The Washington Post

Oct 26, 2010

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news.

Read today's column: For President Obama, a progressive blitz was not an option in which Gene writes: "Those who play 'What If?' are unconstrained by political and economic reality. President Obama and the Democratic leadership, to their misfortune, enjoy no such freedom. "

Hi, everyone. Just one week left until... whatever happens a week from now. Midterm elections are seldom happy occasions for the party in power, and this one promises to be particularly unhappy for the Democrats. Today's column tried to consider what the Democrats' standing might be right now if they hadn't wasted time and effort trying to win Republican votes for the progressive agenda, and instead had just gone ahead and done what they felt the country needed. It's tempting to think that this might have changed things, but I doubt it. The fact is that if the Democratic leadership had possessed the brains of Einstein and the agility of Baryshnikov, I still don't know where they would have found the 60 votes in the Senate for a cleaner, more transformative health care bill, a tougher set of Wall Street reforms, an energy bill with teeth, etc. Not that the Dems often displayed those Einstein-Baryshnikov traits in their political strategery, but that's another rant. The fact is that the question is whether the Republicans will make big gains or humongous gains next Tuesday. I'm thinking merely big, but I have no faith in any poll's likely-voter screen this year so I really don't think we can predict with any confidence. What say you? (About politics and of course about other things as well.)

I agree that it would have been difficult--perhaps impossible--to get a full New Deal-style set of reforms through Congress. But, as Tom Daschle inadvertently revealed, the Obama Administration didn't even try. After enormous success running as a transformational candidate, Obama took on the persona of a thorough Washington insider. There was no attempt whatsoever to build public support for a larger stimulus package, public option, or single payer, to name just a few, which could have put pressure on Congress to move in a progressive direction. I'm _not_ saying it would have worked. I'm saying that it's damning, and possibly the missed opportunity of a lifetime, that it wasn't even tried.

That's indeed possible, but I doubt it. They should have gone for a bigger stimulus, and shouldn't have give up the tax-cuts bargaining chip before bargaining ever began. It would have been nice to at least talk about single-payer, but the Obama team made the decision that this was a non-starter and they were probably right. Obama's idea of transformational didn't anticipate such adamantine opposition from the GOP, and the administration was slow to realize that "no" was the Republicans' final answer to everything. But all that said, I don't see where the votes were going to come from to pass a second New Deal. Maybe somebody else has a different count, but I don't see it.

For those of us in the hinterlands, can you give us an idea, some examples, of administration bi-partisanship? I'm told -- and believe -- there was some and that it was ultimately spurned at every turn by GOP leadership, but "reasonable" conservatives claim there was no "meaningful" effort at it. Thanks.

Well, the administration began by devoting one-third of the stimulus bill to tax cuts, which was a gesture to Republicans. And the major elements of health-care reform could have been written -- were written, actually -- in GOP-leaning think tanks. Consistently, the White House incorporated traditional GOP ideas in its legislative initiatives. They were spurned.

Although focusing on jobs instead of health care payment changes may not have changed the unemployment rate, it would have been in line with the public's expectations of where the effort should be focused. By focusing on an agenda that the public continually said it did not favor, the Democrats simply seemed ideological, arrogant, out of touch, and indifferent to the suffering of more Americans. Whenever a party is perceived as ideological rather than practical, it is punished. You can look it up.

Yours is the conventional wisdom, and it may be right. But I don't think it would have made a big difference. The Democrats would still be facing midterms with unemployment at an unacceptably high rate, and with Americans suffering -- and frustrated. Health care reform will make ours a better country, I believe. It has been a dream of the Democratic Party for at least 60 years, and while the bill that passed isn't perfect, it's still a landmark piece of legislation. Does anyone think it would have been easier to pass health care in 2011?

Agree. But going after, charging, and convicting a few Wall Street bankers for their misdeeds requires no legislation and would have helped.

Agree. How on earth is it that nobody went to jail?

There's one fly in the ointment of the pitiful powerless president theory; George Bush. We all sat here for eight years, helpless, as George Bush got everything he wanted and more, from wars to illegal spying to amnesty for himself and his people for every criminal action committed while they were in office. Where was the speech Bush gave to his supporters saying "Look, I know you'd all love a war in Iraq, but we don't have 60 votes in the Senate. You all have to be realistic and lower your expectations." ?

Bush had one important thing going for him: the Democrats' vulnerability, or perceived vulnerability, on national security. Dems didn't want to look like quislings -- even though the truly courageous act would have been to do everything possible to block the war.

Thanks for your good column today; as always, I enjoyed it. But let me ask another "what if": what if he had tried to connect with us? I have rooted for Obama since before 2004. About three months into office, I noticed that 1) I was seeing more of him when I didn't need to; 2) I wasn't seeing him when I wanted to; and 3) He had stopped surprising me with his good ideas and actions. I know it's not always possible to govern as you campaign. But it wasn't just the compromises that bothered me: it was the absence of that feeling that he knew where we ought to go. In short, he stopped connecting. Your thoughts?

That's a good question, and I'm not sure I have a good answer. It's true that the magical connection that President Obama had with many Americans at the beginning was quickly broken. I think the administration missed some opportunities to set a different tone in the early days. I also think that for whatever reason, it took the president longer than I would have expected to find his presidential voice, as opposed to his presidential-candidate voice. 

The Williams-O'Reilly dust-up prompted me to give my largest donation ever to NPR, which I consider a national treasure (despite their occasional missteps, including the handling of this). Your thoughts?

I'm sure that NPR, a great and irreplaceable news organization, thanks you. But I thought NPR really screwed this one up -- and said so last week. There's no defending what Juan Williams said about people in "Muslim garb" in airports, but it's a fact that for the rest of the "conversation" with O'Reilly, he strongly advocated the position that the kind of bigotry he had confessed was dangerous and wrong. NPR has the right to decide who goes on the air; at any point in the last few years, NPR would have been perfectly justified to say, "You know, what you do at Fox isn't compatible with what you do here, so pick one and give up the other." But to seize on this episode seemed contrived to me, and it made NPR look insular and, yes, "politically correct." Which is a shame. It's not easy to let Fox claim (or try to claim) the high road, but that's the trick that NPR managed to pull off.

You write that the President really couldn't do more, because he had to get legislation through the actual Congress. My problem with Mr. Obama is that he seems so content to throw up his hands and not take a stand on anything. Re Congress, yes, I've heard all the excuses as to how you really can't get around a filibuster. But I still don't understand why the President didn't press Senator Reid, and why they didn't just let the Republicans read the phone book for a month, until everyone got tired of it. Now, the opportunity to enact any meaningful legislation has been blown for probably at least six years.

Maybe changing the Senate rules and requiring actual filibusters would have made a difference. I'm not sure, because that assumes the Democrats would have been able to hold all 60 of their troops in line for more progressive legislation. At the time, I questioned the White House strategy of letting Congress write legislation from the bottom up rather than being clearer and more definitive about exactly what the president wanted to see in a given bill. I still think I might have been right, but I have to note that the White House response is: We passed health care. We passed financial reform. We passed more progressive legislation than any administration since LBJ. It might not have been pretty, but we got it done.

That's their response, at least.

Mr. Robinson, in your column you state that a progressive blitz (such as single payer health care, substantial climate change bill, etc) would not have been possible because of an unwilling congress. What about the other things that Obama failed to do that didn't require congressional approval. What about closing Guantanamo Bay? Ending the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan? The Don't Ask Don't Tell policy? What about Obama's appointment of Timothy Geitner to Treasury Secretary? Are these failures the fault of Congress as well? It seems to me that Obama's main problem is Obama.

On all these things (except the Geithner appointment), I've been critical of Obama. Repeatedly. I wish he had been bolder and more uncompromising in following through on those promises.

OK, here we go. Let's vote for Republicans this time because we hate incumbents and they're all democrats. Then let's give the republicans the standard few months we expect it to take to usher in a Golden Age and when that doesn't work out, let's throw those bums out and replace them with democrats. And then let's do it all over again.

That's the pattern. Watch what happens a couple of years from now.

We had a progressive mandate. Blue dogs and President Obama blocked real reforms, investment in infrastructure, job creation, they took a slow approach on judicial nominees, took the public option off the table... The Democratic party is suffering because they failed to put on a progressive blitz in response to the Republican of no. I'm not voting for my Democratic Congressman. I'm writing in myself...for all positions.

There was a mandate for change, that's for sure. Whether or not there was a progressive mandate, specifically, I'm not sure. Progressives invested Obama with their hopes and dreams, but so did centrists and quite a few Republicans. I don't think there was a single mandate, there were many.

Gene, how irresponsible is the next Congress going to be? Several of the Republican candidates are promising NOT to compromise with the Democrats on anything. They appear to want to take Reagan's "Government is the problem" and make it into a governing philosophy. How bad can this thing get?

Really bad -- and that's the problem for the Republican leadership. I'm not much for making take-it-to-the-bank predictions, but if Republicans adopt a strategy of total obstruction for the next two years, I predict they will pay dearly in 2012. 

NPR claimed that they fired Juan Williams because he was expressing "opinions" on Fox, and as an analyst he wasn't able to do that. But as others have pointed out. NPR has plenty of other employees who do that on a regular basis. Nina Totenberg regularly expresses strong opinions on PBS, including the time she once wished that Jesse Helms and/or his grandchildren would get AIDS. Daniel Schorr used to describe the Supreme Court majority that ruled with Bush on the 1992 election a "junta." Cokie Roberts gives strong left-of-center opinions on ABC's "This Week." And there are, of course, others. Isn't NPR going to be forced to now rein in these opinion-makers (except, of course, for Schorr)?

I'm afraid those are good questions. I really do love NPR, and I think it's a superb news organization. I have a lot of friends over there, and they are both first-class journalists and first-class people. But I, too, am having trouble discerning just how it is that Williams crossed the line but others didn't. 

I read the paper (on paper) this morning and was so grateful for your statement of obvious facts about what Obama could or could not have done. We have a president, not a king. I was then disheartened to read, via Michael Gerson's column on the same page, a nasty ad hominem attack on President Obama by Charlie Cook, who I had always thought was relatively unbiassed and nonpartisan. If only Mr. Cook had read your column first! What he said played into almost every logical error you described. When even the supposed "neutrals" are talking up the "anti-Obama, he's a smarty pants who got a well-deserved comeuppance for being too smart" story, it is enough to make a reality-based person despair.

I was disheartened, too. Being smart is a liability now? Heaven help us.

Gene, My company just started open season and to keep a traditional PPO plan is now up 20% for the year. The reason according to my company is the new healthcare law has led to skyrocketing rates. Multiple other stories are beginning to surface that sound identical. I had great health care before, and now due to Obama's HCR, I am paying a lot more for the year. You can pull out all the policy statements you want or facts about how a wider base will now be covered. The reality is my costs went up and I am not receiving better coverage and thats what I care about most. As a supporter of HCR was is your response to all the stories of skyrocketing healthcare premiums?

I don't know the specifics of your case, but I "pull out all the policy statements" about millions more people being covered. I have always believed that health care reform was fundamentally a moral issue -- a question of what kind of country we want to be. I believe it is immoral to ration health care as we have traditionally rationed it -- according to one's ability to pay. I believe it is immoral that tens of millions of Americans do not have health insurance. But most of them will, thanks to the reform bill, and I believe this makes us a better America.

Do you think Sarah Palin will run for president at the next election? I imagine most Democrats hope she does and most Republican's hope she doesn't.

I can't even THINK about a Palin candidacy until we get past next Tuesday. 


My time is up for today, folks. Thanks, and 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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