits may have to be means-tested and I'm okay with that. Sorry to disappoint you.

If confronted with the choice of extending the Bush tax cuts for all income levels versus letting them expire for all income level, isn't it likely that Obama would sign off on a full extension? I think it's naive to think that the Republican House will present Obama with anything but these two options. I think that they will pass an extension out of the House knowing that the Democrats in the Senate and Obama won't dare to let the cuts expire for the lower and middle classes. Is there a flaw in my reasoning?

Interesting question, because that does seem to be a likely scenario. The president has been categorical about not renewing tax cuts for households above $250,000. So we'll see.

Why, with all of the squawking and talking about how to "fix" Social Security, won't anyone in the Administration and/or Congress or the SSA suggest that all Americans pay the same percentage tax (which could be a lower percentage for everyone) on ALL forms of income VERSUS up to the current income limit of $106,000?

Most proposals for "fixing" Social Security involve raising or eliminating the income cap. That said, it's important to note that this is not an emergency. It's true that the sooner the fix the less it should hurt, but it's not true that SocSec is at or near a crisis point. It's still in the black to the tune of more than $2 trillion.

Dear Eugene, I as a loyal reader, wonder what exactly the Tea Party/Republican Right gave up in the debt deal. Can you elucidate that for me? It seems to me that the TP uses the Russian style of negotiation: state your demand, state your demand, state your demand, wait for the other side to cave in, get 100% of what you wanted and then complain that you didn't get 200% of what you wanted. It appears that President Obama doesn't understand this tactic. Scott Swearingen Tulsa, OK

Republicans didn't give up anything. The truth is that they didn't get a whole lot. But they did get cuts with no new revenue, and clearly they won.

I think everyone, including you Mr. Robinson (with all due respect), needs to "take a chill pill". Like you wrote in your article today, Dems lost this battle but can still win the "war". If politics is like chess, why is losing a rook or bishop considered resounding defeat? The Tea Party is done! They can't hold anything else "hostage" unless they get re-elected in 2012 (which I doubt they will since the electorate will be much more diverse compared to off-year elections). Do you agree?

I agree that Democrats have an opportunity in 2012 to take back the ground they lost last year. They'll need to do more than point out the Tea Party's excesses, however. They will need a message about jobs, growth and the future that connects with voters.

For kicking the country in the rear and telling it to wake up to an economic path that every reasonable and reasoning person knows is unsustainable. Thank you for telling those who believe in the primacy of an overweening federal government that that is not what our Founders intended (see Federalist 45 for a simple affirmation of that fact) or what made this country great. Thank you for standing fast for a few simple ideas in the face of withering scorn from media elites (you're racist rednecks, for example). Thank you for trying to save my country.

Save your country from whom, exactly? Because it's my country too.

I agree that this was a hold your nose and support vote. My question is, how do you better negotiate with a group that apparently is willing to drive over a cliff in a game of chicken? Should liberals stick to their line in the sand and act even crazier in the super committee?

The "super committee" sounds like it could be an enormous waste of everybody's time. Already, McConnell has said that he and Boehner will appoint members who will stand fast against any new tax revenue. So Reid and Pelosi will have to appoint members who will defend fiercly against budget cuts. This doesn't sound promising to me.

If you are running for reelection, this deal seems pretty effective for the President. The republican candidates were not a factor in negotiations and the moderates are not overwrought about it. Seems like the White House cut a reasonable deal from their election perspectice. Disagree?

From the campaign perspective, the president did well compared to his likely opponents. Romney was particularly lame, in my opinion. He ran and hid until the deal was done, then opposed it. Huh?

This is the first mention I had seen that there is a sliver of hope for the near future. Do you think the Democrats and the President will get a backbone and will start explaining their plan and that some government is good and necessary?! Also, do you think the "American People" - as the politicians like to say - really are starting to realize that the government does offer some essential services and that the Republicans do not have the answers to our problems?

Hope springs eternal.

Whatever you think of this deal, the first $1 billion part just sets budget caps. The hard work of actually developing a budget for 2012 will be the usual mess of missed deadlines and continuing resolutions, only probably worse as all the special interests will trying to get a piece of a smaller pie. And Congress will be recessing, this week and not be back until after Labor Day, with tne 2012 fiscal year starting October 1. The fall will be as bad as the spring/summer with the important exception of the debt ceiling not being an issue.

Correct. It will be one long budget battle, with the "super committee" thrown in for good measure.

Eugene- I am a 68 year old former life-long Republican who supported Obama with my money and my vote. I did so because I thought he would use the bully pulpit to effectively promote "Change we can believe in" much like Reagan was able to do. I know that the Republicans have done their level best to block anything Obama endorsed (even when it was their own idea in the first place), but shouldn't he have been able to overcome their childish games and tantrums by effectively appealing directly to the American public over the heads of a more or less worthless Congress? My questions to you are: Did I mis-read Obama the campaigner? If you don't think so, what do you believe happened to the promise he exhibited during the campaign? Would you see any reason to expect better of him if he is re-elected in 2012?

I'll just note two things. First, President Obama clearly won the public relations battle over the debt ceiling; the public came to agree with him on the need to raise the ceiling and the need for a balanced approach that included revenue. Second, when he did draw an ineradicable line in the sand -- that he wouldn't accept a short-term deal that meant we'd go through this same fight again before the election -- he got what he wanted. I see a couple of lessons there.

When did this become substantive policy? I hear it all the time. Sure, sometimes a successful compromise requires concessions that leave each side unhappy, but oftentimes if everybody says it's a bad idea then maybe they're right. Nobody seems to be thinking critically about the objections. Instead they're just looking for balance. I guess when the surgeons propose fixing my dad's heart defect by cutting off his legs -- an idea that would upset everyone -- I'll just go along with their brilliant compromise.

I agree. The problem I have with this both-sides-unhappy meme is that the two sides are often advocating policies that work in diametrically opposite directions. So if we stimulate the economy with one hand and depress it by cutting government spending on the other, we end up treading water.

This debt ceiling fiasco was rather depressing to watch. Though I suppose one has to admire the tenacity of the Tea Party, its members are frighteningly ignorant of basic economics and are rather detached from reality. Their desires, from forcing the country into default to passing a balanced budget amendment, were guaranteed ways to throw the country into a depression and make things much, much worse. The Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations have traditionally donated money to Republicans. Do you have any sense as to whether these groups are a little frightened by the monster that they created and are starting to realize that uneducated nitwits can be more dangerous to business than Democrats? One positive from this nightmare might be that business donors should be a little more careful in who they choose to give money to.

Business groups became quite concerned when it appeared that there might actually be a default. But that happened quite late in the process. Maybe they'll get worried a bit earlier next time.

I wrote to you on this chat at right after the 2010 elections, saying that Democrats should use this vote to force Republicans to be adults. I have to say that it didn't work out like I thought it would. My bad. So I'm not one who blames Obama for not seeing how this would go back in December during the big tax deal. But I do seriously think that Dems need a good ad copy agency. Letting the Republicans (and, subsequently, the media) explain the debt ceiling as "raising the nation's credit card limit" and "giving Obama a blank check"...it's ridiculous and inaccurate. Every Democrat should have talked about not raising the debt ceiling as "Congress giving Obama a $10 grocery list and only giving him $6 to pay for it" "Congress can make a $6 grocery list any time it wants, but that's done when you are writing the list, when we are writing the budget, not when you are at the front of the checkout line." "Giving Obama a blank check? Congress gives Obama a $10 grocery list and only $6 to pay for it, and its called a *blank check* for the Treasury to need to borrow the other $4?". And I mean *every democrat*. I don't understand why Democrats don't emulate the Republicans with everyone having the exact same analogy, as its so obviously effective.

I once suggested to an adminisration official that they need a Department of Pithy Phrases. The Repubicans always seem to be quicker at defining the language of whatever debate we're having, and that's half the battle.

And with that, folks, I'm out of pithy phrases for today. My time is up. 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.
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