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Eugene Robinson: Arlen Specter, Swine Flu, More

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Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, April 28, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, April 28 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

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Eugene Robinson: Hi, everybody. This just in: Arlen Specter is changing parties, giving the Democrats a 60-seat, veto-proof majority in the Senate -- assuming Al Franken finally wins in Minnesota over Norm Coleman. Specter was going to be in serious trouble in the Republican primary, and anyway the GOP must not have have seemed like the most hospitable place for someone of his (mostly) moderate views. That's the big political news of the day. The column this morning was about the big medical news -- swine flu -- but of course we don't really know whether this new virus is a real threat or not. Lots of other stuff going on, of course -- the "100 Days" non-milestone, to name one item. So let's go.

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Arlington, VA: I just want to get this out of my system: I DO think we should take the swine flu seriously, but I DON'T think we should fall victim to the panic that the mass media induces. I think perspective is what's needed, as well as common-sense precautions, like hand-washing, etc.

Eugene Robinson: Quite right. This will sound a tad hypocritical, since I wrote about the flu this morning, but there's been way too much alarmist coverage of the potential threat. Hand-washing, I think, is called for. Not much more, at this point.

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Arlen Specter: Principled decision or craven ambition? Did anyone see this coming?

Eugene Robinson: Arithmetic first, I think. If he was convinced he'd probably lose in the primary, this was a clear option for him. What are the Democrats going to say, no thanks, we don't want that 60th vote?

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College Park, Md.: So I'm going to die of swine flu. Evidently we all are. Of course, I was also supposed to be killed by avian flu, terrorists, and, according to my neighborhood listserv, violent amoral teenagers roaming my town at night. I'm just wondering when the end will be near enough that I can safely quit my job and live a life, albeit short, of hedonistic excess. Do you know?

Eugene Robinson: I don't, alas. If you hear of a firm date, let me know.

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Moderate Republicans: Currently facing their own Ice Age. Are they like the dinosaurs, doomed to extinction, or are they like those tiny little mammals who can remain in hiding long enough to survive the glaciers of right wing rule and eventually return to the world stage?

Eugene Robinson: Staying with your analogy, they're the little mammals, I think. It seems to me that the political center of gravity in the country has shifted, and I don't see how the Republican Party can thrive all huddled together out there on the far right wing.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon. I have what I think is a contrarian view of the big party switch by Arlen Specter. He voted FOR card check a couple of years ago, but came out against it this year, and specifically said he was going to vote against cloture on EFCA in his "switch" statement. Plus, with his switch, Norm Coleman ain't giving up for months if not years. Given that, on what issue(s), specifically, might he be a crucial vote for cloture?

To me, the key thing is NOT short term. I don't see how it changes anything over the next two years. The key thing is that Specter's switch further defines the Republican party as a regional party.

Eugene Robinson: There will be votes, eventually, on the trinity of health care, education and energy. I agree that the story isn't the short-term impact, it's longer-term.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think Specter's decision will affect Norm Coleman? There will be tremendous pressure on him to continue to appeal and not concede, by the Republicans.

Eugene Robinson: I think this improves the odds of a federal court challenge if Coleman loses in the Minnesota Supreme Court.

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Pittsburgh: In your column, you point out that the current flu is striking down young, strong people in Mexico. In his excellent book on the Spanish flu of 1918, John Barry points out that older people and those with impaired immune systems became quite sick but recovered, and the young and strong soldiers etc were dying.

Autopsies revealed that the lungs of the younger and stronger people were almost completely destroyed. The theory was that it was the immune system's extreme counterattack on the virus which was creating a condition like SARS, and the secondary reaction was the cause of death. Until now, I have never heard about another flu outbreak which was primarily killing the youngest and strongest. Have any medical experts confirmed this analysis, and made the same ominous observation?

Eugene Robinson: I don't know if the experts have made this analysis but I imagine they'll be looking for it.

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New York: Why can't we just let President Obama do his job and stop critiquing his every move?

Eugene Robinson: Well, that's kind of our job. My reading of the recent polling is that people are following the administration's every move quite closely but are inclined to be generally patient and supportive. The president's approval rating in The Post's last survey was knocking on the door of 70 percent.

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Coleman: Is there any indication that Coleman is committing slow political suicide in Minnesota? I know that at least one poll has a majority of Minnesotans suggesting that he should drop his challenges. Doesn't this just harden their distaste for him?

Eugene Robinson: I think that so far, he has calculated that if somehow he were to manage to get some court to declare him the winner, he'd have six years -- make that five and a half -- to make his constituents love him again. All politicians believe they can make anybody love them if given enough time.

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Baltimore: I've seen it argued that the Democrats would have been in better position if Arlen hadn't switched - he's going to be a less reliable vote than Lieberman, he was facing a strong primary challenge from Toomey and could have been knocked out by any number of rising Democratic stars in the general. As it is, we've got another entrenched blue dog to deal with.

Eugene Robinson: Bird in the hand.

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Boston: Hi Gene,

Your point that swine flu can be more dangerous that terror is a wasted one. A little under 3,000 people were killed on 9/11 and we have gone to two wars and given up significant rights at home, but over 40,000 people are killed ever year in auto accidents and if you suggest we lower speed limit people think you are crazy.

Eugene Robinson: Right. Our fears are manifestly irrational. I've seen studies that chalk this up to two things -- dread and control. It is argued that we pay inordinate attention to remote threats that fill us with dread; and that we undervalue the threats that arise in situations in which we feel ourselves in control, like in the driver's seat of a car.

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Minneapolis: Hi Alec -- Thanks for taking questions today and for your usual thoughtful column today. Last night I had CNN on and watched them talk about how they were just going to give us the facts and not whip up hysteria about the flu situation, and then of course they did precisely the latter. I do have to say, though, that amidst Anderson Cooper looking all grave, I found Dr. Gupta to be a somewhat calming and reasonable presence. I think he would have made a good surgeon general at a time like this, sort of like a "first doctor" that the public would actually listen to and recognize. I feel like the Obama administration missed the boat on this one, especially at a time like this. What do you think?

Eugene Robinson: He does have that air of reassurance about him, doesn't he? But he took himself out of the running, and anyway I don't really have any basis to say that he would have been better at the actual job of being surgeon general than any other qualified candidate.

And yes, it is absurd when grave-looking anchors assure us that they're going to put everything in perspective -- and then talk about the non-threat nonstop for an hour. Or two. Or three.

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Helena, Montana: Gene, why aren't our moral leaders out front making statements on this torture issue? I'm at a loss - they will weigh in on gay marriage (pro and con), abortion rights, stem cell research - but can't do more than yawn when it comes to torture? How we treat people we have in our custody is an eminently Christian issue, at least - remember, Jesus was big on "visiting those in jail" which means we should be very concerned about putting people in positions where they have no power at all about what happens to them.

Eugene Robinson: Beats me. I would have thought that torture would be a no-brainer issue for self-designated Christian political activists.

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Ashland, Mo: Do you think as a society we have too much time to think of our doom from the unexpected unlike our ancestors, who had real things to worry about every day? Has this warped our sense of perspective?

Eugene Robinson: I guess it has. But by looking at our distant doom we've found ways to cure a lot of diseases, we've made strides in cleaning up our air and water, we've made our food safer -- well, until recently -- and our old age much longer and healthier.

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Richmond, VA: Would you be in favor of prosecuting Treasury or Federal Reserve officials if there was sufficient evidence that laws were broken during their response to the financial crisis, even if they were doing so to help preserve the financial system?

If not, what is the distinction between that and your position on prosecuting former Bush administration officials for their judgement calls after 9/11?

Eugene Robinson: I guess I would favor prosecution, if Hank Paulson tortured somebody.

Seriously, if laws were definitely broken, of course I'd say there should be prosecution. I'm not aware of illegality in the financial rescue, though. Are you?

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OMG! Noooo: Listen, this has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time. The Surgeon General's post is arguably the most important Public Health position in the country aside from the Presidency itself. To suggest that someone untrained in Public Health, which is a long-standing and well established profession distinct from medical education, should be the Surgeon General is a huge mistake. While I applauded Koop and Satcher, I think they would both agree with that point. The Surgeon General's position is not simply a cheerleading PR post, it is a vital position in the formulation of Public Health policy and not one that should be in the hands of someone with little public health experience. To reiterate, being on TV, being nice and being a physician are not even close to being enough in terms of knowledge and skill to be considered Surgeon General of the United States.

Eugene Robinson: Thank you. Always nice to hear from somebody who knows what they're talking about.

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West Palm Beach, FL: Any thoughts as to what the tipping point may have been for Sen. Specter to make this huge switch? Personally, I think it may have had to do with the current holdup of the HHS Secretary nomination, especially as it happens amidst the Swine Flu situation. Not the only thing, to be sure, but perhaps the straw that broke the elephant's back.

Eugene Robinson: I'm sticking with my arithmetic theory.

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Atlanta: What do you think about the polls that show American support for "torture" at 56% to 71%?

Eugene Robinson: Depressed, but only momentarily. I think a lot of this "support" is based on a belief that torture works. No evidence has been produced to convincingly demonstrate that torture produced valuable information that could not have been obtained through legal interrogation methods. Abu Zubaydah, for example, gave up all the valuable info he had to give BEFORE they started torturing him. But the "24" scenario seems hard to banish.

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Washington,DC: Years ago, I remember being shown a photo of a relative that was taken right before she died in 1919, a victim of the flu epidemic. Twila was about 12 and was sitting on a narrow dining room chair with her haunted, eyes staring directly at the camera. Her body seemed barely there. Around her neck hung what I was told was a poultice - but was really a kind of amulet -- a combination of garlic and other ingredients that would, it was hoped, ward off what was most likely pneumonia.

The picture was a snapshot of how that historic epidemic was about to snuff out one little Kansas girl's life and all that could have come from that life.

My relative, like me, was African-American. Not that problems didn't persist, but in 1919, certainly in small towns such as the one where she lived, people of all races depended on each other to get through the tragedy they faced. If only we could remember the importance of community and the insignificance of so much that separates us locally, nationally and internationally. We're could definitely be more evolved.

And, Mr. Robinson, you're consistently wonderful.

Eugene Robinson: That's a poignant and evocative story. Thank you.

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Eugene Robinson: That's it for today, everybody My time is up. See you again next week.

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