Post Politics Hour

Peter Baker
Washington Post White House Reporter
Thursday, July 12, 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 Thursday, July 12, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest in political news.

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The transcript follows.

Archive: Post Politics Hour discussion transcripts

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Peter Baker: Good morning, everyone. President Bush is holding a news conference as we speak, discussing the new White House report on Iraq. The Senate is hashing over Iraq in a volatile debate that's not clear where it's heading. And the presidential race has taken a stark turn with the crumbling of Senator John McCain's campaign. Not much to discuss, hmm? So let's get started.

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Duxbury, Mass.: Bush has the 18 benchmarks at 8 1/3 met, 7 2/3 not met and 2 "prerequisites not present" (what does that mean?). Why the discrepancy between "none have been met" and this report, which has in essence the majority of the 18 benchmarks having satisfactory progress? Is W used to grading on a curve?

washingtonpost.com: White House Gives Iraq Mixed Marks in Report (Post, July 12)

Peter Baker: The report by the White House today is meant to gauge progress toward benchmarks, with September being the deadline for actually meeting them. None of the benchmarks has been fully met to this point, but the White House is trying to make the point that on nearly half of them there is reasonable progress toward meeting them in two months.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Hi Peter -- thanks for taking my question(s). Now that the much-awaited interim Iraq report is out, do you think it will have any impact on the current debate in Congress? In other words, if it's a mixed bag, won't each side latch on to either the good news or the bad news, and we'll be back where we started? And is the public so soured on this war that any report isn't going to matter one way or the other anyway?

washingtonpost.com: Opposition to War Grows in the Senate (Post, July 12)

Peter Baker: All good questions and hard to say for sure. I suspect the report will be seized on by each side for ammunition that serves its cause -- Bush supporters will say it shows the troop increase is working to some extent and everyone should give it time, while critics will note that even the White House acknowledges Iraq hasn't done enough on half of the benchmarks and no doubt will argue that the White House is being overly rosy on the other half. So it may not be the actual content of the report that matters in a political sense so much as the fact of it; now that there is such a report, some lawmakers will argue that now is the time to debate a course change.

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Boston: Bush Upcoming Press Conference -- I assume that this will be same script of past ones: The press gets together to determine what questions will be asked and by whom (some; not all) and others will determine how best to phrase their questions. Bush spends time rehearsing his responses to questions and which reporters will be recognized and in what order they will be recognized. Reporters ask questions and Bush responds to the questions that he thought should be asked (never answering the question asked), and overall it is Bush repeating the same talking points and phases that we have all heard before.

My question is, why does Brush have these press conferences? What does he expect the results to be? He must know that he does not perform well in these type of settings, and that his impact on public opinion will be neutral at best. Is it simply his belief that he still can sway public and political opinion?

washingtonpost.com: Live Video: Bush Press Conference (washingtonpost.com, July 12)

Peter Baker: My, my, such a cynical summation of the news conference experience! And, truth to tell, pretty close. You're right, these things can have a Groundhog Day feel to them, but what else should the president do at this point if he's committed to his policy course? If he's determined to stay on the current course, then he clearly needs to get out there to explain and defend his decisions, whether such events move the needle on public opinion polls or not. Staying quiet certainly wouldn't help him, would it?

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Boston: Can Harriet Miers go to jail for not showing up to the hearing today? Separate from the politics of it, what is the process for enforcing the subpoena to testify?

washingtonpost.com: Miers Rebuffs House Subpoena (Post, July 12)

Peter Baker: The House can cite Harriet Miers for criminal contempt. The matter would then go to the U.S. attorney for investigation. It's not clear whether a Bush-appointed U.S. attorney ultimately would prosecute, but let's say for the sake of argument that it wound up in court. A judge would make a decision on whether the executive privilege claim was valid; it could be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. If ultimately the privilege claim were ruled invalid, then Miers (and similarly Sara Taylor in the Senate) would have to testify; if she didn't at that point, she could face jail, but there's no indication that she would refuse a court decision. Sara Taylor said yesterday, for instance, that if the courts ultimately rule the privilege claim invalid, she would testify fully.

It's also possible the House would not cite Miers but would try to hold the president or the White House in contempt. John Conyers, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said during the weekend that he would cite the White House and not Taylor. Of course, Taylor was subpoenaed by the Senate committee and not Conyers's committee, but if he applied the same principle to Miers then that tells us something.

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Port Ewen, N.Y.: Peter, I am watching the House debate right now, and it seems to me that these people are playing to the cameras rather than to the issues. Did this occur with such regularity before C-SPAN was allowed in? Would our Congress get more done if we turned off the cameras? I hate the thought, but I'd rather have Congress making serious decisions than see these peacocks playing to an audience. Thanks.

Peter Baker: Well, I wasn't covering it before C-SPAN got started in 1979, but there's no doubt that members play to the cameras; of course they do. Having said that, the House was a political body even before the advent of cameras. How much difference it makes isn't clear to me. But it is pretty hard to imagine putting the toothpaste back into the tube -- for good or bad, television coverage is here to stay. The White House faced a similar situation when Tony Snow took over as press secretary. The daily White House briefings weren't televised in full until Mike McCurry allowed the cameras on during the Clinton era. When Snow came on, there was some talk of turning them off again so the briefings would be more about information than performance art. But that quickly was dismissed as unrealistic in the modern age.

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Salinas, Calif.: Hi Peter. I just caught Michael Abramowitz ask President Bush a fascinating question (and I paraphrase): "Now that the Scooter Libby case has come to some resolution with your commutation, what is your feeling on the morality (my emphasis) of a White House official leaking the name of a CIA operative?" The President sidestepped the question by musing (and again, I paraphrase): "I often wonder if someone had stepped forward to say, 'I did it,' if we could have avoided the whole (mess)." Do you think that his remarks were aimed directly at Richard Armitage?

Peter Baker: That was a great question by Mike and I'm glad he asked it. The president has tried to avoid answering questions about the CIA leak case for years by citing the ongoing legal issues. His answer here, as you say, seems like a pointed barb at someone -- and quite possibly Richard Armitage, the former deputy secretary of state who has been a critic of Bush policies. Many Libby defenders in and out of the White House remain aggravated that Armitage turned out to be the first official to spill the beans but didn't come forward, and hasn't been targeted while Libby has.

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Baltimore: There are two types of contempt Miers could get cited for. Criminal contempt gets referred to the U.S. attorney. Inherent contempt gets referred to the full House for a vote, and if she's found guilty they send their Sergeant at Arms after her for mandatory jail time.

Peter Baker: Thanks for this. I'm not fully versed on House procedures. I had heard that the Senate had both civil and criminal contempt as options but the House had only criminal contempt. It sounds like you're more read-up on this. Do you know of examples where that's happened the way you outline?

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Crestwood, N.Y.: Peter, just for your information, John Dean was on the radio yesterday and stated that there is a third way to deal with Miers: The House could put her on trial for contempt. Hasn't been done since the '30s, but we seem to be breaking all records these days.

Peter Baker: Here's some more information coming in. This is great, I should do all my reporting this way.

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Anonymous: When the President mocks you and your colleagues as he did at the opening of the Press Room, what is the feeling generated in you White House journalists?

Peter Baker: It's just part of the show -- no one in the briefing room thinks much about it either way. I know that some watching on television think reporters should feel insulted or that it shows we're too chummy or whatever, but frankly, we don't focus on it very much.

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Chicago: As a former Army intel officer, my sources in theater continue to tell me that any strategy is doomed until the Iraqi military decides to step up. At this point, they see no evidence of that. Given this dire assessment, is the Bush strategy nothing more than running out the clock and almost begging the Democrats to force a withdrawal so that they can then blame the "defeat" on the Dems? As Stephen Colbert often says, "you can't lose as long as you don't leave." Truly sad for our men and women on the ground risking their lives.

Peter Baker: The National Intelligence Council gave a similarly dire assessment of the Iraqi security forces' capacity for stepping up yesterday, in fact. Retired Maj. Gen. John Landry, a member of the council, told the House Armed Services Committee yesterday that Iraqi military leadership and capability would require "years to develop, not months." Having said that, it's hard to imagine the president genuinely wants only to have someone else force him to withdraw. He certainly knows that would be his legacy in the end, even if he was forced.

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Arlington, Va.: Thank goodness the press corps finally is asking Bush some hard questions. He looks really uncomfortable trying to answer these questions. And bravo for someone calling him on his claim that the people we are fighting in Iraq now are the same as the people who attacked us on Sept. 11. Does he ever stop lying?

Peter Baker: I realize it's a popular myth among critics of the evil MSM that the press corps only now is asking the president hard questions, but frankly I don't think that's the case. I've been back on the White House beat for more than two-and-a-half years, and the questioning today seemed the same as it has been both in this tour and my last tour on the beat.

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Washington: Anything new regarding Sen. Vitter? Has he shown up anywhere in Washington? And is there an expectation that another shoe will drop in this matter within the next few days?

washingtonpost.com: In Whole or in Part, a Missing Vitter (Post, July 11)

Peter Baker: So far as I know, he's still MIA. If there's another shoe to drop, I don't know of it -- but believe me, I'm as curious as you are.

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New York: Why wouldn't George Bush take his chances with this Supreme Court regarding executive privilege? I think we've seen clearly that the loyalty of at least four members of the court is to the Bush family first and foremost. Isn't it reasonable to believe that no matter how much they have to twist the law or the facts, he'll prevail?

Peter Baker: I think many court watchers would say the president has a reasonable shot with the Supremes on this, but let's not forget that Richard Nixon lost his critical executive privilege case 8 to 0, with three of his own appointees joining the decision (a fourth, William Rehnquist, recused himself, I believe, having worked in the Nixon administration). And this Supreme Court just decided to hear a Guantanamo case that the administration would rather it didn't. So it can be risky to assume.

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Just wondering in Washington: Where do fines like Scooter Libby's $250,000 go? To the general treasury, to help run the judicial system, to charity, or somewhere else?

Peter Baker: Good question. Not sure. I imagine that fines paid go to the judicial system for various functions but I can't say for sure.

On another legal front, this just in on the Harriet Miers subpoena:

WASHINGTON (AP) - A House panel cleared the way Thursday for contempt proceedings against former White House counsel Harriet Miers after she obeyed President Bush and skipped a hearing on the firings of federal prosecutors.

Addressing the empty chair where Miers had been subpoenaed to testify, Rep. Linda Sanchez ruled out of order Bush's executive privilege claim that his former advisers are immune from being summoned before Congress.

The House Judiciary subcommittee that Sanchez chairs voted 7-5 to sustain her ruling. The next step would be for the full Judiciary Committee to issue a finding that Miers, Bush's longtime friend and former Supreme Court nominee, was in contempt. Ultimately, the full House would have to vote on any contempt citation.

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Washington: I'm watching the President. Apparently, the original decision to not send sufficient troops was Tommy Franks's fault. Not Bush's, not Rummy's, but Franks's. Here I've been blaming the president and Rummy ... how'd the MSM miss that?

Peter Baker: Ah, there are so many things we miss. It's a long list.

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Antwerp, Belgium: Any idea if GOP rivals of McCain would snap up his departing advisers? They sure have the deep pockets to hire them. Bob Novak wrote today "If he is running fourth at year's end, they say, the dream is over." You share that assessment? Thanks

washingtonpost.com: Can McCain Come Back (Post, July 12)

Peter Baker: Anne Kornblut, one of our whip-smart political correspondents here, looked back at the last nine presidential campaigns yesterday and made the point that the eventual nominee in many of them was not ahead this far out from the voting. So anything's possible. Having said that, the McCain campaign certainly looks very deeply wounded and it's hard to see how he does turn it around at this point. Stranger things have happened, but the stars don't seem to be aligned at the moment.

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Arlington, Va.: The President's tax cuts have succeeded in bringing in more tax revenue and cutting the deficit more and faster than even his administration predicted. Will Post reporters now go back to naysayers -- including The Post's Editorial Board -- and ask them why their predictions of doom were so wrong?

Peter Baker: A couple economic questions that I'm not really read into at the moment to give a smart answer to, I'm afraid, but I'll post for the sake of the discussion. Thanks for the comment. (I'll leave it to the Ed Board to comment for itself.)

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Baltimore: Peter, the economy and low unemployment is always cited by the admin. The war is driving manufacturing, and the use of the National Guard has meant business has had to recruit to fill gaps. Does either side realize that when the war ends unemployment will rise with the return of vets and manufacturing decline? Best example is post-Vietnam for Carter.

Peter Baker: Here's another one that's beyond my knowledge base at the moment -- I would have to talk to experts to give an informed analysis. But again, thanks for the input.

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Montgomery Village, Md.: Peter, what do you make of the "disconnect" between Hayden's assessment and Bush's statements just hours apart as reported in Bob Woodward's piece this morning?

Peter Baker: A fascinating piece and one more demonstration of why Bob is still the best in the business. No one else has penetrated the Iraq Study Group like this before. The disconnect between the president and his CIA director tells us a lot about his unwillingness to accept the most negative assessments he was receiving from his own advisers, or at least to acknowledge them even in this semi-public/semi-private setting. Remember, just days before this interview, his own national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, had sent him a memo basically calling into question whether Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had the right stuff or not. This tells us a lot about the president's attitude in the face of adverse information.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Mr. Baker, I'm monitoring the webcast of the House Appropriations Committee markup of the Commerce, Science, Justice Appropriation bill. They are in heated discussion of an amendment that seems to be about sharing gun purchase information and traces -- a tenuous link to how much money NASA should get at best. Are these sorts of amendments -- which aren't earmarks -- a sign that the Democrats really aren't doing anything differently then the Republicans?

Peter Baker: I'm not familiar with this particular situation, but we've had stories I believe about how the Democrats are trying to accomplish some of the same things without calling it the same thing -- i.e. not passing an earmark, but then writing an agency to "encourage" it to steer unearmarked funds to a pet project, that sort of thing. No question -- Washington is still Washington, after all.

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Alexandria, Va.: Is there a concerted effort by journalists to comb through the D.C. Madam phone list, or is this considered old news already?

Peter Baker: I'm sure there are. Fortunately, I can say my number's not on there.

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Princeton, N.J.: Thanks for taking my question, Peter! What will be the "tipping point" for Bush, in terms of a withdrawal from Iraq? Lady Bird Johnson's death was an vivid reminder of the demise of Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam. Can't Bush draw any wisdom from that tragedy and just do the inevitable -- or is Henry Kissinger's recent Post op-ed piece giving him pause, continuing to fuel some kind of "keep plugging" policy? Connecting back to yet another tragedy: At what point do Republican leaders on the Hill make a "Barry Goldwater Visit" to Bush and simply declare "it's over!"

Peter Baker: All excellent questions that I would love to know the answer to myself. Could there be such a tipping point with President Bush? Or is he immune to that sort of outside pressure? So far, he's shown himself to be pretty resilient to the entreaties of the outside. His admirers, of course, think that shows resolute character, while his detractors think he's dangerously out of touch.

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Alpharetta, Ga.: How is the White House reacting privately to these Republican defections? Are they surprised, or did they fear this for a long time?

Peter Baker: They're pretty rattled, I think, judging by the reaction. Folks like Dick Lugar and Pete Domenici are normally rock-solid Republicans, not predictable mavericks like Chuck Hagel or fence-straddling moderates like Olympia Snowe. Having said that, there still doesn't appear to be a veto-proof majority for any meaningful proposal yet.

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Prescott, Ariz.: If Republicans are the "family values" or "traditional values" party, why are only the GOP campaign chairmen, aides and prominent supporters of presidential candidates getting busted for distributing coke, soliciting prostitutes, engaging in attempted prostitution at rest stops, and past racist comments?

Peter Baker: There certainly have been a string of them lately, but this is one of those glass-house questions -- there's no shortage of Democrats who have gotten in trouble for such things over the years. It may be that Republicans have a tougher time because of the factor you mention, the notion of support for "family values" and so on.

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Seattle: Do you think Mitt Romney has peaked? Are social conservatives buying the "evolution" of his stances on social issues?

Peter Baker: Given Sen. McCain's honey-I-shrunk-my-campaign situation, it seems to me that Gov. Romney or any of the other Republican candidates are still in a strong position to emerge from the pack. If you're Romney, you presumably work on the assumption that Mayor Giuliani ultimately can't win because of his social liberal stands and other issues that are tough in a Republican primary, and you can be there to pick up the pieces if he implodes. How Fred Thompson fits into that equation is the big question mark -- he's having his own problems with the social conservative side given the reports on his lobbying for Planned Parenthood.

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Houston: Why isn't this huge news? "President Bush on Thursday acknowledged publicly for the first time that someone in his administration likely leaked the name of a CIA operative." ( From the AP.)

Peter Baker: Who says it's not?

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Wilmington, N.C.: Is the administration's compliance with the "progress report" requirement telling in and of itself? It strikes me as uncharacteristically meek of the administration to accede even this level of accountability to Congress.

Peter Baker: If I remember correctly, the notion of a July interim report was pushed by Republican Sen. John Warner, and the White House isn't interested in alienating him.

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Richmond, Va.: Chris Cillizza has an interesting take on why Vitter possibly will survive his D.C. Madam scandal and yesterday's other revelation. Yet most of Chris' analysis is focused on Louisiana politics, where many people with similar exposes have flourished. But my question is, what about the bigger picture in today's climate, where the GOP needs all the good news it can get? In short, is helping Vitter survive in the Republicans' interests?

washingtonpost.com: Assessing Sen. David Vitter's Political Future (washingtonpost.com, July 12)

Peter Baker: Cillizza is king, so I defer to his judgment on these things. In the bigger picture, the Vitter situation obviously doesn't help the Republicans generally, but at the moment at least it doesn't seem to be the sort of story that will be remembered much outside Louisiana and Washington a few months from now.

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Nuance: I found it interesting that in explaining Hayden's remarks to the Iraq Study Group, the President said they were more "nuanced" than as presented by Bob Woodward. Could you please remind him of his infamous comment to Sen. Biden many years ago, that "we don't do nuance"?

Peter Baker: Ah, but he didn't say his CIA director doesn't do nuance!

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Chicago: So five members of Sanchez' committee voted not to seek contempt findings against Miers. What's their justification? They just don't think Congress should have any authority at all? What?

Peter Baker: I don't know the answer, but I presume they must have been Republicans who think the president has a case for executive privilege.

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Unemployment: Interesting points from the previous poster, but misses a few others. For example, what growth has there been has been in temporary or short-term employment, in which workers get few or no benefits? This leads directly to the problem of fewer people with health insurance and therefore more people seeking care in emergency rooms. I know that some folks want to blame illegal immigrants, but in most communities it's our own citizens who are now part of the working poor that is straining the failing health care system. If people don't believe it's failing, take a look at the number of hospital closings there have been in the past decade compared to openings -- or the number of beds available if there were a disaster of some sort. In most places in the country we are looking at fewer resources, not more. With more than 40 million people not insured and millions more underinsured, the presidents' (and I use plural here because Clinton was only marginally better regarding this statistic) claims regarding employment are misleading at best.

Peter Baker: A couple more economic posts. Thanks for writing.

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Raleigh, N.C.: In response to Baltimore, the difference in the economic impact now vs. Vietnam is that we have an all-volunteer military. Many will remain in the military at the conclusion of the war. In addition, the numbers are nearly the same. Also, the assertion that the economy is driven by military manufacturing is way off-base -- name three plants that have been converted the way auto plants were during WWII. The economy is strong regardless.

Peter Baker: And here's another. Thanks.

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Hong Kong: There have been a lot of discussion recently about the constitutional issues raised by this administration -- the unitary executive, use of signing statements, appropriate use of pardons, appropriate use of executive privilege, the role of the vice president, etc. Given the importance of these subjects and the difficulty of addressing them in TV debates, would The Washington Post consider sending written questions on these to each presidential candidate so we know where they stand well before the election?

Peter Baker: That's a good idea. I'm sure it's the kind of thing we'll consider as we get closer to the elections. We have interest in their positions on a lot of issues so we'll have to think in a comprehensive way how we want to approach that. Appreciate the suggestion.

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Florissant, Mo.: In your experience, what was the "best" question ever posed at a presidential press conference -- i.e. one that the president couldn't dodge? Or is every politician able to dodge anything? I remember someone asking Clinton if he had anything personal he'd like to say to Monica Lewinsky, which I believe brought chuckles of appreciation for its deftness.

Peter Baker: Boxers or briefs was a good one. Of course, if memory serves, that was an MTV kid question, so I guess the MSM doesn't get credit. I'll have to think about that one -- there have been a lot of good questions through the years.

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Peter Baker: Well, the president's off stage and now it's time for us to go too. Thanks so much for another invigorating discussion. You guys are the best. Have a great day.

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