S&P downgrades the GOP: Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Aug 09, 2011

Gene will be starting a few minutes late today. Thank you for your patience.

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news in a live Q&A. In his recent column, "A downgrade's GOP fingerprints," Robinson writes, "The so-called analysts at Standard & Poor's may not be the most reliable bunch, but there was one very good reason for them to downgrade U.S. debt: Republicans in Congress made a credible threat to force a default on our obligations."

Have a question on his recent column and more? Ask now.

Sorry I'm late, folks. Let's get started.

To blame the Tea Party for the downgrade when it is the only entity forcing Congress and the Administration to address the debt problem is the height of idiocy. The lions share of the blame belongs to Obama. He ignored the recommendations of his debt committee and doubled down on his spending plans by submitting a 500 billion new stimulus blueprint which his own Democratically controlled Senate rejected on a 97-0 vote. Had he championed the debt commissions plan and insured its passage we would have passed muster and not had our debt rating downgraded. Your Comments please... without your usual rolling of the eyes.

I disagree. (Trying not to roll my eyes...) The debt burden, while heavier than we'd like, is not crushing. There is no possibility that the United States would default because we literally couldn't service the debt. There is, however, the new possibility that we would decide to default. And that is the Tea Party's fault.

Eugene, I am one of the millions without a job. Two plus years and counting. My only income is $200 a month in food stamps. I have to try really hard every day to maintain some hope. Why in the world does the President nit understand this reality for so many? All I see is the a shrug of the shoulders and him walking away from us who are desperate for leadership and hope for change. Any theories on this?

I've been saying for months that jobs, not debt, should be the nation's top priority. Maybe we'll act that way, one of these days.

I read somewhere that now with the US downgraded, the remaining AAA countries in the world all have some form of socialized medicine. Is this true, and if so, why don't more people talk about how this would help our financial issues? Shouldn't this be a Democratic talking point?

It is true that every remaining AAA country has universal health care of the kind that Republicans would call "socialism." Coincidence?

Can you explain to me the argument that Obama is to blame because it happened on his watch? 9/11 happened on Bush's watch. But anyone that blamed him got ridiculed as a "blame-America-firster". No rational person blamed Bush, and history won't blame him, just because it happened on his watch. It just seems to me that objective history doesn't work that way, and most people are smart enough to see through that. Short of giving the Tea Party everything they wanted up front, what could Obama have done differently to avoid this?

I honestly don't think there's anything Obama could have done differently that would have materially changed the circumstances we're in now, except perhaps one thing: Going for a much bigger initial stimulus package in early 2009. Maybe that would have given the economy enough escape velocity... and maybe not. I can think of other things the president could have done differently to improve his political situation, but not the country's situation.

You mentioned that a re-elected President Obama would be in an ideal political position to force a repeal of the Bush tax cuts - and lets be honest, if "everyone must make sacrifices", all tax cuts should be rolled back . Why would a re-elected Obama be in a better position than a President Obama who had majorities in the House and Senate? He could have rolled back the tax cuts earlier in the year if he so decided. So what was his rationale? That it would have been detrimental to the economy? If so, has the economy improved that dramatically?

President Obama and the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate should have done a lot of things -- like pass a budget, for example -- while they had the chance. It's true, however, that after the election the president won't have to worry about reelection.

Yes, let us take Greenspan's advice! Let's print more money! I have a wheelbarrow in my garage that doesn't get much use - it would be perfect for hauling around the piles of wonderful paper money that will be needed to buy bread. Inflation is a good thing! Perhaps we should find a way to keep interest rates lower, which could result in artificially inflated housing prices, a burst housing bubble and...oh wait...Greenspan already did that.

You misinterpret Greenspan, who is one of the great inflation hawks. He was just pointing out a simple fact, which other economists have also noted. My belief, on the contrary, is that a little inflation would be a good thing -- maybe 4 percent or so, over the next three or four years. That would help complete a task no one wants to tackle, namely getting a lot of bad mortgage (and 0ther) debt off the books. The banks don't want to write it off, and it's smothering the real estate market. But a bit of inflation would have the same effect as writing off a bunch of this debt.

Why aren't the Dems making the simple, bumper sticker argument that the reason for the downgrade is the repubs threatened to default. If I was, say, a bank officer looking to make a loan and the applicant said "I'll probably pay it back, but maybe not" I wouldn't treat him as a good prospect.

That's the point I made in the column, but I had to phrase it as the reason S&P should have given for the downgrade -- rather than the reasons they did give, which were all over the map.

I think the president's chance for re-election in 2012 is extremely slim when you combine the sharp drop in the stock market with continued high unemployment, and an economy that's almost certainly headed for another recession. We're possibly heading toward a global depression. Do you think a primary challenger will emerge, knowing that they may present Democrats their only chance of keeping the White House in 2012? Will Republicans worry much less about whether their primary candidate can beat Obama and just elect whomever they want? This would seem to give Bachmann a huge lift. Also, I've seen several Republicans on TV that are absolutely giddy that our economy is collapsing because they believe it will beneift Republicans in 2012? Is our political system so dsyfunctional that the parties now try to sabotage our economy for political gain?

If Republicans choose a yahoo as their candidate, Obama will win. Period. If they choose somebody like Romney or Huntsman who can appeal to the center, or maybe Perry who is said to be a very good and disciplined campaigner, they have a shot.

Mr. Robinson-I am disappointed in your logic. A credible threat of default no longer existed when the AAA rating was downgraded. That problem was solved several days earlier. How are thr Republicans responsible?

The debt ceiling deal gets us past the election, but eventually the ceiling will have to be raised again. Now there's a precedent for the GOP to threaten to force a default. No such precedent existed before.

I am just sickened by our country and I don't know if we will ever pull out of this mess. We needed more stimulus to create jobs, but we got a made up deficit problem. I say made up both because the cause was not Obama's profligate spending and because a growing economy would do wonders for shrinking the deficit. But here I sit, a senior citizen who desperately needs social security and medicare, But the president I voted for (and many democratic congress people ) won't stand up for me. Nor will they stand up for the unemployed. Who does this country belong to? I'm not sure I see any hope down the road and I'm screaming angry. And the Republicans had better stop saying "The will of the American people" before their proclamations. Not my will and I NEVER voted for them. Right now, I'd like to take Senator Bernie Sanders' advice and find someone to challenge Pres. Obama in the primaries -- pull him back on track.

In fairness, President Obama and the Democrats did tak a stand to protect Medicare benefits, and most Dems oppose reductions in SocSec benefits or raising the eligibility age (although it's not clear what the president may have been considering on SocSec). But no, they haven't focused attention and effort where it's needed -- on jobs and growth -- and instead have been drawn into this endless fight about debt. It's like a doctor who insists on treating a patient's diabetes while ignoring the gunshot wound.

I suggest a third party, to be called the Adult Party. To be an Adult, you must recognize that bills must be paid, and that in a democracy, that means everyone must shoulder the burden when times get tough. The party slogan would be Oliver Wendell Holmes' quote that taxes are the price we pay for civilization. Simple arithmetic shows that expediture cuts alone will not balance the books, so everyone must be an adult and agree to pay more taxes-- and guess what? The people who have the most must pay more than the people who have the least. Adults also recognize that ideals have to fit in with reality. It would be a great thing if everyone waited until marriage before having sex, but guess what? Most people don't and birth control is way cheaper than childbirth and much less taxing on the health care budget. Similarly, if there are millions of illegal immigrans in the country it does not make logical or economic sense to try to catch them and send them back. Far better to find a path to citizenship and get them on the tax rolls and upwardly mobile so that they can pay even more taxes. Am I being too idealistic to think that a party like that could catch on?

Your question answers itself. Judging by the arguments we've been having, the Adult Party would be quite small.

Mr Robinson, Please discuss the 14th Amendment and the likelihood that the usage of said Amendment could have withstood a G.O.P. challenge in the Supreme Court. Fred Morefield Virginia Beach, VA

As I've written, I think the 14th Amendment at least empowers -- and perhaps instructs -- the president to do whatever is necessary to fulfill our obligations, including borrowing. I'm not a lawyer, but I believe that if the justices of the Supreme Court remain true to the views they've previously expressed in their opinions, use of the 14th amendment by President Obama would easily be upheld. There would be, however, an attempt by House Republicans to impeach the president.

Hi Eugene -- Thanks for your insightful column today. Some pundits have suggested that the president should not have made a statement about the downgrade yesterday, with a few even suggesting that his comments were so uninspiring that he bears some of the blame for yesterday's market tank. What's your take? Why does it often seem that, if he doesn't do something, he gets blamed, and if he does, he also gets blamed?

It's just stupid to expect any president to reverse a market plunge with a speech. Commentators who blame him for not accomplishing this impossible feat probably also blame him for not making water flow uphill. That said, I didn't understand why he chose to make those remarks at all. It's not that he was uninspiring, it's just that he didn't seem to have anything new to announce.

So, the downgrade was the GOP's fault because it threatened default? Risible. S&P said, "The downgrade reflects our opinion that the fiscal consolidation plan...falls short of of what, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government's medium-term debt dynamics." Interpreting for you, that means that the downgrade was occasioned by the plan that avoided default not going far enough, not that the threat of default in and of itself was the reason as you conclude. Funny, but you never even mention the scope of the plan as central to S&P's conclusion. How did you miss that? In fact, S&P goes on to specifically say that for some obligations, "We have taken the ratings off CreditWatch because the Aug. 2 passage of the Budget Control Act Amendment of 2011 has removed any perceived immediate threat of payment default." Again, S&P is saying that the ratings of certain obligations are restored because the plan removed any "perceived" threat of default. Thus, for you to ascribe S&P's downgrade solely to the threat of default is simply wrong and fundamentally lazy.

Actually, you're being kind of, um, lazy. Read the column, please. I say this is the reason S&P should have given, not the reason it gave.

So let me get this straight, is someone questions and debates the merits of reducing spending and attempts to bring alternative's to the table that in your opinion is "Obstruction". Well sir let me be the first to say I am proud to be a Tea Party member and believe in Fiscal Responsibility, Limited Government and Free Market Solutions. Your option is obviously Spend More to get out of debt. Is that how you run your family budget?

For the umpteenth time, a sovereign nation is not like a family. The analogy does not work. You don't run national budgets the way you run family budgets.

How do we account for the fact that the downgrade led to a RISE in the price of US Treasury bonds and a fall in the price of EVERY equity in the S&P 500. My sense is that the "market" recognized that the gridlock means: no politically feasible growth/jobs program. This affects the equity outlook but apparently not the US credit outlook.

I think that's right. I think the market recognizes that the economy could slip back into recession, which will be bad for companies. But U.S. Treasuries are still the safest investment around -- and, frankly, the only available place to park all that money being yanked out of the stock market. Some downgrade...

Gene, I'm sick of hearing about how the left is disappointed in Obama. How disappointed are they in Harry Reid and his Senate collegues who acted so weak at the start of this Congress that they didn't reduce the minority's ability to filibuster? How disappointed are they in their fellow lefties juvenile attitude towards voting in the 2010 elections, which allowed for an extreme right agenda to be vindicated at the polls? How disappointed are they at their complete inability to organize a response to the Tea Party after 18 months of their screaming about nonsense and taking their country down with their repudiated ideas of tax cuts fixes everything? I don't see the left doing anything but complaining about how Obama isn't being enough like Bush, a man and a style that infuriated them over the previous decade. Do something or shut up, that's how I feel about the left totally piling on their best presidential figure since Wilson, a man without scandal, highly intelligent and responsible and who steadfastly advocates on their behalf in the midst of total chaos.

Thank you, Madame First Lady.

Seriously, folks, it's best to take a somewhat longer view here. When I hear commentators unanimously spouting the conventional wisdom that President Obama is in serious political trouble, I remind myself that the conventional wisdom is usually wrong. The president's approval ratings are lower than he'd like them to be, but not fatally low. His head-to-head numbers against possible GOP opponents are quite good. If this is the low point of his presidency, he'd rather go through it now than six months or a year from now. Depending on whom you posit as the GOP nominee, he's either a slight favorite or an overwhelming favorite to win reelection. So everybody take a deep breath. Now exhale.

That's it for our yoga session today. See you again next week, and sorry again for today's late start.

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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