Eugene Robinson Live

Dec 20, 2011

Chat live with Eugene Robinson about his latest columns.
Today's column: Which candidate should answer that 3 a.m. phone call?

Hello, everyone. Welcome to our last get-together of 2011. As we speak -- or as I type -- House Republicans seem to be voting to reject the payroll tax compromise that Speaker Boehner assured everyone would pass. Wow, talk about Profiles in Leadership... It will be interesting to watch as the GOP Establishment tries to explain to the Tea Party yahoos that seriously, people, it's not a great idea to bear responsibility for raising everyone's taxes as we head into the election year. This morning's column, for the record, was about Kim Jong Il's death and how the "3 a.m. phone call" is something we should think about when picking a president. (Hint: Not Newt.) Let's begin.

So when I saw Gingrich's recent comment that he'd send federal marshals to haul judges before Congress to explain their decisions (because apparently Congress doesn't want to be bothered reading the explanations judges provide with every ruling ever), a though occurred to me. Did he look at polls and decide he was in danger of actually winning the nomination, and figure he'd better double down on the crazy to avert that?

Maybe. He keeps talking about how much money he makes from speeches, so perhaps he's reluctant to give that up. More likely, he's just that crazy.

No question, just a comment. Thank you for stating the problem with Romney's response so well. It's not that most of the world's leaders and population aren't thinking "Kim Jong Il was a brutual repressive dictator." It's that we know this isn't the time to state that. There is time for saber rattling and there is time for diplomacy. A president needs to know the difference. Our military can stand up to anyone. That gives us a golden opportunity to be the world's best diplomats. We exemplify the adage, speak softly and carry a big stick. It doesn't mean we are weak on foreign policy; in fact, people who tend to go flailing around hitting out at everything and anything are the ones who look like fools (note to Romney and Gingrich). The message is work with us or yes, we can do something about it. President Obama has done more to protect this country and improve our national security - and it's a damn shame he isn't getting the appropriate credit for it. He is the one I want answering that 3:00 am call.

Thanks, and I hope that even those who oppose President Obama's reelection understand what a serious business this is and why Romney's response to Kim's death was, in my opinion, all wrong. Yelling at North Korea isn't going to help -- and might hurt, in terms of our ability to maximize what little leverage we have there. Nor is China-bashing going to make Beijing more likely to nudge the North Koreans in the direction we prefer.

You say, quite rightly, that Romney's words on Kim Jong Il make him sound like a dangerous hothead. But isn't that what the Republican primary voters seem to want? If Romney had given the measured, cautious response appropriate to a president, he would have severely weakened his chances of ever becoming one. How can we tell whether a candidate is really imprudent and impulsive or is just making reckless statements to please the base?

It's hard to tell. Maybe I'm naive, but I think it ought to be possible to run for president without actually sounding reckless.

I'm not terribly worried about what candidates said, since they were speaking as candidates-- trying to sound tough (like when Herman Cain said the Palestinians wouldn't have tried to push statehood if he'd been Prez). I'm more worried by statements such as Gingrich's that the Palestinians are an invented people (well, Americans are, too, for that matter) and that Shariah law is at the heart of all Muslim's beliefs and is a danger to the West's existence. How could he even try to negotiate with Muslim leaders around the world? Hasn't he just backed up Al Qaeda's argument that the West is at war with all of Islam, not just the violent fanatics? There are over a billion Muslims in the world. Is he going to defeat them all or convert them (I could see Bachmann trying that)?

Don't get me started on Newt's anti-Muslim screeds. He was on the sharia bandwagon even before he was a candidate. And he says it all with such smug self-righteousness. Unbelievable.

In response to today's column -- and I realize your response would be pure speculation -- how much of the saber-rattling bluster from Romney and Gingrich would carry over into an actual presidency? I wonder (hope?) some of it is just to get attention and votes from people who like that sort of talk, but in reality, they both (okay, maybe just Gingrich) know these aren't reasonable/realistic reactions in practice. Thank you for your thoughts and happy holidays.

Newt is hopeless, in my view. Before he was a candidate, he suggested that we should use force to prevent a North Korean missile test. I repeat: He actually advocated an attack on North Korea, which would lead to war and massive loss of life across the DMZ in Seoul. If you look at Romney's website, on the other hand, he lays out a conventional and unobjectionable North Korea policy. But it's worrisome that he has so little conviction in his own views, even when they're right.

Is there anyone happier about the endless schedule of GOP debates than President Obama? He looks more and more sane and in control after each debate, when it seems inevitable that at least one of the challengers-to-be will make a headshakingly bad gaffe.

I believe President Obama has won every GOP debate. Don't take my word for it; conservative pundit Fred Barnes, writing in the Weekly Standard, recently made that same point. The debates have made the candidates smaller, not bigger.

"It's hard to tell. Maybe I'm naive, but I think it ought to be possible to run for president without actually sounding reckless." I don't recall your criticizing Obama's reckless statements when he was sucking up to his base.

Did he propose attacking North Korea or something? Seriously, I've heard the president called a lot of things -- I've called him a few things myself, when I've disagreed with him -- but never have I heard him called reckless. Maybe you have examples.

I believe it's wrong to speculate on what Gingrich or Romney would do as president if they received a 3:00AM phone call on the death of Kim Jong II. I don't really believe they would drop a nuclear weapon on North Korea to celebrate. I am certain they would act responsibly. As for President Obama, I am sick and tired of him apologizing to the world for what he believes to be America's transgressions. He has mishandled the Iranian situation and proven to be an ineffective leader in foreign policy...especially in the middle east. My only hope is that such a 3:00AM phone call in 2013 is answered by Romney, Gingrich, or any other Republican.. Bob -- Charlotte, NC

When did he apologize? Specifics, please. I am aware of precisely one apology -- to victims in Central America of long-ago medical experiments by U.S. researchers in which unsuspecting subjects were deliberately infected with sexually transmitted diseases, including syphillis. That's the one I know of, and perhaps you think it unjustified. I would disagree. What do you think he should have done on Iran? Another war? As for the Middle East, let's see, Bin Laden is dead and gone, al-Qaeda is decimated, Gaddafi is dead and gone, Assad is reeling. Military and security cooperation with Israel is better than ever before, according to the Israelis. We're out of Iraq.

Gene, this is actually a serious question: how can I take the Republican party and their nomination process seriously? They seem to have a new frontrunner every week (I'm convinced that whoever the eventual nominee will be, it'll just be the flavor of that particular week who got lucky by being in the right place at the right time), they can't seem to agree on what to do about the Tea Party, they embrace pointless brinkmanship in spite of growing public anger towards that approach, they flagrantly favor the wealthy over the middle class, each "debate" has descended into in-fighting, and the one nominee who seems to actually have a chance at the presidency (Romney) is labeled too moderate for not going to the same extremes as the base. That being said, how does one go about taking the Republican party seriously?

You frame the question very well. There may be no answer.

Quite seriously, why do the Republicans say they're rejecting this? I can no longer bear to read news about Congress, so I don't understand the logic of the party that seems to want tax cuts more than anything actively blocking the continuation of a tax cut.

The reason for rejecting the two-month extension of the payroll tax cut seems, in all seriousness, to be that President Obama favors it.

Query though, how many non-committed potential voters are paying attention at this point? I recently saw a half-serious mention online that the author wasn't bothering following the election yet, because who can keep track of all these names? There are apparently those who don't pay attention to who's running until 3 months before.

The most-watched debate thus far attracted about 7 million viewers, which would get a network show cancelled. Still, the numbers have been going up and the campaign has been pretty hard to hide from, so I think most people are paying attention at least episodically.

Did the Tea Party/GOP just hand the Democrats a victory with the rejection of the Senate bipartisan payroll tax cut? What happens next, since Harry Reid has vowed not to name anyone to the conference?

I think the Tea Party just did the GOP considerable damage. Congress' approval ratings are already at a historic low, but this may send them into negative territory. House Republicans are exposed on this one: There was a bipartisan deal that would have keep everybody's taxes from going up, and they killed it.

Do you know - has anyone done a graph of when each GOP candidate has surged and fallen corresponding to any statements they made? I think it would be interesting to see what's resonating with and turning off the GOP primary voters. Thanks!

That sounds like an interesting graph for someone to put together, but I'm not sure it would tell you all that much. I think you could certainly correlate Rick Perry's plunge with his incoherent utterances. But Herman Cain's fall had more to do with what other people (all of them women) were saying. And Gingrich's recent slide owes a lot to the attack ads his fellow Republicans are running.

Who is the next shiny object for the press before the GOP finally decides on Romney? Lets face it. The power brokers in the GOP will never allow anyone other than Romney in. Thanks for the article and the comparison of the GOP response to the president with regards to the North Korean just make it obvious how shallow the GOP bench is.

What's so interesting is that normally everything you say would be true, but this year it's hard to be sure. The power brokers in the GOP couldn't get the payroll tax compromise passed today. A majority of the party faithful still is not sold on Romney as the nominee. I said a while ago that I'd bet five dollars on Romney but no more. I'm still not ready to double down.

You had a great ending to your column with, "Kim's death reminds us that it's always 3 a.m. somewhere in the world."  I found it amusing that it was followed by, "The writer will answer questions at 1 p.m. Tuesday at"  Shouldn't that specify 1 p.m. Eastern time?

You know, it should. Good catch.

Why is Harry Reid refusing to conference? Isn't that how the process is supposed to work when the House and Senate disagree? They work out the issues in conference?

I suspect you know very well that this was a bipartisan compromise, crafted to take into account the views of the House majority (as described by Speaker Boehner, at least). The House has now decided that there's no urgency, so I suppose they could conference when they get back in the middle of the month. I also suspect you know very well that not everything gets sent to a conference. Sometimes bills just fail and die.

For all the Republican grandstanding about never raising taxes no way no how, how do they now explain their rationale for raising middle-class taxes (besides their lockstep opposition to the president)?

They try their best to change the subject.


That's it for today, folks -- and for this year. Thanks for all your great questions and observations, and please come back in 2012 for what is sure to be a fascinating election cycle.

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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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