Post Politics Hour

Peter Baker
Washington Post Congressional Reporter
Tuesday, February 20, 2007; 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 White House reporter Peter Baker was online Tuesday, Feb. 20, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest news in 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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Peter Baker: Good morning everyone. The president just swore in a new intelligence director, the vice president is traveling in Asia and the Senate, having decided not to decide anything, is on vacation. So let's get started.

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Indialantic, Fla.: There is another medical problem associated with treating Iraq veterans besides the Walter Reed outpatients. This Washington Post article on Pentagon medical record problems describes a similar problem of neglect of the returning GIs. There is a possibility one will take over the public interest and leave the other to die in Bureaucratistan. Does the whole treatment question have legs or is this just more "support the troops with $4 yellow magnets" action?

washingtonpost.com: Discussion: Recovering at Walter Reed (washingtonpost.com, today at noon ET)

Peter Baker: The series of articles in The Post in the past few days raised a lot of troubling points and was compelling journalism at its best. I'm not the best one to ask about them, but tune in at noon and our superstar writers, Dana Priest and Anne Hull, will address your questions.

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Yonkers, N.Y.: You posed a great question at the President's Press Conference -- and one that deserves an answer. My two questions to you: Will you ask the question again after the Libby trial is over? And why does the White House press corps laugh at every innocuous comment the President makes?

Peter Baker: A lot of questions on this topic today. Yonkers gets the prize for being most entrepreneurial in finding ways to submit his despite computer glitches -- thanks for your persistence. In answer to your questions, yes, I'll ask it again after the Libby trial is over if someone else doesn't answer it first. The president has ducked this topic in the past year or more by saying he didn't want to comment on an ongoing legal proceeding. I tried to get around that by focusing on three players who are not involved in any legal issues but he still chose to brush it off. If the trial ends in acquittal, he won't be able to cite legal matters anymore; if it ends in conviction, there presumably could be an appeal and he might cite that. As for laughing, well, these are serious times obviously and so anything that appears light can seem out of sync. But it doesn't mean that we don't take what's happening and what we're doing seriously.

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Houston: I am amazed at Congress working against the best interests of the United States. They have the same low rating as the President and they are not as smart as Bush because they have not figured out why. The American people voted for a plan in Iraq that would succeed and it appears that the Democrats choose to govern by opinion polls that may or may not be written to slant the outcome. I think that the newly elected Congressmen and women need not bother to get too comfortable in their offices as they will not be there for long. My question: Does Congress really think the American public will stand for a shutoff of funds to our troops in Iraq? And is there a Democrat who has a plan for America?

Peter Baker: The Democratic congressional leadership is under enormous pressure from the left to cut off funds for the war but is leery of doing anything so drastic at this point because it could look like they are undermining the troops. The strategy that Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her ally, John Murtha, are pursuing is meant to be more subtle than that -- pass the emergency war-spending bill that President Bush has requested but attach conditions to it such as requiring that military units meet certain standards for training, equipment and rest before being sent back to Iraq. In theory, that could restrict the president's ability to send more troops, so it's being called the "slow-bleed" strategy. Whether that would be more acceptable to the public is another question; I haven't seen any polling on that yet.

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Baltimore: Jack Murtha has proposed prohibiting redeployments of troops who have been home for less than a year. For all practical purposes that places a cap on the number of troops that can be in Iraq (assuming, I suppose, the number of troops in Korea and elsewhere remains constant). Do you know how large that effective "cap" is? Is it enough to reverse the current "surge" level of troops?

washingtonpost.com: Democrats Consider New Ways to Limit Iraq War (Post, Feb. 19)

Peter Baker: I don't personally know how that would play out in a "granular" sense, to use a word that's popular in the Pentagon these days. There may be some in our newsroom who have a better sense of the practical impact.

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Baltimore: There were surprisingly few Republican defections on the Iraq resolution, both in the House and the Senate. What held them down?

Peter Baker: It's a good question. Just 17 Republicans voted for the Democratic resolution in the House, far fewer than the 30 to 60 that had been predicted. Even accounting for the pre-vote expectations gamesmanship, where the Republicans tried to hype possible defections to make the eventual number look low, that was significantly fewer than neutral observers anticipated. The White House obviously was working behind the scenes to try to limit defections, as were Republican leaders. Some Republicans say that Speaker Pelosi and Rep. Murtha made a tactical mistake by announcing their funding restriction plan before the votes, in effect turning off some Republicans who might have been willing to embrace a non-binding resolution expressing opposition to the troop increase but did not want to be seen as signing up for the broader strategy that Democrats are advancing. The White House made the argument to Republicans that large numbers of defections on this vote would only encourage Pelosi and Murtha.

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Alexandria, Va.: Peter, I was wondering if you could add any reflection on how the President brusquely tossed aside your Plame question at the last press conference. Did you have another question in reserve, and do you think he would have let you ask it? What would you say to a viewer who might say you asked the question not to elicit information (you knew he would do something like this), but to make a political point out of his refusal to answer?

Peter Baker: Thank you for the question. You're right that I didn't expect him to necessarily answer the question, but hope springs eternal. There are times when a president doesn't want to confront certain issues and it's a journalist's responsibility to ask anyway. In this case we have a trial in federal court that has provided us sworn testimony that three members of his administration other than Scooter Libby leaked Valerie Plame's identity. None of those three is under legal investigation, so there's no reason in my mind not to answer the question about whether they were authorized to do that and what he thinks of it. I certainly wasn't trying to make a political point -- I actually just want to know the answer. As for another question, yes, I had several others and he promised to "recycle" me, but alas, by the time I could get the microphone back he had moved on to another reporter. So it goes.

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Washington: Speaking of the Bush press conference ... did you feel like a bad student being scolded by your teacher? The whole thing was just weird.

Peter Baker: No, not at all. There was a lot of buzz afterward about the president being mad or something, but I genuinely don't think that's the case. He just didn't want to answer the question and he didn't want to waste time with something he had decided in advance not to discuss. Fair enough, that's his choice. I don't take it personally, just as I don't think he takes it personally if we ask tough questions. That's the way it's supposed to work.

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"granular"?: Would you please define "granular"?

Peter Baker: Ah, better to leave it to my colleague Linton Weeks, who wrote a very interesting story on the term the other day. We'll try to post it following this answer.

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washingtonpost.com: Granularity: The Nitty-Gritty About This Particulate of Speech (Post, Feb. 7)

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Glenside, Pa.: The President has said he doesn't want to be pundit-in-chief, but could he for example steer consultants such as Ken Mehlman or Ed Gillespie towards a candidate?

Peter Baker: He could if he wanted, I'm sure. If we look at it that way, there have been some mixed signals so far. Mark McKinnon, the president's media strategist, has signed on with Sen. John McCain, and I think Nicolle Wallace, his former White House communications director, either has or may do so as well. On the other hand, Doro Bush Koch is hosting a fundraiser for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. And a bunch of Bush fundraisers have gone to a variety of camps. My understanding is that Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman intend to stay out of the primaries. Ed Gillespie at one point had signed on with then-Sen. George Allen, but obviously his presidential hopes have evaporated and now Gillespie is chairman of the Virginia Republican Party and may feel obligated to remain neutral.

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Atlanta: The editorials by York and Toensing your paper ran over the weekend basically stated the Fitzgerald investigation was much ado about nothing -- but you saw fit to use your only question to the President to ask about pardons and other leakers re: the Libby trial. Are the powers that be in the media trying to downplay the Libby trial? If so, who are they trying to protect and why?

washingtonpost.com: What the CIA Leak Case Is About (Post, Feb. 17)

washingtonpost.com: If You're Going to Charge Scooter, Then What About These Guys? (Post, Feb. 18)

washingtonpost.com: Victoria Toensing Discusses the Libby Trial (washingtonpost.com, today at 1 p.m.)

Peter Baker: The notion that there are "powers that be" across the media that get together and decide collectively how to treat a story would be funny if you saw how a news outfit really works. Honestly, there's no conspiracy. We're just not that organized. The two pieces you mention are opinion pieces; the departments that print them are completely separate from the news department. And no one has ever told me what question to ask at a news conference, I usually decide on the spot based on what had already been asked so far and what hasn't been.

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Newton, Iowa: Why doesn't Hillary Clinton simply defend her Iraq vote by saying that it was reasonable in the light of the intelligence lawmakers were given? They didn't know that evidence was faulty and untrue at the time of the vote. As the latter became obvious she changed her opinion, finally arriving at her decision to begin to redeploy troops within 90 days. How can she be criticized for that? It seems reasonable to me.

Peter Baker: Well, what's reasonable to you and a lot of people is a cop-out to others. There are a lot of folks in the Democratic Party who want her to admit that she was wrong, period, plain and simple, not to give a nuanced, complicated answer. Some would say they suspected all along the intelligence was faulty or hyped and question why she didn't. Others just want a pound of flesh. She and her advisers, on the other hand, are afraid of looking like Sen. John Kerry saying he was for it before he was against it. It's an interesting question because it's become the defining challenge of her very-young presidential campaign so far. And it may be that no answer she gives will ever totally satisfy everyone.

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Reading, Mass.: What is the White House position on the constitutionality of Congress putting restrictions on certain aspects of troop deployments for the Iraq War? Do they believe it is unconstitutional and that Congress only has power to cut off all or no funds?

Peter Baker: An excellent question and one I asked Tony Snow at a briefing last week. He said he wasn't able to answer right away because Rep. Murtha had just made his proposal public and the White House had not yet had a chance to see anything in legislative form. We'll keep pressing, though. It's a fascinating point.

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So it goes.: But why can't you folks agree up front between each other to not ask any other questions? The unwillingness to place getting to the truth, instead of getting to grandstand on camera is one of the major ways these politicos play you like cheap fiddles. You think they'd get away with this if the next "journalist" had not preened for the camera, and instead said "My question Mr. President? Why didn't you answer Mr. Baker's question?", etc.

Peter Baker: See my answer to Atlanta. Journalists from different news organizations simply don't get together and decide among themselves what the news is or what questions to ask. I actually think we ought to follow up each other a little more because then we can press to clarify issues that remain unclear. In fact, I thought we did that pretty well at the last news conference -- a lot of reporters did follow up each other's questions when it came to Iran and that helped get the president to elaborate more on an important topic.

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Old City:"The notion that there are "powers that be" across the media that get together and decide collectively how to treat a story would be funny if you saw how a news outfit really works. Honestly, there's no conspiracy." Yep, not on the news side, but on the editorial side Hiatt and Co. have had an agenda for quite a while now -- and it ain't liberal...

Peter Baker: The Post editorialists have a point of view and they use their page to express it. So does every newspaper. My point was that doesn't have anything to do with news coverage. And for what it's worth, Fred Hiatt, the editor of the Post editorial pages, also prints a variety of columns by people of widely differing points of view -- from Richard Cohen and Gene Robinson to George Will and Charles Krauthammer.

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Roseland, NJ: Just wondering if, in advance of these news conferences, any White House staffers ever contacted reporters on the sly and said, "You know, if one were to ask the President 'X', I'm sure they'd receive a really interesting answer."

Peter Baker: Not that I'm aware of. That's happened in past White Houses but it's never happened with me in this one.

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Sydney, Australia: Morning, Peter. In this the early days of Presidential campaigning, the focus it seems is on gaining a financial war chest that can be used to build voter support (and destroy opponents!) closer to Election Day. Do those with important day jobs have a significant advantage when it comes to fundraising? Are people like Dodd (Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee) and Richardson (Governor, potential VP/Secretary) going to get more attention than, say, Edwards, who if he fails to win the nomination becomes a comparatively uninfluential "former Senator?"

Peter Baker: Well, there are tradeoffs. Being a sitting senator certainly gives you fundraising advantages but on the other hand it means you're tied to Washington on days there are votes, such as last Saturday when the Democratic senators running for president had to rearrange their campaign schedules to be back for the Iraq cloture vote.

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Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.: Has the President received any PDB's titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike Inside the U.S." in the past few months?

Peter Baker: None that he's shared with us. Those daily intelligence briefings are classified, of course, so we don't usually know much about what's in them.

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Boise, Idaho: I thought the way that Mitt Romney handled the heckler (about Mormonism) was electorally very good. He said (essentially) that we have different faiths in America, but that we need a person of faith to be our next president. Do you think this line of rhetoric will, over time, be effective in winning the support of Evangelical Republicans? Thank you!

Peter Baker: Gov. Romney essentially is taking a page from Jack Kennedy's playbook. On "This Week" over the weekend, he said: "I'm not running for pastor in chief. I'm running for commander in chief." Kennedy's famous line when he was running in 1960 was: "I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters -- and the Church does not speak for me." Eventually, the Romney camp hopes that the more people see him on the trail, in debates, in commercials, the more they will judge him as an individual rather than as a representative of a religion they don't know much about.

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Baltimore: If Hillary Clinton really supports the end of the war, why would she want a cap of 137,500 troops in Iraq, instead of zero? And have you heard any rationale about that particular figure -- that is, why not 10,000 more or fewer troops?

Peter Baker: She has said, I believe, that she doesn't think the United States simply can leave tomorrow, that it has to be more orderly than that. You'll have to ask her why she came up with that particular figure, but I believe the point was to fix it at the level it was in January before the president's troop increase began.

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Stanford, Calif.: I'm puzzled about how filibusters work. Is it true that no one actually filibusters anymore, the minority party just sort of threatens to do it, and so if the majority can't get 60 votes they just accept the minority's threat that they would indeed filibuster for hours or days, and so move on to other business? Why wouldn't the majority party just allow the filibuster to actually happen (or at least go for a day or two or three and see whether much public opinion is really with the filibustering minority? Seems like a real filibuster could backfire on the minority if it makes them look foolish and obstructionist.

Peter Baker: Yeah, this is a great question that I don't really know the answer to. You're right that no one actually filibusters anymore in the sense of James Cagney in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" reading from cookbooks and standing until he drops. The 60-vote minimum to move on has become the standard instead of the exception. Like you, I'm surprised the majority (last year the Republicans, this year the Democrats) hasn't actually called the minority on it and forced them to actually filibuster. On the other hand, the average age in the Senate is creeping upward and maybe none of them likes the idea of all that standing around.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Peter -- great job at the press conference last week! Re: The president's comment that, "living in the beautiful White House," he didn't pay much attention to the ground situation in Iraq -- I found that comment to be absolutely stunning for its total lack of sensitivity ... talk about not supporting the troops. Why hasn't that outrageous comment gotten more press? Or has it and I've just missed it?

Peter Baker: I don't think he was saying he doesn't pay much attention to the situation in Iraq, I think what he was saying was that because he is cloistered inside the White House, by definition he doesn't have as much granular (there's that word again) information as someone on the ground would have. In that case, if I remember correctly, he was referring to Martha Raddatz of ABC News, who has spent a lot of time on the ground in Iraq and he was conceding that he didn't have the kind of vantage point that she has had.

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Princeton N.J.: Why is The Post giving a free ride to John McCain regarding his flip-flops. The most recent example is his trashing of Rumsfeld -- if he felt that way, why didn't he have the courage to say so before Rumsfeld was fired? Why don't the Post political commentators pin his ears to the wall? Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: McCain: Rumsfeld Was One of the Worst (AP, Feb. 20)

Peter Baker: Well, first, I'm not a commentator, so I can't speak for what they write. And I don't cover Sen. McCain either, for that matter, but if memory serves, I believe the senator criticized Secretary Rumsfeld and the leadership of the war for quite some time before the resignation.

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Prescott, Ariz.: Can we agree that Rich Little is funny, while seeing your colleagues stonewalled is not?

Peter Baker: We'll see about Rich Little next month when he performs at the White House Correspondents Association dinner. The truth is, the hired comics are almost never as funny as the president is -- that was true with Bill Clinton and that's been true with George Bush. They have the advantage of professional joke-writers and the opportunity to poke fun at themselves. The funniest was actually Laura Bush, who a couple years ago complained of being a "desperate housewife" whose husband goes to bed at 9 p.m. and said she had told him that if he really wants to spread democracy around the world, he's going to have to stay up later.

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Grand Rapids, Mich.: Hey Peter it was James Stewart, not Cagney, in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

Peter Baker: Oy, gosh, that's why we need editors. That's who I meant, I just mistyped. Thanks for the correction.

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Peter Baker: Boy, that's a terrible way to end today's chat, isn't it? A pretty boneheaded mistake. It's impressive, though, how many James Stewart fans there are out there. Now if there were only more James Stewarts in Washington. Ah well. Thanks for playing today, everyone. See you next time. And have a great day.

Best,

Peter

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