Post Politics Hour

Peter Baker
Washington Post White House Reporter
Thursday, September 20, 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, Sept. 20 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest in political news.

The transcript follows.

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Peter Baker: Good morning, everyone. President Bush is holding a news conference as we speak and vowing again to veto a bill expanding a program to provide health care coverage for children, congressional Democrats are smarting over their failure to pass legislation influencing Iraq policy or detainee policy, Rudy Giuliani is in London unilaterally offering NATO membership to Israel, Hillary Clinton is bringing past campaign finance scandal figures back into the fold, the rest of the presidential candidates are airing ads, raising money and doing the things candidates do. So let's get going.


Waterville, Maine: Hi Peter. What is the consensus among the Washington elite on the impact of yesterday's vote in the Senate on the Webb amendment? Is this likely to bolster the chances of an expanded Democratic majority, given the argument that a strong majority could have made a difference? Alternatively, is it likely to demoralize and deflate the chances of a Democratic "surge" vote? Any impact on the presidential race? I would assume that the situation in Iraq a year from now will determine the success or failure of the Democrats to mobilize, but I would hope the desire for change will overwhelm whatever "progress" is being made in Iraq. What do you think? Longer Leaves for Troops Blocked (Post, Sept. 20)

Peter Baker: It's probably a little early to say what impact it will have. The specific vote yesterday on the Webb amendment, which would have mandated that troops have as much time serving at home as they do in a combat zone, is just a piece of a broader challenge for Democrats. Can they force change? Do they really want to force change? Or do they prefer to have the issue for the 2008 elections? Hard to say. We're a full 14 months before the general election and a lot of things will happen between now and then. The issues that look most powerful 14 months before an election sometimes diminish or change dynamics by the time voting begins. My colleague, Mike Abramowitz, wrote this morning on The Trail that some figures ranging from Karl Rove to Richard Haass are positing the theory that Iraq will not be as big an issue a year from now. Having said that, Iraq is a more consuming issue than most and it's hard at the moment to imagine that it won't be a defining issue, if not the defining issue a year from now. How it plays out, very fluid. A lot depends on what it looks like on the ground. It's interesting how poll numbers have not shifted meaningfully at all since General Petraeus testified last week and President Bush decided to pull out the 21,700 "surge" troops, which suggests the public has made up its mind and is deeply skeptical.


Washington: Why is the president still threatening to veto the Children's Health Insurance Program reauthorization bill when the Congress has compromised and the public strongly supports it? Is the calculation that the far-right support for such a move counteracts even widespread public disapproval? Video: Bush Press Conference (, Live Now)

Peter Baker: The president says that he views it as an unjustified expansion of the program that would substitute government for private-sector insurance for many children. Here's how he explained it: "Their proposal would result in taking a program meant to help poor children and turning it into one that covers children in households with incomes of up to $83,000 a year. The proposal would move millions of American children who now have private health insurance into government-run health care. Our goal should be for children who have no health insurance to be able to get private coverage, not for children who already have private health insurance to be able to get government coverage." As a political matter, he's left himself on the minority end in Washington, with many of his Republican lawmakers bucking him on this. The program is popular among both Democrats and Republicans, so he's taking a risk on this. The president has been eager to demonstrate his bona fides on fiscal conservatism, this ends up being his first red line. It's probably not one many political strategists would have picked, since it's a program involving children.


Atlanta: Peter, you just said, "congressional Democrats are smarting over their failure to pass legislation influencing Iraq policy or detainee policy" -- but they didn't fail to pass legislation, they failed, along with six Republicans to stop the filibuster by the majority of Republicans. I wonder why you and the story failed to mention this truth? Thank you.

Peter Baker: Well, I'm not sure there's a distinction there. In the Senate, if you fail to overcome a filibuster, you fail to pass legislation. That's the way it works there. And the story gave the vote count very explicitly. Here's the first two paragraphs of the story by Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman:

Senate Republicans yesterday rejected a bipartisan proposal to lengthen the home leaves of U.S. troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, derailing a measure that war opponents viewed as one of the best chances to force President Bush to accelerate a redeployment of forces.

The proposal, sponsored by Sens. James Webb (D-Va.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), failed on a 56 to 44 vote, with 60 votes needed for passage -- a tally that was virtually identical to a previous vote in July. A last-minute campaign by the Defense Department and the White House to kill the measure won over Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), an influential voice on defense policy who had voted with Webb and Hagel in July.


Kingston, N.Y.: Peter, I keep hearing that our unemployment rates are relatively low. Do you know if the size of our army and mercenary companies affect this at all? Will peace drive up these rates? Thanks.

Peter Baker: I'm no economist, but the military has not up until now expanded its size all that significantly in proportion to the overall workforce. The Pentagon is now planning to add about another 90,000 soldiers and Marines, I believe. But again in a workforce of about 153 million, even that increase will be a drop in the bucket.


Florida: You do not reference in your intro the rally being held in Jena, La. today. This is a major news event taking place in the country today. I applaud two White House reporters for asking Bush about it just now; it's too bad no one has asked him about it up to now. Instead we harp on the people running for president and their opinions, instead of the current president, who actually is in power. Protesters to Converge on Louisiana Town (Post, Sept. 20)

Peter Baker: Well, this is the first news conference President Bush has had since early August, before Jena became such a national story. Much as we'd like to, we don't have the opportunity to question him every day and this was the first chance we've had to ask about it.


Raleigh, N.C.: I found the actions and remarks of Hillary Clinton to Gen. Petraeus rude and not forthright. If we go back to 2003 and her then support of removing Saddam (and to 1998 when her husband attacked Iraq) she made a strong argument for the war. Has she totally shifted to the MoveOn crowd?

Peter Baker: She has shifted her position significantly, obviously. She did vote to authorize the use of military force in 2002 but by last months, she said that vote was a "great regret" for her. Even in recent months, she has moved further toward the antiwar base of the party; it wasn't that long ago that she ruled out setting a firm timetable for withdrawal, now she has voted for legislation doing just that. Obviously, the politics of the war have changed over the years and even in the last few months as she tries to win Democratic primary voters. She would also say that her shifting views stem from shifting reality -- she believed there were weapons of mass destruction when she voted for the war and obviously none have been found, and like many others she believes the Bush administration has badly mismanaged the war and that the time has come to change policy.


Lake Luzerne, N.Y.: Is it possible anymore to provoke a real filibuster, with Republicans forced to drone on before TV cameras to block a vote? If so, why not force it just for the drama?

Peter Baker: This is a good question that I always have. Why doesn't a majority party (whether it be Republicans last year frustrated with Democratic filibusters or the Democratic majority this year frustrated with Republican filibusters) actually force the filibusterers to filibuster? That might reduce the number of actual filibusters to issues of genuine importance; instead, what has happened is that 60 votes is now required for virtually anything to pass the Senate, not just the most overarching issues. I don't know why the majority party doesn't actually do that; you might ask Jonathan or Shailagh, our stalwart congressional correspondents, next time they chat.


Sunnyvale, Calif.: Hi Peter, what happened to the online comments box at the end of each article. Did you guys remove them? If so, why? It was the closest thing to a national town hall I've ever seen, and one of the major reasons I read They're still there -- just in a different spot on our redesigned story pages. Look for the box embedded in the text of the article.

Peter Baker: Here's the answer from our host. They're doing a redesign. I'm a big fan of the comments section too, in that they provide a venue for a genuine and vigorous dialogue. Thanks for participating.


Virginia: What do you make of the Virginia poll showing Mark Warner would win today? Will the Republicans even bother to show up? Does Tom Davis have a chance outside of Northern Virginia, where even he had a tight run last time?

Peter Baker: No question that Mark Warner is a formidable candidate for Senate and that Republicans are wary of taking him on. But I wouldn't count anything out. Politics are not as predictable as we like to make them out to be. The last frontrunner for a Senate seat in Virginia, George Allen, was thought to be so likely to win that folks were gearing up for the presumed presidential contest that would follow. And don't underestimate Tom Davis. He's a very skilled and experienced pol who has made a point of wooing other parts of the state over the last decade. If he were to win the Republican nomination, you can bet Warner wouldn't underestimate him. Having said that, if you had to put money down at this point, 14 months out, Warner is clearly a favorite.


Fort Hood, Texas: Serious question: By voting not to extend the troops' leaves, how can all those Republican senators claim they are "supporting the troops"? Exactly how does voting to keep the troops in the war zone longer "support" them? Maybe these senators "support the mission" but, in my view, they're sure not supporting the troops.

Peter Baker: That will certainly be the argument Democrats will make against them, and they're certainly happy to finally have a pointed rejoinder the next time they're accused of not supporting the troops by opposing the war. That's certainly one reason why the Webb amendment was embraced by the Democratic leadership.


Princeton, N.J.: The way Bush says it, all children in families earning less than $83,001 would be covered. That is a lie. The bill allows states to extend coverage to some children in these families. It is up to the states. Republicans are all for states rights unless it would help poor children.

Peter Baker: I'm not familiar with the details of the legislation, so I'm posting this to add to the discussion. Thanks for the message.


Richmond, Va.: Yesterday, John Edwards' wife criticized Clinton's health-care plan; last week she criticized HRC for something else -- and the week before, something else again. I'm wondering why he just doesn't do the criticizing himself -- 'cause I don't know who's running for president anymore, John or his wife. Any thoughts? Edwards's Wife Bashes Clinton Health Plan (AP, Sept. 19)

Peter Baker: Well, he's doing a lot of bashing himself as well. In fact, it may be that he's evolving his campaign into a more insurgent model, taking on the frontrunners in a more concerted and pointed way, given his stalled poll numbers leaving him locked far behind in third place. I imagine the campaign looks at Elizabeth Edwards as an important asset in such a strategy. She carries a certain emotional power among Democratic voters who respect her for the courage she has shown in her struggle; and who better to criticize a health care plan than someone currently in need of health care? At least that seems to be the calculation here.


New York: Hi Peter, my question is about Sen. Warner. What is the buzz in Washington today about his vote against the Webb amendment? He sure did disappoint a lot of people, not the least of which have been thousands of American families. My two cents: He spoke defiantly against the direction of the war in Iraq in the summer, but actions speak louder than words.

Peter Baker: Senator John Warner (as opposed to would-be Senator Mark Warner) is in a quandary. He's a staunch, establishment Republican who has grown estranged from a Republican-led war but hasn't figured out how far he's willing to go to actually oppose it. His vote yesterday clearly killed the Webb amendment almost single-handedly if you assume that he stopped several other Republicans from going along with it. At some point, presumably, he may have to find a vehicle he considers reasonable for influencing policy beyond what he has done so far. He could still be key to finding a bipartisan accord, should one be possible (and all indications suggest it's not really all that likely), but it looks like he hasn't yet found the place where he's comfortable yet.


Columbus, Ohio: I was struck by the volume of vitriolic comments directed by first responders directed towards Giuliani following the Sept. 11 memorials. It made me think that he is highly vulnerable to a Swift Boat Veteran type attack in the general election. Likewise, Romney is wide open to the flip-flop attack, rightly or wrongly. Both of those Rovian tactics were very damaging to Kerry last time around, and are very problematic for both those potential nominees coming from the other side this time around. Do you agree?

Peter Baker: I would imagine that Democrats already have a huge file drawer filled with potential attack ads against either of them. It's not hard to picture what those ads would look like. And it may be that Republicans will air out such issues themselves once the primary television battles really get started. Having said that, don't doubt for a minute that the Republicans don't have their own files on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.


Troy, N.Y.: An opinion for my fellow Upstater: I think they try to invoke cloture to limit debate opportunities by Republicans as well. So essentially, it serves to not provide them a voice.

Peter Baker: No question here, so I'll just post this for the sake of the discussion. Thanks for the message.


Lake Luzerne, N.Y.: Just a logistical question: Were you sitting in the media gallery at Bush's press conference while you're online chatting with us (would seem a bit rude to the president)? Or did someone else cover that for you and you were watching on TV?

Peter Baker: No, my partner, Mike Fletcher, was in our chair in the briefing room. I listened on my computer at the office while doing this chat. Mike asked one of the Jena questions, I believe.


Arlington, Va.: With all the breathless enthusiasm in the media over HillaryCare 2.0, has everyone forgotten HillaryCare 1.0? Here's a news flash: we hated it. I've been to the DMV. I've waited in line, gotten crappy service, lived with their mistakes ... but I suffered through it because I had no choice. So now, when my kids have the flu, Hillary wants me to go see the same bureaucrats? No thanks. So why is the media, to use Hillary's term, so willing to suspend disbelief? Sen. Clinton Touts Health Care Plan to Small Firms (, Sept. 19)

Peter Baker: What is it the lawyers say? Don't accept the premise of the question? I wouldn't say the media coverage has been "breathless enthusiasm." What I've seen has been a lot of serious, sober coverage discussing the similarities and differences between her 1993 plan and her 2007 plan. Our super-smart national politics correspondent Perry Bacon, for instance, wrote a very substantive piece. Let's see if our host can post a link to that one as well. As for waiting in line and all that, from what I've read, if you have health care coverage now, you wouldn't have to give it up or change a thing if you don't want to.


Houston: On "supporting the troops" -- Republicans will counter that support for the mission equals support for the troops. And the conservative base would go further: That the ultimate support for the troops would be to "let them take the gloves off and win."

Peter Baker: Again, no question, but an interesting comment. Thanks for writing.

_______________________ Clinton Presents Plan For Universal Coverage (Post, Sept. 18)


Crystal City, Va.: Since The Post today awarded the MoveOn advertisement the coveted three-Pinocchio award, can we assume that any ads that group -- or any advocacy organization -- tries to place in the paper will first be fact-checked for accuracy? The Fact-Checker: General Betray Us? (, Sept. 20)

Peter Baker: Michael Dobbs's new "Fact Checker" feature is going to be a terrific addition to our political coverage and I'm looking forward to it. You'll have to ask him his plans for what he'll look at and what he won't. If he scrutinizes any advocacy ads in the Post, it would be after they run -- the advertising and news departments are completely separate. We don't tell them who to sell to and they don't tell us what to write. But it wouldn't surprise me to see him fact check ads in the Post if he thinks they are questionable on the facts. Michael is one of the most brilliant journalists around.


Herndon, Va.: I don't quite understand why the current U.S. Senate is applying this 60-vote rule requiring so many (well, relatively speaking) bills or amendments to pass a "procedural" vote to even allow a simple up-or-down vote. The latest examples include yesterday's vote on Sen. Webb's troop deployment bill and Tuesday's vote on giving the District a vote in Congress. What happened to getting a simple majority to pass something, and if the minority wants to really block it, making them put on a "real" round-the-clock, phone-book-reading filibuster? I don't recall so many 60-votes-required votes when the Republicans held the majority -- what have I missed?

Peter Baker: We addressed this a little earlier. It was certainly also the case under the Republican Congress that Democrats were filibustering regularly -- so much so that Republicans thought about changing the rules so that filibusters would not be allowed on judicial nominations, a change that was dubbed the "nuclear option" and that the Republicans backed off of. I haven't seen numbers that would tell us if the Republicans are filibustering more or less than the Democrats did, but the broad change in culture in terms of 60 being the new 50 has been true for a while.


Washington: So how does it feel to work for an editor who is one of the 50 Most Powerful People in D.C.? Oh, and I guess, you know, being married to one too, haha. The online content, by the way, is definitely miles ahead of that other newspaper located up in New York. The 50 Most Powerful People in D.C. (GQ)

Peter Baker: Is this my father-in-law writing in again? I certainly agree on the online content. Hope you're checking out all the many new things that have been introduced on politics on, including The Trail, Fix Cam, the political coverage tracker and so on. It's been fun to read and there's more to come.


Ogden, Utah: Please ask Arlington, Va., where he goes to a doctor -- I have yet to find one in Utah that has a shorter wait than the DMV, or one with less bureaucracy, for that matter, or more reliable service.

Peter Baker: Thanks for the note. If only the DMV had a basket of lollypops to filch while you wait.


Fairfax, Va.: Great article pointing out that the Republican ads pinning Sept. 11 on the Iraqis are not supported by the facts of the situation! I only wish The Post would run headlines every time Bush or his cohorts repeat that and other deceptions. (I would say "lies" but that noted Bush apologist, Howard Kurtz, often has said that we can't possibly know what is in Bush's mind or his intent, no matter how many times he repeats the falsehood in question.) The Post headlines should shout in large print "President Again Justifies Iraqi Occupation with Discredited Falsehood." Apparently not in my lifetime; but for now I will settle for you speaking truth to power once in a while. 9/11 Linked To Iraq, In Politics if Not in Fact (Post, Sept. 12)

Peter Baker: Thank you for the kind words, I do appreciate them. I hope you won't be surprised, though, that I strongly disagree with your characterization of Howie Kurtz. Howie is one of the best, most aggressive, most honest and hardest working journalists in the business. And he's right, it's not our job to mind read or name call. If we report on what politicians do and say and then add other facts and context and analysis, then I have every faith that readers can figure out for themselves what they think about it without needing us to tell them what to think. Accountability journalism isn't the same thing as advocacy journalism.


Austin, Texas:" My colleague, Mike Abramowitz, wrote this morning on The Trail that some figures ranging from Karl Rove to Richard Haass are positing the theory that Iraq will not be as big an issue a year from now." I think I agree. As a very clever man once said "It's the economy, stupid." Not that the Iraqi entanglement is not at the heart of economic problems coming home to roost (astronomical oil prices, soaring deficits) but the peoples' attention to an "old" issue like Iraq wanes when their pocketbooks are pinched. However, to think that having a failing economy replace Iraq as the center of political attention somehow benefits the Republicans seems somewhat wishful, don't you agree?

Peter Baker: A failing economy, obviously, would not be good for the incumbent party. I'm not an economist, so I have no idea about where the economy will be next year. A good economy, it's safe to say, is not a guarantee for the incumbent party either, as Al Gore learned in 2000.


Seattle: Broder writes an interesting column about Gingrich's resurgence among Republicans, or his attempts at a resurgence. I've discussed this with friends and one thinks that if the Democrats take back the White House and hold onto Congress, he'll end up as the de facto leader again. Is he out of line, or will Newt be back? Newt's Vision Thing (Post, Sept. 20)

Peter Baker: Hmm, I'm not sure I see him becoming the de facto leader exactly. I think Newt Gingrich has evolved into a role that he enjoys where he can be a thinker and occasional bomb-thrower from the sidelines, influence the debate perhaps, but not actually lead it. If Democrats take the White House and keep Congress, I imagine there would be a strong move within the Republican Party to find the next generation of leaders who can rebuild the party.


Baltimore: Norman Hsu, Mark Rich ... the Clintons seem to have a lot of close friends who happen to be fugitive criminals. Is this the new normal? We just expect politicians to associate with slimeballs? Was there ever a time when politicians would pay a price for this kind of dirty dealing? Or has it always been this way, like Kennedy and organized crime? Special Report:Norman Hsu

Peter Baker: Well, as you point out, in some ways, politics is cleaner than it used to be in the old days, when there wasn't disclosure, there weren't limits, there wasn't much transparency and . Having said that, with so much more money sloshing around the system than ever before, it's not surprising that candidates end up associating themselves with shady characters. It does seem like the Clintons have this happen with some regularity -- is that because they're different in that regard or do they attract more scrutiny because she's the frontrunner now?


Re: Fact-check: So the Post would take the money and run an ad full of false and misleading "facts," and then spend more ink detailing what was wrong with the ad? Why not make them fix it before it runs?

Peter Baker: Again, we don't have anything to do with the ad department, and you wouldn't want us to, would you?


Scottsdale, Ariz.: I don't think the political pundits understand Barack Obama. But, there are millions of us out here who get his message and admire his ability to listen at both sides. He goes against the current atmosphere, which is mean-spirited partisanship. We feel that Sen. Obama has the ability to rise above that. Maybe you in the media are pushing Hillary Clinton's nomination because she is more controversial? Tell me honestly: Do you think Sen. Hillary Clinton has the ability (or the desire) to bring us together as a nation in order to solve the serious problems we all face?

Peter Baker: I don't think the media is "pushing" Senator Clinton's nomination by any stretch. It's true she's the frontrunner and has been substantially ahead all year despite Senator Obama's efforts to overtake her, and so we write about her as the frontrunner she is. That includes accountability coverage such as the continuing stories about Norman Hsu and the aftermath. As for whether she has the ability to bring the nation together, that's for voters to decide, not me.


Anonymous: Didn't I hear Bush call you Shake 'n' Bake?

Peter Baker: Uh, that would be "no." Check your hearing. And don't give him any ideas, for heaven's sake.


Peter Baker: Well, I see I've gone overtime again. Too many good questions. Thanks so much for participating today. Make sure to check out The Trail and tune in here again tomorrow at 11 a.m.

Have a great day.


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