Broder on Politics

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David S. Broder
Washington Post Columnist
Friday, September 14, 2007; 12:00 PM

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and Washington Post columnist David S. Broder was online Friday, Sept. 14 at noon ET to answer your questions about the world of politics, from the latest maneuverings on Capitol Hill to developments in the White House.

Broder has written extensively about primaries, elections, special interests and the business of politics. His books include "Democracy Derailed: The Initiative Movement & the Power of Money," "Behind the Front Page: A Candid Look at How the News Is Made" and "The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point."

washingtonpost.com: McCain Finds His Footing (Post, Sept. 9)

The transcript follows.

Archive: David Broder discussion transcripts

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Arlington, Va.: It seems as if MoveOn and other far-left groups are driving the candidates for the Democratic Party nomination away from the center. Is this a concern for the general election? When MoveOn and others can't force an immediate drawdown (because they can't meet the 60- or 67-vote requirement in the Senate) will the anger and frustration splinter what looks to be a strong hand going into an election year?

David S. Broder: Good day to everyone joining in this chat. I think the MoveOn ad on Gen. Petraeus was disgraceful, and it probably did serious damage to the effort to shorten the Iraq war. Whether it will have long-term consequences for the Democrats is uncertain, but their silence was not very courageous.

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Denver: Mr. Broder, in your book on the failure of the Clinton health care plan, you said our political system makes it difficult or impossible to change key policies, no matter how much change is needed. Do you think the next president will be able to make fundamental changes in our health care system? Or will the political system block change again?

David S. Broder: I think fundamental reform will be difficult. But there are more and more important constituencies for change. The cost of health care has become major issue for business, for governments at all levels, and for individual families. A plan that addresses both the costs and availability of health care would have powerful appeal.

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Philadelphia: Would you say that a press (in the person of Fred Hiatt) that cheers on an attack on Iran; a president who refuses accountability for Iraq; a Congress that is unable or unwilling to hold him accountable; and consultants who focus on tiny triangulations and meaningless sound bites; together all signal the complete collapse of the Beltway as a functional ruling class? Or do you believe the collapse is only partial?

David S. Broder: I would say the disability is partial, not complete. There still are independent voices and people working within the system to try to make it function and meet its responsibilities. But the problems you cite are real, and I do not minimize them.

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Bowie, Md.: Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama strike me as exactly the kind of candidates who can win a Democratic nomination but not a general election. Are Democratic officials thinking about how to "big-tent" those candidates, or do they believe they can win with a party-base candidate?

David S. Broder: At the moment, all the emphasis is on tactics and positions that will help someone win the nomination. But some people are looking beyond that and they realize that in the end, the independents and ticket-splitters are likely to decide the election -- and their views count most heavily.

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Bennett Point, Md.: The party which has the better morale and is the most unified usually wins presidential elections. The Democrats fit that bill for 2008. Yet the presumptive favorite for the Democrats is Hillary Clinton, who almost half the voters already refuse to vote for. Are we in for a wild ride in 2008 or what?

David S. Broder: We are in for a wild ride, and it already is well under way. I expect much turbulence and much infighting.

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Arlington, Va.: The future of U.S. in Iraq is being compared to the Korea treaty of 1954. How will Secretary Rice compared to Eisenhower's Sec. John Foster Dulles, who had his hands full with Iran blockades and other world issues? (Data from an Eisenhower book by Stephen Ambrose.) Would the neighboring nations around Iraq make an agreement, like the 1954 Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the U.S., the Philippines and Korea?

David S. Broder: The nations surrounding Iraq are far less likely to form an alliance than those around Korea in the 1950s. Iran, Syria, Russia and Turkey all have their own conflicting interests -- and so does Israel. It will be a challenge for any secretary of state to do what Dulles did.

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Bow, N.H.: I am concerned about the long-term impact of our continuing mission in Iraq. The president last night forcefully made his case for what we should do in Iraq and why, but he (and others like Sen. McCain) steadfastly refuse to say how we can do that without breaking the Army or severely degrading our strategic position in the world. Are you hearing anyone ask these questions in Washington or on the campaign trail?

David S. Broder: The questions are being asked almost every day in the Senate -- they were asked of Gen. Petraeus -- but the answers are not forthcoming, because I am not sure they exist. We are fighting a major war over a long, long time with minimal resources -- and the strain clearly is showing.

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Fairfax, Va.: After reading The Post's fact-checking article about Bush's speech, was Bush being deceptive or delusional? But perhaps you have a different take on the president's speech?

washingtonpost.com: Fact-Checking the Speech (Post, Sept. 14)

David S. Broder: I have abandoned any hope of understanding the mental processes of this president. I cannot tell you how he reaches his conclusions. In this case, as in others, he seems to have defined the question very narrowly -- and to be accepting the judgment of an able battlefield commander, who acknowledged repeatedly before Congress that he does not have a broad perspective on American national security interests, but is focused on his sector assignment.

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Urbana, Ill.: The president's speech has not been met with rave reviews in the papers this morning. Do you think is gave Republican members of Congress, particularly in the Senate, enough cover to keep them from compromising with Democrats on a change in policy for Iraq?

David S. Broder: At this point, only a handful of Republican senators has voiced a demand for a change of policy. I had expected there would be more, and I think Petraeus has shored up the opposition to any dramatic change of course.

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Easton, Mass.: In previous columns, you've praised Sen. Lieberman as a wise moderate. What do you think about his recent views on Iran, such as his pressing of Petraeus to seek authority to fight and bomb Iranian forces inside Iran?

David S. Broder: I am not in favor of bombing Iran, but I think the United States should be seeking nonmilitary means of increasing pressure on that country, which is plainly a source of trouble in Iraq.

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Washington: Re: MoveOn ad: Mr. Broder, you have every right to deplore the attack on Gen. Petraeus. But I find your criticism of Democrats for not rising up as one to condemn it to be ridiculous, frankly. Did a single Democratic presidential candidate endorse the ad or have anything to do with it? Furthermore -- as at least one congressman has remarked -- it's kinda hard to distance yourself from something you had nothing to do with! In any event, now that you've proclaimed this new standard, I trust that you will be equally vigilant in condemning every Republican candidate who fails to disavow the kind of slanderous attacks on Democrats' patriotism we've seen ad nauseam since Sept. 11. Or perhaps you can explain why those are okay?

David S. Broder: I think Democrats should have denounced the MoveOn ad not because they are responsible for it, but because it was itself disgraceful. The wording was juvenile, the attack on Petraeus's character unjustified, and no matter what the source that sort of attack should be deplored. Of course, I hold the same view about ads or appeals from conservative groups that emulate those tactics. It's all scumbag.

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Re: The MoveOn Ad: I thought the MoveOn ad was over-the-top and tactically unwise, but isn't the central question it raises -- whether Petraeus is selectively presenting "facts" on the ground that confirm his views and leaving out those cited by other government and independent groups that don't -- extremely relevant and fair? Also, how has this one ad done "serious damage to the effort to shorten the Iraq war"? That implies that Bush and Republicans in Congress might have changed their positions, but then along came MoveOn and ruined everything...

David S. Broder: Of course it's far to question the evidence of Iraq presented by Petraeus and anyone else, but this ad went far beyond questioning or any kind of rational argument -- it was a character assassination. I don't know how much it affected Republican opinion, but my impression from interviews is that it hardened the opposition of some senators and infuriated a great many.

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Rochester, N.Y.: Sorry to send in so many questions today, but I'm struck once again that the "nastiness" of Washington is such a theme in this chat as it is in so many of the chats -- and indeed in many of your columns. I agree that politics has gotten too nasty, but don't you think that is partly your fault and the fault of others like you? Karl Rove was one of the foremost practitioners of the art of attack politics (having learned at the knee of Lee Atwater) and until fairly recently, you wrote favorably of him. The elite media -- such as yourself -- allowed and even encouraged Rovian attacks like the South Carolina push poll campaign against John McCain and the Swift Boating of John Kerry. Do you accept some responsibility for the current sorry state of political affairs?

David S. Broder: No, I know of no basis for saying that we in the press "allowed and even encouraged" Rove's attacks or the Swift-Boating of John Kerry. In a free country, the responsibility for political statements rests on those who make them -- and I am pretty sure you would find far more criticism in the press than support for the kind of attacks you and I both deplore.

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Centreville, Va.: West Germany: We stayed 50-plus years, resulting in a strong vibrant economy an independent Democratic government and a free people. East Germany: We didn't stay, resulting in a basket-case economy and an enslaved people. South Korea: We stayed 50-plus years, resulting in a strong vibrant economy, an independent Democratic government and a free people. North Korea: We didn't stay, resulting in a basket-case economy and an enslaved people. Japan: We stayed 50-plus years, resulting in a strong vibrant economy, an independent Democratic government and a free people. Vietnam: We didn't stay, resulting in a basket-case economy and an enslaved people. If you were an Iraqi citizen and looked at that history, would you want us in or out?

David S. Broder: I would want us to stay and provide the security blanket as we have done for the other countries you discussed. That is the Iraqi view. I am not certain it should be the American view.

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Chaska, Minn.: Wow, I give you guys credit for chutzpa! The surge fails to meet 15 out of 18 benchmarks. Multiple nonpartisan reports attest to the failures to almost all the benchmarks. Yet this General gets in front of our duly elected leaders and presents cherry-picked facts, overly optimistic reports and claims success for a dubious policy of arming our previous enemies in Anbar. All this deception and you wonder why many think the general has betrayed the country, the troops? The MoveOn ad disgraceful? I don't thinks so. Supporting this general and this policy is disgraceful

David S. Broder: I thank you for your letter, and readily acknowledge the legitimacy of the viewpoint you so forcefully express. I cannot argue that staying in Iraq guarantees any kind of good outcome; my Sunday column in fact suggests the opposite. But I still reject the personal assault on Gen. Petraeus's character.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Several years ago, you quite famously wrote about Bill Clinton something like, he trashed the place, and it's not his place. (Or were you quoted in the Sally Quinn piece?) As you may or may not be aware, that line is used as a sledgehammer on lefty blogs to bash you as the archetypal "too-cozy with the status quo" journalist. Just about every time you write something that's positive about a Republican or negative about a Democrat, that line gets cited.

The lefties interpret that line as you saying that "the place" is Establishment Washington, and think it demonstrates a mindset that gives the current president the benefit of the doubt because of his family (Prescott and 41) and some of the old Establishment Washington figures in his administration.

Would you like to take this opportunity to tell your readers what you really meant by that line? And if you really want to get into the good graces of lefty blogs, have Bush's actions with regard to such things as signing statements and recess appointments and the unitary executive and stove-piping intel and so forth also"trashed the place?"

David S. Broder: Thank you. The line that Sally Quinn quoted was, in context, referring to the White House as "the place." It was occasioned by my disgust at President Clinton having sexual assignations in and near the Oval Office with an intern the age of his own daughter. That is what I meant -- and it's all I meant.

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Princeton, N.J.: Re:Centreville, Va. -- we were never in East Germany or North Korea. The countries we stayed in were not engaged in violent civil strife. What's wrong with Vietnam's economy today?

David S. Broder: Your history is correct. I leave it to others, better-informed than I am, to assess Vietnam's economy.

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La Jolla, Calif.: Do you think that General Petraeus's supervisor, Admiral Fallon, the head of the US Central Command -- who recently was quoted as characterizing the general as a sycophant -- ought to be brought into a congressional hearing in order to get his viewpoints on the Iraq situation, including stating what his ideas are for the future of the Iraq occupation?

David S. Broder: I have not heard or read the Fallon quote you cite, but I certainly think his testimony would be valuable as Congress considers Iraq policy.

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Herndon, Va.: Karl Rove invented attack ads -- with support from the media? Well, that's certainly a novel theory! Anyone remember the fake-but-true October surprise that the Democrats and CBS ran to support the Kerry campaign? You cry about the Swift-Boating, but at least the Swift Boat stuff was true. And the Clintons are master practitioners of the art of slime. Sleazy politics is a thoroughly bipartisan sport these days.

David S. Broder: I agree that too many in both parties use these slimy tactics, and they are objectionable, whatever the source.

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Albany, N.Y.: You wrote that "No, I know of no basis for saying that we in the press "allowed and even encouraged" Rove's attacks or the Swift-Boating of John Kerry." Have you ever written any criticism of these attacks yourself? And by praising and defending Rove in your columns are you not, in effect, condoning his tactics? Why the double standard for MoveOn? I don't get it.

washingtonpost.com: David Broder, Sept. 26, 2004 -- "Time was when any outfit such as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that came around peddling an ad with implausible charges would have run into a hard-nosed reporter whose first questions -- before he or she ran with the story -- would have been, 'Who the hell are you guys? What's your angle? What's your proof?' "

David S. Broder: The answer to your question is yes. I questioned the Swift Boat ads and other slurs launched at both Gore and Kerry.

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Anonymous: "Of course, I hold the same view about ads or appeals from conservative groups that emulate those tactics." Could you cite an example of a comparable conservative group?

David S. Broder: See above.

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Norfolk, Va.: Why would the Democrats denounce the MoveOn.org ad? They agree with it! Hillary herself cast aspersions on the good General's character during the hearings. Just like rebuttals to the president's speech that were recorded before he gave it, the Democrats didn't listen to Petraeus -- they lectured him. And MoveOn.org just reflects their thinking.

David S. Broder: I thought Sen. Clinton's expression of doubt was a good deal more restrained than the MoveOn ad. Saying something requires "a willing suspension of belief" is a comment on one's own mental process, not an attack on the character of the witness.

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Crystal City, Va.: I realize that the Iraq debate is the elephant in the room, but are any of the candidates from either party putting out serious plans to deal with Social Security reform and the Medicaid bankruptcy scheduled to occur during the next administration? It's easy to be against private accounts, raising retirement age limits and lowering benefits -- but does anyone have a plan that will square the circle and have a chance of being passed?

David S. Broder: They are not, as far as I know, and their silence on the entitlement crisis is a terrible reflection on the emptiness of the current campaign.

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Alexandria, Va.: Since Sen. Clinton has accused Gen. Petraeus of perjury, saying his sworn testimony requires "a willing suspension of disbelief," can we expect the Dems to demand an investigation? After all, they're demanding one regarding Attorney General Gonzales, concerning far less consequential matters. Or should we simply dismiss her comments as mudslinging?

David S. Broder: As I said in answer to another question a moment ago, I thought Sen. Clinton's demurral was a rather mild one. It certainly is far from a charge of perjury, and I can see no basis for thinking that the Democrats are going there.

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San Jose, Calif.: I went to get a passport two weeks ago. Because of high demand, they warn that it can take 12 weeks to get a passport. I could pay to expedite it -- at quadruple the cost -- and get it in two weeks. So I did. I had to write three separate checks to do so (no cash or credit cards accepted). Further, while my check has my local address on it, because the bank's address was in another state, they wouldn't accept it! In the end, the passport for my son (not expedited) has arrived within two weeks, but mine is nowhere to be found.

Why am I boring you with this story of woe? Because this is what getting health care for my children will be like when the bureaucrats get a shot at administering it. Hillary should be careful -- we've all been to the DMV, and none of us want to go there when we have the flu.

David S. Broder: Your story is a very instructive one. I do not know what kind of health care plan Sen. Clinton will outline next week, but I doubt it is one that would have health care delivered or directly managed by the government. We shall see.

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Princeton, N.J.: Re Herndon: Perhaps the writer can give some reference for the statement the the Swift Boaters were correct. All the fact-checking I have seen concluded that they were nowhere near Kerry at the time. In fact, today the verb "to Swift-Boat" means to viscously, falsely attack.

David S. Broder: I agree.

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New York: The full weight of the mightiest military in the history of the world has been summoned to prosecute this war, and you describe these resources as minimal? Please explain.

David S. Broder: They are minimal in two respects: Nothing significant has been done to expand the pool of available manpower -- meaning that those who volunteered for active duty, Reserves or National Guard have experienced longer tours and more frequent returns to the battlefield than should have been the case -- and the rest of us have not been asked to pay for the war with higher taxes, as has been the case in past wars.

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Warrenville, Ill.: I've begun to wonder if the U.S. will soon no longer be able to sustain its hegemony. Bush last night said that the Iraqi government had to produce or else. ... But what "or else" can he threaten them with? Not that we'll leave -- only that we'll stay, which we're doing anyway. At this point the U.S. looks more and more helpless -- we can destroy, but we cannot rebuild. And others with comparatively primitive weapons can take a heavy toll on our troops with little danger to the insurgents themselves.

Does not the present state of Iraq invite real troublemakers to take on the U.S.? It's international news that the U.S. military has been pushed to -- or maybe even beyond -- its limits. The nation has few options, and those options seem to grow fewer day by day. Have we finally become the "pitiful, helpless giant" that President Nixon said we would be if we pulled out of an unwinnable war?

David S. Broder: I think it goes too far to describe us as "a pitiful, helpless giant," to use Nixon's words. Whatever else they said, Petraeus and Crocker were able to cite examples of places in Iraq where American intervention has helped stabilize the situation and encouraged some Iraqis to step forward. But, as I said in answer to a previous question, Iraq has been fought with a minimal commitment, and this nation is vulnerable -- overstretched, less able to respond to other challenges. And that is a real risk.

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New York: Regarding your response to the question of Lieberman and Iran, is Lieberman's position a responsible one? I understand that you personally oppose attacking Iran, but I'm asking how you would characterize Lieberman's position. Is his position worthy of a serious person?

David S. Broder: I don't know how to characterize his position -- except to say I disagree with it. As you may have gathered, I am opposed to labeling or libeling people because of policy disagreements.

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Way to go, Centreville, Va.!: East Germany and North Korea are excellent side-by-side examples of the impact of American "occupation." Same people, same infrastructure, same environment, same everything -- wildly divergent results. I thought the original question was really well-put.

And ask the Vietnamese people if they enjoyed the last 30 years in Communist re-education camps before you proclaim everything "fine." It took them 30 years to get rid of the Communists -- we prevented Communist takeover in West Germany and South Korea...

David S. Broder: I think you have the history -- and the politics -- right.

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Dale City, Va.: Thanks for doing these chats. What did you think of John Edwards buying time to respond to Bush's speech? I liked the idea that he or his campaign was paying, and we got at least one fewer product commercial for the show.

David S. Broder: I did not see the Edwards response, but I am in favor of making the policy dialogue as open as possible.

I want to thank all of you for a stimulating hour. Now I have to go back to work.

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