Post Politics Hour

Dan Balz
Washington Post Chief Political Reporter
Monday, February 26, 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 chief political reporter Dan Balz was online Monday, Feb 26, 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.

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Dan Balz: Good morning to everyone and thanks for tuning in today. Lots happening, so we'll get right to your questions.

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Richmond, Va.: I am curious: In today's Washington Post's poll on Bush's approval rating, "two-thirds of Republicans approve of how Bush is handling the situation in Iraq." What is behind this figure? Because there has been relentless and ample proof that the war is not going well, in addition to the fact that everyone knows the reasons Bush gave for the war never existed, what is it they are approving? Is it that they just cannot bring themselves to criticize the president (because it is hard for people to say "I am wrong"), or do they really believe the war is going well, despite evidence of the contrary?

washingtonpost.com: More Americans Trust Congress Over Bush on Iraq, Poll Finds (Post, Feb. 26)

Dan Balz: This poll is consistent with what we have seen for a couple of years now, which is that people's judgments on many issues tend to follow partisan identification. We're in a period of highly polarized politics -- voters who call themselves Republicans vote for Republican candidates by overwhelming margins, the same for self-identified Democrats. The fact that two-thirds of Republicans approve of Bush's handling of the war is not surprising. In the view of many Republicans, Bush has acknowledged that the war has not gone well, but they tend to trust his judgment about what to do now more than they trust the Democrats. One other thing to note, which is that the support for Bush's handling of the war among Republicans has declined over time. While two-thirds may seem high to you, it's less than it used to be.

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Louisburg, NC: You need to go no further than the opening page of the RNC web site to see just how nasty the 2008 election is going to be. There are all of the Dem candidates, unflattering pictures with slash and burn comments They make Clinton and Obama look like sissies. Can't they see that this type of modus operandi didn't work in 2006?

washingtonpost.com: Meet the Democrats (GOP.com, Feb. 21)

Dan Balz: Uplifting, isn't it? The Democrats are doing the same thing, supplying reports on the Republican candidates that generally are unflattering. There is a lot of chaff blowing around this campaign.

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Avon Park, Fla.: Why doesn't the press cover lower-tier presidential candidates more often? Is it simply that news organizations have a limited supply of personnel to cover all the candidates and thus make the editorial decision to cover poll leaders?

Dan Balz: This is a really good question and one we get with more frequency this year. You identify the main problem, which is limited resources. We have a pretty big political staff as news organizations go, but we cannot cover the comings and goings of a dozen or more candidates with anything approaching comprehensiveness. We also have limited space, particularly in the dead tree edition of The Post. Compounding this is the fact that several of the high-profile candidates -- and here I'm talking mostly about Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama -- have been launching their campaigns. Sen. Clinton's first trip to Iowa was a big deal and needed to be covered. Sen. Obama's announcement on that cold day in Springfield likewise demanded attention. So candidates like Tom Vilsack or Mike Huckabee have gotten less attention. Over time that will even out somewhat, but probably not to the satisfaction of those candidates or their supporters. We regularly are looking for ways to spread out the coverage, both out of a sense of fairness and out of a belief that, even if some of these candidates don't have high poll numbers, they may be saying and doing interesting things.

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New York: Hi Dan, thanks for taking questions. What is it with the Democrats and Iraq? They spring from one proposal to another and appear to be completely flummoxed by the Republicans' pushback, especially coming out of the White House. Is there a real strategy here?

Dan Balz: The Democrats are struggling for several reasons. To Democrats, the midterm election results signaled a desire by a majority of Americans for a change in course in Iraq -- one that would begin to reduce the U.S. role there. But finding consensus has been more difficult -- in the Senate, Democrats have a slender majority and must deal with the reality that, to do anything, they need 60 votes to prevent a Republican filibuster. So they've tried a couple of things without success and are now trying something else. In the House, Democrats want to move beyond non-binding resolutions, but there is not agreement on how aggressive they should be in tying the president's hands with regard to funding. Rep. Murtha stumbled with his proposal, clearly.

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London: Did Jack Murtha significantly hurt the chances of his plan to "choke off" manpower for the war in Iraq by the way in which he let the details become known, e.g., the MoveOn.org Web site unveiling versus consulting his colleagues with the detains prior to their becoming known? Or was this plan just too strong a pill for Democrats to digest now?

washingtonpost.com: Murtha Stumbles on Iraq Funding Curbs (Post, Feb. 25)

Dan Balz: He definitely hurt himself with the way it was rolled out, but even a different approach might have had trouble selling.

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Alexandria, Va.: I just read your Facebook story about Sen. Obama. To what extent do you think the Web is going to play a role in this campaign -- outside of just blogs, that is? Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: Young Voters Find Voice on Facebook (Post, Feb. )

Dan Balz: The Web is playing a bigger role in this campaign than ever. Many of the candidates used the Web to launch their candidacies and are supplying video reports on a regular basis. Sen. Clinton gave a recent update of her views on Iraq with a Web-based video on here site. Chris Cillizza and I did a piece recently about the "YouTube" election, focused on how the easy availability of video is a big change from the last campaign.

The Web may play a critical role this time, as it did in 2004, as a tool for fundraising. Candidates are anxious to try to use the Web to build communities around their campaigns and are taking advantage of social networking sites. In addition, groups of people are coming together through the Web to support or advance particular candidates.

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Garner: Your first writer today makes a false argument that never gets questioned, and its really bothering me. President Bush laid out a case for war against Iraq stating many reasons for attacking. They included Saddam's unwillingness to comply with U.N. sanctions and agreements, hostility towards the West, support for terrorist groups (such as Hamas and al-Qaeda) and the threat of WMD which he had shown a previous inclination toward using. It accepted was widely --and never disproved even by Joe Wilson -- that Saddam was trying to develop weapons of mass destruction. So my question is, what did the President lie about?

Dan Balz: Thanks for your posting.

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Atlanta: On "Meet the Press," you and others discussed how the 1990s would be both a plus and a minus for Clinton. While Howard Wolfson said on Hardball that he rejects any "personal attacks," it really seems like Clinton doesn't really have a substantive answer and isn't sure how to deal with the negative parts of the 1990s.

Dan Balz: Well, even for Democrats it's pretty hard to defend certain things that happened on the former president's watch. This is the problem that Al Gore wrestled with in 2000 -- he never figured out a way to take advantage of the good things that happened under Clinton. My colleague Anne Kornblut wrote more about this in Sunday's paper and I recommend it to you.

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And the winner is...?: Who do you think came out on top in the Hillary vs. Obama thing? Personally, I thought Hillary looked incredibly thin-skinned and it was a pretty silly attack. With that said, Obama kind of fell for it, but I don't think he responded in kind. I actually thought the hypocrisy-themed response was pretty good. Thoughts?

washingtonpost.com: Clinton Fights to Keep Impeachment Taboo (Post, Feb. 25)

Dan Balz: I thought both campaigns were diminished by what happened, for reasons similar to what you suggested.

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Princeton, N.J.: Paul Krugman made a plea today for voters to choose candidates for their positions on the issues, not their personalities. I really believe that MSM (including The Post) have way too much coverage on what type of a guy (or gal) the candidate is and not enough on the issues. What is Obama's health plan anyway?

Dan Balz: We'll cover the issues, certainly. We wrote a short story about John Edwards's health care plan and will do reports on the ideas candidates are advancing, particularly when a candidate has something new or important to say on a big topic. At the same time, character and personality are critically important in the performance of presidents and voters rightly will factor those into their thinking. I believe there's a difference in coverage that tries to assess character and personality and coverage that is essentially gossip-based. As for Obama, he's for universal health care but has not put out a detailed plan.

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Cleveland: Dan Balz on "Meet the Press" yesterday spoke about the enormous power of the "Christian right" on Republican politics. I'm tired of the media saying that Christians have this "power" over the Republicans. What the Republicans have done for 40 years is make promises, sucker the evangelical Christians to vote for them -- then after the election pursue their own corporate/internationalist agenda. Christians don't follow politics as critically as they should, therefore they fall prey to slogans and sound bites each election cycle. Don't you think the "Christian right" is overrated as a "power" in America?

Dan Balz: I was speaking about the issue of Mitt Romney's Mormon religion and why it seems to be more important now than when his father ran for president in 1968, when it really was not an issue. My point was that the Christian right is a much more powerful force in politics generally and particularly inside the Republican Party. That said, I think the organized Christian right is somewhat less powerful today than it was half a dozen or ten years ago. The Christian Coalition, for example, is much less an organized force, and there has been a backlash within the party by more libertarian conservatives against the influence of the religious conservatives, who believe the party leadership -- particularly under President Bush -- has catered to them too much.

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Ames, Iowa: To Garner: The Bush administration said it was a "slam dunk" there were actual WMD -- not plans. Where are they? I seriously doubt Bush would have gotten Congress to go along on the reasons you state -- so many other countries fit those categories as well. The statements by Bush insiders that he was determined to go to war with Iraq no matter what make a lot of us think that the "facts" were cooked on this one.

Dan Balz: Thanks for posting.

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Houston: On Republicans supporting the president on the war -- here's one Republcan's view: The war was a mistake, and on top of that was managed poorly from the outset -- but now that we're up to our necks in this mess that we've created, we have an obligation to future generations to fix it as best we can before leaving. That's what is behind my support for the current strategy.

Dan Balz: This is further on the question at the beginning of the chat about the GOP support for Bush's handling of the war. Thanks for your posting.

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Seattle: Why would you say the Democrats are being just as nasty as the GOP? I loaded up democrats.org and see a message questioning Bush on Iraq, a piece on black history, and a bullet item for a Democrat winter meet-up meeting. The tone is markedly different. Did you bother to load up their Web site, or is the "they do it too" message just easier?

Dan Balz: I say that because we get e-mails from Democratic groups with similar information about the candidates. Both sides engage in opposition research and send it out to the media.

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Crestwood, N.Y.: Good morning and thanks for your time. Do you think that the media has over-played the Democratic "takeover" of the Senate, when one of the votes in their majority is the neo-con Lieberman -- who supports Bush more than most in the GOP -- and when anti-war Repubs clearly aren't ready to jump ship on anything meaningful? How likely is it that the Senate will do anything at all about the war under present conditions, and should we stop pretending that it will? And what is the House going to accomplish on its own?

Dan Balz: It's hard to overstate the fact that Republicans were in control in the last Congress and Democrats are in control in this Congress. But that doesn't mean Democrats can do whatever they want. They control the chairmanships of the committees, they are in overall charge of the agenda, they subpoena administration officials if they wish. But the rules in the Senate can frustrate the majority party, particularly one with a majority as small as the Democrats have.

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Boonsboro, Md.: In response to Princeton plea to choose only based on issues not personality, voters wisely consider character/personality because "stuff happens" that make stands on issues irrelevant, and we want someone we trust.

Dan Balz: Thanks for posting.

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Pittsburgh: I'm a bit irritated that Obama and Clinton and others are running for President -- I would prefer that they focused on their job that we elected them to do. Do you think this is a valid concern -- that nothing gets done over the next two years because the major players are too busy getting photo ops and redesigning their Presidential Web sites?

Dan Balz: I don't think it's fair to blame Sen. Clinton or Sen. Obama. This campaign is starting with incredible intensity and those in the Senate are trying to juggle two jobs. They tend to be in Washington on weekdays and out in the states on weekends. There may be some opportunities for action over the next two years on issues like energy and immigration, but both sides are pointing toward 2008 and that certainly makes it less likely that big things will be dealt with.

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Washington: I believe that until Secretary Gates took over the administration's Walter Reed response to the Dana Priest et al reporting there was going to be a fire storm of outrage not only at the treatment of out patients but perhaps even more at the Walter Reed brass's attempt to minimize the problem and shoot the messenger. I know that every time I read or saw one of those generals saying the reporting was one-sided or that they were just a little behind on painting some of the rooms, I got a rush of blood to the head, which for me almost never happens. Your view?

washingtonpost.com: Administrative Issues Cited at Walter Reed (Post, Feb. 25)

Dan Balz: Secretary Gates was smart to do what he did. The stories by Dana Priest and Anne Hull were a powerful indictment and not a one-sided accounting of the problems. Gates was smart to move the way he did.

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Fort Wayne, Ind.: Dan, if one of the current three frontrunners on either side(Giuliani, McCain, Romney for R's; Obama, Clinton, Edwards for D's), become the nominee, who do you see becoming VP and why?

Dan Balz: I'm going to try to swear off speculation about vice presidential nominees for awhile. Too much has to happen yet.

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Rhode Island : Why did Vilsack attend the Democratic Forum in Nevada if he was dropping out the next day? Did the labor union say something that made him drop out?

Dan Balz: I was told he made the decision to drop out after he returned to Iowa from his travels, which included the Nevada forum. He had been out many days over the past few weeks and my sense is that he got back to Iowa and made a genuine assessment of how things looked -- his campaign already was in debt and the prospects for raising substantial amounts of money were negligible. I cannot remember any candidate having to quit the race so quickly because of fundraising problems, but it is a measure of how Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama have dried up the fundraising pool for others -- in particular they've been able to attract most of the people who are capable of going out and raising big money for their campaigns. It's one clear negative of the way this campaign has started out. Gov. Vilsack is a serious, smart politician and in the past he would have had more time to try to make his case.

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Louisburg, N.C.: But Dan, re: "nastiness" you say that Dem groups put out negative comments too. Of course. But that is not the DNC. Seems to be a difference to me.

Dan Balz: The DNC puts out regular releases trashing the GOP candidates. Both party committees do it.

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Re: Pittsburgh's Concerns...: Also please keep in mind that when the chips were down, both Clinton and Obama dropped their campaigning and were present for the votes. Pittsburgh should be complaining about John McCain who missed the last Senate vote because he was out campaigning...

Dan Balz: Thanks for posting.

And thanks to everyone who participated today. We're out of time but someone is here every morning at 11 a.m. to take your questions. We appreciate your interest. Have a good day.

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