Eugene Robinson Live: The GOP's crime against voters

Jul 17, 2012

Robinson discussed his latest columns and political news.

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Hi, everyone, and welcome to our weekly discussion. It's a sad day for me -- my friend and longtime Washington Post colleague, retired columnist Bill Raspberry, died today of cancer at 76. I'll write about him and his legacy in Friday's column. Today's is another episode in the long-running saga that could be titled "Mitt's Money." My view is that Romney and his campaign should blame themselves for making an issue of Bain Capital and the unreleased tax returns. If Romney had honestly stated at the 0utset that Bain's purpose was to create wealth, not jobs -- and if he had tidied up whatever it is in those tax returns he doesn't want anyone to see -- this would be a minor blip, not potentially a defining moment. Let's get started.

Because of "stuff" like your column today, this longtime registered Democrat has sent money to Mitt Romney. Four Democrats (including two Obama contributors) from Bain who spoke to CNN have said Obama's claims about Romney stealthily (or illegally as has been suggested) somehow pulling strings at Bain after 2/09 are false. But you don't mention that. They say Romney had to remain, by law, on SEC documents until the transition was formalized, but you don't mention that. Instead, you uncritically swallow the Obama position. How gullible. I know you're an opinion writer, but your opinions always seem to disregard inconvenient facts. Thank you for helping me make up my mind to cross over and support Romney.

Um, I guess you're welcome. But you might want to read the column before heading to the registrar. I write that it cannot possibly be true that Romney left Bain "suddenly and completely" in 1991, and, as you acknowledge, indeed it is not true. I also write that the only reason this is an issue at all is that Romney sought to take credit for jobs created at Bain-owned firms after he left, but denied blame for jobs lost and outsourced at Bain-owned firms after he left. If he hadn't tried to have it both ways, no one would care when he retired, retroactively or not.

I haven't heard if this has been addressed - I hope you may know. Was Romney legally responsible for Bain when he was signing documents saying he was but is saying now he had nothing to do with? So if Bain had been sued, would Romney have been responsible? What smart person would make himself legally responsible for an organization he has nothing to do with/has no control over? Maybe this is just another thing we small people just can't understand. Thanks!

I've been asking this same question. I wouldn't do it.

Putting the controversy about 'when did he leave' aside for a moment - - didn't Mitt Romney set up Bain, and put in place their culture, reason-for-existence (make money), processes and procedures? Even if he "left" [wink, wink], they were still operating under HIS business practices. AND, if he is so proud of what they did, why is he running from it now? This tells me that he realizes now, if not then, that Bain ruined many otherwise viable businesses, took the money, and ran.

As I note in the column, the purpose of Bain is to create wealth, not to create jobs. That's fine; let's stipulate that private equity firms serve a purpose. But don't try to convince evereyone that you were some kind of employment program, because that's simply not true.

From the Washington Post front page: 'If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen'... Never have we as a nation been burdened by a President of such inexperience and naivete' regarding the free enterprise system of economics. I remember when I was a child the excitement of watching my father, who was a child of the great depression, take the risk of failure when he started his own successful business in the late 1930's. What an insult coming from a president who obviously understands nothing of the free enterprise system which has made our country so successful. No amount of "spin" can erase the image of a president who is so clueless. He is afflicted with an utter absence of any idea of how private enterprise functions never having held a "real job" in his life.

Did you read the entire quote from President Obama? Here's a link:

You'll see that Obama was clearly talking about all the public infrastructure -- schools, roads, bridges, etc -- that supports free enterprise in this and every other country. I invite everyone to read the full remarks. Oh, and did your father, in the course of building his business, ever take advantage of, say, the interstate highway system? This is really an absurd line of attack.

I suspect that Romney's reluctance to release his returns is because it would damage him with the Republican base. Nothing else makes sense. We know he is wealthy and we know he trys to pay as little tax as possible and confirming this will change no one's opinion. He must have investments that the base, (perhaps the religious right ) would find abhorant.

Since we're speculating -- and, really, we have no choice, since he won't release the returns -- I doubt he's specifically worried about the base, although that's possible. Romney seems to believe in using all the available tools of finance -- nothing wrong with that, all legal -- and I wonder if he believes some of those techniques just might not look good to many voters. But as I said, this is just speculation.

Governor Romney might have issues with his taxes/investments, may have lied to the SEC, his advisors say he is an etch a sketch, he takes whatever position suits him at the moment, and his record as governor wasn't overly stellar. Does any of this even move the dial? Is there anything in this election that will actually make people change their mind and vote for the other guy, or could we just do the election a week from today and get the same result we'd get in November?

The dirty little secret political analysts don't tell you is that no two elections are just alike. So you could say this is "like 2004," with an endangered incumbent making a strong move to define his opponent in a negative way. But the truth is that I don't know whether this election will break decisively at some point between now and November, and I certainly don't know what could cause such a thing to happen.

Hi Gene, It seems a million years ago now, but didn't Mitt initially not want to make any of his tax returns public and was forced into some release during the GOP primary? You would think he or at least his handlers would learn that it is better to do it up front than to wait and make a big issue out of it.

Romney was, indeed, pushed into releasing even one year's tax returns. Taking a longer view, he has been running for president for nearly a decade. He gave reams of tax returns to the McCain campaign when he was being vetted for vice president. Didn't it occur to him that if he got the nomination, pressure for more financial disclosure would mount?

Dear Mr. Robinson, Clearly, one of Mr. Romney's important constituencies in this election is the white (especially) male working class. Is there any reason to believe that the tax return issue -- whether the abject refusal to release more than 1-2 years OR a damaging revelation (or two) from the returns -- would lead them to either vote for Obama or, more likely, sit out the election? Are there people outside of the DC area and media who really actually CARE about this issue? Is this playing at all with voters in the Midwest or South? I have say that as an upper-middle income individual who pays a higher rate than billionaire Mitt, I have to say that just the info from the one tax return annoys and anger me, but I was not going to vote for him anyway.

Both Democratic and Republican insiders I talk to -- people who look at polls for a living -- conclude that the Bain attacks have hurt Romney, especially in the swing states where the Obama campaign has purchased a lot of air time. I don't know about the tax returns question, but I think voters have become accustomed to disclosure. We'll see.

So Romney's argument for his candidacy is that his success in the business world makes him an ideal candidate. The two aren't necessarily interchangeable. He also hasn't really brought any ideas to the table as far as how his past skills would help him with his new career aspirations. To compound this, this campeign has totally botched the taxes and "when did he quit" issue. How can the Republicans continue to take him seriously and at what point do they run for the doors?

There has been some grumbling about clumsiness on the part of the Romney team, but nothing really serious. In any event, he's the nominee. He will be lavishly financed, and the Republican base (barring some unforseen revelation or development) will be solidly behind him.

I think many voters are paying attention to the taxes issue and are (beginning to) wondering why he is refusing. But if you were working for his campaign -- what are their options? Release and look "wimpy"? Don't release and let this build and build until November? Release selectively right before the Olympics? But if they release a few, non-consecutive years, isn't that only going to cause more problems? I just feel they have backed themselves into a real corner; now they are in a mess! What advice would you give to Romney now, if you were on his staff?

Do it now. This Friday. Put a decade's worth of tax returns out there, a massive document dump. There would be a few days' worth of necessarily shallow stories, and then we'd all be diverted by other news. In a week or so, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and New York Times would all run long, sophisticated pieces about what all this data might mean. These stories would be read by other political reporters, tax lawyers and a few civilians.

The preceeding prediction is null and void if the tax returns contain some kind of bombshell. That would have impact.

Gene, does Mr. Romney need to bring in Donald Trump to fire some staffers? I know it's not time to panic, just as it wasn't time for the Obama team to panic last month. But seriously, they've known these Bain attacks were coming in 2009. They knew virtually all of these attack lines and investigative journalism pieces were coming YEARS ago and they still don't have a coherent message to counter-attack with. And they know what's in all those hidden documents and still don't have an effective punch back. Furthermore, the president is vulnerable on some very key issues and they want to play small ball griping about Solyndra, which most Americans don't know, nor care about. They ran an effective primary campaign, but I think folks have forgotten that it shouldn't have taken them months to defeat those heavyweights ala Pawlenty, Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich and Santorum. Maybe these guys aren't up to the task?

It's always difficult for campaigns to scale up, embrace more of the party and admit new voices to the candidate's inner circle. Successful campaigns do this better than unsuccessfufl ones.

Gene: How long do you think that Romney will stand on his refusal to release tax records? If he refuses all the way to the election, do you think the refusal would greatly impact the outcome or would the issue be forgotten by November?

Stonewalling will damage him, and the critical period is now, not in November. Romney risks being defined as a man who has something to hide. It's a question of character.

Gene, it appears that the Obama team has effectively framed this election as a choice, not a referendum. Not that it was going to be otherwise, but it's become clear that Mr. Romney will not coast to the White House without making his case for the presidency. Will Mr. Romney's team understand this in time to present their candidate as his own person, not his father and not the alternative to Mr. Obama, but his own case for the job?

I've been asked that question several times in the past couple of days. By Republicans. I'm not kidding.

I'm continually surprised by how readily Republican's deny that we all operate and make decisions within the context of a larger system. There are rules and levels of access and options that are not equally apportioned in our society. That doesn't take away from industrious individuals to take advantage of their particular circumstances. But it's as though the GOP think that putting their fingers in their ears makes this reality (and it's reality for a lot of us) cease to matter. President Obama and Elizabeth Warren both recently alluded to this... Why doesn't this get more traction in our political discussion?

I have no idea. Not so long ago, this wasn't a concept anyone would have thought worthy of discussing. Of course we invest in the common investments we make through government and other institutions, and of course some people begin life with more advantages than others. Duh.

I can't tell you how sad this makes me. Losing his column was bad enough.

Thank you for those sentiments. He was a pioneer, a pathfinder for generations of journalists. He was also a wonderful human being.

Where can I get a job like Romney's "figurehead" job at Bain? I mean, $100,000 per year for doing nothing? Do the Republicans think that's chump change?

Well, Romney did once refer to $375,000 as "not very much money."

" I invite everyone to read the full remarks. Oh, and did your father, in the course of building his business, ever take advantage of, say, the interstate highway system? This is really an absurd line of attack." His father built his business in the 1930s. Interstates weren't in place then. I understand your point, but it is like having your parents take credit for the child's great singing voice.

My answer assumed that the business lasted 20 years, but fine. Did he ever cross the Brooklyn Bridge? Drive on the pre-interstate highways? Mail a letter? You get the idea.

Eugene... yes, we did read the full context of the quote. We listened to the full soundbyte. The problem here is that EVERYONE uses public infrastructure. But the infrastructure is not created out of thin air by the government. It is built using tax dollars paid for by everyone, including those who are the entrepreneurs. And a higher percentage of those tax dollars are paid by those entrepreneurs. But the point you still fail to acknowledge is that any business success begins as an idea born from an individual or group of individuals, there is risk a person takes to start a business. Those are not created by government. His comments were absolutely adolescent in terms of business, as he appears to try and reshape the view of how private enterprise is created and sustained.

Here's that link again:

Please try reading it without inserting words that the president didn't say, but that you think he might have said or wanted to say or really meant or whatever... Just look at what he said. An affirmation of community is not a denial of free enterprise. This nation was built on both.

And this hour is done, folks. Thanks, as usual, for a lively discussion, and I'll see you again next week.

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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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