Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson: Tom Daschle, Wall Street Bonuses and More

Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, February 3, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, Feb. 3 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the withdrawal of Tom Daschle, the bonuses to Wall Street execs, his recent columns and the latest news.

The transcript follows.

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Eugene Robinson: Hi, everyone. Lots to talk about today, as usual. Have at!

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Takoma Park, Md.: Who is doing the vetting process for Obama? (they should be fired themselves)...because now with two more candidates withdrawing nominations, this is getting ridiculous!

Eugene Robinson: You're referring to Nancy Killefer, who withdrew as Chief Performance Officer because of a D.C. ulnemployment tax problem. I don't know who's doing the vetting, but I'm thinking it may be Sgt. Schultz from "Hogan's Heroes" (I'm dating myself): "I see nothing, NOTHING."

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What's Difficult About the Word "Yes" Now?: When Bush was President, neo-cons and their Republican supporters in Congress often asked liberals and war critics "Do you want America to win the war on Terrorism?" Conservative media commentators considered anything but a yes or affirmative response unpatriotic and as a means to put war critics on the defensive. However, with Obama as President, to the question "Do you want American to win its fight against recession?" these folks don't seem to know the word "yes" anymore. Limbaugh's "I hope he fails," rant is a case in point. Recent groveling to Limbaugh by Georgia Rep. Phil Gingrey is a pathetic example of spineless conservative principles. Now (admittedly with tongue-in-cheek) who's unpatriotic and hates America?

Eugene Robinson: Good question.

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DC: Maybe this comment will be all over the place, but here goes. Daschle was right to withdraw, but it still doesn't feel good. I wish he had just been upfront at the top because when I hear California is not paying refunds, my mind goes immediately to Daschle, and his excessive money spent on drivers and his non-paid taxes. To me, it feels similarly tone deaf as all these bonus issues flying around. Just a bummer for Obama.

Eugene Robinson: It is a bummer, but maybe an instructive one. For those who haven't heard, Tom Daschle just withdrew as HHS nominee. I think that was the right thing to do. Not paying $128,000 or more in income taxes is, in itself, a disqualification, I think. Especially in the present climate of economic despair. But there's another issue -- the whole history of how Daschle parlayed his career in public service into a fortune, being paid millions by a law firm even though he isn't a lawyer and getting the use of a limousine and driver as gift. It smells like the old, legal-but-unsavory Washington culture that Obama was supposed to vanquish.

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Boston: Hi Gene,

I see all of these articles sighting the complicated tax code as an excuse for cabinet nominees not paying there taxes. It seems to me that if it is just a matter of "too complicated" it should work both ways. Do you think we will ever see an article headed "Cabinet Nominee to Receive $150,000 Refund for Overpaying Taxes"?

Eugene Robinson: Funny, that's a headline I haven't seen.

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Perth, Western Australia: Hi Gene, I really enjoy these chats.

Watching from afar, I am just gob smacked at just how out of control these Wall Street guys are. I mean, did they think no one would notice the bonuses? Did they even care if anyone noticed?

Were there any restrictions or guidelines into how the bailout money was to be used? If not, did anyone argue that there should be?

It just seems ridiculous to me that all this money could be handed out without any assurances as to how it would be spent.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks, and yes, you are indeed afar. My column this morning was about Wall Street's $18.4 billion in bonuses -- and other excesses -- in a year when stocks declined 40 percent and the economy found itself on the brink of ruin. I am amazed. I thought that after the flap about the auto execs arriving in their private jets to beg for money, Wall Street would get the message. After all, these are supposed to be the smartest people around. Claire McCaskill said it best: "These people are idiots."

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Ashland, Wisc.: Why does an athletes or actors or Wall Street execs feel that their pay should be so high? You would think that if you had a job that you enjoyed and be able to support your family and put your children through school, you would be the happiest person in the world, wouldn't you?

Eugene Robinson: They believe they're worth so much because that is what the market will bear. Actors get paid a lot because they bring paying customers into theaters. Athletes, ditto re: stadiums. When Wall Streeters make their firms tons of money, then they should be compensated (although, in my view, not so lavishly as in the recent past). But when they lose billions upon billions? Come on, get serious.

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Baltimore: Re Daschle's withdrawal: As far as I am concerned, the fact that Daschle spent the last couple years doing consulting work for and giving speeches to corporations with a vested interest in the health care status quo made him the wrong guy for this job, tax issue aside. Perhaps the President can get back channel counsel on health care reform from Daschle, but he could not be the public face of the administration's effort.

I voted for Obama both in the the primary and general election because I admired the discipline of his organization and the "no drama" mantra. I hope whoever was in charge of vetting some of these flame-out appointees is getting a flaying.

Eugene Robinson: I'm not sure that flaying is necessary, but I do hope the administration realizes that there was an underlying problem with the Daschle pick (in addition to the tax thing).

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Minneapolis: Re: "Yes"...Of course Rush Limbaugh wants America to win the war against recession. But he firmly believes that Obama's liberal policies will worsen the recession and so hopes he fails at bringing about his liberal policies.

Eugene Robinson: Well, not exactly. The proper thing to say would be "I don't think his policies will succeed, but I hope they do, because people are suffering." Something like that.

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Anonymous: Yes, tax forms and instructions are complicated. I had to pay $4,000 extra after I filed. BUT, even if Daschle had made innocent mistakes, he knew the issue would come up and he withheld that info from Obama, who was supposedly his friend. He deceived Obama and gave ammo to the Republicans. Hopefully whoever is picked to as the new nominee (and I do understand that many people hesitate, since the vetting process is so thorough now), will have the guts to say, "Here are some things I don't think should stand in my way, but which you need to know about before announcing my nomination."

Eugene Robinson: That's another problem Daschle. He knew months ago that there might be a problem with the car and driver. A nominee who thinks he might have a tax problem needs to disclose that up front.

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Waldorf, Md.: I'm not defending the bonuses, but have the numbers been reviewed to see how much was staff bonuses versus broker bonuses? My sister is in middle management at a brokerage firm where she makes substantially less than she would in other industries. This is because she typically gets a year end bonus that is 25-40% of her income, based on how well the firm does.

I think it's important to understand that for the rank and file employees of these firms, the bonus is a substantial piece of their compensation and has been for quite some time.

As for the brokers and board members, I agree, they are a bunch of idiots--albeit rich idiots. The phrase "laughing all the way to the bank" comes to mind.

Eugene Robinson: I understand that compensation is structured differently on Wall Street and that bonuses are often thought of as a part of one's basic compensation. The problem is that Wall Street paid as much in bonuses in 2008 as it did four years earlier, when everything was going great guns. So it follows that much of the bonus money was excessive -- since everyone agrees that bonuses in 2004 were excessive.

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West Chester, Pa.: Senator McCaskill sure hit the spot with her comments on the Senate floor. However, she let the biggest group of idiots off the hook -- the U.S. Congress. Honestly, who are the bigger idiots -- the Wall Street crooks who used the money to feed their addiction to extreme wealth or the politicians in both parties who gave them the money in the first place without any strings attached and zero oversight? You know the horses are going to run as soon as the barn door is opened. Let's remember, those politicians who now claim to understand the need to close the barn door are the same culprits who opened it in the first place.

Eugene Robinson: I'm not one to pass up a chance to slam politicians, but in this case I think the Wall Street larcenists are the bigger idiots. Congress was being assured by Smart People that if it didn't hand over the money, the economy would collapse. It was like a ransom note. To take the money and then turn around and conduct business as usual, in terms of lavish excess, is incredible.

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Taxes, Md: Gee, is it a prerequisite to be considered for a Cabinet level position that one doesn't pay his taxes? If I only knew, I would have not paid my taxes

Didn't these people learn from Zoe Baird? Are their memories too short?

Fortunately for Obama, the answer to the last question is yes. In a few months, no one's going to care.

Eugene Robinson: Stop paying your taxes immediately, and you could be secretary of HHS.

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Geinther, Daschle, Kellifer: A few more nominees with back taxes and Obama could solve the budget deficit.

As a big Obama supporter from the beginning, I am already disillusioned. Do you think some of the Obama underlings who vet these nominees are content to forgive transgressions of the elite instead of living up to the promises of the campaign?

Eugene Robinson: I think there's a real risk of some disillusionment, and I think the administration had better learn from this episode. Again, the problem isn't just the unpaid taxes -- certainly not the small amount that poor Nancy Kellifer seems to have owed. The problem is that Geithner and Daschle can so blithely overlook sums of money greater than the annual income of most Americans -- and that so many in Washington understand their "oversight" perfectly. The problem is that Tom Daschle's post-Senate career looks like the same old Washington revolving door -- and hardly looks as if it has served the public interest in any way. This is supposed to be a "change" administration, but too much looks, depressingly, the same.

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West Falls Church, Va.: Did you expect this much controversy from all of Obama's nominations?

Eugene Robinson: No, and neither did Obama, I'll bet.

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Arlington, Va.: I'm sorry to hear that Dashcle is out, but it became clear last night that he was becoming a liability. And while I'm glad all the nominees with tax problems later paid up, why don't any of them have an accountant? I've got a good one, and I'll be glad to recommend him to Daschle, Geithner, and anyone else who needs help with their taxes (Marion Barry).

Eugene Robinson: I was wondering the same thing. Not even H and R Block?

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Washington, DC: Okay, so now that Daschle is out who do you think will be the new nominee? Do you think Obama even has a back-up in mind, or did he think Daschle was going to be a sure thing?

Eugene Robinson: I think anyone would have been confident that Daschle was a shoo-in. Former senators don't get rejected by their old colleagues in the Senate very often.

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Flint, Mich.: Do you think it's a mistake for President Obama to appoint Republicans to his Cabinet? So far, he's named three -- and the last one even came with strings attached. (That the Democratic governor needed to appoint another Republican to replace the Republican Senator who is being nominated for Commerce Secretary). I think that's a bunch of bunk, personally!

Eugene Robinson: Given Obama's stated determination to leave partisanship behind, I think it's inevitable that he would appoint some Republicans to the cabinet. He promised to do so.

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Brooklyn: I simply don't understand how Gregg can put conditions on his vacant seat. I know it's not exactly the same as Blago seeking favors or money for Obama's seat, but how are the two fundamentally different?

How does this deal work? Do they sign something or is it just based on their word? How do we know if other conditions not made public were put on this decision? Why would the governor be allowed to make this decision? Clearly if the governor had their way, they'd pick a Democrat. I'm sorry, but this stinks too much for me.

More importantly, why bend over backwards like this for someone who wasn't even the first choice for the job?

Eugene Robinson: I confess that I don't know how this works or how it could possibly be legally binding. I would have thought that the governor had a constitutional obligation to appoint the best possible person to the seat.

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Lexington, Ky.: Doesn't seem like that infamous Obama Transition questionnaire for applicants was that useful, does it?

Eugene Robinson: Maybe the questions were fine but the answers were a problem.

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Ellicott City, Md.: How much time is usually expected to get a new administration up to speed? I am so disappointed that the stock market continues to fall and that Obama's change administration does not look like change at all. It seems that the President is too interested in his PR machine (Matt Lauer before the Super Bowl) and not doing enough to try for a home run on his first time at bat. In your opinion is the new administration where you think it should be at this point?

Eugene Robinson: You can't expect the new administration to wave a magic wand and cause the stock market to levitate. But you can expect the administration to keep its stated core principles in mind. I think you could give them a pass on Geithner, maybe, on grounds of economic emergency. Indeed, that's what Republicans in the Senate decided. But the Daschle thing was too hard to swallow. It was allowed to become a distraction, and this administration -- more than most, because of the economic situation -- needs to avoid distractions.

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New York : I'm really disappointed in Obama, because its been three weeks now, and I still can't get the ice off my driveway. How stupid are some of these voters? Do they really think that one man is going to swoop down and solve all their problems? No wonder we're in such trouble. The reason why Obama appointed Daschle is because Daschle supported him big time when he first came to the Senate, and it would have been ingratitude not to have given him something. Nobody told Daschle to lie to the vetters when he was asked if he had anything in his record that would embarrass the administration, did they? Grow up people, assuming you're serious.

Eugene Robinson: All true. But I think the administration should have taken a more serious look at Daschle's post-Senate career, even aside from the taxes on the chauffered limousine (which the vetters didn't know about). The more fundamental issue, it seems to me, is whether Daschle's insider knowledge of how to Get Things Done in Washington was so valuable that it was worth overlooking his lucrative recent career as -- what? Not a lobbyist, officially, but an "influencer" who had so much juice that a law firm was willing to pay him a million a year even though he's not a lawyer. What's that about? Change you can believe in? Just askin'.

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Anonymous: It seems to me that the news media is more concerned about the piddling amount that these nominees did not pay in taxes than the billions wasted and stolen by Wall Street.

Eugene Robinson: Please don't hesitate to send such piddling amounts to me. I'll even pay taxes on them. (Just kidding, just kidding. Send only incisive observations and sharp-edged opinions.)

My time is up for today, everybody. See you again next week.

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