Eugene Robinson Live

Dec 11, 2013

Chat with Post columnist Eugene Robinson about his latest columns and political news.

Hello, everyone, and welcome to our rescheduled weekly chat. So it appears that we have a budget deal! Not a grand bargain, to be sure -- more of a teensy-weensy bargain -- and at first glance it looks like nothing to write home about. Some of the sequester cuts are alleviated but not all, and there's not enough spending on initiatives that could really get the country moving again. But then again, it's not a total disaster. And maybe this agreement means that House Republicans are finally willing to participate in governance, rather than just throw tantrums. If so, this is a wonderful day. Let's begin.

Do we expect anything from congress to boost the economy or it will survive by itself and the previous congesses work. ACA is a real economy booster by the way.

The recent economic numbers are quite promising. Growth in the third quarter was 3.6 percent; more than 200,000 jobs added last month -- it's beginning to look more like a normal recovery. The important thing is for Congress not to screw things up. The economy looks like it's ready to take care of itself.

Gene, Due to the drastic differences in living expenses between the urban and rural areas I don't see how a fair living wage (or to some degree a federal minimum wage) can be anything but tied to the minimum, and then increased on a state by state level. First even 15 dollars an hour is not a realistic living wage to support a family of four in DC or NYC. The real cost to be outside of poverty, if that's what we are really shooting for is far higher. On the flip side the cost of living and associated living wage in Iowa or some rural area is much lower. Forcing a urban minimum wage on these areas would be excessive. How can these two needs be balenced? The easiest idea appears to be to let it be set at the state level or at worst tie it to a localized cost of living index.

Fortunately, some states and localities have moved ahead by setting their own minimum-wage levels, in some cases much higher than the federal level. I do believe, however, that there should be a nationwide "floor" for wages. The floor right now is $7.25, and that's way too low no matter where you live.

Some of the discussion about America's past relationship to South Africa, seems to think the only two sides of the debate were supporting Mandela and supporting apartheid. Mangosuthu Buthelezi was King of the Zulu nation during Mandela's incarceration (and still is today) and in contrast to Mandela was a stauch anti-communist who feared South Africa could turn into a puppet state. Buhtheleizi opposed the mid-80s sanctions, believing they would deprive blacks economically and might turn them to Marxism. The fact that Mandela was released just as the cold war ended, shouldn't make us forget that that communism represented a very real threat to human rights on the African continent.

Um, but Buthelezi was wrong. His predictions never came true. At the time, supporting Buthelezi was basically a way to support the white South African government without the associated guilt.

I am SOOOOOOO tired of folks dissing Obama over the selfie photo and his shaking Raoul Castro's hand. Why can't the anti folks just stop picking on everything that he does? What's your take on all this?

Same as yours. If the president had turned his back on Castro, he'd be criticized for that. 

What's your opinion on the fact that in 08 when Pres. Obama was running for president, he decried Bill Clinton & his administration, but once elected, who does he turn to, when he needs help. I think it speaks to the hollowness of his lofty speeches.

For the record, I don't recall any "decrying" of the Clinton administration by candidate Obama. He did say that he wanted to be a transformational president and go on to mention Reagan -- and not Clinton -- but that was at most a snub, not a slam. And I do seem to recall there was a hotly contested primary fight between Obama and Hillary Clinton. If you've never seen political rivals decide to make up and cooperate after a primary contest, you really should get out more.

Eugene, as we have seen, the Republicans will reflexively oppose anything President Obama tries to do -- and this has been going on since day 1 of his first term. On top of that, they show no respect whatsoever. Given that, is it possible to come to a "grand bargain" on tax and entitlement reform during the rest of the Obama administration, or is that totally unrealistic? What would you recommend that the president do for the rest of his term, in order to maintain progress on his initiatives? Thanks.

At this point, I'm hoping against any sort of "grand bargain." The concept implies taking some sort of sharp implement to social insurance programs -- either a scalpel or a cleaver -- and that looks increasingly unnecessary and unwise. The economy is growing, the deficit is falling and health care costs are rising at the slowest rate in decades. If these trends continue, it will be easier, not harder, to make little tinkering adjustments to Medicare and Social Security a few years from now. 

If you could pick the next president based on just their abilities, not on if they could win an election, who would you choose?

That's a question without an answer, because the ability to galvanize public opinion is one of the presidency's most important tools. If you couldn't win an election, I don't think you could be a very effective president.

So is this a done deal - all of the Republicans in the House (well, enough Repubs in the House) are going to support it?

Everybody's talking about it as if it's a done deal, but who knows? I assume some Republicans in the House will never vote for it, no matter what the leadership says. So it will need Democratic votes if it's going to pass -- and most House Democrats will have to hold their noses. Nancy Pelosi always manages to deliver the votes, somehow, but I don't think we can quite call it a done deal just yet.

Why do Democrats relentlessly criticize someone like Rep. Stockman running against Sen. Cornyn? The more embarrassing these folks are the better the chances of Democrats actually gaining seats in the Senate and House.

I suspect the Democrats figure that their criticism will only embolden Stockman and his supporters. If they thought he'd actually pull out -- if they thought the GOP civil war might actually end -- they'd shut up.

A few chats ago, I sent in a comment about how the recent health care changes were going to face a real problem in a few years when doctors, nurses, and hospitals started getting paid less and less. You didn't agree. Just last week, there was an article in the NY Times about doctors who are going into "concierge" practices. While the focus of the article was the prospect of a two-tiered medical system (those who go through insurance companies and those who are wealthy enough to pay for medical care out of pocket), it contained a statement about how reimbursements to doctors have decreased over time (in real dollars, not just relative to inflation). In fact, the doctors featured in the article, said that between 1993 and 2008, reimbursements had be reduced to a tenth of what they had been. If costs are "controlled" under a universal system (whehter that system is an insurance based one or a single-payer one), doesn't that mean that the providers are going to have reduced incomes (at least relative to inflation)? And won't that lead to less financial incentive for people to become doctors, nurses, etc.?

You're citing a trend that has been taking place for more than a decade and blaming it on a law that took effect two months ago. For at least ten years, the policy of the most in-demand doctors in Washington has been: Pay my bill at the end of the visit, and then you try to get whatever reimbursement you can out of the insurance company. So in that sense we already have a tiered system. The answer to your qustion is yes, there is already less of a financial incentive for people to become doctors. Ask any doctor.

Hi Eugene -- thanks for taking questions today. Though I have a pretty clear idea of what you are going to say, I wondered what your take was on the extreme right wing going after not quite so extreme right wingers for daring to say good things about Mandela. But Santorum equating Mandela's struggle with trying to get rid of Obamacare -- that takes the cake. Disgraceful.

I'll be charitable and just say that some people ought to be compelled to take remedial classes in history. 

You made an interesting point about the ability to galvanize the public being essential to governing effectively. What about public financing of elections, my view is, that if your argument can't attract enough donors, than maybe its a problem with your argument.

Or maybe your argument appeals to a lot of people who don't have much money, whereas the other guy's argument appeals to only two people, but they happen to be the Koch brothers.

. . . but after reflexively opposing EVERYTHING Obama proposes I don't get this budget agreement. Do you think the Republicans have genuinely chosen to start governing or is there ulterior motive here?

I kind of have the same feeling. What's really going on here? I'm somewhat comforted by the hair-on-fire fulmination on the far right. The true-believer Tea Party types are pretty apoplectic, which suggests the deal might actually be fairly reasonable. But still, let's look at the fine print.

Allow me to do some venting. I am 34 years old. Until July 1, 2013 I was never unemployed. I watched as people I knew in their 60's, lose their jobs in 2009, they had no intention of finding work, yet collected unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, and then retire. My office closed 5 months ago, I have been on 8 interviews, and just missed out on several positions. Now I am told by congress that I am lazy, content to collect my $350 a week, and just need a kick in the behind, by cutting off any incoming funds, and that will get me employed. Very distressing.

Thanks for venting, and good luck on your continuing job search. I guess I don't understand why Republicans would decide to make peace and then hold out on unemployment benefits. Why go out of your way to present yourself as a kinder, gentler party, and then find a jobless person to kick in the teeth?

My thinking is that the GOP believes that Obamacare will result in control of the Senate if they keep their mouths shut for the next year -- hence, a conciliatory budget process. The risk in this approach is: 1. if you release a bit more government spending, to go along with emerging GDP and job growth, you might actually have a visibly improving economy -- raising Democratic prospects (via Obama's approval ratings). 2. the worst may be over for Obamacare's polling. We don't know, obviously. But if millions are getting access to insurance and the worst news is a year old, it may not be a big deal come next November. 3. it's really difficult for this particular demographic to keep its mouth shut and not say or do something stupid for a year.

An excellent analysis.

Eliot Spitzer is an example of someone who should be in the national conversation, but because of a personal indiscretion, can't win an election.

You understate. He can't even win an election as comptroller of New York City. Even the most jaded of sophisticates have had it with this guy. He should find another way to contribute -- go into philanthropy, perhaps, or reform Wall Street from the inside. 

Mr. Robinson, why doesn't the press give any credit to President Obama's accomplishments if addressing the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the recent agreement with Iran? If these actions had failed it would certainly have been fodder for the press.

In both of these initiatives, President Obama has widespread public support. The media will catch up eventually.

I think another facet to the ongoing ACA debate and rhetoric from the Right is that the hundred of millions of people whose health insurance doesn't change because they get it through their jobs are at some point just going to shrug and wonder what all the fuss is about.

True. Here at The Washington Post, we heard at a staff meeting this morning that all of our health plans are already in complicance with the ACA (even though the employer mandate doesn't really kick in until 2015). So the effect on us is nil. As the new year approaches, millions of people are getting the same message around the country. 

Hi Eugene - I've been thinking a lot about Mandela's life and his role in exposing and helping to over turn apartheid in S.A. - I wonder why he wasn't killed/murdered, as so many 'agitators' have been? Do you think changing his strategy to one of enbracing the enemy versus revenge saved his life (beyond incarceration)?

The apartheid government was always afraid to kill Mandela. They could have hanged him for treason; they could have arranged an "accident" in prison, or denied him medical treatment. By the time he was released, the government had decided that it needed him -- that because of his moral authority and acknowledged leadership of the anti-apartheid movement, he offered the only chance of a successful transition. 

Thanks for including a variety of questions today, it makes for a great conversation.

And thanks for participating! That's it for today, folks. Thanks, 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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