Eugene Robinson: GM, Sotomayor, Gay Marriage, More

Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, June 2, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, June 2 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.


Eugene Robinson: Welcome to our regularly scheduled full and frank exchange of views. We need to figure out what kind of vehicles to make with the big ol' car company we just bought (the subject of today's column). Plus, Judge Sonia Sotomayor is on the Hill, and my be is that she wows them. And I think that anyone who ever flies across an ocean has to be affected by the Air France disaster. It's something that we all fear -- even if just a little -- but that almost never happens: In mid-flight, a modern jetliner just falls into the sea. Takeoffs and landings are supposed to be the dangerous parts; the long hours over water are a time to sleep fitfully or watch movies on a tiny screen.


Oh my God!: Barack took Michelle on a date, and it cost the taxpayers money!

Seems to me that the to-do over the Obamas on Broadway is just another example of outrage manufactured by Republicans and amplified by the media. If the voices that seem to rise to a fevered pitch every time Obama leaves the White House--for a Broadway play, for a cheeseburger, etc.--had done so when Bush took his frequent vacations to his "ranch" in Texas, maybe I'd not be so skeptical.

Which leads me to a larger question on the role of the media: To what extent should they merely serve as sources of fairly meaningless facts (e.g., the Obamas went to Broadway and it cost $1 million) as opposed to serving as a source for comparisons (e.g., Obama has spent $10 million on six trips, while Bush spent $15 million on eight trips)?

Your thoughts, sir?

Eugene Robinson: I think the "story" of the Obamas' date night in NYC wasn't a story at all. It's well established that the First Family has to travel at all times with full security, and that this is something the nation simply provides. If the trip were newsworthy, I think reporters and commentators would be obliged to put it in context, which would involve comparing the cost of the Obamas' travel with the cost of other presidents' travel -- and the amount of time President Obama spends away from the job with the amount of time President Bush spent on holiday. But I didn't begrudge Bush his Air Force 1 trips to Texas. This whole thing is stupid, and I think we in the media look stupid for treating it like actual news.


Richmond, Va.: How do the urber-conservatives reconcile Cheney's support of gay marriage? It is all so bizarre to me, and what do they say about this so-contrary-to-conservative thinking? In other words, can Cheney speak for them with any credibility even though he would generally have no credibility if he spoke in support of gay (so antithetical to this group's) marriage?

Eugene Robinson: I think the uber-conservatives are still in shock. They must be, because I'm hearing rare silence from that quarter.


Minneapolis: Hi Eugene -- Thanks for taking questions today, and I think I need an intervention or something -- I actually agree with something Dick Cheney said (his support for gay marriage). What kind of bizarro world are we living in where Cheney is actually to the left of the president on a particular issue? More importantly, where IS the president on this issue? Iowa legalizes same sex marriage -- not a peep. The California Supreme Court upholds Prop 8 but holds that existing same sex marriages are still legal -- total silence. What's going on here?

Eugene Robinson: Don't ask me to do the intervention, because I'm in agreement with Dick Cheney on this, too. And yes, you and Cheney and I are all to the left of President Obama on the issue. I read reacently that his position on gay marriage is "evolving," but as of now it's still: No.


Baltimore: Hi, Gene--

I really do love your columns (next to E. J. Dionne's--sorry), and think your Pulitzer is very well deserved.


(You knew it was coming.)

I have to deeply disagree with you regarding Saturn. I am extremely upset that GM plans to discontinue the line as of 2011. My Saturn gets great mileage, is extremely comfortable, and, best of all, I didn't have to haggle over the price.

It also provides the best customer service of any car company I've ever dealt with. It's an outstanding company, and I'm really hoping that someone either buys Saturn, or they manage to strike out on their own, the way they started.

Saturn is the only GM line that sells cars that people actually want to buy -- I can't fathom why they're shutting it down.

Eugene Robinson: You refer to my view (in today's column) that GM was right to get rid of the Hummer, Saab, Saturn and Pontiac brands -- though I felt a tinge of nostalgia for Pontiac. I like some of the cars that Saturn makes, too, but they should call them Chevys or Caddilacs. I just think that maintaining so many brands is a mistake in this day and age. You need one mainstream brand -- Chevrolet -- and one luxury brand -- Cadillac. Also, I think it makes sense to keep GMC as a maker of trucks. Seems to me that this should be enough for GM to work with.


Strongsville, Ohio: I disagree. I love my Buick, where else can you find a car wih the gearshift on the steering column & not on the floor? I know my nephew calls them "gezzer" cars, so what? I'm old enough to remember when it was a great advancement to get the gearshift OFF the floor.

Also they are easy to get into and out of, they have helping handles, etc. Plus you do get a nice ride. I have no desire to "feel the road" in Ohio (with all the potholes?)

I could go on but won't, just keep the Buick.

Eugene Robinson: I have fond memories of the 1964 Buick LeSabre that my family had when I was a kid. But they could relabel your Buick as an entry-level Cadillac -- or a deluxe Chevy. And you could still have the gearshift on the steering column.


Edison, N.J.: The Volt is a true electric car and not a hybrid. The gasoline backup engine is only in case you run out of juice along the way and it recharges the batteries to their minimum level but the GM guys get real snotty if you call it a "hybrid."

Eugene Robinson: I know they do, but my view was that since it does have a gas engine, which at times will make the car run (indirectly, by recharging the battery), it's a hybrid. I pointed out that it's not like other hybrids and uses much less gas. But you can go only 40 miles in the Volt on a full battery charge, and at that point you need the gas engine to proceed further.


Charlotte, N.C.: Eugene,

If you don't see a happy ending, why do you think it is a good idea for US taxpayers to sink $30,000,000,000 more into the company? That's an aweful lot of money for not that many jobs, especially when you see how many jobs are going to be cut anyway.

Eugene Robinson: That line in the column basically reflects my lack of confidence in GM's current management and corporate culture. GM actually is a lot more than just a black hole that sucks up money. The company's overseas business, especially in China, is booming. Pickups are big domestically. The company employs lots of talented designers and engineers. What they need is imaginative, visionary leadership that can put these assets to good use.


Grand Rapids, Minn.: Why or how could the Board and Management of GM fail to see the mess they were making when I and many Americans laughed at the Aztec and other vehicles? Saturn was a good concept, but they morphed it into just another Chevy. Are there any "car guys" on the board or management team, or are they all MBA's?

Eugene Robinson: Good question: Where are the "car guys" and the "car gals"? And where, oh where, is the automotive Steve Jobs who will design a sleek, revolutionary iCar that everyone MUST have.


Washington, DC: Regarding GM, wouldn't it have been easier to just distribute $15 billion among all current and former GM employees and be done with it? I mean, saving the UAW is really what this is all about, and by keeping GM going, the taxpayer is not only going to be on the hook for current retirees, but also current employees when they retire, and so on and so forth.

Eugene Robinson: I disagree that this is all about saving the UAW. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of workers in the supply chains that feed into GM. To allow GM to sink like a stone would put these jobs in jeopardy as well.


Washington, D.C.: I've heard more than a few Republican leaders gripe that the Obama administration is favoring autoworkers over bond- holders. Are they playing to the teabaggers, or do they actually think this issue is a real winner for them?

Eugene Robinson: As of a few weeks ago, polls were indicating that Americans didn't like the way Wall Street was being favored over Detroit (or at least that people had that perception). Unless sentiment has changed dramatically, I think it would be dangerous to champion bondholders over assembly-line workers.


.How do the urber-conservatives reconcile Cheney's support of gay marriage?: Any chance you respond to the flip-side and address how uber-liberals who consider Cheney pure evil will respond to his position on gay marriage?

Eugene Robinson: Um, if you're including me in that group -- and I'm guessing that you are -- then note that I've already applauded him for his stance. Let me applaud him again. Dick Cheney is right on gay marriage, and President Obama is wrong.


Seattle: The President also announced that he will be modernizing the Federal fleet of cars, implying that he will be buying from the companies that the Fed owns, primarily GM. This will boost the GM label, especially since their will be a lot more GM cars on the road, and of course all those bucks.

How much do you think that will help? Do you think it is a good idea, especially if the GM cars are currently less fuel efficient than their competitors?

Eugene Robinson: I think this is a potential problem. What if Ford's cars are better? Will the government buy GM because of its stake in the company? There will have to be some kind of hands-off process to avoid the obvious conflict of interest.


Jersey Shore: The leaders of GM were unable to see the mess they were in because they were making money hand-over-fist selling SUVs to every family with a big dog or liked the high driving position. They aren't in bankruptcy now because they had bad cars, they're in bankruptcy now because the confluence of the financial crisis and high gas prices led to cratering demand for SUVs last summer.

GM, generally speaking, sells more cars than any other company in the world, edged out only recently by the brand managers over at Toyota/Lexus/Scion.

It's about the financial crisis, but we're bored talking about that so lets pretend its about cars for a chat or two!

Eugene Robinson: As I've noted in the past, GM wouldn't have reached a state of collapse if the financial crisis hadn't essentially wiped out demand. But it's disingenuous to ignore the fact that over the years, GM surrendered market segment after market segment to foreign-owned manufacturers by making lousy cars. The cars are better now, but not as good or as innovative as they should be.


Alito v. Sotomayor?: Didn't conservatives applaud Samuel Alito's comment re how his Italian-American heritage influenced his perspective against discrimination? How is this so different from Sonia Sotomayor's comment that they're now all flogging?

BTW, Alito said: "When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender. And I do take that into account."

Eugene Robinson: I don't see a difference. I think Sotomayor's critics deal with that Alito quote by pretending it doesn't exist.


Washington, D.C.: Nobody seems to be saying much about this, but a writer in your own paper observed that if Judge Sotomayor is confirmed six of nine Supreme Court justices will be Catholics. I don't think it reflects bigotry to ask whether it is good for two-thirds of the court to share a specific view of the world and mankind's role in it that is not shared by a majority of Americans. I would have the same reservations about six fundamentalist Christians, six Orthodox Jews or six Sunni (or Shiite) Muslims. Any thoughts?

Eugene Robinson: As Judge Sotomayor noted in her much-criticized speech -- the parts that don't get quoted out of context -- judges should not deny identity but also should not be bound by it. As she has noted, Brown v. Board of Education was decided by nine white men. I believe that diversity is good for the Supreme Court, but I also know that good judges are able to feel -- loaded word coming -- empathy for those whose life experience is different.


New York, NY: Gene, why should the auto companies be so sacred?

When another American icon, AT&T, went under a few years ago, similarly huge numbers of employees lost their jobs, but nobody cared about bailing it out. Major airlines go bankrupt all the time, costing tens of thousands of jobs at a pop; nobody cares - and flying a bankrupt plane is a lot scarier concept than driving a bankrupt car.

Nary a tear has officially been shed over any of the many thousands of other companies which have gone under in recent months and years, costing millions of people their jobs and security.

Auto workers have long had a deal the rest of us could only aspire to, and it was indeed unsustainable. The rest of the country does not view a “layoff” as a year of vacation at base pay followed by a recall, as auto workers long have. To the rest of us, a layoff is a permanent firing with minimal if any benefits and zero chance of rehire. Defined benefit pension? Retiree health care? (Heck, employee health care?) We wish!

So forgive us if we do not wax as rosy as you do about the special place of the auto industry in our economy.

Eugene Robinson: Hmmm, I thought that in this country we're not supposed to begrudge the success of those who do well. The autoworkers won those benefits through negotiation with the auto companies. Isn't that the way the system is supposed to work?


Arlington, VA: Indeed, I understand how many jobs outside of GM depended on GM's existence, but one thing I haven't heard: what did THOSE companies learn from this? Isn't it time to diversify, so to speak? If you're so dependent on one source of funding, and it goes under, that's also not a great business strategy.

Eugene Robinson: Agreed. If suppliers aren't looking to diversity, they aren't paying attention.


Buick: Sells more cars in China than they do in the USA. It's their brand of the future, actually.

Eugene Robinson: Okay, I give up. Buick forever!


Pittsburgh: On Sunday's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," Goerge Will claimed that Americans still want their big gas guzzlers, and don't want the federal government forcing more fuel-efficient cars down their throats as part of the GM and Chrysler plans (he even denounced the "cash-for-clunkers" incentive program to encourage buying smaller cars). Maybe Will can afford fuel up his guzzler at any price, but with gas prices creeping back up again, most Americans will soon want the more efficient cars again. Any chance of a gas tax in order to keep gas prices up and small-car sales flourishing?

Eugene Robinson: If greater fuel economy is in the national interest -- and I think it is -- then there are a few ways to advance toward that goal. A gas tax is one, but that's difficult, politically -- more difficult than raising the CAFE standards.


Eugene Robinson: Thanks, everybody. My time is up for today. See you again next week, same time, same station.


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