Post Politics Hour

Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Congressional Reporter
Friday, September 7, 2007; 11:00 AM

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Washington Post congressional reporter Shailagh Murray was online Friday, Sept. 7 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest news in politics.

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The transcript follows.

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.

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washingtonpost.com: Jonathan Weisman won't be able to participate this morning; Shailagh Murray be filling in.

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Shailagh Murray: Hello everyone ... I'm the emergency fill-in for Jonathan this morning, but as we sit next to each other and basically cover the same thing, I will attempt to channel him, thus providing two chatters for the price of one.

Bring on your questions. There could not be more going on.

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Crestwood, N.Y.: So the brilliant Karen DeYoung has once again proven -- it seems like for the millionth time, but this has only been going on for six and a half years -- that the Bush/Cheney gang lives and dies by propaganda. You can't take a single thing they say at face value; in the famous words of Mrs. McCarthy, every word they say is a lie, including the "a" and "the."

So the question is, do the Democrats in Congress read any newspapers? Why do I get the feeling that they are about to play a strong poker hand into another miserable failure? What is it they say, scared money don't win? The voters already have tuned out Petraeus according to the Rasmussen Polls, and they want this war over. What do people like Pelosi or Reid fear? President George W. Thirty Percent? Getting audited? What am I missing here?

washingtonpost.com: Experts Doubt Drop In Violence in Iraq (Post, Sept. 6)

washingtonpost.com: Iraqi Army Unable To Take Over Within A Year, Report Says (Post, Sept. 6)

Shailagh Murray: Yes, we are all in awe of Karen. Such a fine journalist.

As to the Democrats and this war debate, I expect we are entering the murkiest phase yet. Yes, the Democrats are scaling back their ambitions, but the dynamic in Iraq has changed since the spring, and it is so hard to score these issues in the black-and-white way that many people would like. I expect many of you in the antiwar community will be very disappointed a month from now.

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Bethesda, Md.: The Craig scandal sure has the Republican leadership divided. Is Arlen Specter really backing Craig? From what I have read, most Senators are backing off...

Shailagh Murray: I'm rubbing my eyes, wondering if that whole Craig episode was for real.

My sense talking to folks is that Republicans are not really divided on Craig -- they recognized as soon as the story broke that there was no way he could return. Some visual images live on forever -- you just couldn't see him walking on to the Senate floor ever again. I do think that some believe McConnell was a bit of a hit man in his response, but I think the idea was to get the message across loud and clear, to break through the walls of denial.

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Rochester, N.Y.: Shailagh, I know you get sick of these kinds of questions, but no one else here will ever answer them, so please consider these: Why is that the Norman Hsu story has gotten so much attention when similar scandals involving Republicans receive so little? I'm referring to Giuliani's South Carolina chair getting busted for dealing cocaine and a major Romney fundraiser in Utah facing charges of fraud and sexual abuse of minors? Also -- this relates to the first question -- why does official Washington hate the Clintons so much? Why? Broder et al go on about how they love pragmatic centrists, but constantly berate the Clintons for essentially being pragmatic centrists. What's the deal?

washingtonpost.com: Ex-Fugitive's Fundraising Talent Put Him on Democrats' A-List (Post, Sept. 7)

washingtonpost.com: Broder: The Making of a Frontrunner (Post, Sept. 6)

Shailagh Murray: The difference between the Norman Hsu story and the South Carolina cocaine bust is that the former resurrects some of the most serious questions that dogged Clinton One, about the way they raise money. But you make a valid point -- perhaps those other episodes got too little attention. I would argue that the coverage of Craig's bathroom capers more than tipped the scales against the Republicans this month, if you want to weigh scandal in column inches.

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Washington: Great talks ... so, here's my question. Other than playing presidents and talking tough in acting roles, how is Fred Thompson any more experienced in foreign policy, military policy or any other policy than is Obama? And if the experience questions dog Obama, do you think they will dog Thompson? And if they don't, isn't that a bit of a media double standard?

Shailagh Murray: I don't hear many people arguing that Thompson is more or less experienced than Obama. But I get what you're saying. One of the reasons Obama may attract a lot of resume scrutiny is because of his age and the fact that he looks young. Through the years voters have proven pretty open-minded to candidates of different backgrounds (Carter, Reagan, etc) and I would imagine that given the mix of people in the race (woman, African American man, Mormon, several folks with multiple marriages) chances are we will see another first.

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Wilmington, N.C.: Ms. Murray, Aug. 31: "Petraeus is expected to report to Congress next month that there are some signs of progress in Iraq and that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal could be disastrous." That would be your voice, no? I'd like to know: What makes a withdrawal plan precipitous? Who establishes those standards? Who are the proponents of "precipitous" withdrawal?

Shailagh Murray: Precipitous in this case would be more quickly than military leaders believe is sensible, based on their mission and the situation on the ground. Believe it or not, a lot of Democrats are concerned about withdrawing too many troops too quickly. You can be against the war, but also against mucking it up.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Anne Kornblut said recently that it is too late for Democrats to enter the race, in spite of the fact that Fred has joined the Republicans. Do you agree?

Shailagh Murray: We'll see how quickly Fred Thompson can get organized and raise serious money. He seems to be having trouble keeping staff, and that's never a good sign.

I agree with Anne. I think there are very few Democrats who could enter the race at this point and expect to gain traction. Maybe Gore is an exception, but I never thought he would run anyway.

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Washington: Fred Thompson is a big, big guy with a deep voice. Do you think his physical presence gives him an edge on the campaign trail, not only against the other Republicans, but, if he makes it, especially against Hillary, since Americans traditionally like big men as presidents?

Shailagh Murray: Yes, I do. Superficial attributes are important, and that's a scientific fact (I did a story on this last year; political scientists repeatedly have found that good-looking candidates are more successful). I don't know about the Hillary contrast, but I do think it helps him stand out, literally and figuratively.

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washingtonpost.com: Democratic Faces That Could Launch Thousands of Votes (Post, Oct. 14, 2006)

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Anonymous: Unless and until they find his spine (missing for six years or more) why does anyone give any credit to Specter ... he always seems to make brave public statements only to fold in execution ... even his standing up for Craig is a model of not quite living up to the boldness of his public stance.

Shailagh Murray: You are not the first to raise this point about Specter. For the life of me, I don't know why he did it. I can see how Larry Craig could have fought the original charges, but overturning the guilty plea seems like a fool's errand.

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Campbell, Mo.: Thanks for taking questions today. My question is, how can Fred Thompson win in Iowa or New Hampshire when he hasn't had an organization in place for months like the other candidates, or is he planning to bypass them to concentrate in South Carolina?

Shailagh Murray: Well, that's the question. How indeed? And he can't bypass those states. Not with all the front-loading this year.

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Anonymous: "The difference between the Norman Hsu story and the South Carolina cocaine bust is that the former resurrects some of the most serious questions that dogged Clinton I, the way they raise money."

Did you forget to mention not one of those "serious questions" ever produced evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the Clintons? An oversight, I'm sure. I suppose that ought to raise the question of why those baseless charges "dog" them then, and apparently influence your reporting now.

Shailagh Murray: I think if you do word association with "Lincoln Bedroom," few people will answer, "Mary Todd."

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Bin Laden's Beard: Do you think he's been watching Keith Hernandez's Just for Men Commercials? You know, "no more play for Mr. Gray"?

washingtonpost.com: Osama gets a makeover (Michelle Malkin, Sept. 6)

Shailagh Murray: Another politician who appreciates the advantages of looking good.

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Rockville, Md.: What is going on with Sen. Reid? He seems to have found a report on Iraq that he likes.

washingtonpost.com: Gen. Rorschach and the Iraq-Shaped Inkblot (Post, Sept. 7)

Shailagh Murray: Sen. Reid has a real challenge on his hands. He knows he cannot end the war through legislation -- not at this point.

As I said earlier, this is going to be a very murky month as far as Iraq policy-making goes. The terms that Congress debated earlier this summer are not really valid at this point. The March 31 end date is dead, at least as a viable option. So, what are the alternatives? That's what they're now exploring.

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New York: Regarding Specter and Craig: You must have heard the theory that Specter sought to keep the Craig story in play as a way of getting back at the religious-right Republicans who (at the time they had the power) made him grovel to keep his spot on Judiciary.

Shailagh Murray: Yeah, but he really put McConnell and Lott in a tough spot.

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How has Iraq changed?: You write "the dynamic in Iraq has changed since the spring." According to the reporting in your newspaper, the only dynamic that has changed is the political one in Washington. What's actually changed in Iraq? Is the civil war over? Is the government functioning? What?

Shailagh Murray: Well, this is the problem. The tribal dynamic, for instance, is something new that I think a lot of people didn't anticipate. It wasn't part of the model, but it may be a promising development that could lead to more stability from the ground up. I'm not arguing anything here! Just conveying what I'm hearing from politicians, which is that the pieces have moved around on the chess board. I would bet a surprising number lawmakers study these reports closely and listen to the testimony. I don't think many members of Congress think there are many sure answers at this point.

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New York: It seems the lefties are out in force today, finding media bias everywhere. That used to be the regular complaint from the right. With most everything coming up roses for the Dems, why do you suppose they seem so cranky?

Shailagh Murray: Once my mother called me and said "who is this Kos person and why does he hate you so much?" And that was a few years ago!

Heck, I don't know. I try not to pay any attention to it.

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Washington: Do you think that both Dems and Repubs are actually secretly glad Iraq is still going? In reality, it only affects a small handful of people who have loved ones serving and it allows both sides to virtually ignore thorny domestic issues like health insurance, illegal immigration and the sub-prime loan mess. Yes, they pay lip-service, but I've yet to see real leadership from either side on any of these issues.

Shailagh Murray: No, I do not think they are glad. I think most elected officials are anguished and conflicted about the war, regardless of what they say in public.

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Buffalo, N.Y.: What do you think is the chance that the various reports on Iraq coming out/recently arrived will allow a more nuanced debate? Seems like hasty withdrawal would result in a bloodbath and at least a symbolic victory for al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Remaining will give that same group an ever-better recruiting rationale and further diminish the U.S.'s reputation abroad. When are we likely to see some realpolitik discussions about things like further funding (personally, I feel the antiwar group should push for a tax increase to fund the war), the need for a draft, the need to have clear in our own minds what "victory" means, etc.?

Shailagh Murray: It would seem at this point that the debate will be a lot more nuanced, and therefore unsatisfying for war opponents. I know, I'm a broken record today on this subject, but there's a lot of incoming information to sift through and I expect Congress to weigh it all seriously. If you all want to play lawmaker for a day, read all of this stuff yourself and then come up with a bill that will get 67 Senate votes.

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Washington: Boy, lots of loaded questions from the left today! Here's one from the right: Isn't one of the main reasons why congressional Democrats are timid on the Iraq issue the fact that it is not so clear that the fight in Iraq is going as poorly as the party may portray it?

Shailagh Murray: Thanks for writing.

Here's my humble opinion: This is not a Nascar race, it's a war, and while it would be a lot easier if you had a simple way of calculating winning and losing, that doesn't exist.

I don't think congressional Democrats have been timid at all on the war. They voted to cut off funding for it! Goodness, that would have been a hanging offense not long ago. But, this is a different day, and the debate has entered into a new phase. I would bet by the time I'm doing this chat again a week from Monday, we'll be looking at a whole new set of calculations.

Thanks to all for joining me, have a great weekend. Cheers.

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