Post Politics Hour

John F. Harris
Washington Post National Political Editor
Wednesday, February 22, 2006; 11:00 AM

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Washington Post National Political Editor John F. Harris was online Wednesday, Feb. 22, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest news in politics.

The transcript follows.

____________________ Thank you for joining us. This discussion will begin shortly.


Richmond, Va.: The President has not vetoed a single bill - presumably this will allow, among other things, building a bridge to nowhere, but will veto legislation that prohibits the UAE from running six major ports? Is this tone deaf or just unbelievably stupid?

John F. Harris: Good morning,

Sorry we have a late start this morning---the political staff (and its editor) were confused about who was taking the lead on today's chat.

Most of the questions already teed up this morning our about the port deal. I am learning a lot about this as we go along--many of your questions are also mine.

In this case, it is clear that President Bush feels very strongly that he is right. And a lot of his fellow Republicans do think his position is tone deaf and/or stupid.

Rep. Mark Foley, a Republican of Florida, even used precisely that phrase--"tone deaf"--in today's Post story about the deal.


Frederick, Md.: Good morning you really think the President will "go to the mat" related to the UAE concern administering selected U.S. ports? Historically, at what point does George W. Bush "cave"? Persons assumed that he would "push to the end" over the Harriet Miers nomination -- but he found "an out." How will he exit this firestorm -- and when?

John F. Harris: Well, it's unclear still to me whether he will have to "go to the mat"--or whether he has the appetite to do so.

Right now, Bush will either manage to quiet his own GOP allies on this issue, or he'll face a choice of how much he really wants to fight for this.

Your analogy to the Miers nomination seems apt. As in that case, many of the harshest words are coming from fellow conservatives.


British Columbia, Canada: Good morning. This may seem like a stupid question but I was curious as to how many votes in the House are needed to over-ride a Presidential veto? It would appear that this might be an issue concerning the pending port deal.

John F. Harris: Not stupid at all. Overriding a veto requires two-thirds of those present and voting.

I'd be surprised if it gets to this....I don't think Bush would veto if it's clear that there is not the support in his own party to sustain a veto.


Rolla, Mo.: While there may be substantive reasons that the port deal may be ok viewed in isolation, I think in the context of what we apparently have not done in port security over the past four years, this will not sell in red state America. If we were inspecting x% of all cargo containers, or knew that we had invested $x billion in port security, maybe this would fly.

John F. Harris: Your observation seems shrewd. This deal does seem likely to raise the larger issue of port security. This question has percolated over the years since 9-11--Democrats have been critical of the administration's record--but never really risen to first-tier prominence.


Detroit, Mich.: On Sunday, the Siena poll shows Condi Rice gaining support for a run in 2008, while Hillary Clinton seems to be losing support. Is this similar to what you are seeing inside D.C.?

John F. Harris: As it happens, most of the non-port questions today are Condi Rice questions. This speculation is fun, but count me as highly skeptical that she would be a presidential candidate in 2008.


Washington, D.C.: Wouldn't it be easier for a Middle East terrorist group to infiltrate Dubai World Ports (as opposed to a company based outside of the region) to obtain, for example, copies of the security procedures used at the ports it manages? While I realize that such spying was done routinely and successfully by the Soviets during the cold war, the Russians never attacked American civilians on US soil. The consequences of such a security breach today could be a lot more dire if this information got into the wrong hands. I just don't get the argument that its OK to subject the ports of Baltimore, Miami, New Orleans, New York, Newark and Philadelphia to this risk. Do you?

John F. Harris: With your question and several others I'm just going to post them without commentary from me--rather than fraudulently pretend that I have become an expert on port security in the past 24 hours.


Fort Myers, Fla.: Regarding the sale of ports and the UAE, doesn't anyone have a concern that virtually all the shipping west of the Mississippi would be affected? And that it would be catastrophic if our heretofore fine relations with a Middle Eastern country turned sour?

Our president says it's all been thoroughly checked out. I seem to remember similar certainty about Iraq's WMD status...

John F. Harris: another one.


Tallahassee, Fla.: What obligation does the U.S. have to allow the U.A.E. government to operate these ports...its seems that such a deal would give a major financial boost to the company, has the U.A.E. threatened to limit cooperation with docking of U.S. naval ships or limit other cooperation with the war on terror?

John F. Harris: I don't believe UAE has issued such threats, but Sen. John Warner raised this prospect in today's story--that if we stiff them, they would stiff us on docking rights and other cooperation.


Washington, D.C.: Good morning.

Do you think that Bush underestimated the fear-factor that his administration has worked hard to instill in the American people? I am surprised that he is so surprised that when constantly point to the dangers of the war and the world that he wouldn't expect fear to boil to the top.

John F. Harris: I believe they have plainly been surprised by the reaction to this. I notice that White House press secretary Scott McClellan reportedly said this morning that President Bush had not been briefed on the port deal until a couple days ago, after his administration had approved it.


Yardville, N.J.: Dana Milbank has been charged with "crossing the line" for appearing on MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" in hunters garb. Mr. Milbank's witty and original reporting provides readers with unique insights that straight reporting cannot. His sketch today on Alito demonstrates that there is indeed a line between observational judgments and opinion writing - it may be a fine line, but it is discernable. Bottom line - Dana Milbank uses humor/irony to help us see the truth - the essence of good journalism. Getting hung up about whether he should be called an opinion columnist seems like a silly debate. If the price for truth telling with flair & originality is an occasional "crossing the line", then so be it. Putting Dana Milbank in a straightjacket would be a real crime. And to be fair, he targets Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives -- I suspect that like myself, most readers/viewers giggle all the same.

John F. Harris: I am in total agreement with you about Dana's sketches. They are in the tradition of great observational writers like the late Mary McGrory. Unlike Mary, who was a pretty unabashed liberal, Dana does not bring an ideological orientation to his writing.

I also agree with you that sometimes it is a fine but discernable line between observation and opinion. (Incidentally, I do not usually edit his colleague Maralee Schwartz does. She would never want to put Dana in a strait jacket...though sitting next to Maralee I do notice she and Dana sometimes have robust discussions about where that "fine line" really is.)

If Dana had asked me, I would have suggested he not don costume for the Olbermann show, but I did not and do not think it is the end of the world.


Pasco, Wash.: Thanks for taking my question. On the ports deal, does The Post know what lobbying firms have been involved?

John F. Harris: Good question. I don't know yet.


Cincinnati, Ohio: So the real question: will the Democrats be smart enough to trumpet this issue, over and over and over again, with unity? Perhaps even propose boldly (even if it loses) that no foreign government should manage our port security. This is a big-time winner if they run with it, agree?

John F. Harris: I agree with what is implied by your question--that Democrats often are not as disciplined in speaking with one voice as Republicans often do. But that's because they often have legitimate and serious disagreements that are hard to muzzle.

My guess is that they won't be fully unified on this either. Probably some Democrats will agree with Bush's position that it is wrong to say the Brits can manage ports but not a Middle Eastern ally.


Washington, D.C.: Hmm. I'm rarely in agreement with the President, but I think he's right on this ports thing. Some ridiculously high percentage of American ports were ALREADY managed by foreign countries, and targeting this country just because it's in the Middle East strikes me as a little unfair and a little racist. Have we forgotten that terrorists are not countries? Some of them have been, gasp, American citizens.

John F. Harris: Here's the other side....a minority view in this morning's chat.


New York, N.Y.: Have you seen the list that a group called The White House Project has put out? It is a list of eight women for the presidency in 2008. They have the obvious, Hillary Clinton, Condi Rice, but also Mayor Shirley Franklin, Senators Hutchison, Collins and Snowe and Governors Sebelius and Napolitano. What do you think about this list? Are these women credible for the presidency?

John F. Harris: I have not seen the specific list you refer to, but I agree that these are serious people. In the cases of Collins and Snowe, I think they would have trouble because they are not as conservative as their party.


McLean, Va.: I was wondering if the warrantless wiretapping issue is now relegated to oblivion or is there a possibility that this issue will get additional scrutiny?

John F. Harris: We journalists have an obligation to keep our eyes on more than one story at a time. On that note, I think I probably should go to work and start finding out answers to the many good questions that have been raised here about the port story and others.

Thanks very much, and apologies for the abbreviated session.


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