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Opinion Focus With Eugene Robinson: Joe Wilson's Transgression, Tea Party Protesters and the Wall Street Casino

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Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, September 15, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, Sept. 15 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

The transcript follows.


Eugene Robinson: Hi, everyone. Thanks for dropping by to join the conversation. No preliminaries today -- let's jump in.


New York: Gene, just curious. Could you give us reference information to articles you wrote condemning the Democrats hissing and booing President Bush during his State of the Union address? Or could it be that you thought that was courageous action?

Eugene Robinson: You misunderstand the issue. Rep. Joe Wilson's transgression was to call the president a liar -- at a joint session of Congress, no less. Accusations of mendacity are specifically forbidden by House rules and custom. (The same standard applies, by the way, in the British House of Commons, where debates often sound like bar fights -- but a member of Parliament who accuses a colleague of lying is immediately called out by the Speaker and must apologize on the spot.) Wilson deserves censure, in my view, because he insulted not only the president but the House of Representatives itself.


Alexandria, Va.: Regarding your Friday column, I don't believe you can say that the general behavior in past Presidential addresses before Congress was much different, other than the outburst. Democrats were, in general, just as disrespectful for W, and the same was true for Clinton. This is not a new occurrence, and its high time you get your prescription glasses changed from those Democrat shaded lenses.

By the way... did you not see the taunting gestures and looks that the Democrat members of congress were directing at the Republican side of the aisle? Or do you have an apology for them too?

Occasionally I would like to see you address some hard facts regarding the health care bill and its detail rather than surfing with Obama on his platitudes.

Eugene Robinson: See above. And what specifics do you want me to address? I like some and don't like others, but my criticism is generally that the bills being considered don't go far enough toward true universal health care. I suspect you disagree.


Iowa: I would never claim that all the teabaggers and other protesters are racist, but to deny that it's an element for some of these people is just totally naive. Just look at the comments on the WP stories - it's so disappointing to see those prejudices on full display. Besides, very, very few people would admit to being "racist," even if they tell demeaning jokes about black people, etc. Maybe we could just find another word?

Eugene Robinson: I don't refer to people as "racist" -- except in the most egregious cases -- because I think that ends any hope of discussion or even argument. I don't hesitate, however, to speak out if I think people's actions or words are motivated by racial bias. The difference is between discussing what a person did or said, which can be examined, rather than what is in the person's innermost thoughts, which is unknowable.


The "silent majority": Gene, every time I see the tea baggers and other protesters railing against Obama, they always seem to claim that they're speaking for a bunch of "average Americans." It reminds me of the old claims during the Nixon era about the "silent majority" that supported him while the protesters took to the streets.

I think it was true then that a majority of people felt more connected to Nixon than to the war protesters, as the polls showed in 1972. But I think the opposite is true now: most people who aren't locked into support of a particular political party are willing to support Obama. They may not be worshipers but they respect him far more than they do the wackos on the right.

I'm not sure the media has fully grasped this yet but the polls seem to reflect it. There are a lot of people fervently opposed to the President and a somewhat smaller number firmly supporting him. Among the rest, most give Obama some support.

I think, in the end, most of those people will stick with Obama, especially when the alternative is the radical hate machine running the Republican Party. In reality what we're seeing isn't the beginning of the movement, it's more like the death throes of a "lost cause."

Your thoughts?

Eugene Robinson: I believe the Republican Party helps President Obama enormously by cozying up to the far right. I think independents will, at the end of the day, reward politicians who try to do something rather than those who advocate doing nothing -- on health care and other issues. I think that if the economy improves, as seems likely, and unemployment begins to come back down before we get too deep into the 2010 election cycle, the Democrats will be fine.


Raleigh, NC: Re your column today: Do you see any chance that the government will investigate Wall Street "Masters of the Universe" for the fraud that they perpetuated on all of us. Why not use RICO for your indictments and consider arresting their assets much the way the Fed would any nickle and dime drug dealer?

At the end of the day, people NOT companies defrauded the entire nation. It is a real shame that the bail out of the banks ends up actually rewarding them for their crimes. The other thing the bailout does is create a true moral hazard where the bigger the risk the bigger the payout, and if it doesn't workout then who cares the Fed will bail you out because you are too big and important to fail.

Eugene Robinson: I don't see the feds using RICO that way, although that's an interesting legal theory. In today's column, as in the past, I'm critical of the Obama administration for its unwillingness to consider more fundamental Wall Street reforms. Do really want our financial system to be a big casino? Isn't Wall Street supposed to serve the economy, rather than the other way around?


Boston: Welcome back, Mr. Robinson (I missed last week). This chat was sorely missed this summer!

With regard to today's column, I agree with your classification of Wall Street as a casino. I think that some of what they are doing is not only socially worthless, that sometimes it's destructive as well. But I am curious: do you have a fix in mind for it? I gather that you don't agree that transparency is enough, so would caps on compensation be something along the lines of what you think would be effective?

Also, it seems stylish to be trashing the Fed these days, especially in Congress, but you gave them props. I say: Ben Bernanke, Person of the Year.

Eugene Robinson: One obvious question is why we should permit so much leverage, which has the effect of making the system top-heavy -- and turns little problems into big ones. Another is whether we should outlaw some kinds of derivatives and swaps. The administration's view is that Wall Street will find creative ways around any restrictions, so the best you can do is police the system more carefully. I think it would be worth a try.


Purcellville, Va.: Just wondering: If 1969 was the Summer of Love, will 2009 go down as the Summer of Heckling? I'm thinking of the town hall meetings, the "you lie!" incident, and Kanye's interruption of the MTV Awards presentation.

Eugene Robinson: The Summer of Bad Behavior.


Cuba: Dear Mr. Robinson,

Do you have any take or opinion on the embargo extension on Cuba?

Eugene Robinson: It's ridiculous. The embargo has been ridiculous for decades now. It doesn't work. It helps the Castro regime. It should end.


Alexandria, Va.: Please tell me how I can voice my disagreement with the President's proposed policies without being called a racist. Thank you.

OK, so that question is a little over the top. BUT, it seems like all the commentary - and reporting - about disagreeing with Obama goes like this --

"Universal health care makes so much sense that anyone that doesn't go along with it must not be using reason. They must be racist."

Eugene Robinson: Who said that? Who? Give me a citation -- a speaker, a quotation, something. Criticizing the president on health care or anything else isn't a sign of racial bias. Doing so while carrying a witch-doctor caricature of the president is.


Bethesda, Md.: Gene - I'm sure Obama was caught off guard, but I was a little disappointed in his response, kind of a sheepish "That's not true..." He's a great debater, and I would have liked to see him tell Wilson to stand up and debate him on the spot.

Eugene Robinson: A 30-second steely glare would have been my preferred response.


Harrisburg, Pa.: I am thinking back to candidate Howard Dean's proposal that people could sign up for Federal health insurance when they do their taxes, and George McGovern's recent editorial that we extend Medicare to everyone, and I wonder: have we allowed the issue to become so complex that it may collapse due to its complexity? What might have happened had pro-health reform advocates asked for a easier to understand proposal such as what Dean and McGovern proposed?

Eugene Robinson: Good question. You might have noticed that special interests have considerable impact on federal legislation, and this fact tends to make everything a lot more complicated than it needs to be. That's why the tax code is so complex.


Philadelphia: Seems to me, looking at your newspaper's home page now and anticipating my company's pending benefits renewal cycle, that the average worker -- in that 85% satisfied with health insurance group -- is about to get hit with a massive financial hit in increased health premiums, increased deductibles, higher out-of-pocket costs. All while seeing no pay increase.

What will it take for this massive hit to be framed as a tax hike sponsored by the opponents of health insurance reform? Or even by the short-sighted deficit hawks who don't seem to know that a recession is no time to worry about deficits?

Eugene Robinson: I don't know. I have no idea why people don't realize that their health insurance premiums and deductibles are rising much faster than their incomes (which probably aren't rising at all). The administration gets criticized for not doing a better job of pointing this out, but I can understand why the White House would assume that people know these basic facts.


Richmond, Va.: There's a debate raging in Richmond today because a challenger of Cantor's has accused him of tweeting during Obama's speech. Part of the debate is centering on whether the tweets really took place during the Obama's address, or that it simply looks that way if one sets the wrong time zone while looking at Cantor's twitter account.

I trust the Post to get the facts right. Is someone looking at this? I would like to have the facts before forming an opinion.

Eugene Robinson: Whether tweeting or e-mailing or whatever, he was buried in his BlackBerry. We report, you decide.


Anonymous: "Please tell me how I can voice my disagreement with the President's proposed policies without being called a racist. Thank you."

Well, the shoe is on the other foot now is isn't. I agree you should be able to disagree with the President without being called a racist.

The SAME WAY I believe that my patriotism should not have been called into question because I disagree with the Iraq War. My opinion is based on a decade of studying that region AND having lived there. Every time I have stated my disagreement to anyone who is of a conservative bent, I am told I hate America and that I am not a patriot.

Just sayin'.

Eugene Robinson: Just sayin'.


Syracuse, N.Y.: Gene, do you have an opinion on enhancing the number of American troops in Afghanistan?

Eugene Robinson: I'm troubled. I don't like the way the Afghanistan war is trending. Nobody ever wins in Afghanistan -- not the Brits, not the Russians, nobody. Our goals there should be minimalist and we'd better think up an exit strategy. That's my reading of history, at least.


Princeton, NJ: Why has the media given so much coverage to uninformed louts at the Town Halls while they have never covered the millions of well-informed citizen who support Medicare for All?

Here's what Ezra Klein of the Washington Post has to say:

"I've been attending health-care panels and events on a pretty regular basis for four or five years now. Each event, of course, is its own precious snowflake, with its own set of graphs and bullet points and dweebish jokes. But one thing is perfectly predictable: The Q&A session will be dominated by single-payer activists asking about HR 676.

There's not a mystery as to why this happens: Single-payer activists are very well organized, and they make a point to dispatch their people to these events and get their members to the microphone and ensure that their perspective is heard. But as the bills under consideration suggest, politicians have had no problem ignoring the single-payer grassroots. Max Baucus ruled out their participation on day one. The media hasn't shown the slightest inclination to cover their presence at event after event after event."

Eugene Robinson: I agree that the advocates of a single-payer system have been undercovered. I'd like to hear one Republican opponent of health-care reform suggest getting rid of the single-payer systems we already have -- Medicare, Medicaid and the VA.


Austin, Tex.: Isn't the healthcare fight largely generational?

I don't like framing it this way, but it seems to me that the generation that came of age just after the War enjoyed massive economic growth, employment with health care, and often has taken early retirement with health care benefits.

Those of us who are a little younger know that things have changed a lot, and that under the current system we will be working forever (even if we win the lottery) just to keep our insurance.

Am I being unfair?

Eugene Robinson: I think the bigger generational issue is the absence of so many of Obama's young supporters from the debate. Health insurance doesn't seem like such an important issue when you're 22. The people who provided a lot of the energy for the Obama campaign aren't participating in this fight.

My time is up, folks. Thanks for tuning in, and I'll see you again next week.


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