Eugene Robinson Live: A campaign that's gotten stuck in a rut

Mar 20, 2012

Thus far, the 2012 presidential campaign has been unfocused, dispiriting and largely irrelevant. By the time Election Day comes, a weary nation will be at the point of pulling the covers over its head and screaming, ?Somebody, please, make it stop.?

Eugene Robinson chatted about this topic, his latest columns and other political news.

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Hello, everyone, and welcome to our regular get-together. As we speak, voters in Illinois are deciding whether to give the "did better than expected" boost to Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum. Meanwhile, Paul Ryan has introduced a new budget from the House Republican caucus that appears, at first glance, to cut taxes and boost defense spending by slashing support programs for the elderly and the poor. Good luck with that, GOP. Today's column, for reference, judges the presidential campaign uninspiring and expresses the wish that somebody -- President Obama, Romney, Santorum, anybody -- would inspire us with a hopeful vision of the future. (Preferably something more, um, grounded than Newt Gingrich's plan for a colony on the moon.) Let's get started.

Hi Eugene -- I very much appreciated your column today and that you were somewhat balanced in your views. In other words, Obama needs to step it up as well and not just run out the clock, hoping that the endless Republican primary is even more so. As an Obama supporter I'm worried that his campaign taking a lot of things for granted, when he should be using this precious time to, for lack of a better way to put it, do the vision thing. Here's my question -- what would you like to see Obama do or say that would solve that problem?

President Obama has used the past several months to consolidate his support among the Democratic Party base, in my view, and I think this was a necessary endeavor. Progressives love seeing the fire and the fight. My question is: Where is the poetry and the music? We're hearing a lot of cogent prose, but the country could use some inspiration -- a goal, a mission, a sense of shared destiny. I think voters would respond, and I also think the president would be able to secure a renewed mandate for his final four years.

Mr. Robinson, when I watched President Obama's inauguration four years ago, I was hoping for something like what my parents must have felt in 1960- a call to arms. I was waiting for him to declare energy independence by 2020 the way President Kennedy said that by the end of the decade we would put a man on the moon. Nobody was entirely sure how, but it was a goal and despite Vietnam, despite civil rights, despite the Cold War, they did it because the President said they would. I know I'm not going to get this from the Republicans because their message seems to be "return to pleasantville" but I still am wanting this from President Obama. Something exciting and challenging- something for my generation to look back at a point of pride and say we lived in exciting times. I don't get that from discussing the business tax code- where is the challenge?

That's what I was driving at. Talking about shared sacrifice and the need to pull together is only half the battle. What accomplishment are we striving toward?

So Paul Ryan and the GOP are set to release what is becoming their annual spring event- a new and exciting plan that is supposively going to reduce the deficit but in reality is going to explode it. This year it's a two-tiered tax at 10% and 25% but the only way that I could even conceive this closing the deficit is a) the GDP increases by some high factor- something like 20% to increase overall taxable revenue and b) the federal budget gets cut by about a third. This is a complete non-starter and waste of time to me- is it anything but a propaganda ploy for the GOP to throw at the President?

I think this budget is of extremely limited use as propaganda. The GOP can say "at least we're proposing ideas," but if people don't like the ideas, that doesn't take you very far. I think the Medicare changes are a non-starter, and I'm confident that there is no earthly way to get to Ryan's tax rates without either draconian cuts or the kind of tax reform that people just won't accept (completely eliminating the mortgage deduction, for example).

The Republicans are fighting among themselves more than they are attacking President Obama. However, Obama's polling data reveal less than fifty percent favorability rating. Once a Republican candidate is nominated the campaign against him begins in earnest. How do you think Obama's polling data will trend during the presidential race?

I have said all along that this will be a close election. This is a pretty evenly divided nation, and that's going to be reflected in our presidential contests. The president's approval ratings have been trending slowly upward as the economy trends slowly upward. If the recovery continues, the improvement in the president's numbers will probably continue as well.

Somehow the far right social conservatives have made birth control seem like only young single women use it for one night stands. Would you or some other columnist please comment on that? I'm sure there are many young married couples that rely on BCP to plan a family when they are ready for it. Perhaps the anti BCP thinks we should go back to no family planning and we'll end up as a nation of '19 and counting'. That will put a huge strain on social welfare programs. Or are we reopening poor houses?

This whole "controversy" is insane -- and insanely damaging to the GOP, in my view. About 98 percent of American women use birth control at some point in their lives. Women are approximately 53 percent of the electorate. Do the math. 

I read the Post's reporting on the republican's latest version of the Ryan budget - there are some things in there I like and lots that I dislike. The President's budget was bad and went nowhere. I read and hear lots of arguments from Patty Murray and other D's in the Senate about the Ryan budget, but they haven't produced a budget in 3+ years - including years when they had the majority in both houses! How much of an issue will this be for D's and President Obama in the fall?

As I have said many times, the Democrats were derelict in not passing budgets when they had majorities in both houses. But the president has put out his budget, and now the House Republicans have responded. Not an issue, in my view.

Do you think that Paul Ryan coordinated his budget plan with the campaigns, I just can't see the campaigns wanting a specific proposal at this point. Vague generalities work so much better for getting votes.

So far, the silence from the GOP campaigns is pretty deafening. I can't imagine that any of te candidates is going to want to jump into that fohole.

I can't tell you how outraged I have been over the Trayon Martin story since I heard about it last week. I see the friend who was on the phone with him when he was being assaulted (and eventually murdered) has come forward now with her account. But I wonder why we have not heard from her until now. Now that Justice is involved do you think we'll get some movement? I'm not quite sure the hate crime moniker fits here. Sounds like Zimmerman is some crazy vigilante wannabe with access to a gun. Now it may well be that seeing a young black man made him more suspicious, but he sounds like a mentally unstable person given what we have learned about him.

I agree that from what we know about this case so far, Trayvon Martin's death was a crime and a tragedy. Honestly, I am saddened but not surprised that an apparently trigger-happy vigilante was tooling around with a loaded handgun. Thank the NRA. I'm also not surprised that he would overreact tragically -- allegedly -- at the sight of a "black male" in his neighborhood. Thank 400 years of racism. The incident itself will be adjudicated in a courtroom, criminal or civil. What I find stunning is that the local cops let the gunman go without filing charges -- or even conducting a proper investigation. That is just wrong.

Gene, it strikes me that there aren't a lot of "missions" for the president to propose that could be galvanizing to a low information public. One would be Energy Efficiency, where the president proposes we go for it, all out toward renewables, oil, natural gas, and retrofit all old buildings and say we'll halve our usage in a decade. However, I don't see the public getting onboard. Two would be Rebuild America, including the above retrofits and a massive decade plan to rebuild every road, bridge, tunnel, railway in disrepair nationally. But as I propose both of these, I see the fatal flaw, they both would take massive infusions of money and the public is leery of spending. How can the president propose a vision that's free, otherwise, the public will scour him for spending with our deficit and debt issues.

I like the Rebuild America idea except that I think the emphasis shouldn't be just on rebuilding what we already have, or had, but on making or achieving something new. 

"Thus far, the 2012 presidential campaign has been unfocused, dispiriting and largely irrelevant. By the time Election Day comes, a weary nation will be at the point of pulling the covers over its head and screaming, ?Somebody, please, make it stop.?" So, with the failure of OWS and the "Republican War on Women" are you liberals trying out a new strategy? Do you imagine that if you just down play the whole election process by saying how boring, irrelevant or pointless it is that people will just forget all about the Obama Depression and not bother to vote? That's the most pathetic thing I've ever.....No, wait a minute, given your options, it might be your best bet.

Did you actually read the column, or did you stop at my byline? It certainly didn't toe any liberal party line. The stuff about the campaign being unfocused and dispiriting is based largely on what we're hearing from GOP primary voters, who also aren't parroting any liberal talking points.

Would seem that a credible third party candidate could cause some real trouble in the general election- a la Ross Perot. What are your thoughts on a third party threat, in particular the Americans Elect process

Third-party campaigns can sometimes bring a particular issue to the fore. But they don't win.

When a much better argument could be made that men only use Viagra, which is generally covered by insurance, for -- if not one-night stands, then for sex after their procreative years are over.

An excellent argument.

He may not be resonating with you (or very many others for that matter), but you have to grant that Rick Santorum has been trying to inspire Americans to his moral vision, cockeyed though it might be. Anyone who can say that he doesn't care about unemployment in this economy is showing a great deal of moral courage, lack of moral compass notwithstanding.

True, Santorum has been reaching higher than the others. But, as you said, he's not reaching most people.

Speaking of vision -- could I ask a question? I thought that NASA, manned spaceflight, and new destinations (maybe people on Mars) were part of our American character -- and that if they represent any party, it's the Democrats, because of JFK. Now Newt Gingrich of all people is the only person to even throw this topic out there and people just think it's funny. When did we give up on space? I want to believe our new policy under President Obama could be smarter and more effective (as I see it, he inherited a huge gap before the next manned ship, and has cut it by several years), but nobody ever wants to talk it up or sell it to me. What's going on? Is space travel just a Chinese / European / Indian thing this century? I want it back for us, too.

Unmanned spaceflight and the Hubble telescope have been too successful in surveying the sliver of space we could actually reach. What would be the destination and why would we go there? Until someone answers those questions, I don't think there will be broad popular support for astronaut travel.

"But the president has put out his budget, and now the House Republicans have responded. Not an issue, in my view." they are good at voting down budgets - both those put forward by the House and those put forward by the President - but that is not leadership! That is not governing! Don't just complain about the other guys plan until you have a plan of your own.

Er, you mean like the Republicans on health care reform?

Related to your comment about how Ryan's budget is "the kind of tax reform that people just won't accept (completely eliminating the mortgage deduction, for example)", I find it amusing how many people spend so much time and effort complaining about the cost of "welfare" in this country, and yet no one ever bothers to realize that the mortgage deduction incurs a much greater cost than the SNAP ('food stamp') program. Where's the call for drug testing homeowners with mortgages?

Funny, I haven't seen that bumper sticker.

Is Trayvon Martin the Emmet Till of the 2010s? How many voters do you think will react one way or the other when Republican candidates evoke "restoring" America (implied: to the 1950s)?

No. The Till case happened at a time when state-sponsored terrorism and assassination were official government policy toward African-Americans in much of the country. George Zimmerman, despite his name, is described in published reports as Hispanic. This is an awful tragedy, but we're not living in the 1950s.

Eugene, I know there are some conservatives -- ahem, Rick, ahem -- who do not believe in contraceptives. But I think you are deceptive in connecting this to providing free birth control to all women through insurance. By that logic 100% of men use condoms at some point. Do we need to give that for free also?

I don't know about you, but I pay (through withholding by my employer) for my health insurance. I pay a lot, actually. When I fill a prescription, even if I don't have to pay out of pocket I know I'm not getting anything "free." You're aware, of course, that insurance companies would much rather pay for contraceptives -- maybe even condoms, though I don't know if anyone has asked -- rather than pay the costs associated with unwanted pregnancies.

Still awaiting your big 'new' idea - are you just looking for a soundbite? Fixing US economy in the face of growing international competition just isnt easy. Clearly massive investment in education and skills coupled with a decent safety net (e.g. health care for all) is necessary, but how come not a good sell in this country?

How about this: Let's rewire the whole nation, energy grid and internet, to deliver ultra-high-speed data and efficiently routed power to every home. Let's leapfrog South Korea and other wired nations. That would be a powerful economic generator when all the work was done, it seems to me. And in the process, we'd have to tear up and rebuild a lot of infrastructure that needs refurbishing. That's off the top of my head, but why not?

Aren't the Republicans going to have a hard time getting through the convention undamaged? If Romney is the nominee (and he pretty clearly will be), they will have to give the hard right crowd a prominent role at the Convention. And when they did that with Pat Buchanan in, I believe, 1992, it arguably turned off a lot of people and significantly helped Clinton win. How are they going to finesse the convention this year?

Believe me, they're trying to figure that out. The first question is whether the nomination will still be undecided when they get to Tampa, which is a possiblity; Rick and Newt might be able to keep Mitt from winning the necessary 1144 delegates beforehand. If it's a contested convention, the only order of business will be getting someone nominated. If Romney has it wrapped up, then the mission will be to stitch the party together and try to generate some unified enthusiasm for the general election.

Something is horribly wrong about the local police investigation. They said they couldn't arrest Zimmerman because he said it was self-defense and there were no witnesses to prove otherwise. Well, that means if you want to kill somebody in Florida, all you have to do is make absolutely sure they're alone and then say they threatened you. Either the local police or the law (or both) is seriously messed up.

I understand that Florida has a fairly new "stand your ground" law specifying that a person doesn't have to try to back off before committing an act of violence in self-defense. So both the police and the law appear to be messed up.

It seems as though Romney winning the GOP nomination depends on his convincing GOP voters that he means what he says in this endless primary season--and his winning the general election depends on his convincing independent and moderates that he doesn't. That bait-and-switch might have been do-able if he'd wrapped things up by late February, but not now. What's he going to do?

He'll do the best he can.


And that's the best I can do for today, folks. My time is up. Thanks for your spirited participation, as always, 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.
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