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Michael Fletcher
Washington Post White House Reporter
Tuesday, July 10, 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 Michael Fletcher was online Tuesday, July 10, 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.

Archive: Post Politics Hour discussion transcripts

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Arlington, Va.: So Gonzo appears to have once again misled Congress. How close is this to perjury? Thanks.

Michael Fletcher: Good morning, all. Yes, as the first questioner points out, Attorney General Gonzales appears to have misspoken when he said more than two years ago that there had "not been one verified case of civil liberties abuse" in connection with the USA Patriot Act. I'm no lawyer so I have no idea about whether he perjured himself, but it does seem unlikely, as it is unclear that Gonzales ever read these reports of FBI violations. Also, his spokesman says the FBI violations were "minor" and did not constitute violation of the law, only procedural violations. But it can't help Gonzales's credibility as head of the Justice Department to be found once again to be underinformed on an issue he testified to Congress about.

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San Francisco: Hi Michael, thanks for taking questions today. Won't Sen. Vitter have to resign his seat? He was elected to the House in the wake of the would-be-Speaker's infidelity, and now his family values rhetoric appears entirely hollow. I can't imagine that the GOP caucus will want to keep someone on Ms Palfrey's list in their midst.

Michael Fletcher: It seems unlikely that Sen. Vitter will have to resign his seat, at least given what we now know. What he faces, though, is a huge political problem. As a conservative politician who forcefully has denied this kind of behavior in the past, he has a lot to explain to voters, it seems to me. But he has asserted that he has received forgiveness not only from his wife but also from God Himself, so maybe the voters of Louisiana will follow.

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Windsor Mill, Md.: Hello Mr. Fletcher. Caught you on the Mark Steiner show yesterday and you sounded great! How are book sales going? Speaking of books, Barack Obama has shared many of his youthful indiscretions in his biography "Dreams of My Father." How will this play out during the election? Will the Clinton campaign use this information to paint a tawdry portrait of a youth in turmoil? Or is this more likely to spin out of control in the hands of the Republicans should he win the party nomination? Or is this just going to be old news by then?

Michael Fletcher: Thanks for the book mention. Things are going well there. Justice Clarence Thomas is indeed a controversial figure, judging from the questions I hear on talk shows and at book events.

On Sen. Obama, I think he is safe from attack for his "indiscretions" for the primary election. But should he win the primary, it seems that his admission that he used drugs as a young man could be packaged to hurt him, particularly by some outside group. I doubt any candidate's committee would take that on directly. And while it would be old news to people who read his book or read news reports about it, I'd bet that most voters haven't heard these things, and it could be damaging to the senator.

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The President in Cleveland: Michael: The administration appears to be hinting that the president will indicate some possibility of troop withdrawals in Iraq during a speech today in Cleveland. Reportedly the Iraq force is due to undergo a normal rotation in the next year which would reduce the number of combat brigades in the country from 20 to 15. Is the president going to try to use this natural rotation as a troop reduction to gain political points? Thank you.

Michael Fletcher: As I understand it the president is going to begin to argue (make clear, his spokesman might say) that his plan all along was to bring home most American troops if the "surge" works well. I don't know how that meshes with normal troop rotations, but President Bush is going to try to emphasize that he too wants the troops home. That is something that the GOP wants him to say more often, as Iraq is hurting the party.

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Justice Thomas: Michael, would Justice Thomas be "controversial" if he were white? Or is the issue the very presence of a black conservative on the Court and "black leaders'" unwillingness to accept a man who thinks for himself?

washingtonpost.com: Justice Thomas's Life A Tangle of Poverty, Privilege and Race (Post, April 22)

Michael Fletcher: It seems unlikely. But one also could ask, would Justice Thomas even be on the court were he not black? And if we acknowledge that race consciousness helped propel him to where he is (and, let me add here, he is by all accounts a very capable justice) how does he reconcile his own biography with his jurisprudence? Also, there is a long history of black conservatism from Booker T. Washington to Louis Farrakhan to George Schuyler, but few have raised hackles among African Americans as has Justice Thomas. So I think there is more to this strain than simply rejection of a black man who "thinks for himself."

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Washington: When you say that Gonzo "appears to have misspoken" aren't you giving him a bit too much (or too little) credit? I never could make it as a journalist: I would have written that Gonzo appears to have continued his practice of misleading Congress, intentionally or otherwise.

Michael Fletcher: I was going for a little understatement...

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Rocky Mount, N.C.: I think the whole David Vitter scandal will blow by with no resignation, as I am expecting more congressmen to be connected -- your thoughts? Has there been an office pool yet on if Vitter will be castrated by his wife, as she said once she would do?

Michael Fletcher: I have no idea, either about other names or the penalty to be imposed by Vitter's wife. Remember, though, he says all is forgiven...

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Louisiana voters...: Considering one district in Louisiana sent back William Jefferson of "frozen funds" fame, I think Vitter will be okay also.

Michael Fletcher: You might have a point there...

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Bow, N.H.: Do we expect any Supreme Court retirements this summer? Any word on the health of Stevens, Ginsburg et al?

Michael Fletcher: I haven't heard any talk of retirements, but I don't cover the court day-to-day -- plus, these things seem to come out of nowhere, with health often being a pivotal factor. Justice Stevens is 87 years old and Justice Ginsburg is 74 -- both well past normal retirement ages (but not for the court). Both justices are reportedly in good health.

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Princeton, N.J.: The health care proposals of the Democratic candidates are a blatant example of political cowardice. The reason we need a single-payer system is because we can't afford any other kind. Single-payer systems are vastly more efficient than what we have or what Massachusetts has. Other countries get better health care as measured by all the important public health statistics, and they do it while spending less than half as much per patient as we do. We could give Medicare to everyone, with no limitations, no deductibles, no co-pays, and complete drug coverage, and we would be spending less per patient than we do now. We would save $200-400 billion per year because physicians would not have to fill out 2,000 different forms, another $100-200 billion because the overhead of a single-payer system is 2 percent (or less) while our private insurance companies have overhead in excess of 15 percent, and finally we could reduce drug prices charged by Big Pharma, which spends 34 percent of their budget on marketing and 11 percent on research.

washingtonpost.com: For Democrats, Pragmatism On Universal Health Care (Post, July 10)

Michael Fletcher: Hmmm, I don't know enough to weigh the merits of your argument. But it seems to me that if what you say is completely and inarguably true, more Democrats (and Republicans, for that matter) would be advocating for a single-payer system. I know our political leaders tend to love free enterprise and private business, but they seem to love votes even more.

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Boston, Mass.: Are the subpoenas over the U.S. attorneys a winning card for Congress to play first either politically or legally? It would seem that Congress would be in a stronger position fighting about a potential violation of law regarding the wiretapping program rather than a much more nuanced question of whether "undue" political factors played into decisions to fire politically appointed U.S. attorneys. My sense is that they are going to lose both politically (and if it ever gets there) legally on the attorney issue, and will be in a much weaker position on the wiretapping issue.

Michael Fletcher: Both issues seem to offer some political peril for Democrats, it seems to me. Your points on the U.S. attorneys is well taken. At the end of the day, the president has the power to hire and fire them, we know that, even if they usually don't do it when Bush did. But the wiretapping issue, too, poses political risks.

The Bush administration calls the program, which it has modified, central to the struggle to keep the U.S. safe from terror attacks. Now you may believe that or not, but it is a compelling argument for many people. Put that on the scales against the legality or lack thereof for wiretaps of international calls of people who are alleged to have terrorist ties, and you get to the political problem that issue poses for Democrats. Moreover, there may be some public weariness with all of the finger-pointing and investigations when what people really want appears to be cheaper gas, cleaner air, better schools, secure borders and our troops out of harm's way.

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Re: Vitter: Between congressmen who prey on underage pages and mayors who "influence" the journalists who cover them, I think it's refreshing to find a man who pays for his extracurricular sex rather than relying on the perks of his position.

Michael Fletcher: That's pretty funny.

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New Bedford, Mass.: I am trying very hard to conceal my smirk as the the republicans continue their downward spiral. But inevitably they will bounce back; when do you project they will get their act together and reclaim their swagger? Will they be able to front a viable candidate for the 2008 presidential election? Will we see as much dirty politicking ala Swift Boat Veterans for Truth? Or will they be lying a little low in the next election?

Michael Fletcher: Hard to know. It seems like a lot turns on Iraq. What if things miraculously improve there? What if the U.S. withdraws its troops under Democratic pressure and the U.S. is hit by a serious terror attack in the months before the election? It seems like both of these things could help a GOP candidate. And don't count on outside groups sitting out any presidential elections; they are far too important. Count on those groups being in there amplifying, exaggerating -- and even manufacturing -- issues.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Hi Michael -- Thanks for taking my question. The Washington Post is reporting that the president plans to announce the withdrawal of troops if security in Iraq improves. That's a very big if, of course, but I'm curious about where that would leave McCain, who thinks, to borrow a phrase I haven't seen in a while, that we should stay the course. His campaign seems to be on life support as it is, and wouldn't that send it into even more of a tailspin, putting him once again on the wrong side of a big issue (I'm thinking of immigration)?

Michael Fletcher: No. I think Sen. McCain would say that he too wants the troops out -- so long as conditions on the ground warrant it. That's been the president's position as well. But where things get tricky, subjective -- and, yes, political -- is in defining when conditions on the ground can allow a U.S. withdrawal, and determining when Iraqis are in a position to "sustain and govern" themselves. So it seems that Sen. McCain is safe from further political damage -- on this one issue, at least.

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Washington: Do you think Sen. Barack Obama's unwillingness to feed the anger of the liberal base like other candidates will end up hurting him in the primaries?

Michael Fletcher: Hard to say. It seems like he has no choice because his entire appeal is built on his politics of conciliation, on what he packages as his cool level-headedness, which could prove popular in the end.

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Michael Fletcher: Time's up. Thanks for the great questions.

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