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Chris Cillizza
washingtonpost.com Political Columnist/Blogger
Wednesday, December 21, 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.

washingtonpost.com political columnist/blogger Chris Cillizza was online Wednesday, Dec. 21, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest news in politics.

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The transcript follows.

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Chris Cillizza: Good morning. We're knee deep in polls this morning over at The Fix as we try to sort out whether the bump in President Bush's job approval numbers in a series of recent surveys is a blip or a building block for the future. Make sure to check out this week's edition of "Parsing the Polls" today on The Fix and offer your thoughts.

With just four shopping days left until Christmas, we'd better get to the questions.

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Anonymous: I don't know what the big fuss is about his gaining in polls

in the CNN/USA/Gallup poll

Nov. 7-10 he was minus 15

Nov. 11-13 he was minus 23

Nov. 17-20 minus 10 (Gallup only)

Dec. 9-11 he was minus 13

Dec.16-18 he fell to minus 15

Chris Cillizza: Let's start with a poll question.

I don't think there is any particular "big fuss" about the President's current standing in the polls. The Post did a story that noted Bush had gained eight points in his job approval rating from a similar November survey and I did an item on "Parsing the Polls" today that looked at Bush's slight but real gains in four recent national surveys.

The President and his standing in the eyes of voters is a major story and whenever the Post (or any other major news organization) conducts a poll, it should get real play both in the paper and on the web.

As for whether Bush's current bump in polls is permanent or simply a blip on the radar, I think that remains to be seen. No polling of any merit is likely to take place between now and Jan. 1 since people are wrapped up in the holidays.

We won't really know how much ground Bush has truly gained until we see some polls in the new year.

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Silver Spring, Md.: The uptick in Bush's approval ratings in the last poll pretty much mirrors the upticks he got after previous Iraqi election activities, although the constitutional referendum did not have a big affect, as it seemed so disorganized and rushed. Given the all-out PR blitz that the White House has been on in the past couple of weeks, they certainly would have been sad to see no affect at all, eh?

Chris Cillizza: It would have been somewhat surprising if Bush hadn't gotten some sort of lift from the Iraqi elections last week and the -- mostly --positive media coverage that surrounded that voting.

Whether or not he is able to sustain that improvement without such a media push is hard to say.

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Fairfax, Va.: Do our friends in Congress look at the President's poll numbers and think, "His numbers are in the tank, it is time to attack" if he/she is a Democrat or "His numbers are in the tank, it is time to hedge on my support for him" if he/she is a Republican?

Chris Cillizza: Members of Congress (of both parties) are careful poll watchers.

As President Bush's numbers plummeted in this summer and fall, Democrats grew more and more emboldened to attack him on his handling of the war among other issues.

Similarly, Republicans began to distance themselves from Bush with several (Reps. Anne Northup of Kentucky and J.D. Hayworth of Arizona jump to mind) saying they would prefer if the president stayed away from their congressional districts.

With the president seemingly on the mend in public opinions surveys, his fellow Republicans are likely to adopt a wait and see approach toward him for the next month or so. But, if polls come out in February and March showing Bush struggling, expect vulnerable GOP House Members and Senators to make sure voters know they don't support him on every issue.

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Troy, Mich.: Why the reluctance on the part of the MSM to poll the public on IMPEACHMENT?

Chris Cillizza: The Post's pollster -- Richard Morin -- discussed that question at length yesterday in his own online chat. I recommend you read the whole thing if you haven't already.

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washingtonpost.com: Richard Morin's Live Online

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Bayonne, N.J.: You're right when you say that the President's poll numbers are an important story because they reflect how the president is seen in the eyes of the public. But do you see the possibility that if the press dedicates too much time to the president's popularity, it could deprive the public of coverage of real issues - coverage that the public would need to form opinions of the president in the first place?

Chris Cillizza: I think that questions poses a false choice. It assumes that a newspaper can cover either polling or policy. I think at the Post we do a great job of doing both simultaneously.

There is no question that in order for people to form opinions about the president, the Congress or other public figures, they need to be armed with the facts about what they believe in and why. The Post does that everyday with detailed analysis of the president's plan in Iraq, the struggles in Congress to pass a budget bill etc.

But, I also think it is worthwhile and important to cover how people are responding to the various messages they are receiving. That's why we poll. To get a sense of what is important to people at the moment and why.

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Ellicott City, Md.: How big do you see the Abramoff story getting, and any wild speculation as to how many pols (on both sides of the aisle) will be taken down? Is the media really "excited" about this story?

Chris Cillizza: The Abramoff story remains a "Washington" story for now but has the possibility of growing significantly before the 2006 midterm elections.

In a recent Diageo/Hotline poll 72 percent had never heard of Jack Abramoff; of those that recognized his name six percent felt favorably to him while nine percent felt unfavorably. Not exactly numbers to build a national campaign around.

That doesn't mean, however, that Abramoff will not be an issue in specific races or will not be a large part of the "culture of corruption" argument Democrats hope to make in the coming months.

If you're looking for an "Abramoff effect" keep an eye on Montana Sen. Conrad Burns' (R) re-election race and Ohio Rep. Bob Ney (R).

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Washington, D.C.: If Abramoff decides to plea and testify, does conventional wisdom hold that he would try to bolster the White House claims that he was an 'equal money dispenser,'and try to spare DeLay and others from further scrutiny, or do the facts (dollars) speak for themselves?

Chris Cillizza: There is no doubt that Greenberg Traurig (Abramoff's former lobbying firm) as well as a number of Abramoff's tribal clients gave money to Democrats as well as Republicans.

But, Abramoff himself only donated to Republicans and all of the allegations of potential wrongdoing that have been made public so far center on GOP members.

In a bit of smart politics, Republicans are working to muddy the waters on the Abramoff issue, using the donations made by GT and the tribes as evidence. But, for now, Abramoff appears to be largely a Republican problem.

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Washington, D.C.: Speaking of polls, is there a poll going in the field anytime soon that will test the administration assertion that Americans believe these wiretaps are in the best interest of the country? People on both sides say that they are acting the way the American public expects them to act, either in defending the nation or in protecting civil liberties, and I am curious who really has the public on their side.

Chris Cillizza: Lots and lots (and lots) of questions about the timing of the wiretap story and the polls we are discussing.

The news that Bush had authorized the monitoring of phone calls and emails of U.S. citizens and foreign nationals without first obtaining a warrant broke Thursday night (Dec. 15). By Friday, most national newspapers had covered the story.

So, the Post poll, which was in the field Dec. 15-18, and the CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey (Dec. 16-18) both overlapped with the wiretaps.

Because the news was so fresh, it's unlikely that either poll fully reflects how that news was received by the American public. And, with no polls likely to be conducted between now and the new year, it will be difficult to gauge the impact immediately.

If this story stays at the top of the news (and I suspect it will), polls conducted in early January could serve as a barometer for how the issue is playing in voters' minds.

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Springfield, Va.: Although Bush's poll numbers are low, numbers for the Democrats on most national security and terrorism issues are just as bad or worse. If Iraq and the WOT stay central issues in the 2006 election, aren't the Democrats giving up a golden opportunity to pick up seats and maybe the HOR? How can they shift the focus back to scandal and Katrina goofs where they can clean house?

Chris Cillizza: Wow. After deciphering this acronym-laden questions (WOT= war on terror; HOR= House of Representatives), I think I am ready to provide an answer.

One of the most stunning elements in the Post poll was that 74 percent of people said Democrats did not have a "clear plan for handling the situation in Iraq."

So, while people are still dissatisfied with the way President Bush is dealing with Iraq, there is no sense that Democrats have any viable alternative.

That will need to change if Democrats hope to make gains next November since Iraq is regularly polls as the most important issue on voters' minds.

Democrats have pledged to unveil an agenda of their own on domestic and foreign issue early in 2006. How their plans especially in regard to Iraq are received will be a telling indicator of whether they have any real chance of winning back majorities in the House and Senate.

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Atlanta, Ga.: For what it's worth, I like the way you all (Washington Post chat hosts) have handled the "impeachment poll" question. I'm a Democrat who thinks Bush is playing fast and loose with law.

Chris Cillizza: Thanks, but the kudos really go to Richard Morin and Claudia Deane -- the Post's resident polling gurus.

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Huntington Beach, Calif.: Judging from today's paper, Ney appears to be toast, and will most likely forego the embarrassment of seeking re-election. You might be the only person left in Washington who has not agreed to testify against him. (Call them Ney-sayers)

Chris Cillizza: Bob Ney certainly appears to be in the crosshairs of the federal investigation into Abramoff. He continues to insist he did nothing wrong but Democrats are optimistic they can beat him in 2006, using the Abramoff allegations as a cudgel.

At the moment, Democrats' best chance at a pickup in the seat appears to be if Ney decided to seek re-election. If he bows out, the district has a strong Republican tilt and would likely elect a GOP replacement.

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Wondering...:

Hmm...Bush started spying on us about the same time the washingtonpost.com required registration to use the site...is there a connection?

Chris Cillizza: For the conspiracy theorists among the questioners....

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Alexandria, Va.: Any guesses as to when Fitzgerald issues "something", if he does at all? After the holidays?

Chris Cillizza: Trying to figure out Patrick Fitzgerald's next move is a fool's errand. He doesn't appear to be driven by the normal news cycles, which would prohibit any major news coming out this week or next.

So, while I wouldn't expect anything out of the special prosecutor for the remainder of 2005, it's impossible to rule it out.

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Chris Cillizza: That's all I have time for today. I'm WAY behind in my Christmas shopping and there are many Fix posts to write before I sleep.

Enjoy the holiday and I look forward to more political banter in the new year!

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Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


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