Post Politics Hour

Dan Balz
Washington Post Chief Political Reporter
Monday, December 4, 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 chief political reporter Dan Balz was online Monday, Dec. 4, at 11 a.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

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


Dan Balz: Good morning and welcome. It's a busy week. The Iraq Study Group will issue its report on Wednesday, Congress comes back to wrap up its work, there are confirmation hearings for Robert Gates and lots of 2008 presidential stirrings and there are lots of questions already in the queue.


Baltimore, Md.: Good morning Mr. Balz. My question is why are Senate Dems signaling a cordial confirmation for Mr Gates? It is obvious from Bush's rhetoric, that booting Rumsfeld out will not change much. My fear is that Gates will prove as much of an obstructionist as his predecessor albeit in a non confrontational Gonzales way. There is nothing to indicate that Gates will be anymore forthcoming now than he was 20 years ago.

Dan Balz: There are several questions relating to the Gates hearings. Let me try to deal with several issues raised.

We'll see how cordial the hearings turn out to be. I would assume some tough questioning, even if there seems little doubt that Mr. Gates will be confirmed.

Whether he will be an obstructionist is another question. Gates obviously serves at the pleasure of the president, which means the president still will be making the ultimate decisions. Having watched Secretary Rumsfeld, Gates may seek a different relationship with the uniformed military and with Congress. But you raise a good point.


Bowie, Md.: If the President refuses to take the recommendations of Jim Baker, will Congress take action? Will they take action even if the President follows Baker's advice? If you think they will take action, what will Congress do?

Dan Balz: Expectations for the impact of the Iraq Study Group may have gotten out of hand. This is a distinguished group and its members will have the capacity to push their recommendations once they are issued. Recall how Lee Hamilton and Tom Kean pushed their 9/11 report and put pressure on the White House and Congress to act, but recall also their limited success.

Our reporting has indicated that the ISG will call for removal of combat troops from Iraq by early 2008, but subject to commanders' evaluation of the situation on the ground. That may satisfy both sides -- or neither. Democrats in Congress will have to decide how aggressive to be in pushing for removal of U.S. troops.


LaVale, Md.: If both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama decide to run for president what does that do for the campaigns of the people like Vilsack, Biden, Bayh and Kerry? Are they just in it in case the two elephants in the room stumble, the way Dean did last time?

Dan Balz: There is all kinds of buzz right now about Senators Clinton and Obama for obvious reasons, but presidential nomination fights rarely play out as predicted. If you were Tom Vilsack, Joe Biden, Evan Bayh, John Edwards, Chris Dodd, Wes Clark, even John Kerry, you would say to yourself that Clinton and Obama look good now but by next year they may not look so good. Last year at this time, two Virginians -- Democrat Mark Warner and Republican George Allen -- were seen as potential formidable candidates for their parties' nominations. Now they're on the sidelines: one voluntarily, the other involuntarily.

Obviously Senator Clinton brings tremendous assets to a 2008 race, but also the big question of whether she can win a general election, given the fact that she remains a divisive figure in American politics. Senator Obama looks very attractive now but has never really run a race like this. Either or both could stumble and in that case, the others could emerge.


Logansport, Ind.: Good morning Dan, and thank you for chatting with us.

My question concerns Congress- what is the cause of the 109th Congress abdicating their duties by shutting down early this year? I read in the Indianapolis Star Sunday edition quoting Congressman Pence saying: "We are tired and probably will not do much beyond this week." Tired? Come on, these people have only worked something like eighty days or so this year and they are tired? How about they switch places with those of us who DO go to work everyday to make sure our families have food on the table and a roof over our heads!

Dan Balz: They may be tired but more likely is the reality that with the Democrats set to take over, there is little incentive for agreement on anything controversial. So Republicans will pass a continuing resolution, the Senate will try to get Bob Gates confirmed and everyone will go home for the holidays and get ready for next year.


Memphis, Tenn.: President Bush has seemed to indicate this past week that he is dis-inclined to go along with what leaks from the Baker-Hamilton Iraq study group will propose. Increasing, Republicans seem to think that "staying the course" will get them another thumpin' in the 2008 elections and also seem to be abandoning Bush's (or is it Cheney's) stay the course policy. So let's say that after the Iraq study group releases its official report that Bush just flat out refuses to go along. Then what? What exactly are our options in dealing with a Commander in Chief that refuses to respond to the will of just about everyone else? Can America survive 2 years of flat out disagreement between the Executive Office and everyone else (not just in this country but the world)?

Dan Balz: I wouldn't assume the president will flat-out reject the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. National Security Adviser Steve Hadley said on the talk shows yesterday that there are likely to be changes in policy in a matter of weeks. The leaked memo from Don Rumsfeld that was first published by the New York Times lays out a whole series of possible changes, some of them significant. The president can read the election returns and no change in policy is no long acceptable. So now the question is whether those changes will be as significant as Democrats want to see.


New York, N.Y.: Good morning, Dan, and thanks for taking questions. I'd like your thoughts on something I heard on C-Span over the weekend. Larry Sabato, of U.Va. political science dept., when introducing James Carville during a recent event, said he admired Carville for refusing to work for the Clinton administration after being instrumental in Clinton's election. Sabato said that he wished 'other' political advisors would have done the same thing, to demonstrate their understanding that campaigning is different from governing. Sabato was clearly referring to Karl Rove, and maybe others? I can't help thinking that this has been a major problem with the Bush administration -- esp. with Iraq policy, which often seems calibrated to political concerns.

Dan Balz: Karl Rove certainly is controversial, given the role he plays in the White House. But I wouldn't attribute Iraq policy to him. The architects of the policy reside elsewhere in the White House and the government. That doesn't mean Rove hasn't supported that policy and tried to use it for political gains -- which were successful in 2002 and 2004 but notably unsuccessful in 2006.


Cincinnati, Ohio: OK, Dan, you were in Iowa at the kickoff of the Vilsack campaign. Did it feel like you were witnessing the start of a real dark-horse candidacy like a Jimmy Carter in 1975, or perhaps another no-hope wannabe like Lamar Alexander in 1995?

Dan Balz: Well, I wasn't there for Carter's 1976 launch, although I was there for Alexander's. The opening of a presidential campaign looks pretty much the same for all candidates, save for the amount of press coverage they get. Vilsack got decent coverage but the New York Times was notably absent from the Mount Pleasant launch of Vilsack's campaign.

Vilsack has many attributes. He is a smart guy, well experienced, has played nationally through the Democratic Governors Association, the National Governors Association and the Democratic Leadership Council. And he has been a darkhorse before, so he's familiar with running from behind.

The big question he faces is money. If he cannot raise the money, he'll have trouble competing with the other bigger names in the field.


Rolla, Mo.: Just to stir it up a little, how about the prospect of a Lieberman nomination to the U.N. to replace Bolton, and the senatorial fallout.

Dan Balz: Why not? Then Republican Gov. Jodi Rell could appoint his successor, presumably a Republican, and the Senate would be 50-50 again. Can you imagine the reaction to that?

There was some speculation that the president would appoint him as Defense Secretary to succeed Rumsfeld, but obviously passed on that one.


Claverack, N.Y.: If conventional wisdom is a senator can't get elected president, why are eight of them running? And what fools are giving them thousands of dollars to do it?

Dan Balz: Well, they all look at John F. Kennedy and say it can happen, even if it doesn't usually happen. But you're right: Americans have been more inclined to entrust the presidency to a governor than a Senator.

There are several governors likely to run. Among Democrats, in addition to Vilsack, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson would like to be president. Among Republicans, outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is now seen as a serious rival to Arizona Sen. John McCain. Also, outgoing Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and outgoing New York Gov. George Pataki have been looking at running.

But it's the senators who start with more star power: Clinton, McCain, Obama, etc.


Princeton, N.J.: I think even Joe Lieberman realizes that turning the Senate over to the Republicans would be the end of his political career.

Dan Balz: No doubt you're right about that.


Atlanta, Ga.: What do you think of Sam Brownback's influence, does he remind a lot of primary voters of kind of what is missing in the field? He's not going to win, but he might appeal to certain demographics within the GOP: evangelicals, maybe devout Catholics, southern culturally conservative women, etc.

Dan Balz: Sen. Brownback signaled this morning that he's likely to run for president. He's a serious person, principled, highly conservative. He will attract a following among evangelical Christians and pro-life activists, but that certainly isn't enough to win the nomination as you suggest. The question is whether he is running to advance the issues he cares most passionately about or is running in a way that seeks to reach a more diverse constituency.


Saint Paul, Minn.: Here's another dark horse-- Al Gore.

What are the chances? How much has 'An Inconvenient Truth' recast him in a better light? Could we see another Clinton/Gore ticket?

Dan Balz: How about Al Gore? He has been pretty clear for some time that he is not likely to run in 2008. Some Democrats clearly would like him to jump in, but he's not been taking any of the steps that others have taken and eventually that will make it virtually impossible for him to get in, unless everyone else stumbles along the way. Maybe he is planning a very late entry.


Los Angeles, Calif.: From a Dem who wants to win.

I don't think there is any prevailing wisdom which will keep Clinton from running. However, I just know in my heart of hearts that she is not the candidate. Too much baggage together with her obvious discomfort in the spotlight are crippling for her.

But what has to happen before she decides to 86 the campaign and get back to being a very effective senator--who shines brightest in investigation at congressional committee? And possibly even become a Supreme Court Justice someday.

Dan Balz: Assuming she runs, what has to happen is that someone else will have to defeat her in the primaries. Then she could return to the Senate and resume her career as an effective senator. Your doubts are shared by many other Democrats, but others have to emerge as true rivals and then survive what will be an arduous campaign.


Brussels, Belgium: Hi Dan, Hillary Clinton's team seems to suggest that if she can win upstate NY, she can win non-Democratic areas around the country. Is that too simplistic? Can you really say that voters view votes for the U.S. Senate and for the Presidency the same?

Dan Balz: Hello Brussels,

Winning upstate New York in a Senate reelection campaign is not like winning Arkansas or Kentucky in a presidential election. But Sen. Clinton showed over the past six years a dogged determination to devote time and effort to upstate and it did pay dividends. Her strategists hope that with the same kind of effort -- albeit in a compressed time frame -- she can persuade Red State voters to see her in a different light.


Oxford, Miss.: It's worth repeating that at this time in 1990 no one had any idea who Bill Clinton was except for the twenty-three people who remembered him as the longwinded airbag who introduced Dukakis at the 1988 convention.

The point being, "presumptive nominee" is a pretty meaningless label 14 months before the first caucus and primary.

Dan Balz: That's a good reminder to everyone who speculates so feverishly and with such certitude about who will be a good candidate and who will not.


Portland, Ore.: How long a time window is there for the new Congress before the 2008 presidential election stops everything?

I can see Iraq policy changes continuing, because that's pretty much up to the executive branch, but won't Congress effectively shut down when the presidential race starts?

Dan Balz: You're right that at some point the presidential race will bring effective action in Congress to a standstill, but with Democrats assuming power in January, there will be an opportunity for Congress and the White House to see if there is enough of a working relationship to get some things done. On foreign policy, the president has the power and the capacity to affect events until he leaves office.


Hilly-Billy: Clinton? Very simple...

1988- Bush

1992- Clinton

1996- Clinton

2000- Bush

2004- Bush

2008- Clinton?

If she wins, we can finally stop pretending to be a democracy and own up to being an elected aristocracy. We the people get to vote between elite families who got where they are though connections.

Won't that be a relief. We can finally give up that whole "self-governance" annoyance and get back to American Idol.

Dan Balz: And what if Jeb Bush is the Republican's vice presidential nominee in 2008 and then decides to run in 2012? Maybe something will break the cycle. That's just one of many reasons 2008 should be so interesting.


Manassas, Va.: Won't the Republican primary end up being John Cain vs. a Conservative Alternative? If so, does National Review's blatant promotion of Mitt Romney put him over the top?

Dan Balz: Gov. Romney is getting a lot of attention right now as a serious rival to Sen. McCain. But McCain's team will not cede the conservative mantle to Romney, who has changed his views on abortion over the years. The key to winning is to be conservative enough to attract support across the GOP coalition but to be seen as mainstream enough to win a general election.


New Orleans, La.: Can the Republicans win the Presidency in '08 if Bush continues his stay the course strategy?

Dan Balz: Not if things are going badly. That was the message from the 2006 campaign, which is why there will be policy changes. The question is whether those changes bring positive results and if they don't, what next. All the presidential candidates would like to see the Iraq issue resolving itself before the 2008 election really arrives, but that may be a wish that won't be fulfilled.

Thanks to everyone for participating today. We're out of time but keep checking in at 11 every morning for more political talk.

Have a great day.

Dan Balz


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