Eugene Robinson Live

May 27, 2014

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

Hello, everyone, and welcome to our weekly chat. Well, it's unofficial summertime -- the pools open on Memorial Day -- and temperatures are already in the high 80s here in Washington. Lots in the news -- the president is talking about post-war troop levels in Afghanistan, following his trip there; Ukraine is still teetering on the edge of civil war; at home, political intrigue is on the boil, as usual. Today's column is about Sen. Jay Rockefeller's remark last week to the effect that some of the opposition to the Affordable Care Act -- and to everything President Obama tries to do -- has to do with race. I agree, and have written as much on several occasions; many others, I gather, do not. Let's begin.

Thanks, Eugene, for your insightful column today. While I don't think we'll ever have an answer to the question (the motivations behind the intense opposition to everything the president does and says and refusal to work with him), do you think that, somewhere down the line, we'll look back this time and have a better understanding of it? In other words, no one in his/her right mind is going to admit that race had anything to do with the state of our current politics, but in hindsight I wonder if it will be much more obvious than it is now.

Everything is much clearer in hindsight, though it's impossible to say right now just what that clarity will look like. I'm pretty sure of one thing: The notion that we could elect the first black president and immediately erase four centuries' worth of history will look pretty silly. I'm also pretty sure that it will look as if we made enormous strides on race during the Obama presidency, even if it didn't seem that way at the time. I say this because the way we make progress is through scratchiness and friction, not through kumbaya.

Mr. Robinson, in your column this morning, regarding the “Take Back Our Country” sentiment, you wrote “I know this rallying cry arose after the first African American family moved into the White House.” Respectfully, what you “know” is incorrect. In 2004, Howard Dean published “You Have the Power: How to Take Back Our Country and Restore Democracy in America” (apparently there was no democracy under Bush) and your Post colleague Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote “Taking Back America: And Taking Down the Radical Right,” and in 2006 James Carville co-wrote “Take It Back: Our Party, Our Country, Our Future.” In a speech in 2006, Sen. Chuck Schumer said, “We really care about taking our country back" and in the kick-off of her Senate reelection campaign that same year Sen. Hillary Clinton called to “take our country back.” I suspect you didn’t take note of all of this because you agreed with the sentiment at the time since you wanted to take the country back not from the white guy in the White House but the Republican.

I suppose I should have written that the cry was amplified rather than it arose; I should have known that some people would interpret "arose" to mean "uttered for the first time in history." I remain unaware of any mass movement that used the phrase the way the tea party did. 

Gene, simple question. If the roles were reversed and Romney was the President while there were secret waiting lists for the VA and countless veterans were dying, would you take this more seriously?

Please read before snarking. I've written a column about the VA scandal that was sharply critical of the administration.

Regarding your claim that racism animates at least some of the opposition to Obamacare, I have a simple request -- name five prominent opponents of Obamacare who would be in favor of it if Obama were a white liberal Democratic President. Also, name five prominent Republicans who oppose Obama on other policies but would support him if he were a white liberal Democratic President.

The Heritage Foundation invented Obamacare, Mitt Romney implemented it in Massachusetts and any number of Republican officeholders spoke highly of it. IT WAS A REPUBLICAN IDEA. Sorry for the all-caps, but it was.

When someone says, as Sen. Rockefeller did, that some people are against the ACA because Obama is "of the wrong color," it serves no purpose - none - but to delegitimize the opposition. You can say he wasn't "playing the race card" but that's exactly what he was doing. No, Rockefeller wasn't calling Sen. Johnson a racist outright, but by bringing race up at all was to imply that the only reason people are against the ACA is because of racism. Otherwise, what's the purpose of bringing it up? It's an attempt at smear-by-association, nothing more. It's a way of playing the race card in such a way that you can say you he wasn't. If Rockefeller or anybody else wants to talk about the merits of the ACA, fine, but to speculate about the motivations of some people's opposition to it is pointless. I'd be curious to hear if you can provide any constructive reason for a Senator to bring race up.

First of all, race isn't a card. It's a social construct that has played a central role in the history of this nation since its founding and before. It has played a central role in this nation's public life, in its institutions and in its legal framework. It is an uncomfortable thing for many people to discuss. You are inferring from Sen. Rockefeller's remarks something that he did not imply: "that the only reason people are against the ACA is because of racism." He didn't say that and neither did I. He said it has played a role in the opposition. So do I.

Hi, Gene. You were commendably restrained in your reaction to the snarky person who claimed that because the phrase "take our country back" predates 2008, your point about the Tea Party's use of it was invalid. Fortunately, I don't have to be so diplomatic, so I'll just point out on your behalf that if that individual had bothered to read any of the books he cites, he or she would immediately have seen that they had a very different tone and intent than any of the anti-Obama screeds that followed them--the very point I believe you were making. Then again, I'd be willing to bet that he or she has no interest in actual facts, just taking cheap shots. In any case, keep fighting the good fight, Gene. We've got your back!

Thanks. I was under no illusion that the clear difference in tone would have mattered to the person who wrote.

I have to believe that the conversation on race wouldn't be as prevalent if the president was white. Obama has given thoughtful, insightful speeches on race, but the people who need to listen and heed unfortunately have minds that are not open to question their own attitudes.

I wrote during the 2008 campaign that to be elected president, Barack Obama had to be seen as "the least aggrieved black man in America." I believe he still has to be very guarded with his words about race -- look what happens when he says perfectly innocuous things about Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s arrest, or Trayvon Martin's slaying.

If you believe that racism plays a role in the opposition to some of Obama's policies, then do you also believe that misogyny plays a role in the opposition to the policies of Hillary Clinton? What about Sarah Palin? Condi Rice? I'm wondering how far you think the immutable characteristics of a politician affect our views toward them and their policies?

I do believe that women in politics battle sexism. Most of them I've met -- Democrat and Republican -- would agree.

Romneycare and the ACA are two very different things accomplishing a similar goal. Much of the republican complaints deal with the overall implementation and the idea of forcing a government policy down on the states in this specific manner. Your argument is as intelectually dishonest as saying Lincoln was a republican when discussing civil rights. You should know better.

Well, if we're going to call each other names, you're the one being dishonest. The basic scheme -- exchanges and a mandate -- is the same. It is simply not possible to say that Romneycare and the ACA are "two very different things." 

Your recent article postulates that vehement opposition to the ACA may have some roots in opposition to President Obama because he is African American. Isn't it possible that any legislations pushed through on a bureaucratic maneuver with zero opposing party votes that it would be unrealistic to believe that the opposing party would just "get over it"? Isn't it possible that extraordinary exception is taken to a Professor of the Constitution accepting one party legislation for that reason alone?

Sorry for the brief technical delay.


Um, professor, where in the Constitution does it say you need so many votes from so many different political parties to pass legislation?

Mr. Robinson, in the vein of not treating our veteran's like they deserve, have you heard that the US Navy broke the enlistment contracts of 3,000+ Sailors in the Enlisted Retention Board (ERB) process in addition to changing the High Year Tenure Policy with no grandfater clause. A class action ERB suit is now being appealed in federal court. That being said, do you feel like our country simply pays lip service to veterans with yellow ribbons and commercial spectacles rather than the day to day issues which actually affect them?

I think we've seem ample evidence, from the Walter Reed scandal a few years ago to the current revelations, that lip service is cheaper than actually treating our veterans the way we promised.

You will not be able to find a more dedicated, competent or effective individual to be VA Sec'y. Focus you calls on getting an FBI investigation and changes in Civil Service rules that allow rapid hiring and firing and, perhaps more importantly, funneling more resources to meet demands on VA health system. H.H. Lau (RVN vet and multiple personal experiences working with Secy. Shinseki - not associated with VA other than being an occasional satisfied patient)

Thanks for your analysis. 

I'm not saying race doesn't play a role in why SOME people oppose the ACA. Yes, some people are against it because of race, no doubt, but I didn't notice Rockefeller bringing up the fact that some people are against it because they believe in small government or we can't afford it. Race is what he brought up. My point is what's the purpose in a US Senator bringing it up? To what end? The only reason to bring up up is to delegitimize opposition to it.

I won't assume I know Sen. Rockefeller's motivations but if I were a Democratic senator I'd be frustrated at the unwillingness of my Republican colleagues to support even measures they had supported in the past. 

...the first African-American President had been General Colin Powell (who might well have been a great choice)? Would the "take back America" crowd have backed him, or lambasted him as a RINO?

Well, he's pretty much a RINO now, in some quarters. Who knows?

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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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