Opinion Focus

Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, January 29, 2008; 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, Jan. 29 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

Discussion Group: Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood

The transcript follows.

Archive: Eugene Robinson discussion transcripts


Eugene Robinson: Hi, everyone, and welcome. Look at the bright side: Competition is supposed to be good for politics -- if the competitors don't tear each other apart. Anyhow, yesterday was Camelot Redux and today is the slugfest in the Sunshine State. Onward.


Oak Hill, Va.: Really liked your column today. Definitely agree that if Clinton wins because of the race issue that it is bad for the country, just as if she won only because she is a woman. The idea that all women or all black or all white people want the same thing is ridiculous. We need to separate from our gender and our race and look at the candidates for what they say and what they envision for our country (not what they look like).

The candidates owe it to the electorate to be above the use of the race or gender card. They need to sell themselves for their ideas. The New York National Organization of Women branch proves the point -- suddenly Kennedy is anti-women because he endorsed Obama. He isn't anti-woman, he is pro-Obama. The negative spin is destructive to the party and the process and the people. I hope that Hillary (not Bill -- who needs to shut his mouth) and Barack and John will look to the issues that are important and stop playing these racist games that simply cause division.

Eugene Robinson: One thing that's interesting is that even as the identity cards get played, people observing the process call out the players. I think that's a positive sign, even if we don't all agree on who's the aggressor and who's the aggrieved.


Mill Creek, Wash.: Do you feel that the fervent criticism that the Clintons have been playing the race card has been overdone? There is no doubt that some of President Clinton's remarks have been intemperate at times, but some commentators are falling just short of characterizing the Clintons as racist. Given their historic ties to the African American community, it seems absurd to suggest that. The Jesse Jackson comment, for example, just as easily could be characterized as clumsy or a poor choice of words -- but instead instantly is condemned as an intentionally malicious dig at Sen. Obama. Every comment from the Clintons is viewed in similar fashion. I have no idea what Bill Clinton's intent was with that remark -- why does the Washington media automatically assume it knows, and that it had malicious racial overtones?

Eugene Robinson: Well, given that I wrote a column about it this morning, I guess I don't think it has been overdone. I was willing to give the Clintons the benefit of the doubt, but the way Bill Clinton dismissed Obama as another Jesse Jackson this past the weekend was egregious, in my view -- way beyond a mere poor choice of words. I didn't accuse them of being racist, just of being willing to do anything -- anything -- to win.


Houma, La.: What do you think of Hillary Clinton holding a victory rally after the Florida primary closes? How many states do you think Barack Obama will win on Feb. 5?

Eugene Robinson: I'm not mad at Hillary Clinton for anything she has done in Florida. It's the fourth-most-populous state in the nation, and it's a swing state that can make the difference in November. Obama has a big campaign apparatus there, too. I think the Clinton campaign adhered to the letter of the law in Florida, and the Obama campaign could have done the same things.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Hey Eugene -- here's a Machiavellian scenario for you. Bill Clinton is far too skilled and savvy a political operative to not know exactly what he is saying, exactly who he is saying to to, and exactly how it will be perceived. He knows his comments about Obama are driving a potentially fatal wedge between his wife and the voters she will need in the general election if she wins the primary. That's just what he's hoping for -- he can sabotage his wife's campaign while playing the role of the supportive husband. You really think he's relishing the prospect of having his wife's record as president compared to his?

Eugene Robinson: That's the "there are no accidents" explanation for Bill Clinton's behavior -- that subconsciously he's sabotaging his wife's campaign. I'm not a psychologist, but it does seem to me that Bill is having some trouble getting used to the second-fiddle role.


Portland, Ore.: In a discussion two weeks ago you made a rather astute observation when you said: "Bill Clinton is as smart a political tactician as walks the Earth today, and he is playing a big role in plotting Hillary Clinton's campaign. I have a theory, though: I believe that every political genius has his or her moment. Clinton understood the country in the '90s like nobody else, but times change, and eventually every political genius falls out of step. A '90s campaign strategy may or may not work today." A lot has happened in the two weeks since you wrote this. Do you still think Bill Clinton is as smart a tactician as you thought he was?

Eugene Robinson: Yes, I do, but I still don't know whether his brilliance at surveying the political landscape of 16 years ago is transferable fully to the America of today.


Northern Virginia: Realistically, if Obama is behind in the polls in almost all of the Super Tuesday states, what can I hold onto as an Obama supporter? Under what scenario can he prevail and possibly become the nominee? (I can't vote to affect the outcome, as I live in Virginia -- although I'm volunteering here already for our primary.)

Eugene Robinson: Because delegates are awarded proportionately in the Democratic primaries, a candidate who finishes a close second takes away almost as many delegates as the winner. I don't think either candidate could stand to lose "almost all" the Feb. 5 primaries; if they were to split them, though, both would continue with scads of delegates -- and perhaps we wouldn't even have a clear winner going into the convention. Not likely, but possible.


Franconia, Va.: Last week (before the landslide in South Carolina), Jesse Jackson made the comment that Bill Clinton was an unprecedentedly powerful surrogate for Hillary, and what Obama needed was a surrogate of that caliber as well to match him. I don't think Jackson was angling for the role himself, just making a smart observation. Well, maybe Bill wasn't such a wonderful surrogate in some ways, but do you think that Obama has found the equivalent (on the positive side) with Ted Kennedy? I thought of this when I read your Trail item that Kennedy had been working the phone to get Bill Richardson's endorsement, just as Bill has. Sure looks like Kennedy will be more than a passive endorser.

washingtonpost.com: The Trail: Richardson's Choice (washingtonpost.com, Jan. 29)

Eugene Robinson: Tim Russert made the observation last night that Kennedy is coming in as the equalizer -- a bigfoot surrogate who can do for Obama what Bill does for Hillary. Ted Kennedy isn't a passive endorser -- in past contests, when he has picked his favorite he has jumped in with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. I thought it was interesting that his speech yesterday specifically sought to rebut the Clintons' arguments against Obama -- and even stole Hillary Clinton's "Day One" routine. That was cold.


Palo Alto, Calif.: I think you're reading too much into Bill Clinton's comment. It's the most clear and direct analogy there is, and it has nothing to do with race.

Eugene Robinson: Give me a break -- the only analogy is that both Jackson and Obama have brown skin. Did Jackson win Iowa? Did his campaign raise $100 million? Not to mention, of course, that Jackson's two victories were in caucuses, not primaries. The better analogy -- a candidate who came into South Carolina, worked hard for African American votes and ended up winning a primary -- would have been John Edwards in 2004. Oh, I forgot, he doesn't have brown skin.


Taneytown, Md.: I am somewhat amused by people who are aghast that things have gotten a little rough. On a scale of one to 10, aren't the recent Democratic dustups about a four? And can't the nominee count on six months of eights and nines on a daily basis? Thanks for chatting...

Eugene Robinson: I'd rate the Democratic fracas a six, and meanwhile McCain and Romney have worked themselves up to a seven. But yes, the eventual nominees will doubtless go at each other with an intensity of eight or nine.


Washington: I now understand why Maureen Dowd last February quoted David Geffen saying of the Clintons: "Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease, it's troubling." We have in the past two weeks or so seen that played out thanks to an ex-president who has shown he'll say anything to get himself and his wife (in that order) back into the White House. Bill's attempt to marginalize Obama's South Carolina win and tie him to Jesse Jackson was a not subtle -- it was a pathetic attempt to label Obama the "black" candidate.

Trouble is, given some of the folks who voted for Hillary (white, older, not college educated, etc.), I fear his tactic may stick! Plus, we now have seen twice how voters who seem to have made up their minds according to polls prior to both New Hampshire and South Carolina, are willing to break from their original choice and make a protest vote.

Eugene Robinson: You raise an interesting point about last-minute shifts in voter sentiment. We've seen it in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and maybe in Nevada too. Maybe people are just having trouble making up their minds.


Hampton, Va.: There are some long-term ramifications of this presidential race! If Barack Obama is elected president, it ends the modern victim-based black civil rights movement. It's hard to claim victimhood if you're running the show. How do you blame the Man if he's ... black? And if Hillary wins by demonizing a black candidate, could that break the stranglehold the Democrats have on the black vote? Blacks are in favor of many Republican ideas (school choice, freedom of religion, etc.) -- would it really be such a stretch to see them turn on the Democrats?

Eugene Robinson: There's a lot in what you say, but first a reality check: You sneer at the "modern victim-based black civil rights movement." Surely, as a Virginian, you know that the first African Americans were brought to these shores in 1619. That's nearly 400 years -- and for roughly 350 years, or seven-eighths of that whole period, black people either were enslaved or legally and institutionally denied the rights, freedoms and opportunities that were considered the birthright of other Americans. Just to put things in perspective.

Now, as to your points, an Obama presidency clearly would have an impact on the way many African Americans see their government. The campaign already has had an impact on how some African Americans see the Clintons, although the Republican Party shows no inclination to even make a token play for increased black support.


Northfield, Minn.: Do you think Hillary's divisive primary campaign strategies will harm her ability to get elected, should she gain the Democratic nomination?

Eugene Robinson: I think both Clinton and Obama have to look at the possible implications of this primary battle for the general election. If the eventual winner leaves the eventual loser's supporters feeling alienated and unmotivated, that gives the Republican nominee an advantage. And even under the most favorable of circumstances, neither Obama nor Clinton would ever be expected to just waltz to the White House.


New York: Do you think that the Kennedy's endorsement will hurt Hillary in the long run? I've read that it carry a lot of weight with Democratic Latino, Catholic and blue-collar voters. What's your take on it?

Eugene Robinson: I think the most important impact might be with older Democratic voters, who thus far have favored Clinton over Obama -- but who are old enough to remember Camelot and the Kennedy magic and mystique.


Washington: The heck with all this race stuff, and I don't care about gay rights or abortion rights either. As an independent I was for Richardson because he said we'd have our troops out of Iraq in eight months. Neither Hilary nor Obama will promise to have them out by 2013 -- probably so they won't appear "weak" -- and Hilary will not even admit her initial vote supporting the invasion was wrong. Do you think the Democrats get that the only way they capture independents is if convince us the U.S. is leaving that quagmire?

Eugene Robinson: If I were advising any of the Democrats, I might tell them to play the war issue just the way they're playing it. It's frustrating to me -- and I guess to you too -- that they won't be more definitive about how and when they intend to bring the troops home from George W. Bush's folly, but look at the competition. McCain is talking about keeping U.S. troops in Iraq for a hundred years, and the other Republicans basically are nodding their heads. If ending the war is your most important issue, I would think the Democrats would be exasperating -- but the Republicans would be totally unacceptable.


Eugene Robinson: Thanks, everyone. Please join me again next week, on Super Tuesday, when everything will become clear. Or not.


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