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Peter Baker
Washington Post White House Reporter
Tuesday, October 2, 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 Tuesday, Oct. 2 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest news in politics.

The transcript follows.

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Archive: Post Politics Hour discussion transcripts

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Peter Baker: Good morning, everyone. Sen. Clinton has just surpassed Sen. Obama in the third quarter money race, Congress is trying to figure out what to do with itself -- as it seemingly can't do anything about Iraq -- and the Supreme Court has opened its fall season with a smashing win over the Redskins. Lots to chew on, so let's get started.

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Seattle: Interesting poll results that were released yesterday. Will they actually change any GOP senators' minds enough to vote against Bush?

Peter Baker: In a word, no. Or at least we don't see any indications of that. The president's approval rating once again tied its lowest in our Washington Post-ABC News polling, 33 percent, but it's been hovering there for quite some time without prompting Republicans on the Hill to abandon him on the war. There's certainly a wellspring of resentment and impatience among congressional Republicans toward the president, but many of them believe the report by Gen. David Petraeus and the decision to withdraw the "surge" troops by next summer gave them some breathing room.

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Chicago: Thanks for taking questions. I was looking at the latest Washington Post poll and noticed that for the president's approval rating, while 33 percent approve strongly or somewhat, three times as many people strongly disapprove of his performance as strongly approve. Is there any significance to the fact that 45 percent of the public strongly disapproves of his performance while less than 15 percent strongly approve? Has anyone else every had that kind of strong disapprove/approve ratio?

Peter Baker: Yes, certainly that's significant. That seems a reasonable measure of the intensity of feeling out there -- those who do still support the president tend to be softer in their support than those who oppose him. And that tracks the level of the debate -- and certainly the e-mail I get -- which tends to reflect a great deal of anger on the part of a lot of people.

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ABC/Washington Post Poll: The article in the Post today did not include a link to the full poll results. Can you please provide the link? Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: Results of Washington Post-ABC News Poll, Sept. 27-30 (washingtonpost.com, Oct. 2)

Peter Baker: Sorry about that. Here's the link.

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Arlington, Va.: So, what are the Democrats so afraid of? The Post-ABC poll seems to agree with all of the other polls that have come out recently that say people are dissatisfied that the Dems haven't gone far enough in opposing Bush and that people really disapprove of congressional Republicans and Bush. What more evidence do the Democrats need to get some backbone and go on the offensive? It's really frustrating to watch them do nothing so timidly.

washingtonpost.com: Most in Poll Want War Funding Cut (Post, Oct. 2)

Peter Baker: Well, I think they would say they have been aggressive; they have had dozens of votes related to the war and have sent the president legislation establishing a firm timeline for withdrawal. What they don't have is enough Republican support to beat a filibuster in the Senate, much less override a presidential veto. It's clear at this point that they can't get two-thirds support for anything concrete to change war policy. That may be less about aggressiveness than effectiveness, or it may be more about Republican intransigence, depending on your point of view.

Because it's clear Congress can't pass anything over Bush's objection at this point, the one option the Democrats haven't tried is to simply cut off funding altogether. That's obviously what a lot of war critics want them to do, but that's something they've been reluctant to consider. It's not something Congress has done all that often in history; even during Vietnam, Congress only cut off funding that didn't matter. As President Nixon withdrew U.S. forces, Congress cut off funding in 1973 for "offensive" operations, in effect ratifying what by then was the president's stated course. A 1974 vote cut aid to South Vietnamese forces by 50 percent after U.S. forces were already gone.

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San Francisco: Hello, Peter, thanks for chatting today. Drawing on your experience in Russia, what do you make of Putin's bid to be premier? Will it be possible for him to transfer the powers of the presidency to that new office?

washingtonpost.com: Putin Suggests He'd Be Premier (Post, Oct. 2)

Peter Baker: A little off topic here, but I can't resist a good Putin question. Thanks for asking.

Putin's decision yesterday to head the United Russia slate for parliament in December and to open the door to becoming prime minister after stepping down as president next spring was shocking in a way, but not really surprising. Under the Russian constitution, Putin is supposed to step down as president after two terms, but few in Moscow really expected him to simply give up power -- not a lot of precedent for that in Russian history. So people for years have been imagining what sort of creative scenario he would come up with to retain power while ostensibly living up to his vow to respect the constitutional term limit. Becoming prime minister was one of the most obvious schemes and now it seems that's the one he's chosen. Under the Russian system, the president holds the real power, but it's easy to imagine how that could be changed, either formally or de facto, with Putin in the prime minister's chair. A lot of countries have presidents who are simply ceremonial while the real power is vested in the prime minister (Britain, Germany, Israel, etc.). All of that, of course, is just changing the organization chart. The "vertical power," as Putin once described his leadership ideology, still would lead to him.

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Washington: I'm surprised that the poll did not include any questions about illegal immigration (at least that I could find). To me, illegal immigration might very well be the issue that saves the Republicans in the next election, as there is so much anger and frustration out there over it. Why would the poll not include this issue? To me, the lack of this issue presents an incomplete picture.

Peter Baker: We've asked about illegal immigration in our polls before and, while I didn't design the poll, I imagine our folks thought that issue hasn't been in the news the past month or two so it's not likely public opinion has shifted significantly since the last time we asked. There's only so many questions you can ask someone to answer before they hang up the phone, so our pollsters try to limit them to the most topical questions they can. I'm sure we'll ask about it again, though. It's an important issue and it will be fascinating to see how it plays out.

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Wilmington, N.C.: "Will they actually change any GOP senators' minds enough to vote against Bush?" Peter Baker: "In a word, no."

I agree, but isn't that strange? It just doesn't seem normal for a group of pols to run off the cliff like this. You don't get a much more emphatic and tangible statement than the election this past November. It seems fair to expect a continuing deterioration in GOP support, even with the impending Iran strikes, so when do we start officially calling this intransigence self-defeating?

Peter Baker: Well, it may also be that they actually believe in their position and are willing to risk the wrath of voters to sustain it. Certainly at least some of them do. Or even if they no longer really believe in the war, it may be that they worry that the consequences of alternative policies may be worse. A lot of Republicans feel stuck, with no options they find palatable.

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War results: Every newspaper reported a decline in U.S. troop deaths and Iraqi civilian deaths. Will this help solidify Bush's, and by extension, the Republicans' contention that the surge is working (but also, how can it continue if, in April, there must be a rotation out of the troops that would be needed to continue this success)?

Peter Baker: I think it will help only if it is sustained. It has to be a lasting change; these numbers have a way of going up or down in an individual month, but the real question is the longer trend lines.

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Crestwood, N.Y.: Pete, to me McCain is like a baseball team that gives up twelve runs in the first inning and then starts to chip away, until you look up and its the eighth, and they're only down by two. There's my topical baseball reference for the day. But isn't it true that the longer this guy just sticks around, given the enormous dissatisfaction with his opponents and the failure of Thompson to live up to the hype, the better he looks? Besides, everyone loves the maverick story, and the come-from-behind story, so to that degree the skids are greased, so to speak. And if there's a quick and clean bombing of Iran without repercussions, sort of like the Grenada attack in the '80s, the militarism of McCain will look that much better to the GOP hardcore. He can sell himself as a real soldier, the real deal as far as fighting "islamofascism," and can sell Giuliani as a fake. In this way, widening the war to Iran helps McCain more than any other candidate. You agree?

Peter Baker: Well, I don't know how military action in Iran might affect the race -- too many variables -- but I think you're right that the Republican race is fluid enough that it would be silly to count Sen. McCain out. None of the other three main candidates -- Mayor Giuliani, Gov. Romney or Sen. Thompson -- seems to be running away with it and each of the three has significant weaknesses. If Giuliani were to implode for some reason, you can imagine a scenario where McCain is there to pick up the pieces. And you're right, America loves an underdog. Having said that, America doesn't always nominate or elect the underdog, so it's still reasonable to say that the challenge for McCain is formidable.

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Washington: What was your impression of Justice Thomas's interview on "60 Minutes"? Have any of you all (Post political reporters) read his autobiography yet?

washingtonpost.com: Justice Thomas Lashes Out in Memoir (Post, Sept. 29)

Peter Baker: I confess I didn't see the interview. My partner on thee White House beat, Mike Fletcher, though, read the book, watched the interview, and found it all a fascinating attempt by the justice to refashion his public image. For a man who has sat silent in many ways since his searing confirmation hearings, it has been a remarkable rollout. If you want an independent take on Justice Thomas, though, (shameless plug time) I recommend Mike's book, co-authored with Post colleague Kevin Merida, called "Supreme Discomfort," which came out earlier this year. It's a fabulous, thoughtful, nuanced and eminently fair look at one of the most complicated figures in American society.

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Washington: How do you rate Obama's chances of catching Clinton now that she is getting major African American endorsements such as Ron Dellums in Oakland, Anthony Brown in Maryland and former Congressman and head of the United Negro College Fund William Gray, and has both the lead in the polls and has outraised Obama for the first time in a quarter? What does he need to do?

washingtonpost.com: The Trail: Clinton Tops Obama in Money Chase With $27 Million (washingtonpost.com, Oct. 2)

Peter Baker: Sen. Obama is facing a rough road ahead. He has been stuck more or less in the same position in the polls since Day One and hasn't managed to turn his fundraising prowess into a stronger showing. And Sen. Clinton surpassing him this quarter will be spun as her solidifying her commanding position in the race.

Having said that, if you were Obama's campaign manager, you wouldn't want him to peak too early anyway, so the question is, can he can turn his mammoth bank account into a powerful media blitz late this year in the early primary states to topple Clinton? And he's got enough money that you have to assume that's possible. Remember at this point four years ago, Howard Dean was the Democratic frontrunner, although to be sure he wasn't nearly as strong as Clinton looks now.

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A comment: Re: war results -- the problem that the GOP ultimately has is that while the surge shows some signs of working now (that's a good thing) it still doesn't solve the policy problem. What are we doing there? How was it executed up until the surge? Is there any discernable political progress? How do we leave, what is the exit strategy? Bush has no answer, the GOP has no answer, the Dems have no answer. But I suspect that any thought that we're going to be in Iraq for 50 years doesn't give the public much greater confidence than they already don't have in Bush's ability and vision.

Peter Baker: Thanks for the comment. I'll post for the sake of the discussion.

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Rolla, Mo.:"And if there's a quick and clean bombing of Iran without repercussions, sort of like the Grenada attack in the '80s..." Iran is nothing like Grenada, and they fought a vicious war with Iraq, sending human waves against the Iraqi Army that caused hundreds of thousands of casualties by the end of the decade. To think there would be no repercussions is delusional.

Peter Baker: Same with this one. Thanks for posting.

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Washington: The last weeks before Iowa in 2004, it looked like Dean against Gephardt. Gephardt went for the jugular and basically destroyed both himself and Dean, allowing Kerry and Edwards to take the caucus. Do you think that is a reason why we've seen Obama, and to a lesser extent Edwards, not strongly criticize Sen. Clinton?

Peter Baker: Yes, that's probably part of it. Another factor to think about is that a lot of Sen. Obama's appeal is that he's different from all those ordinary politicians, wants to bring people together not tear them apart, etc. -- so a fiercely negative campaign against Sen. Clinton would be seen as contradictory. And one last thing to keep in mind -- it's still early. If you were going to unleash your toughest stuff, wouldn't you wait until a little closer to the voting?

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Mr. Baker. I know Clinton is going to trumpet her $27 million number, but I would be more interested to see the number of donors. The Post ran an article a while ago noting that 70 percent of her donors were maxed-out vs. 30 percent of Obama's, and that was at a point where he substantially had outraised her. That would have to mean many more people were giving to him, which one would think meant more were in favor of him, or at least in favor enough to give. I think he has a large base out here (including me), but Clinton keeps steamrolling along and creating the perception that she is a foregone conclusion, and the press eats it up. The one vaguely negative thing I have seen in the press is that she answered no questions on her Sunday morning talk show fest, instead ducking them. It would be nice to see more balanced coverage instead of an anointment.

Peter Baker: Thanks for the note. I'm not sure Sen. Clinton would see all the stories about her disgraced fundraiser Norman Hsu as positive coverage. We'll cover her and all the other candidates with the same mix of scrutiny and skepticism. But her poll numbers so far are driving the dynamics of the race, not the media. They've been strong and holding for many months despite all the efforts of her competitors. You're right that she's trying to create the sense of inevitable frontrunner -- that's a typical strategy for someone in her position. That doesn't mean it necessarily will work. Sen. McCain tried the same tactic on the Republican side and obviously it unraveled. As for the details, such as how many of her donors are maxed out, we'll get those when the reports are made public at mid-month.

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Richmond, Va.: Is Bill Clinton too out there for Hillary by criticizing Obama (also applies to Elizabeth Edwards for her John)? In other words, is there a perception that we will have another four to eight years of Bill Clinton?

Peter Baker: There's certainly a risk of people deciding they don't want the presidency to rotate back and forth between two families for up to 28 years. If Sen. Clinton were to win and serve two terms, most Americans by the end of her presidency will never have known a president whose name was not Bush or Clinton. For the moment, that doesn't seem to be causing her campaign much problem, but you can imagine a scenario where it becomes more of an issue. And you can imagine there are political consultants out there in both parties right now who plan to remind voters of all the things they didn't particularly like about the Bill Clinton years and ask if they really want another eight years of that. Sen. Clinton's campaign almost certainly is preparing to confront such a situation.

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Richmond, Va.: Peter, have expectations regarding Thompson's candidacy diminished so much that he could gain a great deal of momentum with even a pretty good performance in the Oct. 9 debate? Are you surprised that his poll numbers seem to be pretty good despite unrelentingly negative coverage of his lackluster performance so far?

Peter Baker: There's clearly a hunger on the Republican side for a candidate who will inspire them and many are still holding out hope that Fred Thompson is that candidate. I think you're right that his first few widespread exposure opportunities through debates and the like will be important in making a first impression.

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Arlington, Va.: Other chat hosts have tried to explain this to me, but I still don't get it. Why don't the Democrats actually force the Republicans to actually, physically filibuster? I understand that no one does the "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" routine anymore, but I don't understand why. If the Democrats refused to adjourn the Senate until a vote in Iraq is made, wouldn't the 24-hour schedule wear out the Republicans eventually? Or if not, it would made good theatre at least.

Peter Baker: I agree, actually. I've been surprised by that under both Republicans and Democrats -- if you're so frustrated by the other side hamming up everything and effectively making 60 votes required for almost any legislation, why not actually enforce the rules and force the opposition to stand on its feet until it drops? I've never heard a good answer to the question. Maybe the reason is because, in fact, both sides have used the filibuster while in the opposition and don't want to give up the leverage it gives them. Democrats understand they won't be in the majority forever, just as Republicans understood that last year.

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Helena, Mont.: Several weeks back, in response to why "values voters" equal "fundamental Christians," you said something to the effect that you know that not all people who vote their values (or who actually have values) are fundamental Christians, but this was "political shorthand" for reporters. Now, what other "political shorthand" do you use that would help us understand how to read your reporting? What you call political shorthand I would call stereotype; what's the difference between these two in your estimation?

Peter Baker: Thanks for the question. I don't remember the specific back and forth, so forgive me that. In general, we use shorthand for everything because a typical day news story can be 500 to 1,500 words long, not enough to go into the depth we might like on everything included in a piece. We call politicians "liberal" or "moderate" or "conservative" when those words are often inadequate to describe someone's more complicated, three-dimensional political philosophy. But we try to avoid doing anything that stereotypes, and when we do use shorthand we try to use words that are fair and reasonable.

We try to avoid using other people's shorthand that is actually just spin. For instance, we don't describe politicians as "pro-choice" or "pro-life" (except when people use those terms in quotes) because those are loaded phrases. So we say someone is for abortion rights or anti-abortion, or something more neutral like that. Even those terms are, of course, shorthand. Someone can be for abortion rights but against what is called partial-birth abortion; or someone can be anti-abortion but favor it being legal in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother. If those exceptions aren't relevant to the story at hand, then the broad shorthand seems fair. It depends on the circumstances of the story. The most important thing is to be fair and reasonable. We work hard not to stereotype.

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Washington: We've basically spent a year with front page coverage of the presidential election that is still now 13 months away. Do you think this cycle started early because that's just how it's going to be from now on, or is this an outlier because there was no incumbent running for a second term, or a vice president trying to win a "third term"?

Peter Baker: A mix of both, probably. This is the first presidential race in 80 years without either an incumbent president or vice president running, meaning it's completely open on both sides. But the money chase and the competitive nature of modern presidential politics is pushing the process up further and further, so I'm not sure the genie will be put back in the bottle in 2012 even if we do have an incumbent running for reelection.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Hi Peter -- thanks for taking my question. How closely do you think the public is following the whole Blackwater mess, and if they are, how is it impacting the public's view of the war? Is it undercutting whatever "good" news the administration is trying to get out about the impact of the surge? Or is public opinion against the war so ingrained by now that it's just one more thing and no one is paying any attention?

washingtonpost.com: Other Killings By Blackwater Staff Detailed (Post, Oct. 2)

Peter Baker: You probably have a better sense of that in Minnesota than I would here inside the Beltway. It's obviously an important and troubling story, one that's forcing the administration to re-examine how it has used Blackwater and these other companies. Having said that, polls and reporting have suggested that public attitudes toward the war are pretty fixed by now and not moving dramatically in reaction to events in the news. It's interesting, for instance, that our latest poll shows that a slim majority (52 percent) thinks President Bush's plan to remove the surge troops by next summer is either the right pace for withdrawal or even too hasty, but at the same time that 55 percent think congressional Democrats haven't gone far enough in opposing the war and that 66 percent want Congress to cut at least some of the $190 billion in war funding Bush has requested.

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Potomac Falls, Va.: What is your take on Rep. Obey's press conference announcement this morning that he will not refer the $190 billion supplemental request out of his appropriations subcommittee, thereby preventing it from going anywhere, such as to an actual vote? Is that doable?

Peter Baker: I haven't seen the news conference, so I'm afraid I can't help too much. If the Democrats don't want the request to pass, they obviously can stop it, whether it be by bottling it up in committee or whatever. Again, I'm not sure what Rep. Obey said this morning, but up until then, anyway, we haven't seen any real indications that the Democratic leadership has decided to cut off funding altogether.

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Fort Bragg, N.C.: Mr. Baker: When Congress asks about Blackwater staffing and the high cost of paying Blackwater security personnel in Iraq, will anyone be asking about who will pay for the long-term medical coverage of injured Blackwater staff contracted, in essence, to the State Department? If Blackwater is building in such coverage for all it's personnel, it increases costs; and if State Department is subsequently responsible (as part of its contract), it's still a high price to pay for subsidizing the military or State's Diplomatic Security personnel to do the job.

washingtonpost.com: Live Video: Congressional Hearing on Blackwater (washingtonpost.com, Oct. 2)

Peter Baker: Thanks for the post. I'm not sure if they will ask about that, but we'll post your comment here.

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Rochester, N.Y.: What's your take on the political significance of the Blackwater hearings? And did you see the report in TalkingPointsMemo about Blackwater's ties to the Republican party? The founder and CEO, Erik Prince is the son of a man who helped found the Family Research Council. Will all of this become an issue?

Peter Baker: I have not seen it. Thanks for sending it along. I'm not sure whether that will become an issue. I suppose it would depend on whether there's any indication that political affiliation has anything to do with Blackwater getting the contracts it's gotten. I haven't heard of anything indicating that, but again I haven't been reporting that story. On first blush, I suppose I don't find it surprising that a security firm made up of former military folks might be more Republican, given that military folks tend to be more Republican.

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Anonymous: Don't all voters vote based on their values?

Peter Baker: So far as I know. I hope I'm not contradicting something I previously said -- and I'm sure someone will call me on it if I do -- but I don't particularly like the term "values voters" because it's a pretty meaningless phrase that doesn't tell us anything and potentially implies that some voters have values and others don't.

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Re: Putin: I am going to show my ignorance on the Russian political system. What exactly is the role of a prime minister in a presidential system? Is the prime minister a leader like the speaker of the House, or more of an executive like a vice president?

Peter Baker: In the Russian system, the president selects the prime minister and the parliament must confirm him, much like a cabinet officer here. The prime minister than answers strictly to the president and would succeed the president if he were to step down or die. The presumption here is that Putin will handpick his successor as president, who would then appoint him prime minister and the parliament, which is now basically a rubber stamp for Putin, obviously would confirm him. What happens then is an interesting question: Would the new president remain but effectively be a Putin puppet? Would presidential powers formally be transferred to the prime minister? Or would the new president step down at some point and Putin then would succeed back to the presidency but effectively avoid the constitutional limit on running for a third term next year? Anything is possible.

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Peter Baker: Alas, I wish we could keep chatting, but I've gone way over time here and so we'll call it a day. Thanks for all the great questions.

Have a great day.

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