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Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Congressional Reporter
Friday, September 29, 2006; 11:00 AM

Don't want to miss out on the latest in politics? Start each day with 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 Congressional reporter Jonathan Weisman was online Friday, Sept. 29, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest political news and The Post's coverage of politics.

Political analysis from Post reporters and interviews with top newsmakers. Listen live on Washington Post Radio or subscribe to a podcast of the show.

The transcript follows.

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Jonathan Weisman: Hello everyone. We're allegedly watching the last day of Congress before the campaigns, and it's as exciting as watching microwave popcorn. So let's turn to your questions and try to be entertaining.

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Rockville, Md.: I guess it is safer to make political hay of the NIE than it is to actually read it. But is that safe? What are the odds that the public will catch anyone misrepresenting it?

Jonathan Weisman: Trust me, the only people who will actually read the NIE have already made up their mind about its conclusions. For the rest of America, the distillations by the media and the quotes of the politicians will shape the understanding of its contents greatly.

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Va.: I'm wondering why no one has picked up on this story (other than The Nation, which I admittedly don't know much about):

Beyond Macaca: The Photograph That Haunts George Allen , ( The Nation, Aug. 29, 2006 )

Also, I'm a Virginian, and I've been a Virginian since birth. I don't understand why apparent racism isn't a problem for so many of my fellow citizens. Quite frankly, it's a deal-breaker to me - and it should be a deal-breaker in politics everywhere in this day and age.

Jonathan Weisman: I would take issue with your premise. In many stories, the Post and others have talked about Allen's troubled past on these issues, from the noose he kept in his office to the confederate flag. If it were not for these older stories, the current flurry of news would not have the sticking power it does.

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Madrid, Spain: Do American politicians care at all what the rest of the world thinks of their actions? On top of the multiple wars your country has started and aided in the past several years, you now have a president and legislature that has enacted torture into law. Many of us outside the U.S., who previously looked up to your country, have nothing but contempt for it now. We've lived with terrorism in Europe far longer than you have in the U.S. and we've never contemplated using torture. To see the effects of your policies on us, just look to see how anti-American politicians are gaining in popularity here. I went to university in the states and it makes me sad to see what your country has become. Is there anyone in the U.S. who even notices what the rest of the world thinks?

Jonathan Weisman: I am glad you have written in, Madrid. I fear that U.S. politicians, especially just weeks before an election, care nothing about the rest of the world's opinions and everything about the perceived opinions of the sliver of Americans they are trying to mobilize to the polls. That said, I think Americans do care. In poll after poll, they say they understand that the country's standing in the world has sunk to new lows, and they blame the president for it. The U.S. standing in the world has a lot to do with the misgivings that our citizens have for the direction of the country and the leadership of George W. Bush.

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London, UK: Maybe it's because I'm in the UK at the moment and can only read paper MSM (i.e. no CNN, CSPAN) but it seems like everyone is ignoring Inhofe's remarks regarding global warming. I know CNN did a piece that Inhofe refuted, but I haven't heard/seen it talked about anywhere else. Am I missing it or is just getting pushed to the backburner?

Jonathan Weisman: No, you would not be seeing much about it here either. Frankly, Jim Inhofe has been denying global warming in vociferous terms for a long time. It isn't really news that he has repeated his oft-stated beliefs. When he was up for the chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, his views on global warming briefly became an issue. He took over the committee anyway, and his views have not changed, nor has the committee done anything to combat what he calls a hoax.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Ken Mehlman has been quoted as saying "Abramoff is someone who we don't know a lot about. We know what we read in the paper."

Yesterday The Washington Post reported on a congressional investigation that Mehlman used his influence to help Abramoff. This seems to be another example of the Bush team lying. Do you or any of your colleagues have any plans on pressing Mehlman for a clarification of what he has said and what the email evidence from the Congressional investigation shows?

Jonathan Weisman: You may have noticed that Susan Schmidt, who led the Pulitzer Prize winning team that broke the Abramoff scandal, wrote the story you refer to. That story broke very late ahead of the release of the House committee report today. You can bet she will follow it. Sue does not much like to be lied to.

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Beaumont, Tex.: In all this discussion of creating legal mechanisms to detain and try "terrorists" I hear no mention of perhaps the most fundamental principle of our system of justice: the presumption of innocence. Why are lawmakers--and the American public, for that matter--showing so little concern for this vital concept?

Jonathan Weisman: We have tried to be sure to refer to presumed or alleged or accused terrorists, but you are right, the politicians have shown no such reticence. In the House and Senate debates, supporters of the tribunals bills routinely have said, "We're not talking about ordinary Americans here. We're talking about the worst of the worst." Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) did give a floor speech saying these are not terrorists, they are people who have been accused of terrorism. But such niceties have been few and far between.

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Washington, D.C.: Jonathan, nice to see your true liberal colors showing through with your responses along with question choices. But hey, that's The Washington Post for ya.

Have a good day!

Jonathan Weisman: I answer the questions as they come. Please tell me what liberal response you are referring to.

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Baltimore, Md.: As part of his Southern-boy image, George Allen apparently chews tobacco. I've seen a couple stories trying to surface about him spitting at people he doesn't agree with.

Have you ever seen him spit chaw?

Jonathan Weisman: I haven't personally. The spitoons in the Senate chamber are now just for show.

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Va. again: No, no - you disagreed with my premise - but misunderstood my premise. I don't understand why The Post hasn't picked up on the story that I linked to - a story from the Nation about Allen's links to a white supremacist group. I've heard a lot about macaca, the noose, the flag, etc, but nothing about his coziness with the CCC.

Jonathan Weisman: Our Virginia political staff has been handling the Allen coverage. I will refer your question on. I remember when the CCC became an issue with Trent Lott. You can bet it will become an issue with Sen. Allen.

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Ames, Iowa: I saw a poll that indicated 56% of the American people do not support the use of torture. So why do politicians think this issue is a winner for Republicans? I would think a Democrat who stated the issue in bold terms, graphically describing the techniques Bush et. al. want to use, would ably rebuke Republican criticism.

Jonathan Weisman: I have been baffled by the Democrats' response on the detainees issue. Republicans are openly saying Democrats are voting to coddle terrorists and put terrorists' rights over American safety. Democrats don't seem to want to play that game. I'm waiting for the first Democratic candidate to say "Rep. X voted to allow torture." The target of the attack will say it's not true, but since when did truth govern political attack ads?

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Washington, D.C.: I wasn't that concerned with the "detainee" bill passed by our Congress until Democracy Now on 89.3 FM here in D.C. focused my attention and via its two guests this morning, noted that unless you are a U.S. citizen, you may be pretty much detained for anything. Is that correct? Did I hear that right?

Jonathan Weisman: There is a section broadening the definition of enemy combatant and allowing indefinite detention. It has a lot of civil libertarians very worried.

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Cleveland, Ohio: I heard that Kinky Friedman the independent governor (or at least one of them) in Texas had a terrible week. What happened?

Jonathan Weisman: I guess you heard about fallout from his comments on the legalization of marijuana. It didn't fly in Texas. If anyone else has been keeping up with the Kinky campaign, feel free to post.

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Beaufort, S.C.: Why did McCain, Graham and Warner completely cave in to Bush's demands on the treatment of suspected terrorists?

Jonathan Weisman: They took one big stand, insisting that the bill not specifically alter obligations under the Geneva Convention. The White House found a way around it, giving all parties the chance to claim victory and the dissident senators jumped. I think they have been surprised how thoroughly their efforts have been portrayed as a defeat at the hands of the White House. But they were under enormous pressure from Republican leaders in the House and Senate to come up with a deal and fast. Remember, last year, when McCain had his first showdown with the White House over torture, he had the entire Senate, including Senate Majority Leader Frist behind him. This time, he was going against House Republicans and their leaders, the White House and a majority of Senate Republicans, including his own leadership.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: "I'm waiting for the first Democratic candidate to say "Rep. X voted to allow torture."

Are you kidding me? And when that happens you and your colleagues will dutifully report how the Reps have charged the Dems with being soft on terrorism and wanting to side with the terrorists. There isn't one member of congress who wants to help the terrorists. Whenever the Reps are politicizing the issues the analysis should include some evidence of the Reps accusations.

Jonathan Weisman: This is a political chat. We have written a lot on the substance of the issue, but now comes the political season. Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) is already running ads against her Democratic rival, saying he would rather make the National Security Agency file paperwork than intercept terrorist phone calls. It's patently false. Current law allows the NSA to get wiretapping warrants after the fact. Chris Murphy, her opponent, has a response ad, saying Johnson's charge is untrue, and besides, she's sided with the president on Iraq. All I am saying is, I am waiting for a Chris Murphy to try to take a Nancy Johnson to task for her actual votes, to authorize warrantless wiretapping and to give the president his detainees legislation.

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Alexandria, Va.: Premise: Bush is to Iraq what Johnson was to Vietnam - at least as far as legacy is concerned. Care to comment?

Jonathan Weisman: Difference, Johnson was wracked with doubt over Vietnam and ultimately did not run for re-election. Bush shows no doubts whatsoever and was re-elected, even after it was clear his premise for invasion was wrong and his war was not going so well.

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Washington, D.C.: Your wrote today "...a prominent Democratic polling firm tried to raise alarms yesterday with the release of focus group findings... that attacks on Democrats for opposing any efforts to stop terrorists...were highly effective." Despite these warnings, you also report that Sen. Reid said it was "beyond (his)ability to comprehend" how a member of Congress could be accused of supporting terrorism.

This situation is a little like Rice and Bush ignoring intelligence warnings that bin Laden was planning to attack with planes. Despite Bush's non-stop speeches over the last three weeks detailing all the ways in which Democrats can't be trusted to protect against terrorists, the Democratic "leadership" apparently aren't going to explain themselves or fight back. Can you explain what the Democrats think their passivity will accomplish; other than to allow Bush and the Republicans to completely assassinate their characters in order to keep one party rule humming along?

Jonathan Weisman: I'm as amazed as you are. The Democrats keep saying the Republicans did it to them in 2002 and 2004 and they're going to do it again in 2006. Yet they say it won't work. I'm not so sure.

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Washington, D.C.: Your wrote today "...a prominent Democratic polling firm tried to raise alarms yesterday with the release of focus group findings... that attacks on Democrats for opposing any efforts to stop terrorists...were highly effective." Despite these warnings, you also report that Sen. Reid said it was "beyond (his)ability to comprehend" how a member of Congress could be accused of supporting terrorism.

This situation is a little like Rice and Bush ignoring intelligence warnings that bin Laden was planning to attack with planes. Despite Bush's non-stop speeches over the last three weeks detailing all the ways in which Democrats can't be trusted to protect against terrorists, the Democratic "leadership" apparently aren't going to explain themselves or fight back. Can you explain what the Democrats think their passivity will accomplish; other than to allow Bush and the Republicans to completely assassinate their characters in order to keep one party rule humming along?

Jonathan Weisman: I'm as mystified as you. The Democrats keep saying the Republicans did it to them in 2002 and 2004 and they will do it again in 2006. Yet, this time, Dems say, it won't work. I'm not so sure.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Jonathan...are you worried about the validity of the upcoming elections because of the recent problems with electronic voting and tampering issues? It seems that this is part of another rush job by the Rep Congress. Remember the HAVA? I seem to recall how the Dems wanted to legislate electronic voting with verifiable paper trails and the Reps said it was unnecessary and expensive.

Jonathan Weisman: I don't know what to make of it. Obviously, there were huge problems in the Maryland primaries with the electronic voting system. The state's Republican governor is calling for a return to paper ballots and exhorting supporters to vote absentee. I'm not convinced of the conspiracy issue, but as a Clinton White House lawyer once told me, never ascribe to ill will what you can ascribe to incompetence.

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Ashland, Va.: I understand that when Bush travels to other countries, he spends as little time as possible there or with the leaders of those countries. Is it because he is so unsure of himself and his ability to speak to the problems with any authority? Listening to his 'off-the-cuff' or unedited statements is often embarrassing and just plain painful. I can't imagine him trying to converse with leaders who are more knowledgeable or astute than he.

Jonathan Weisman: I think he spends a lot of time with foreign leaders, but he very much isolates himself from foreign populations.

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Cleveland, Ohio: If Harold Ford, Jr. wins the senate race in TN, he'll only the fourth African-American senator I can remember (Brooke, Mosley-Braun, and Obama) and the first from south of the Mason Dixon line. This strikes me as a big deal. What's Ford's strategy? Does he downplay the "race" issue. Can he win?

Jonathan Weisman: A Harold Ford win WOULD be a very big deal -- the first African American senator from the South since reconstruction. His strategy has mirrored the strategy of all Democrats running for office in the south, not all black Dems running. He voted for Bush's military tribunals bill. He is portraying himself as tough on terror, pro-military and pro-homeland defense. He is not making race an issue, nor is his opponent, Corker. But you can bet it is an issue one way or the other, in Tennessee. The question is, will the white voters who will feel good about themselves by voting for a telegenic, moderate black candidate outnumber the white voters who just can't vote for an African American?

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Mannington, W. Va.: In regards to the earlier comment from Spain that anti-Americanism is at a new high. I would disagree. I lived in Europe when Ronald Reagan was president. There was a lot of anti-American sentiment then but is was suppressed somewhat because most Europeans realized that America and its military were the only things preventing the Soviets from expanding. Now that the Soviet threat is gone, they feel more at liberty to openly criticize our policies and way of life.

Jonathan Weisman: Interesting. I lived in Europe during the Reagan years as well, and can attest to the anti-Americanism of the era. But as I remember, a lot of Europeans just laughed at Ronald Reagan and portrayed him as a bit of a buffoon. Now, if polls are to be believed, they actually fear President Bush.

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Reaction to Woodward's book: Jonathan:

It appears the administration is ready to dump on Woodward's new book as just another political hack job in a campaign season. Funny, they didn't seem to do that to the last one in '04, did they?

Jonathan Weisman: I assume the Post will be excerpting Mr. Woodward's book. I was a little surprised not to see a big, front-page story on it this morning.

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Indianapolis: I read a few days ago that the Republicans are rolling out a series of television add attacking personally their Democratic opponents. Meanwhile. the same article describes the Democrat's ads as issue oriented. The Republicans' tactic is not pleasant, but evidently it works. How many times must the Democrats get slimed before they answer in kind? My representative, Julia Carson, always manages to stick the knife in her opponent's gut in the last few weeks of the campaign. She did it again last week. The Democrats need more gut fighters. Rep. Carson should give a clinic.

Jonathan Weisman: My colleague at the Post, Jim VandeHei, wrote the story a few weeks ago -- that the focus of GOP attack ads will be very personal. And they have been. It's too early to know how effective they will be, but in one case, they seem to really have worked. Heather Wilson of New Mexico was supposed to be one of the ripest Democratic targets. But she has really gotten into the face of Patsy Madrid, her Democratic opponent and the attorney general of the entire state. The race has been much more about Madrid's record as AG than Wilson's record as a Republican House member.

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Washington: 11 Democratic Senators voted for the torture bill. 34 Democratic Congressmen voted for the detainee /torture bill. The justification goes that they did so, so the Republicans would not call them soft on terrorism. this did not stop Bush, the very day the votes were made, from castigating the Democrats as soft on terror and as the cut and run party. Republicans will not change their tune based on the Dems votes.

Jonathan Weisman: Republicans were very upfront about that. They said they would feel no less constrained to attack a Democrat who voted for the bills if that Democrat supports his or her leaders, who opposed them. The question is, will the attacks work with voters if the candidate can just say, hey, I voted for the danged thing.

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Richmond, Va.: Is the GOP doing anything to let voters know that San Francisco liberal Nancy Pelosi, who is highly questionable on national security issues, will become Speaker of the House if the Democrats win in November? If she does assume that office, however, it will only serve to galvanize the Republicans for 2008. Americans will not have their social values set for them by a politician from San Francisco--and, my apologies to Tony Bennett and his great music--Americans never left their heart in San Francisco.

Jonathan Weisman: Oh yes, they are, especially to their base conservative voters. A new poll found that Republicans, by something like a 2-1 margin, know more about Pelosi than Democrats. It could be a very effective get-out-the-vote strategy.

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Parkville, Md.: How damaging to our Democracy do you think it is that so much of the political debate leading to elections typically takes the form of dueling 30 second TV commercials? Wouldn't it serve our Democracy best if broadcasters allowed an independent non-partisan group such as factcheck.org to offer a short analysis of the claims of each commercial every time it runs?

Jonathan Weisman: Voters have been complaining about political ads for decades, but they keep running for one reason: they work. Television news does not offer enough coverage of politics and newspaper readership is dwindling. Candidates believe the only way to get their message out is to pay for it on television.

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Sewickley, Pa.: Hello, Jonathan, and thank you for taking questions. It appears that the testimony of the former Iraq commanders before Senator Dorgan's committee early this week was a just a blip in terms of press coverage. As an avid watcher of military news, I was expecting shock waves. Their indictment of the conduct of the war was breathtaking. Is this a story that needs time to gain traction? What gives?

Jonathan Weisman: I covered it and wrote a bit, but I agree that it has not had much pop. Republicans dismissed the hearings as partisan, which they were. But I don't think you can say the same about the testimony. One problem, the Democrats loved what the generals had to say about the administration's screw-ups and Don Rumsfeld's incompetence, but they did not like what they had to say about the dire consequences of pulling out the troops. Publicizing the proceedings further may have been seen as a lose-lose by both parties.

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Cleveland, Ohio: Sherrod Brown is now a teeny tiny bit favored to win the Ohio Senate race. Gaze into your Conditional Crystal Ball. How would Paul Hackett fare today had he been the nominee?

Jonathan Weisman: I think Brown is more than a teeny bit favored, and I think Paul Hackett would not be doing as well. Brown is a very seasoned politician with good Ohio ties and a lot of experience getting out the vote. Hackett was a novice. Just look at Ned Lamont in Connecticut. He could motivate the most partisan Democrats, but he has consistently lagged Lieberman ever since. There is something to be said for a candidate that can appeal beyond the base.

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Political News: Newspaper readership is declining, but Internet news reading is growing. Why doesn't the Post and other papers put more information about candidate's positions--the kind of in depth reporting that used to be in print--onto the Web?

I live in Maryland, and it's very difficult to find substantive reporting on the candidates in the Senate and Governorship races. We hear about the television ads, but we see those ourselves! How about reporting on their voting records and putting it front and center on the Internet?

Jonathan Weisman: Good question. I think the Post's Web site is getting better and better at putting out the kind of depth you are looking for, but the medium is still new. We will get better still.

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Disgusted in Los Angeles: Do the Democrats have any inkling how disgusted many of their voters are with their level of passivity??

Jonathan Weisman: I think once again, they feel trapped between a base they do not want to disgust and the independent voters they fear turning off.

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New York, N.Y.: A scenario I don't hear much about, but that seems increasingly likely: what if the Republicans hold or even INCREASE their existing majorities? What would that means, especially, to the Democratic Party - would they finally just give up and go home?

Jonathan Weisman: It would be absolutely devastating, and it would shock us all. A lot of folks now do not believe the Democrats will take back either the House or Senate, but the working assumption is they will make gains. If they lose, the Democratic Party is lost.

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Free advice to the DNC: They should revive Ronald Reagan's old campaign question: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" Change it to "six years" and throw that in the faces of the Republicans. I'd like to hear their response.

Jonathan Weisman: Newt Gingrich offered perhaps the best slogan yet: "Had Enough?"

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Prescott, Aariz.: Jonathan-you mention that Sue Schmidt doesn't like being lied to. Well why would she go back and ask for more? Next time she is writing a story, why would she bother getting comment from Mehlman? He burned her. Make a rule, you lie to me, you lose your ability to get your point across in my story. I don't talk to you. Sounds like the way things work here in the real world. Liars lose business and credibility.

Jonathan Weisman: I think she is aware of that. Bob Ney's lawyer flat lied to her the other week when he said nothing was about to happen, the day before Ney announced his plea deal. We luckily ignored his advice and wrote the story anyway.

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Ashland, Va.: After watching the questionable ABC program, "The Path to 9/11," I wonder two things: What ever happened to Barbara Bodine, the embassy head in Yemen; and, why wasn't FBI Freah (spelling) mentioned for his part in backing Bodine? Thanks.

Jonathan Weisman: Dunno. Will ask.

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Jonathan Weisman: There are a ton of questions still in the cue. But my time is up. I'll catch you later and thanks much for participating.

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