Post Politics Hour

Peter Baker
Washington Post White House Reporter
Tuesday, November 1, 2005; 11:00 AM

Don't want to miss out on the latest buzz in politics? Start each day at wonk central: The Post Politics Hour. Join in each weekday morning at 11 a.m. as a member of The Washington Post's team of White House and Congressional reporters answers questions about the latest in buzz in Washington and The Post's coverage of political news.

Washington Post White House reporter Peter Baker was online Tuesday, Nov. 1, at 11 a.m. ET .

The transcript follows.


Peter Baker: Good morning, everyone. Another week, another Supreme Court nomination. Add to that the continuing CIA leak case, the continuing war in Iraq, the continuing cleanup from Hurricane Katrina and the continuing fiscal challenges and we've got lots to chat about. So let's get going.


Jessup, Md.: Peter,

Why does the press rush to ask old clerks of Alito or to emphasize his academic or family credentials while ignoring what the man wrote. The only article that I have seen that has seriously analyzed Judge Alito's possible impact and the nature of his past decisions is written by Linda Greenhouse in today's New York Times. As a lawyer of 20 years, but more important as a person, I have a concern that the Federalist Society in particular is railroading Supreme Court appointments to have an antiseptic conservative view of what makes a person qualified to apply the constitution. Having worked in Washington for 20 years, I am too well aware of the tendency of both conservatives and liberals to focus on the credentials rather than the person. The successful nominee is so important because he (or she) will be applying the constitution in a way that affects people in all walks of life and every region of the nation. I can only shudder to think that not only is there the likelihood that with Alito the people stand to loose the more moderate views of Justice O'Connor, but in addition we will have one of the least religiously, sexually, and ethnically diverse Supreme Courts in generations. Ultimately, the Supreme Court by applying the constitution is a defender of liberty. If liberty is applied strictly and with reluctance, I pity our nation for what it will become.

Peter Baker: Thanks for the question. If you haven't seen it yet, check out Chuck Lane's smart A1 piece analyzing Alito's record based not on former clerks but on his writings. Along with the story, there's a helpful graphic on A8 that describes eight key cases and actually quotes from Alito's opinions in each of them. Check out our web site for more such references.


Fairfax, Va.: What are the chances that the Democrats will decide this Alito nomination is not a fight they want to push too far, and decide NOT to filibuster?

Couldn't they all just vote against him on the floor, they would still lose but then they go could back to their states saying they were against him, but the Conservatives would not be able to accuse the Democrats of holding up the process, and they would get the judge they wanted. Plus this might add to the Democrats argument that the only true way to stop Bush is to vote Democrat in the 2006 elections. Seems like a win-win situation.

Peter Baker: That's going to be an interesting calculation for them to make. Democratic strategists do worry that filibustering a Supreme Court nominee might boomerang on them by making them look obstructionist. Plus a filibuster might not be successful if the Gang of 16 senators, eight from each party, agree again that they do not want judicial filibusters.


Austin, Tex.: Is it a given that Alito would win a up-or-down vote in the full Senate?

Peter Baker: It may be too early to say. You have to say he starts the process with the presumption that a Republican Senate will confirm a Republican president's nominee, particularly one who, unlike Harriet Miers, excites the party base. But as Chuck Babington points out in his piece this morning, it could come down to the handful of moderate Republicans who support abortion rights, such as Susan Collins, Lincoln Chafee and Olympia Snowe.


Wilmington, Ohio: Mr.Baker: Why don't the loser Democrats quite beating the President and his choice of appointees alone. I feel their attitudes will end up with a great loss for their party at the next election.

Peter Baker: That's a danger for Democrats, of course, just as it would be for any opposition party blocking a president's appointees. But it's more of a danger for the opposition if the president in question is a popular one. At the moment, Democrats may feel they don't have as much to fear from Bush given his weak standings in opinion polls. But if he rebounds by next year, he could make their tactics an issue in the off-year elections.


Takoma Park, Md.: I thought it was the Gang of 14 Senators?

Peter Baker: Oops. Yes, you're exactly right. Many apologies. Thanks for the correction. (Where are the darn editors when you need them?)


Seattle, Wash.: Don't you think the Democrats should not get too tied up in an "Armageddon fight" over Alito's nomination and instead keep trying to remind the public of the ruling Republican party's ownership of the existing fiascos (Katrina response, failure of Iraq post-war planning, etc.) that have already laid bare in front of many Americans (of both parties) their incompetence? It seems to me that if the Democrats get sidetracked too much by Alito, they will regain the reputation for raising too much of a fuss about any issue that crops up and not keeping their eye on the ball of the major issues that the ruling executive and congressional parties (of which they want to become) can influence over the long haul.

Peter Baker: It's a very interesting question. There's an argument to be made that it would be good for the White House to have a traditional fight over ideology like this rather than keep talking about scandals and war. And certainly after being beaten up by all of its conservative friends over Harriet Miers, the White House would much rather have a regular cats-and-dogs fight.


Oakland, Calif.: The Miers nomination was blocked by the religious right because of their litmus test, and by the intellectual right for reasons of elitism. She was not afforded her "right" to an up or down vote. Do the Democrats have a big enough megaphone (or a clear enough voice) to point this out when they are called obstructionists?

Peter Baker: Sen. Ted Kennedy, among others, made just that point yesterday, that those now demanding a "fair up-or-down vote" for Sam Alito didn't want one for Miers. Whether that message will resonate or not isn't as clear. Democrats have had a hard time developing a consistent, coherent message that has penetrated public consciousness, but many believe a nominee like Alito holds out the potential of crafting a sharp message.


Washington, D.C.: You people in the press are really something else. Can't you write about more than once thing at once? The CIA Leak story should still be front page news until Libby's trial is over and we get answers, or at the very least some kind of explanation or apology from Bush.

Here it is only Tuesday and it's as if it never happened. Bush is getting exactly what he wants. The story swept off the front pages. Way to go!

Peter Baker: Is this question from Jim VandeHei, whose story didn't make the front today? Seriously, make sure to find his insightful piece, written with Carol Leonnig, on A2. It only requires turning one page. And not to worry, this is a story that will continue to grace the front in the future. It's not over by any means, and we really can walk and chew gum at the same time.


Washington, D.C.: Can you link to the Babington piece please?

Peter Baker: Sure can. Thanks for asking.


Peter Baker: And here's the Jim and Carol story on the Libby case.

_______________________ As Democrats Lead Opposition, GOP Moderates May Control Vote. ( Charles Babington, Nov. 1, 2005 )

_______________________ Trial Could Pit Libby's Interests Against Bush's , ( Jim VandeHei and Carol D. Leonnig, Nov. 1, 2005 )


New York, N.Y.: Alito's nomination was obviously timed to change the subject from the Fitzgerald investigation and the Libby indictments. But, it doesn't seem to be working.

Will the administration keep trying to change the subject, and if so, won't that be a burden itself? I've learned from years of marriage that changing the subject only works for so long, but that is a different relationship and I don't have spinmeisters helping me out.

Peter Baker: They'll do everything they can to change the subject. Today the president is talking about the threat of a flu pandemic, tomorrow he hosts Prince Charles and the day after that he leaves for a trip to Latin America. But it should be interesting to see if and when he ever takes questions from reporters again, since he'll no doubt be peppered with inquiries on the leak case. He wouldn't take questions yesterday either at his Alito announcement or his meeting with Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and we have no promise that he'll take questions at any point later this week.


Bastrop, La.: Do you think there will be any Congressional hearings into the Plame leak since Mr. Fitzgerald is not going to submit a report?

Peter Baker: It's a good question, but it doesn't look like it. A Republican-controlled Congress generally doesn't like to investigate a Republican-controlled White House, and there hasn't been any sentiment expressed by the majority party on the Hill to dig into this case.


Louisville, Ky.: It seems that all of the individuals blatantly involved in this investigation have fallen through the sieve, and Libby is going to end up as the "scapegoat".

I still can't help but wonder why Novak has not just been asked point blank, "From whom he received his initial information regarding Valerie Plame from" and "Why hasn't he just stated who "Official A, was"?

Peter Baker: It's the question we'd all like to have answered. Most of the other reporters caught up in the case, particularly Matt Cooper and Judy Miller, have written extensive accounts of their involvement, but we've seen nothing like that from Bob Novak. We're all still waiting.


Kansas City, Mo.: One thing I do not understand about the Plame leak story is this:If it is wrong for an administration or government official to reveal the name of an undercover CIA employee, then why is it not wrong for a reporter to do the same thing? For example, if Robert Novak had refrained from divulging Valerie Plame's name in his nationally syndicated column, only a few Washington insiders would have known about her. As it was, millions of people around the world learned about Plame due to Novak's lack of discretion. So who is the most important culprit in the leak story?

Peter Baker: As I understand the law, and I'm no lawyer, it covers those government officials who have access to classified information. Reporters are not government officials with security clearances. Scooter Libby and other officials who join the White House sign a statement outlining their responsibilities to keep close hold over classified information.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Baker,

I have a question regarding the press' relationship with Scott McClellan. He continually says things to imply there is a great trust between the people in that room and him. He makes additional implications to the relationships that you all have with him. Then last night I saw David Gregory say that he has a "sterling record." How can that be? In my personal opinion, if people in this administration put him in a position to tell lies to the press and American people, he should resign (that is if his reputation is so sterling.) He can parse words if he wants, but regardless of crimes, both Rove and Libby were and are involved.

Also, did Ari Fleischer have similar respect and apparent admiration from the press corps?

Many thanks.

Peter Baker: Scott has tried to turn the question of accountability for what is said at the podium into a question of his own relationship with the press, which in my view isn't an answer at all. That's a distraction. Reporters can respect a government spokesman doing his job, just as we did Ari Fleischer, Mike McCurry, Marlin Fitzwater and so on. But the issue at hand isn't our personal views of Scott -- it's how it came to pass that he provided from the podium a version of events that we now know is not true.


New York, N.Y.: How come no one ever has any direct long form interviews with the President or Vice President? The last one of which I am aware happened a few years ago when the President sat down with Tim Russert for an interview that was later revealed to have pre-approved questions and editing approval by the White House before release. I find it astounding that we have scandals of this magnitude going on and neither have answered any substantive questions publicly. Last week's tag team speeches aimed at obscuring the Fitzgerald press conference were just another insult from an administration that not only thinks we're stupid but hopes we're stupid.

Peter Baker: It's not our choice, that's for sure. We would love to have direct long-form interviews with Bush and/or Cheney. They don't generally choose to give us any. The Post had an interview with Bush in January around the time of his second inauguration and that's the only one we've had in years. I've never even spoken with Cheney myself, much less been given an interview. (As for Russert, I'm not familiar with the conditions of that interview, but I'm not sure that's the right characterization of them.)


Washington, D.C.: Peter:

Is Scooter Libby still drawing a salary from the White House (as a consultant or otherwise a la Mike Brown) even after having resigned?

Peter Baker: Not that I'm aware of. I'd be shocked if he were.


Silver Spring, Md.: Good point about when the President will ever take questions from the press again. Any predictions? I guess the first question would have to be: Did you lie to the American people or did Karl Rove lie to you? I'm thinking that he is not going to take that question.

Regarding what should be on the front page, I don't think that it would be unfair to point out every day that this president no longer governs with the confidence or consent of the governed. Keep on reporting, the truth still matters to some of us.

Peter Baker: I can think of lots of questions to ask the president when he deems to take them again. For starters, I'll steal yours.

1) Did Karl Rove tell you the truth about the CIA leak and did you tell the American people the truth?

2) A variant: What did you know and when did you know it?

3) You promised in your first campaign to clean up Washington. "In my administration," you told voters in Pittsburgh in October 2000, "we will ask not only what is legal but what is right, not what the lawyers allow but what the public deserves." Do you think your White House has lived up to that standard in this episode?

4) You promised to fire anyone involved in the leak and your spokesman said anyone involved would no longer work in the administration. Last week's indictment makes clear that Official A, identified as Karl Rove, was involved. Are you going to fire Karl Rove?

5) Even giving Scooter Libby the benefit of the doubt legally, do you approve of the conduct that has now been documented?


Fairfax, Va.: President Bush has always said that he would nominate Justices in the mold of Thomas and Scalia and he was re-elected with the largest vote total in history and the largest vote margin in history. Don't these facts constitute a public endorsement of this nominee and debunk the rhetoric aimed at the "radical right." As the Dems and their ideas have been trounced at the ballot box time after time, are they simple throwing bombs at this administration and this nominee to preserve their only hopes for political victories in the courts?

Peter Baker: That's a bit of an urban myth. President Bush said he admired Scalia and Thomas but according to the database searches I've done never directly promised to appoint justices just like them. We might also discuss just how powerful his election vote margin really was. But your point is very salient: He was elected president and a president is entitled to choose justices of the Supreme Court. It should come as no surprise that a Republican president chooses a conservative nominee. If Democrats want liberal justices, they're going to have to elect a president more to their choosing. At the same time, some senators believe ideology is a legitimate reason to vote against confirmation, and there's nothing in the Constitution that says otherwise. It could, of course, come back to bite their next president, though.


Ames, Iowa: The loser Republicans never, ever QUIT attacking Clinton's nominees - many of them never got an up or down vote. What goes around, comes around. And even if you lose an election, you still are allowed to voice your opinion, as Republicans did during Clinton's terms.

Peter Baker: You're right, Clinton certainly had a lot of trouble getting some of his nominees through the Senate. At the same time, the Senate overwhelmingly approved both of his Supreme Court nominees, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, without much controversy or opposition from Republicans.


Washington, D.C.: It seems to me what we need here is a Deep Throat-type source. Someone from the inside who will secretly spill the beans. Is that the kind of thing reporters typically would try to get in times like this?

Peter Baker: Send me a name and a phone number, and I'll call right away. Believe me, we work hard to find as many inside sources as we can. Sometimes we're lucky, more often we're not.


Fallon, Mont.: I'm struck that Bush's response to the Miers debacle (and others) is to rush back to his base -- a minority, albeit a loud one. How do they matter (in any substantive way) now that his last election is over?

It might even benefit the country if he tried governing from the center rather than appealing to the far right.


Peter Baker: It's often easier for a president in trouble to turn back to his base. Clinton did the same thing during impeachment. He had alienated a lot of liberals with his more centrist decisions -- welfare reform, balanced budget, etc. -- but when his presidency was threatened, he found the left in his party was the mainstay that helped him survive.


Atlanta, Ga.: Fairfax is wrong about the largest total and margin. Every president should win with the largest total because of a growing population. Bush had the smallest margin for an incumbent.

Peter Baker: As a percentage, I think it was the lowest margin of any victorious incumbent going back many decades. I'm sure someone can check this and get an exact rundown of the numbers. But candidates always prefer to use the raw votes since, as you say, they go up with every election.


West Palm Beach (a Wilma survivor), Fla.: Peter,

We don't seem to see too much on President Bush's meeting with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, especially in light of the news that the latter said he tried to talk the former out of invading Iraq.

What are you hearing?

Peter Baker: A great question. And on any other day, it would have been bigger news. But, nature of the beast, it got overshadowed by the Alito announcement.


Re: Novak: Do people not understand how a grand jury works? That it is secret. The simple fact that we don't know the answer we all want from Robert Novak does not mean the question has not been asked. As citizens we may want that answer, but we have no right to what has been testified before a grand jury.

Peter Baker: Yes, the question has almost certainly been asked. And the prosecutor cannot disclose grand jury testimony just willy-nilly. But Novak could, if he wanted, describe what he told authorities, just as Cooper and Miller did. You're always at liberty of publicly disclosing your own grand jury testimony. It's conceivable Novak has a good reason why he has not said more at this point; hopefully when this all settles out, he'll feel free to finally tell us more.


Atlanta, Ga.: Hello:

Today, The Post ran a troubling correction of yesterday's front-page story regarding the Libby indictment.

"The article... incorrectly said that Libby was first told about Valerie Plame's CIA affiliation by Vice President Cheney."

In fact, The Post article cites the indictment itself for the Cheney ID claim.

"It was Cheney, the indictment states, who supplied Libby the detail "that Wilson's wife worked . . . in the Counterproliferation Division" -- an unambiguous declaration that her position was among the case officers of the operations directorate." A Leak, Then a Deluge

Wouldn't your editors have ensured the indictment could be read as confirming the Cheney claim in a front-page article?

As a longtime reader and given that you are a White House reporter for The Post, I'd appreciate anything you could do shed some light on this discrepancy.

Peter Baker: It wasn't my story, so I can't offer any insights. Like everyone, we do make mistakes and we do try to correct them when they happen. But in reading the indictment, it's clear Libby got information about Valerie Plame's CIA affiliation from several people all in a very compressed period of time, including the vice president.


Fairfax Station, Va.: Doesn't anyone else find it alarming that in discussing Scooter Libby's memory of events that there was a discussion between him and Tim Russert (he called Russert) to voice something that he (or more likely Cheney) didn't like on the news???? I find that very very scary that the Vice President's Chief of Staff is calling in the news. Isn't that pure propaganda?

Peter Baker: Officials of all sorts routinely call reporters and editors to complain about stories. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. It's part of the process. We listen to complaints and judge whether they have merit or if they're just ordinary whining. In Libby's case, that doesn't mean that he was calling in the news or engaging in propaganda.


Alexandria, Va.: Re: Ames, Iowa. The "Loser Republicans" as you put it, seem to be awfully good at winning elections. President, Senate, House, etc.

Peter Baker: Fair point. Maybe we can find you two a room to go discuss it?


Arlington, Va.: Is there a difference in the way that reporters at the Press Secretary's daily whatevers behave? Whenever we hear of something such as John Roberts' "sloppy seconds," it is a TV guy--except for Helen Thomas of course. Are the print reporters more sedate and less argumentative?

Peter Baker: There's definitely a difference in tone and style between the television and print correspondents in the briefing room. In general, they're more comfortable engaging in debate with Scott. It does make for good television sometimes. For those of us in print, though, that's not all that useful. I don't think print reporters are sedate, but we would prefer to ask questions and get answers that would inform our stories. If you ask us, there aren't enough real answers. But the different reporters all have different mediums and different ways of approaching the briefing.


Peter Baker: I see we've gone over our time. Too many great questions, not enough fingers to type answer to them all. Thanks for participating today and have a great day.


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