Post Politics Hour

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Dan Balz
Washington Post Chief Political Reporter
Monday, September 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 chief political reporter Dan Balz was online Monday, Aug. 27, at 11 a.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Post Politics Hour discussion transcripts

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Dan Balz: Good morning. All eyes here in Washington are on Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker as they begin their testimony about the state of affairs in Iraq. Lots of implications that Post reporters and editors will be monitoring in every possible way. We will try to keep everyone updated with postings on the Web throughout the afternoon and with a full report in Tuesday's paper. I also urge everyone to look back through our weekend coverage for an excellent summation of how we got to this week.

With that, let's go to your questions.

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Philadelphia: The Bush/Petraeus "Report" is all the rage in the discussions online and in the newspapers. I put report in quotes because there won't actually be anything written down to make the "report" a real report. But what I find very interesting is the lack of importance ascribed to the fact that Petraeus's superior, Admiral Fallon, disagrees with Petraeus's conclusions about the surge and the Iraq strategy in general. Why do you think this isn't getting much play?

Dan Balz: Well, it got quite a lot of play in our Sunday paper in a piece reported and written by a team of reporters who cover the White House, Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council. The face-off between Adm. Fallon and Gen. Petraeus was the opening anecdote for a very full piece about the surge policy. I would think others would be making more of it.

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Washington: Today's article by Michael Abramowitz outlined doubts raised by congressional Democrats about Gen. Petraeus's report, but never mentioned The Post's most recent poll results showing that a majority of the public also thinks the report will "exaggerate progress in Iraq," to quote yesterday's Post article on the poll. The results of the paper's own poll would've provided excellent context for this article, so why wasn't it mentioned? (The cynic might say that it was ignored in order to make today's article theme about "Dems playing politics with the war," a theme repudiated by the polling.)

washingtonpost.com: Wide Skepticism Ahead of Assessment (Post, Sept. 9)

washingtonpost.com: Congress, White House Battle Over Iraq Assessment (Post, Sept. 10)

Dan Balz: I think Mike's piece was trying to do something different than restating what had been in our Sunday poll story.

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Silver Spring, Md.: So last week congressman Duncan Hunter won the GOP Texas straw poll, after earlier winning in Arizona and finishing in a virtual tie for first with Giuliani and McCain in South Carolina. How many more states do you figure he needs to win before political reporters actually, you know, notice that he's running?

washingtonpost.com: Hunter Wins Texas GOP Straw Poll (Sept. 2)

Dan Balz: Through the years, straw polls rarely have been an indicator of much in terms of presidential politics. The only exception is the Iowa Republican straw poll because campaigns generally take it seriously and recruit people to attend (even buy their tickets) and treat it as a test of organizational strength. Most of the rest of mean little. You can find a lot of candidates through the years who won a straw poll or two but never went anywhere in the real campaign. If you go to Iowa or New Hampshire, where the candidates really are competing, Rep. Hunter has yet to make a real mark. Maybe that will change, but it seems unlikely.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: A comment: The sad thing about this Monday in Washington is that more people will be talking about Britney Spears performance last night on the MTV Video Music Awards than Gen. Petraeus's performance on Capitol Hill today. The dirty little secret about Iraq is that most Americans can't find it on the map and could care less about what happens there. With no draft and less than one percent of U.S. citizens serving in the military I'm afraid far too many people look the other way and divert themselves with talk about the Redskins. When they do, they think of the country like a football game -- winning and losing. And when Bush says we're "kicking ass" or "bring it on" they cheer. I'm afraid this president knows he has a nation of sheep and as long as this shepherd feels he can kick his Iraq game plan down the road and let the problem be handled by the next administration -- in overtime -- he'll do just that. Please forgive my cynicism.

washingtonpost.com: In VMA Comeback, Britney Makes All The Wrong Moves (Post, Sept. 10)

Dan Balz: I would disagree with you on several points. I don't think the MTV awards are drawing as much comment in Washington as the Petraeus hearings, no matter how unimpressive Britney's performance was. Second, your suggestion that Bush leads a nation of sheep is not supported by public opinion surveys. The public disagrees with the president's war policies and has for some time. He has decided to pursue them in spite of public opinion, not because of it.

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The Petraeus show: Dan: How can the administration expect the American people to view Petraeus's reporting as untainted by politics when they're serving him up on Fox News tonight in an "exclusive"? Isn't that a little blatant even for them?

Dan Balz: Before I answer this, I'm pasting in a different version of the same question:

San Francisco: How can Sen. Joe Biden possibly chair a fair Foreign Relations Committee hearing for Gen. Petraeus after saying on Tim Russert's show that the General is "dead flat wrong"? Doesn't he owe the general a fair hearing first about how well the surge is working?

Here's what I would say to both: This is a highly politicized moment and both sides of this debate are employing whatever tools they have available to make their case. If the White House decides to put Gen. Petraeus on Fox or if Sen. Biden decides to offer a prebuttal the day before, that's their choice. What's important is what this adds up to. I'd urge people to listen to what everyone has to say -- Petraeus, Biden, Bush, others -- and draw their own conclusions.

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Rochester, N.Y.: Dan, why is the press so preoccupied with the supposed unpopularity of the Democratic Congress? The much-cited low approval ratings largely are the product of low approval ratings among Democratic voters, the Democrats are destroying the Republicans in fundraising thus far, and generic ballots show Democrats with a 10-18 point lead over Republicans in Congress (see Rasmussen reports). Why can't you all just admit that the Democrats are showing every sign of maintaining the House and Senate in 2008 and stop with the "they're unpopular too" nonsense?

Dan Balz: I don't think anyone has said that because approval ratings of Congress are down, Democrats are likely to lose their majorities next year. If you've seen that, please pass it along. We all have reported the decline in congressional approval -- and specifically the erosion among liberal Democrats -- as evidence of the fallout from the Iraq debate this year. Other evidence points to Democratic success in congressional elections in 2008. But shouldn't this be about more than winning or losing elections? Should even a winning party be happy if an overwhelming majority of the public disapproves of its performance in office?

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Richmond, Va.: Sorry to ask a question about another publication, but I wonder if you could try to explain this: In the latest New York Times poll, it revealed that 68 percent of Americans would leave the decisions about the war up to the military instead of Congress or the president. I was puzzled about this, because for the past five years the military has not done a very good job in Iraq, and the surge was really about Bush's legacy. Am I right or wrong in thinking that trusting the "military" is a default position because the Congress and Bush have such a low ratings when it comes to this war?

washingtonpost.com: Americans Feel Military Is Best at Ending the War (New York Times, Sept. 10)

Dan Balz: I think you're probably right, that it reflects disaffection with both the president and Congress. The military is one institution that still enjoys public respect and I think this is another example of that.

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Chicago: The Post had a great article yesterday on the history of the "surge." Aren't the tactics Bush is using to promote the "surge" -- extensive PR, selective use of facts, challenging the patriotism of critics, etc. -- the exact same ones he used to get us into Iraq in the first place? Kudos to The Post for trying to give this issue some breathing room so that at least there's a chance that the country won't make yet another hasty decision that takes us further into this quagmire.

washingtonpost.com: Among Top Officials, 'Surge' Has Sparked Dissent, Infighting (Post, Sept. 9)

Dan Balz: Thanks for you kind words about this article, which I flagged earlier. We are trying to report this, as the old saying goes, "without fear or favor."

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Rockville, Md.: For the sake of discussion (and some perspective), five years from now, will the general's speech today be seen more for its information or as a high point of partisan interpretation? With MoveOn.org calling him "General Betray us" few can deny the partisan tone of the observers. But The Post has reported few will believe him. I suspect the mood is "my mind is made up, and I don't need more facts." What is your take?

Dan Balz: I think it will be seen as one moment in a long continuum. A few months ago, people thought this week might be a major turning point in the war, or at least the debate over the war. But the partisan divide remains pretty large right now. We'll see in a month or so whether Republicans in Congress have moved away from President Bush by demanding a substantial change in policy and the start of a significant draw down of troops.

That's a way of saying I can't predict the future five years from now.

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La Vale, Md.: Thanks for chatting this morning. What are the big events between now and January that will or could really start moving the presidential candidates' poll number in the early states? Is there a big debate in Iowa, New Hampshire or both that really will focus the voters' attention?

Dan Balz: There are a host of debates between now and the end of the year among the Democrats; fewer among the Republicans. Various things could move the polls: TV ads will begin soon, and candidates like Clinton and Obama have tons of money to dump into Iowa and New Hampshire; the Iraq debate could crystallize in some new way, although that seems unlikely.

Voters in the early states will begin to sort out the candidates after Thanksgiving. The other and least predictable thing that could move polls is a particular moment, be it in a debate or by a candidate, that attracts attention. Often this is something that negatively affects a candidate. The Republican race, as we've said for a long time, is more volatile and therefore given to potential changes. The Democratic race is one in which a number of candidates are fighting to become the real alternative to Hillary Clinton.

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Gettysburg, Pa.: Good morning Dan. What's the latest story about when the early primaries are going to be? If Michigan is now Jan. 15, 2008, wouldn't New Hampshire have to be Jan. 8, which would make Iowa's caucus on New Year's Day? (Seems like a bad time for a caucus, but maybe they don't drink a lot on New Year's Eve or watch much college football in Iowa.) How do South Carolina and Nevada then fit into the mix?

Dan Balz: This is still fluid. New Hampshire could move to Jan. 8, but that would not necessarily mean Iowa would be Jan. 1. Iowa generally holds its caucuses eight days before the New Hampshire primary but this year could be different. Iowa Gov. Chet Culver has said he prefers not to push the caucuses into December and that he is open to a calendar that might put Iowa only a few days ahead of New Hampshire. Everyone is waiting -- and will have to wait awhile longer -- for New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner to announce the date for that state's primary. But there are lots of discussions going on among various parties involved, and something of a game of chicken with states like Michigan and Florida challenging the status of Iowa and New Hampshire as the early influentials.

You asked also about South Carolina and Nevada. South Carolina Republicans have moved up their primary to Jan. 19 but the Democrats there have not moved off of their Jan. 29 date. Nevada was given a prime slot by the Democratic National Committee and is scheduled to hold its caucuses on Jan. 19.

But almost everything is in flux right now.

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Washington: I suppose we'll find out later today, but what's the scuttlebutt on Hagel's retirement? Seems a bit unexpected...

washingtonpost.com: Hagel Is Expected to Quit Electoral Politics (Post, Sept. 9)

Dan Balz: Not really unexpected, just somewhat delayed in announcing. He announced this morning he would not run for reelection and did not intend to be a candidate for anything in 2008. But there has been talk, as you probably know, about him teaming up with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as vice presidential candidate on an independent ticket. Of course, Bloomberg says he's not running, so there's nothing for Hagel to say on that front.

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Plano, Texas: "Dan Balz: I would disagree with you on several points. I don't think the MTV awards are drawing as much comment in Washington as the Petraeus hearings, no matter how unimpressive Britney's performance was. Second, your suggestion that Bush leads a nation of sheep is not supported by public opinion surveys. The public disagrees with the president's war policies and has for some time. He has decided to pursue them in spite of public opinion, not because of it."

I beg to differ. There's a reason why "Entertainment Tonight" gets far higher ratings than any cable news or commentary show that dares to delve deeper into Iraq than the "here's today's number of casualties and each side's comment on how the war is going" "coverage" that we get on the network news. I would venture to guess that 90 percent of Americans outside the Beltway couldn't have told you David Petraeus's name, much less spelled it, prior to the past couple of weeks. A higher percentage would be thoroughly unable to name any of the other generals (retired or otherwise) who have been more critical of what we're doing in Iraq.

As for the nation being sheep, they clearly are. Bush's popularity was down before the last election, and nose-dived again right after it. Yet enough of the "attentive" public were able to be diverted, in the narrow window of November 2004, to such "pressing" national issues as gay marriage (again) so that we could re-elect an overgrown frat boy who, after 6 1/2 years in office, apparently has yet to learn that "Austrians" don't hail from Australia.

Dan Balz: Thanks for your posting.

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Washington: I think you may have misunderstood the question about Petraeus on Fox. The implication was that Fox News is the "house organ" for the administration. Rather than sending Petraeus out to face what might be a tough line of questioning on a legitimate news outlet -- or range of outlets -- they send him in for softball questions from the "good guys." Not that I necessarily agree -- these guys often will show up on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, where partisan hackery is the very oxygen. ... Or perhaps you did understand the question, and were suggesting that Matthews was equally "in the tank" for the Democrats?

Dan Balz: Well, actually he'll be taking a lot of questions from members of Congress of both parties, so it isn't as though he won't be facing some potentially tough questioning. I would make more out of what happens in extended appearances on Capitol Hill than a much briefer interview on Fox.

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Los Angeles: Rudy Giuliani was a big city mayor with a nasty streak known for shooting from the hip with mixed results. After his city was attached, he suddenly -- and to me inexplicably -- became a noted expert on terrorism and national security. If I am in an auto accident, does that make me into an expert on auto safety? Am I being unfair, or is there less there than meets the eye with respect to Rudy's national security credentials?

Dan Balz: People have given Mayor Giuliani credit for his performance at a moment of crisis for his city and the country. That may not equate to being a national security expert -- people can argue about his qualifications on that, or for that matter the qualifications of lots of candidates -- but how elected officials handle a crisis is one way to gauge their fitness for being president. That is not the only measure, certainly, and everything we know about the mayor's record in New York tells us there are pluses and minuses.

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Tappahannock, Va.: Will Rogers used to say he never met a man he didn't like. It appears the Democratic candidates have never met a debate/forum they didn't like. Let's see: the gay channel, the Spanish channel, YouTube, AFL-CIO, AARP, NAACP and I've probably missed a few. The Republicans have avoided all of these. So Dan, in your opinion is it better to be the omnivorous Democrats or the Republican picky eaters? (Debate wise, that is.)

washingtonpost.com: In a First, a Candidate Forum in Translation (Post, Sept. 10)

Dan Balz: There are too many Democratic debates. Everyone would prefer fewer, including the candidates. The Republicans, however, might benefit from some unconventional sponsors or formats.

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Granger, Ind.: Question: Can you remember another time in history where the president of the United States has seemingly ceded so much authority to a single general? To listen to Bush, it sounds as if Petraeus has become "The Decider" while Bush himself is just "The Implementer," or something like that. I know that presidents are supposed to take advice from their generals, but in this case it sounds as if Bush is waiting for Petraeus to set American policy. Or is is that Bush always has known what he's going to do, and what Petraeus is going to say, and all this "listen to David" business has been yet another bit of White House theater?

Dan Balz: The president is not a bystander this week but he no doubt believes that Gen. Petraeus has credibility with a wider swath of the public -- and Congress wanted this report from both Petraeus and Crocker.

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Bow, N.H.: Is anyone on the Hill likely to ask Petraeus how long he can sustain the so-called surge? Even if it has been successful in the short-term, do we have enough troops available to sustain the current levels for as long as it will take to consolidate these security gains and convert them into political progress?

Dan Balz: Military experts say the surge will have to start to end in the spring, simply because the military cannot sustain the current number of troops there now beyond the spring. What the administration is trying to head off is a demand from Congress for a withdrawal timetable that calls for a more substantial drawdown beginning earlier.

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Falls Church, Va.: Military vs. Bush/Congress in control -- in "Fiasco" Tom Ricks lays out how the military leaders wanted a completely different strategy with much more troops in Iraq in the first months, while Wolfowitz, Rummy, Cheney, etc. wanted fewer troops than actually were sent. Politics drove the original plan as a compromise between the two. So I don't think its fair to blame the military with poor strategy for the first six years, and celebrate bush increasing forces with 30,000-50,000 more troops lately.

Dan Balz: Tom's book is a brilliant analysis of what went wrong. By the way, he'll be blogging live from the Petraeus hearings for our Web site this week.

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Newton, Mass.: Don't you think there's difference between Petraeus going on Fox and Biden going on "Meet the Press"? Petraeus is a general and Biden is Democratic senator. Your explanation seems basically to concede that Petraeus is being used by the White House as the central tool in their media campaign. In effect, they are using him as the face of their partisan initiative to try and get some of the deference the military generally gets for being nonpartisan.

Dan Balz: My point is that both sides are using tools available to them to make their arguments. Gen. Petraeus is not an elected official but he is in a highly political position this week. In this day and age, it certainly is not uncommon for military officers to be on television for interviews.

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Dan Balz: Thanks to everyone for participating today. Now some last-minute plugs: Stay abreast of the Petraeus-Crocker testimony through our Web site and in tomorrow's paper. Follow presidential campaign news on the web through The Trail and The Fix. And come back tomorrow for another member of our political team, who will answer your latest questions.

Have a great week.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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