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Post Politics Hour
washingtonpost.com's Daily Politics Discussion

Peter Baker
Washington Post White House Reporter
Tuesday, February 12, 2008 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, Feb. 12, 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. Sorry for the late start. Voters are at the polls in Virginia, Maryland and the District as we speak, and the results actually may be important. It doesn't get any more exciting than that, so let's get started.

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Tampa, Fla.: I know candidates can raise a certain amount of money from donors for the primary election and then for the general election. When it comes to spending that money, are the pots still kept separate? I'm wondering if Clinton and Obama are spending their general election money now, with the primary season going on longer than anyone expected. And what does that bode for the winner against John McCain? Will the Democrats have enough money?

Peter Baker: Good question. Under federal rules, contributors can give a candidate up to $2,300 for a primary and up to another $2,300 for the general election. So any money raised from any individual donor above that first $2,300 limit has to be saved for the general election. The pots are supposed to be kept separate and the candidates are not allowed to spend the general election money until they formally have the nomination at their conventions at the end of summer, so even if Sen. McCain finally dispatches Gov. Huckabee at some point, he can't dip into that yet.

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Atlanta: You make some interesting points in your piece regarding Sen. Obama and liberalism, but it may be worth noting that between 1932 and 1968, or even arguably 1980, no true conservatives really were elected. Eisenhower was quite moderate, and Nixon's detente and domestic policies didn't really endear him to the conservative movement. There are downsides, but eventually things change.

Peter Baker: Thanks for the observation, and you're right that Eisenhower and Nixon were certainly more moderate or liberal in some respects compared with Republicans who came later. And you're right of course that politics occasionally goes through seismic shifts -- the rise of the conservative movement, as you point out, the New Deal realignment in the 1930s and so forth. Are we on the verge of another one? Could Sen. Obama be the catalyst for something like that? That's thinking big. We'll see. It's worth remembering, too, of course, that Karl Rove thought he was presiding over a realignment a few years ago that today looks more ephemeral.

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Washington: Have political reporters noticed that this presidential election is looking a lot like how the TV show "The West Wing" ended? The maverick Republican senator from out West with broad appeal (and close ties in the media) handily if unexpectedly takes the nomination despite opposition from a Christian Right candidate, and then has to win over conservative skeptics. The Democrats meanwhile are divided between the establishment candidate -- who long has been seen as the heir apparent -- and the relatively inexperienced minority candidate who has generated strong appeal among younger voters. Good case of art imitating life, huh?

Peter Baker: Fascinating comparison. Like a lot of Washingtonians, I was a big fan of "West Wing" (and not just because my sister-in-law wrote for the show). My memory of that last season, though, had the Alan Alda character -- the McCain-esque Republican, I guess -- being much more liberal than Sen. McCain really is, a Hollywood liberal idea of what Republicans should be (i.e. he was for abortion rights and gun control, if I recall correctly, and I think even openly agnostic and suspicious of organized religion, while McCain is nowhere near that far out of the mainstream of the party). Still, the season did capture some of the essential conflicts of American politics: How much of your soul are you willing to sell to win? How much do you compromise what you really believe? How much honesty in a campaign is refreshing and how much is just foolhardy?

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Syosset, N.Y.: Peter, great chat as always. ... Is Sen. Lieberman a superdelegate, even though he's endorsed McCain? Will he even be invited to the Democratic convention?

washingtonpost.com: He's not on the list.

Peter Baker: Great question. Our dot-com folks have attached the list showing he's not on it. I suspect that he's not a superdelegate because he's not officially a Democrat. He won as an independent and calls himself an independent, although in the Senate he caucuses with the Democrats. The real question may be, does he show up at the Republican convention?

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Richmond, Va.: I was canvassing in a poor black neighborhood in Richmond's south side yesterday. Most of the residents were planning to vote Obama, but several were decidedly not. One man asked if we had considered the Dred Scott decision, and told us to look it up. That was his explanation for not supporting Obama. Any idea what connection he was drawing there?

Peter Baker: Boy, it's been a little while since Dred Scott was applicable in American life, and I'm not sure what your guy meant. But it's possible he was referring to abortion. A lot of anti-abortion leaders refer to the Supreme Court's infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857 upholding slavery as an analogue to the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that established the right to abortion and, in the view of its opponents, condemned the unborn in the same way slaves were. Sen. Obama, like Sen. Clinton, supports abortion rights, so perhaps your voter was suggesting he could not support such a candidate.

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Dispatching Huckabee: So Huckabee took the three weekend primaries and caucuses (I didn't realize the Republicans were now into stealing elections from other Republicans too!). If Huck takes Virginia, what does that say for McCain as a viable candidate in November?

Peter Baker: If Gov. Huckabee beats Sen. McCain in Virginia, it would be seen as a bad sign for the front-runner, no question. McCain would remain well ahead in the delegate race and still be the odds-on bet for winning the nomination, but it would be an embarrassment for him to keep losing some of these contests and call into question his ability to rally the party behind him, assuming he does win the nomination. McCain was up two-to-one in the last Mason Dixon poll, but a Survey USA poll has him with a smaller lead, 48 percent to 37 percent.

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Lieberman: Just FYI, because of Zell Miller, the Democrats came up with a rule that any Democrat who endorses a Republican cannot become a superdelegate. So Lieberman was taken off the list when he endorsed McCain.

washingtonpost.com: Lieberman No Longer a Superdelegate (Hartford Courant, Feb. 6)

Peter Baker: Ah, lovely. Thanks for the information. Appreciate it.

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Bethesda, Md.: When will we know who won? Will they not post any projected results until after the polls close? What times do the polls close in Maryland, Virginia and the District? Thanks.

Peter Baker: They close at 7 p.m. in Virginia and 8 p.m. in the District and Maryland. The Post, at least, will not post any projections or exit poll information until after the polls close; the networks have been pretty good about following the same policy. If the exit polls show a runaway victory, the networks likely would go ahead and project a winner shortly after the polls close. If it's close in the exit polls, they'll probably wait until they have at least some data from actual tabulations.

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New York: Dan Balz today echoes the nonsense that Clinton leads Obama as of today among pledged delegates. Fact: She does not. The pro-Clinton framing of everything by the pro-war Post is out of hand.

washingtonpost.com: Eight Questions the Potomac Primary Could Answer (Post, Feb. 12)

Peter Baker: Maybe I missed it, but I don't think Dan Balz said that. Find the line and send it to me. In fact, as I read Dan's super-smart "Eight Questions the Potomac Primary Could Answer" today, what he wrote is that Obama victories in Maryland, Virginia and the District today -- should he win -- would give him "a narrow but undisputed lead among pledged delegates," which is correct, of course. Dan was writing about what position Obama would be in should he sweep, and that's the position he would be in terms of pledged delegates. What would be out of hand would be any conspiracy theories about Dan Balz, who's the smartest, fairest and most straight-up political reporter in the business.

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Sewickley, Pa.: The president spoke to conservatives and exhorted them to get behind the party's nominee. He said that peace and prosperity are at stake. Huh? We've got two wars going on. The latest employment numbers show this administration has created fewer than 4.5 million private-sector jobs. By this time in the previous administration the economy had created about 19 million new private-sector jobs ("B" tables, Federal Reserve Board). Prosperity seems only to have touched upper-income folks, oil companies and Blackwater security. It seems to me the argument the president is making -- and John McCain as well -- is that what we need is lots more of the same policies that have gotten us to this point. Will it fly? Thanks for doing these chats.

washingtonpost.com: For McCain, Bush Has Both Praise, Advice (Post, Feb. 11)

Peter Baker: This will be a key argument in the fall, obviously, between whomever the Republican and Democratic nominees are. What President Bush argues is that his policies, particularly his tax cuts, helped spawn 52 straight months of job growth despite the strains on the economy as a result of Sept. 11, the corporate scandals of his early tenure and the wars. He argues that Democrats would let most of his tax cuts expire in 2010 and therefore hurt the economy in doing so. He also maintains that the best path to peace would be through victory, not withdrawal. Obviously the Democrats will make another case, closer to the one you make, noting that the number of new jobs under Bush has been smaller than under President Clinton, that we seem to be teetering toward recession if we're not actually in one, that we're ensconced in two wars and that they will reverse only the tax cuts that benefit the wealthy. We'll see who gets the better end of that debate.

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Palo Alto, Calif.: What's the expected result? What would an upset be?

Peter Baker: At this point, Sen. Obama on the Democratic side and Sen. McCain on the Republican side are considered the front-runners in today's contests. If they lose one or more, that presumably would be seen as an upset among some. Certainly Sen. Clinton's people have been preparing people for the idea that she'll lose all three today, so if she manages to win one of them, they will trumpet that as a big deal. And Gov. Huckabee would keep some momentum if he could steal away Virginia.

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Re: Dred Scott: I think the reason anti-abortion advocates invoke the Dred Scott decision is that it was a fairly long-term precedential decision eventually overturned by Brown v. Board of Education; they use it as evidence that when precedent is bad or faulty, stare decisis should not apply -- and that, like Dred Scott, Roe v. Wade should be overturned. As for the gentleman in Richmond, he just may not know what he is talking about.

Peter Baker: Yes, exactly right on the first point -- and quite possibly on the second.

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Bellefonte, Del.: Any comment on the irony of how some states scheduled their democratic primary? Everyone rushed to be one of the early states so that their votes would be relevant, even to the point of Democrats losing their delegates -- but on the Democratic side it looks like it will be the late states that are relevant, not the early ones.

Peter Baker: The aforementioned Dan Balz in fact made exactly your point last week in his must-read Take on the Trail: "The clever people in Michigan who decided to get into a game of chicken with New Hampshire last fall over the timing of their Democratic primary should be having second thoughts this weekend. Had Michigan Democrats not engaged in gamesmanship over the shape of the nomination calendar, they would be holding the premier contest on Saturday, by far the biggest and most influential of the events between Super Tuesday and next week's Potomac primaries, rather than the nonevent held in Michigan on Jan. 15."

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washingtonpost.com: The Trail: Michigan's Missed Moment as Clinton-Obama Fight Continues (washingtonpost.com, Feb. 8)

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Washington: New York thinks you guys are pro-Clinton? I'm a Clinton supporter and I think you lot are pro-Obama ... which probably means you're probably much more objective than either New York or I feel.

Peter Baker: There you go. Look, it's completely normal when we feel strongly about a person or an issue to read media coverage and see bias against our viewpoint, even if it's not there or at least not intended. We do get dinged all the time by people on all sides of the ideological spectrum for being pro-this or anti-that. As a White House reporter, I get e-mail every day accusing me of being pro-Bush or anti-Bush -- often for the same story. We all see things through the lenses of our own experiences and feelings, and there's no such thing as absolute objectivity, but what you should know is that we do try. It's our goal not to be pro- or anti-anybody, but to try to fairly and accurately reflect the news as best we can. We stumble; you certainly can find flaws and we should be open to thinking about these issues when they're raised. But the beauty of the daily newspaper, at least, is that when we screw up we get back up and try again the next day.

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Dred Scott: Brown v. Board of Education overruled Plessy v. Ferguson, not Dred Scott.

Peter Baker: Thank goodness someone was listening in history class! Thanks for the correction. It was the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery.

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Re: Dred Scott: Or, a more complex interpretation ... (implying underlying racism, which will destroy the Democratic chance of taking the White House): In response to the Dred Scott decision, Stephen Douglas thought that his Freeport Doctrine -- a moderate stance for the times -- would reconcile Northern and Southern Democrats. It did not. Douglas's policy of compromise on slavery in the Western territories infuriated the Southern slave-holding Democrats and alienated the anti-slavery Democrats in the North. A policy that once had been uniting was now highly divisive in an increasingly polarized nation. Douglas had been the emerging leader of the Democratic Party, which was the national majority party. The party had been held together through compromises engineered by moderates like Douglas. Now his policy split the party in two.

Peter Baker: Wow, this is getting even more interesting.

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Centennial, Colo.: Can money raised for the primaries be used in the general (i.e. can the money McCain raises between now and his official nomination be used in the fall)?

Peter Baker: Interesting question. I'm not an election lawyer, so I should be careful about giving a definitive answer. For one thing, no presidential candidate in the modern era ever has refused federal funding for the general election, meaning they only used the taxpayer money they were given after their nominations. This year it seems likely at least one or both nominees will refuse federal funding. Could they then still spend primary money? I don't think so, but I imagine even if they couldn't find a way to spend it all by the late-summer conventions, they probably could transfer it around to other party organs, such as the Democratic National Committee or Republican National Committee. But I'm winging it here a bit, I admit.

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Stamford, Conn.: Following up on Syosset's question about who is on the superdelegate list: Why does the District of Columbia list include a "Democratic Governor" and two members of the "U.S. Senate" in addition of "U.S. House of Representatives" member Eleanor Holmes Norton? I can see listing Norton, as she is the nonvoting delegate for the District in the House, but I don't believe the District has a governor or two senators. Also, why is Connecticut Sen. Dodd not listed as a senator? Or is being past head of the Democratic National Committee considered more prestigious?

washingtonpost.com: Shadow Delegation Toils in Obscurity for D.C.'s Day in the Sun (Post, Jan. 16, 2007)

Peter Baker: Good question; don't know for sure. In the case of the District, it could refer to the city's "shadow senators," who are elected to serve, essentially, as lobbyists for statehood. The Democrats support statehood, and so presumably make room for these shadow legislators at the convention.

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Richmond, Va., again: Wow, I am seriously considering going back and asking that guy to explain his Dred Scott position!

Peter Baker: I know! If you do, make sure to let us know what you find out next time...

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Washington: So, in the past two days, we've had really weird stories in the Times about Obama. Yesterday it was that his drug use may not have been all that big of a deal (even though -- having read his first book -- he never made it out to be a big deal in terms of time or amount, just in the sense of import to him personally), and today it's all about how his race has played a role-- gasp -- in the campaign. These appear to be nonstories, but I'm wondering if it isn't in response to the accusations that Obama hasn't been "vetted" like Clinton? In other words, because maybe there isn't much to expose in Obama's background, the media is feeling pressured to write about something, anything.

Peter Baker: Well, I think you'll have ask the Times about their newsmaking decisions, and I can't -- and shouldn't -- try to answer for them. The drug story, at least, was part of a long series of biographical pieces looking at discrete aspects of different candidates' lives. I'm not sure I would read that much into the timing of this particular one.

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West Bend, N.C.: I read that Rep. Ron Paul has had to cancel presidential campaign events and is concentrating on the primary challenge he has for his seat in Congress by Chris Peden in the 14th district. Can he transfer presidential campaign funds to his congressional race?

Peter Baker: I believe he can. Federal candidates can shift money from one federal campaign to another. If you gave Rep. Paul the $2,300 maximum for his presidential primary campaign, though, you couldn't then give him any more for his congressional primary.

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Richmond, Va.: Everyone in the local media keeps saying that this primary "may" actually be important. Isn't it clear by now that the Potomac Primary is important?

Peter Baker: Well I certainly think it is, but we do try to be careful in presuming we know the impact any particular race may have at this point.

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Avon Park, Fla.: I'm surprised that the news media has covered Barack Obama's weekend wins as important. Pundits have been saying that he was expected to win those and shouldn't get a bounce out of winning them. Why has the media not taken those wins with a grain of salt?

Peter Baker: See what I mean? Damned if we do, damned if we don't. Look, "important" is a relative matter -- they're all important because they're verdicts by voters and they mean delegates, even if only a small amount. The distinction is just how important. I'm not sure that the media gave disproportionate attention to the four victories over the weekend (though it should be noted that Sen. Clinton had been expected to win Maine). What they mean in the long run, we'll have to see. What got more attention, actually, was Clinton's reaction to them in replacing her campaign manager, which suggests she didn't like the results.

 Stepping back, what seems more important than any individual primary at this moment is how they all add up, the accumulation and direction they show if any -- does Sen. Obama win a whole long series of them before Sen. Clinton can get to her "firewall" states in Ohio and Texas? Does that change momentum or perception? Can she turn the dynamics around and rewrite the narrative?

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Washington: Correct me if I'm wrong, but both George Bush and John Kerry chose to forego federal funds for their general election campaign in 2004.

Peter Baker: No, President Bush and Sen. Kerry both opted out of the system and foregoed (forewent?) federal funding during their primary campaigns but stayed in the system and took the federal financing in the general election campaign in 2004. That's according to my two experts here -- Chris Cillizza, author of The Fix, and Matthew Mosk, our campaign finance writer. When Sen. Clinton started raising general-election money along with primary-election money, she became the first to do so. Matt wants me to note that if she doesn't win the nomination, she has to give the general election money back.

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Cincinnati: I'm an independent voter -- not because I'm indecisive, but because I find both parties equally corrupt -- but the more I see of John McCain, the more I like him. He has the Keating Scandal in his his past, but he has total rejected earmarks -- as opposed to Hillary and Barack, who greedily gobble up taxpayers dollars to dole out to their contributors. I know the story is all about race and gender and the historic opportunity to vote someone in who isn't a white male, but at some point that story might get tired -- and if we turn to issues, McCain starts to look good. Any chance the Republicans shock the world (well, especially the media)?

Peter Baker: Sure, of course. I think the one thing we've learned this year is not to make predictions. It is fair to say that history favors the Democrats at the moment and Republicans have some work to do to keep the White House. Since World War II, voters have given a party a third consecutive term only once (when George H.W. Bush was elected in 1988) and the economy, the war and an unpopular incumbent are certainly drags for the Republicans. Look at the intensity gap right now -- Democrats are way ahead in fundraising, and turnout in Democratic primaries is far ahead of that in Republican primaries. Those are very worrisome for Republican strategists. Having said that, the Democrats have been known to blow good opportunities before and we don't know what might happen between now and November that might influence voters' thinking. We also don't know how the country really will react to the notion of the first woman or African American as president. And Sen. McCain commands a powerful following among independents who may decide the election, more so than other Republicans. Polls have shown that he matches up pretty well against the Democrats. The last Washington Post-ABC News poll showed McCain leading Clinton by 3 points (49 percent to 46 percent) in a hypothetical matchup and trailing Obama by 3 points (46 percent to 49 percent). Both of those suggest the general election campaign would start at essentially even, given the margin of error. All the more reason to stay tuned!

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Peter Baker: And with that, we're way over time here. Thanks so much for participating today. And go out and vote.

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