Post Politics Hour

John Solomon
Washington Post Money and Politics Reporter
Wednesday, March 14, 2007; 11:00 AM

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Washington Post money and politics reporter John Solomon was online Wednesday, March 14, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest news in politics.

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The transcript follows.


Marshfield, Mo.: I wonder if you would agree with my view that the common denominator linking the Iraq, Katrina and Walter Reed, etc., messes is Bush's privatization/uber-politicization campaign from day one and, if so, why hasn't the press focused on the importance and costly failure of this approach? Your colleague who wrote the superb "Emerald City" book [ed: associate editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran] well understood how this worked (oops, did not work, actually) in Iraq, but no one with a megaphone seems to see and explain how this underlies everything. It seems to me that the ignorant contempt for experienced, effective bureaucrats has been been exposed as disastrous.

John Solomon: At the end of the day, the biggest problems with Iraq, Katrina and Walter Reed were leadership or policy decisions. We had faulty intelligence on Iraq beforehand and didn't properly prepare for the insurgency afterwards. Officials didn't prepare for the magnitude of destruction when the levees gave way in New Orleans even though they had prior warnings. Walter Reed leaders didn't recognize the depth of their problems or take authoritative action to fix them. But the question of privatization is on the minds of many in Congress and the watchdog communities these days as a subplot in these and other controversies. The privatization effort actually began under the Clinton administration as part of Al Gore's reinventing government. But it has grown leaps and bounds under this administration -- often in the name of national security. The issues emerging now involve how often contractors get business without bidding and whether any one is truly evaluating whether work is needed and whether it is done to the satisfaction. In other words, are taxpayers getting what they paid for?


Boston: Is voter fraud really an issue? Every study I have seen shows that voter fraud is minimal in the U.S. The U.S. Attorney in Seattle seems to think it wasn't real issue. Is "voter fraud" code for disenfranchisement?

John Solomon: The voter fraud debate most recently has its roots in the hanging Florida election in 2000. Republicans have made a concerted efforts to make voter fraud a growing political issue. It has even crept into the U.S. attorneys controversy as a reason the administration gives for why some prosecutors were fired. Ironically, the GOP has pursued the voter fraud issue even as a group of Republicans in New Hampshire, including President Bush's former New England campaign manager, were convicted in a scheme to jam phone lines and keep Democrats from voting in that state. I don't think there is a bipartisan consensus on how widespread the problem is yet. Republicans see problems in Democratic areas while Democrats allege problems in GOP areas. But the federal commission that investigates election crimes just did a fascinating review -- highlight both confirmed and unsubstantiated voter fraud allegations. You can read it right here (.pdf file).


Poplar Bluff, Mo.: Mr. Solomon, do you see President Bush shaking up the Cabinet or the West Wing during his last 20 months in office because of his current political problems?

John Solomon: I think this an open question and events over the next two weeks could play an important role in determining the answer. Attorney General Gonzales, for instance, is facing questions about his credibility on two fronts _ the U.S. attorneys firings and the past erroneous assurances that the FBI was following the requirements of the Patriot Act. There are already Democratic calls for his resignation and few congressional Republicans are running to defend Gonzales. The top Republican on the House judiciary committee called the Justice Department "dysfunctional" yesterday. If Gonzales can't mend those fences, it might prompt a change. The problem is any nominee for a Cabinet job faces a Democratic Congress and a lame duck president with low popularity, making confirmation an tougher battle.


Washington: Thank you for answering my question -- I figure you are specially suited to, as the "Money and Politics" reporter. In about a month we will find out who has had the best quarter for fundraising -- can you tell us who you think the top three on each side will be? Will there be any major surprises? Anything in particular we ought to be watching out for?

John Solomon: You are correct that on April 15 we'll see the first fund-raising reports for the presidential candidates. I expect one or more candidates will break the $30 million mark for the quarter, obliterating all past records. I suspect Hillary Clinton will be near the top of the list. The combined money machine she has built with her husband is running at high-speed right now. Barack Obama clearly has some early rock star status and that should translate into a healthy bottom line for fund-raising. And John Edwards is doing particularly well on Internet fund-raising through a Web site called Act Blue. On the Republican side, John McCain and Mitt Romney should be atop the list. The big question for me will be how well Rudy Giuliani will fare. His poll numbers are very strong and he should be able to tap plenty of money in New York City and its wealthy suburbs.


Bethesda, Md.: I hear many people -- Mr. Gerson in a chat just before you, for instance -- saying that they believe Gonzales did not knowingly mislead Congress or the public. They believe that Gonzales is just guilty of bad staff work. Honestly, am I just horribly cynical that I find that explanation to be ridiculously naive? When a highly successful person gives completely self-serving testimony that is immediately proven to be factually incorrect, we suddenly are to believe they are just incompetent? I do not wish to impune the credibility of anyone but Gonzales, but I seriously am confused how someone could find Gonzales's excuse to be credible.

John Solomon: Intent is always hard to prove. But let's look at what we now know. The attorney general originally stated the firings had no connection to politics and were essentially an internal personnel matter based on performance issues. We now know the original idea came from the White House -- not inside DOJ -- and involved firing all 93 U.S. attorneys rather than identifying underperforing prosecutor. The attorney general acknowledges he knew about that request and rejected it, settling instead for identifying a smaller number of under-performing prosecutors. We now also know that Gonzales and his department heard complaints from lawmakers and local party officials and President Bush himself that prosecutors weren't doing enough to prosecute cases like voter fraud and a Democratic corruption case. Some of these complaints arrived in the shadows of the 2006 election. Congress will weigh these facts during their hearings next week.


New York: Did I hear correctly that one of the US Attorneys that was fired was the one who investigated Duke Cunningham? If that is the case, then this story is going to be huge. Do you agree? Or will we be on to another scandal or celebrity divorce by next week?

John Solomon: The U.S. attorneys story has evolved beyond just the firing decision. It also now centers on questions of credibility, since lawmakers were given an inaccurate and incomplete story. For that reason it certainly will persist until Congress feels it has its own concerns addressed. It is true that the prosecutor who brought the Cunningham case was among those fired. But there's no evidence -- at least not yet -- in the documents that the case was raised by Justice or DOJ during the deliberations on firing her. One issue with that prosecutor was that members of Congress, including Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, were concerned the San Diego U.S. attorney wasn't doing enough on illegal immigration.


Abingdon, Md.: It seemed that up until the beginning of the year this administration wouldn't/couldn't ever admit to doing anything wrong or making mistakes -- now it seems they are falling all over themselves to apologize at the first sign something might even look improper (i.e. Gates, Pace, Gonzales, etc.). What gives?

John Solomon: I'm not sure your observation is entirely correct. The administration had to do a big mea culpa when it admitted the intelligence it used to justify the war in Iraq was faulty. It also has had to give ground on other controversies, like the missed warning signs before Sept. 11. But what you may be seeing now is a change in the way the administration must deal with Congress. When Republicans controlled Congress, the White House had more certainty about what congressional oversight committees might do to examine its conduct. That certainty all went away after the 2006 election and with Democrats now running Congress, the administration and its conduct is already being scrutinized through subpoenas, hearings, etc.


Atlanta: John: When reporters use the term "White House spokesperson," what does this encompass? Does the VP's office fall under the White House umbrella? Does Tony Snow speak for Mr. Cheney as well as the President?

John Solomon: Typically, I use the term White House spokesperson to refer to someone who works in the White House press office under Tony Snow. That includes several aides. Now Snow and his deputies can sometimes answer questions, give reactions and provide information about Vice President Cheney and his staff, such as when the Libby verdict came down. More typically, however, the vice president has his own communications office. And when I quote someone from the vice presidential press office I identify them as a spokesman or spokeswoman for the vice president.


John Solomon: Folks, thanks again for all of your good questions. The next few weeks should be full of some interesting developments on the Justice Department front and the presidential campaigns. I look forward to chatting again with you.


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