Opinions Live with Eugene Robinson: It's all about testing

Apr 21, 2020

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Hi, everybody, and welcome to our responsibly masked and distanced weekly chat. Here we are, still housebound, many Americans still out of work, all of us still following the progress of the covid-19 pandemic and hoping we are at or near its peak. Or, somewhat less optimistically, its plateau. Things in the epicenter of New York are clearly getting better, but compared to what? Daily covid deaths in the state are remaining below 500 for the first time since April 2. President Trump has issued guidelines for when states can begin to reopen, and subsequently has encouraged demonstrators to press governors to ignore those guidelines and open up anyway. Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee are taking the foolish plunge. The inescapable precondition for going back to normal, or going ahead to the new normal, is nationwide testing. Trump wants to change the subject -- "Let's all argue about immigration!" -- but it's all about the testing, or lack thereof. How can we move forward if we have no idea where we are now? And if you missed it, here's my latest column. Let's get started.

Hello again Eugene, is it possible that Andrew Cuomo or Gavin Newsome could be a Democratic presidential candidate ? I am a Biden voter long time have really admired him, just a tad fearful of his well-being. VP choice so important wish he'd announce that as for me that would be a big step in the right direction. In my case I am for Kamala Harris but I will vote for whomever he decides. Amy is 'fine' I've just not been able to warm up to her personality while Kamala has real fight in her as well as super intelligent and great speaker, real fire there. Oh well, just wondering. I see that others must have joined in on my last suggestion re: fact checking at time of 'his' virus conference 'rallies' ....so am very glad about that. 

Cuomo or Newsom could indeed be candidates, but not this year. If I were a betting man, Sen. Harris would be my favorite to get the vice presidential nod. But Biden has an array of good choices, and chemistry may play as big a role as political calculation in his choice. And given his age, I think voters will expect him to pick someone who's already vetted and clearly qualified.

Can the case be made that Trump's inaction and cognitive decline amount to an "vacancy" of the office, an explicit criterion for invoking the remove-and-replace process?

I could make that case, but it's moot because Vice President Pence and the Cabinet are never going to remove him. And why now? Is Trump really more unhinged than he was, say, two years ago? I could have made the case for the 25th Amendment the day after his inauguration, but the Cabinet doesn't listen to me.

I know you would like to see Kamala Harris put forward as the Vice Presidential nominee (and she would be wonderful in any significant Administration role), but I wonder why you don't mention her as a potential candidate for our next Attorney General? Personally, my dream team would be Stacy Abrams as Vice President, Elizabeth Warren as Recovery Czar, and Kamala Harris as Attorney General. What do you think of my line-up? Thank you, Mr. Robinson. You're the best.

My only reservation about your lineup is that Stacey Abrams has never been scrutinized and vetted on the national stage, while Harris and Warren have. My guess is that Biden will pick someone who has already ticked that box.

Posting real early. The private sector and businesses can't open until public and private schools open. Public transportation can't open. Until schools and daycare centers are safe for teachers, staff, and children, businesses will have their hands tied. Period.

Very true. It seems likely that the vast majority of schools will not reopen this academic year. That fact may, in practical terms, set the timeline.

Is it possible that the mistakes being made now, by this administration, will result in situations too difficult for the next administration to overcome? In other words, could the poor planning, governmental decay and economic chaos caused by Trump’s mismanagement make it next to impossible for the next administration to govern effectively with a divided Congress?

Sure. If Biden is elected, he will probably inherit an economy still in shock and will definitely inherit a bare cupboard, fiscally speaking. And he may -- I hope not -- face a second wave of the coronavirus before a vaccine is ready. 

Do you remember how you felt when you first moved from reporting news to writing a column? Specifically, did you feel a new kind of pressure when you were expected to constantly meet deadlines on topics that you had to develop yourself? Or are you the kind of writer who is so full of ideas that you never have trouble deciding what you'll write about?

When I got a column it was my first time working on the opinion side of The Post, as opposed to the news side. On the news side, you're not supposed to express your opinions. Sitting down to write my first column, I wondered if I had any. Happily, it turned out that I have opinions about pretty much everything. And these days, you have to beat the column ideas away with a stick.

I completely agree with you that White House reporters should not bother asking Trump questions following his little spiels (bragging about himself) at these so-called news briefings. Why give him more of a platform to spout out his never -ending lies? They should direct their questions to Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx, and anyone else who is known to tell the truth.

That's what I recommended in my column today. White House correspondents don't need me to tell them how to do their jobs (just like I don't need them to tell me how to do mine), so call it a collegial suggestion. It just seems to me, watching the so-called briefings, that even the most perfectly honed question to Trump isn't going to find its target because he will just bluster and lie, then turn to someone else.

I find it revealing/infuriating/amusing that the most pro "life" governors are the ones who seem okay with opening up their state & if the elderly die too bad. it's always been obvious that the "pro life" movement was all about controlling women but this really strips away the curtain. has anyone in the press or their states' legislature called out this hypocrisy?

I do wonder what pro-life could possibly mean if the term doesn't encompass the already-born.

How can the media (and the country) avoid the good chance of thinking that a few thousand virus denying protesters speak for the majority when estimates are that they might be 30% or less of us? I smell a repeat of the loud demonstrations in Florida’s election ballot counting offices and the AstroTurf Teabaggers protesting Obama—only this is much more dangerous. How do you see the open now movement?

It's noisy but quite small. That said, the shutdown of the economy is having a devastating impact on people whose jobs cannot be done from home. To be safe we need to keep everything closed a while longer. To do that, we need to adequately support those who work in the in-person sector of the economy so that they, too, can make it to the other side.

Gene, While I know the rate has increased, why does it still seem like there is no pressure or urgency to increase testing? It seems to me like everyone is reporting it's necessary for Stay at Home to end, but there also doesn't seem to be pressure or urgency from the President, or his advisors, or governors, or anyone outside of the medical community addressing why we aren't ramping up testing faster. It was reported the other day that the US will likely need tests on the order of 500,000 daily to open the country back up; the most current optimistic number I saw was that we were approaching 100,000 tests daily (which is 1/5 of what is needed). And I'm sorry to be always harping on testing, testing, testing; but I still feel it is not addressed enough.

I honestly don't know how we in the media, at least, could focus more intensely on the need for testing. Most governors are focused on testing, too, as are mayors and other local officials. But President Trump has abdicated the federal government's responsibility on testing, leaving it to the states to fend for themselves. This is an abominable dereliction of the president's duty, no question. But it's not as if it is going unnoticed.

Eugene, Just a thought, but do you think it would make sense for state governments to hire telemarketing companies to do the contact tracing we will need once we get testing going. Seems like they are already set up for that kind of work. I'm sure they would love to get the work.

That's an interesting idea. The telemarketers seems to be able to track anybody down.

I can't deny, I feel mixed emotions about the oil crash. On one hand, it's bad for the economy (understatement of the year). On the other hand, given how much we've been gouged by high gas prices in the past, it's hard to feel sympathy for the oil companies. On another note, how much do you want to bet that Trump tries to blame the oil crash on Obama?

He'll probable argue that "Obama left us with too much oil" or something like that.

Curiously, jobs harvesting produce are already going begging, necessitating some farmers having to plow their crops under rather than being able to get them to market. Blocking immigrants will only reduce the farm labor pool further.

That whole announcement about suspending immigration is just an attempt to change the subject from testing. Immigration is already suspended, and has been for more than a month -- new visas are not being approved, international travel isn't happening, the land borders are closed. What Trump will actually be forced to do (by necessity) is relax the current restrictions to allow seasonal workers to enter the country. This whole thing is nothing but a smokescreen. Don't be fooled.

Post-Katrina, after it became clear that the Bush administration was dangerously incompetent, W's popularity dropped (and then, post financial crisis, it completely cratered). That doesn't seem to be happening now, when we have a MUCH more dangerously incompetent President, and facing the simultaneous crises of a health emergency and economic catastrophe. Why is that? Why was the floor for Bush ~20 points lower than it is for Trump?

Trump's base is more enthusiastic and loyal. But he clearly seems worried that it is beginning to slip away.

Very recent polls show a clear majority of Americans supporting vote by mail in November, yet among Republicans, only 44% support it. What is up with that?

When more people vote, Democrats win. When fewer people vote, Republicans win. That's what's up.

So many people talk about Elizabeth Warren as a potential VP or cabinet member, and while I'd love that, I would never take that chance now, because MA's governor is a Republican, and even though he does not seem to be a Trump-type R, he still would appoint a Republican to take Warren's place. We can't be losing seats!

This is a valid argument against picking Warren, especially if the Biden campaign believes that Democrats have a viable chance of taking the Senate.

The second worst day of that outbreak.

Correct. And if New York's experience is a guide, it looks like the decline in cases, hospitalizations and deaths will not be as steep as the rise. And parts of the country have not yet reached their peak.

Keep hearing Arizona is now a swing state so how about Janet Napolitano, their former two-term governor and Obama's D.H.S. Secretary?

I guess one potential problem is that she lives in Oakland now and runs the University of California system. So I'm not sure she would have a big electoral impact in Arizona -- and she's plenty busy in her current job.

What do you say to the argument that both Harris and Klobuchar, as long-time prosectors, carry more baggage other candidates? All you need is to dig up one wrongful conviction or one Willie Horton catastrophic release, and that's all anybody would talk about for the rest of the campaign.

I'd point out that both had their biographies combed through while they were running for president. So there's a pretty good chance that skeletons-in-closets have already been revealed.

Gene, when all this started, you said you were looking forward to taking more walks and catching up on your reading. How is that going? I'm doing all those things but find myself getting sick of my daily walk and getting bored with my books. I never thought that would happen!

As for me, I'm tempted to conclude that maybe I'm not cut out for retirement. I could do my walk blindfolded, at this point. I am enjoying reading Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" with my colleague Alyssa Rosenberg, though. Everyone is welcome to join our book club

Any thoughts as to how the Democratic and Republican parties will hold respective conventions this summer? Have you heard any talk about possible alternatives to that which has traditionally taken place?

I can't imagine it will be safe to hold traditional party conventions, which are like giant petri dishes for opportunistic pathogens. I think we're going to have to have virtual conventions, which for voters will frankly be no great loss. The conventions used to be about the business of choosing a candidate and a running mate. Now they are four-day infomercials where the outcome is predetermined. 

Joe Biden was often viewed as having formed better relationships with his follow Senators than Barack Obama had and he was often deployed by the Obama White House to Capitol Hill on their behalf. I wonder with so much turnover in the Senate of late, how many Senators were even there when Joe Biden was still a Senator?

I wonder the same thing. Biden spend decades in the Senate at a time when hands-across-the-aisle was a real thing and clubbiness was a more powerful force than partisanship. Today's Senate is different. I hope he's prepared for how much things have changed.


That's all for today folks. Sorry I couldn't get to all of your questions, but I'll try to do better next week. I'll see you then!

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 2009, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for his columns on the 2008 presidential campaign that focus on the election of the first African-American president. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America" (2010), "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson lives with his wife and two sons in Arlington.
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