Post Politics Hour's Daily Politics Discussion

Peter Baker
Washington Post White House Reporter
Tuesday, February 26, 2008 11:00 AM

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Washington Post White House reporter Peter Baker was online Tuesday, Feb. 26 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest news in politics.

The transcript follows.

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Peter Baker: Good morning, everyone. President Bush is back from his goodwill tour of Africa and back in the thick of the ill-will fight he and Congress are having about the now-expired surveillance law. Sen. McCain is trying to fend off the FEC, the New York Times and the conservative wing of his party all at the same time. And Sen. Obama, after collecting an endorsement from defeated rival Chris Dodd, will meet Sen. Clinton in Ohio tonight for their 20th -- and perhaps final -- debate. With so much going, let's go straight to the phones.


St. Paul, Minn.: Hi Peter -- thank you for taking my question. We've heard a lot of the usual dire talk from the president about Congress's work (or lack thereof) on eavesdropping. Is anybody listening to him? Who has the upper hand here? Bush Pushes House to Renew Surveillance Law (Post, Feb. 25)

Peter Baker: Well, it's clear the House Democrats aren't listening to him, and that's an interesting and potentially significant change. In the past, Democrats on Capitol Hill have huffed and puffed but in the end usually backed down to President Bush on matters of national security, but this time they defied him. Whether that's wise politically or substantively is less clear.

The administration makes the case that the Democrats are playing games with national security because of politics -- the key dispute at this point is not whether the intelligence agencies should have the power to wiretap and eavesdrop under the supervision of the secret foreign intelligence court, but whether telecommunications companies that allowed them to do so before it explicitly was authorized by Congress should be immune from litigation.

The main purpose of the litigation is not so much monetary damages but the power of discovery, to use the court process to learn more about the secret surveillance program, how it worked, how broad was it, who was swept in by it and so forth. If the telecommunications companies are immune from lawsuit, that potential avenue of investigation goes away.

To preserve it, House Democrats are taking a chance that letting the law expire won't really hurt the intelligence agencies' ability to monitor terrorist communications -- the intelligence folks say it will -- and that voters won't take it out on them for taking that chance in the first place. This is high-stakes poker here.


Raleigh, N.C.: Good morning! In the PR fight on the FISA bill, the administration is saying that the old law has prevented attacks. What is their proof? And not to put too fine a point on it, but why in heck should we put a speck of credence into their assertions?

Peter Baker: The administration has pointed to some thwarted attacks and attributed the ability to stop them to information gleaned from the surveillance program, but it has not released any details that would make it possible to independently verify those claims. The administration says that would be risky to do in terms of protecting sources and methods but as you indicate it also engenders skepticism among people who don't necessarily take what government tells them at face value.


Richmond, Va.: As I understand from listening to some newscasts last night, it should be easy to find out who gave to Drudge the picture of Obama dressed in Somali traditional dress. It appears that during that trip the reporters covering Obama did not accompany him to Wajir because it was difficult getting so many people to that site for such a short visit. Thus, only a few people went, and it's no secret. So by process of elimination, shouldn't it be fairly easy (based on who had a camera and whose interest it would have been in to have that picture out there) to identify the intermediary? Obama Photo Swaddled in Mystery of Its Intent (Post, Feb. 26)

Peter Baker: Not so easy, actually. As I understand it, the photo in question was taken by the Associated Press and therefore distributed to its many customers a couple ofyears ago, so lots of people could access it and forward it to Drudge. For all I know (and I haven't checked) you could find it readily on the Internet.


Baltimore: Do you think that President Bush gets enough credit for the good things he has done, such as throughout Africa? It seems to me the media never gives him credit for anything.

Peter Baker: Certainly he focused a lot of attention during his Africa trip on the programs he has created to fight AIDS, malaria, illiteracy and poverty there, and certainly we wrote a number of stories about that (quoting even liberals who disagree with him on other issues praising his work there). But it's true that it tends to be overshadowed by other issues, such as terrorism, Iraq, the economy, immigration and so forth that carry a more immediate power with everyday Americans. It's not surprising or new that many Americans care more about issues that directly affect them or their country than about good deeds done overseas, even if in a general sense they think those things are good to do.


Silver Spring, Md.: Are we seriously being asked to believe that Judith Miller's neocon-agendaed employer did not deliberately float that amateurish sex allegation (after "many months" of research and careful editorial deliberation, of course) to make Mr. Hundred Years War into a martyr figure? Overnight he has turned from goat to hero on the far right, enjoyed his best fundraising ever, and new even many moderates are feeling sympathy for him. No high school journalist would have led with that thin an evidence for an affair. I'm surprised the rest of the media is falling for the ruse -- although after the run-up to Iraq, clearly I shouldn't be. Well, see you in Tehran. Thanks for all the fish.

Peter Baker: Well, you can believe what you want, obviously, but as someone who has worked in newsrooms for more than two decades, this conspiracy theory doesn't resemble any reality I've ever seen.


David Broder: Do candidates who are on the way to winning, or at least ahead in the polls, pick arguments with David Broder, Ruth Marcus and Maureen Dowd? Is there any better way signal anger and desperation short of using a Sharpie on the forehead? Team Clinton: Down, and Out of Touch (Post, Feb. 26)

Peter Baker: Not that I'm aware of.


Rockville, Md.: By focusing on the sound bite-friendly aspects of Obama's speeches (rather than the policies and issues therein), does the television media unintentionally contribute to the "he lacks substance" narrative that the Clinton and McCain campaigns seek to perpetuate?

Peter Baker: Interesting theory, but I don't think television focuses on sound bites any more with Sen. Obama than with anyone else. With notable exceptions, it's not the medium that is most conducive to lengthy analysis of issues -- regardless of the candidate.


Chicago: On FISA, doesn't Bush reserve the right to ignore the law when it doesn't suit him anyway? What does he care whether Congress authorizes something or not? It's not like he respects the will of the legislative branch. Thanks.

Peter Baker: During the Africa trip I asked Steve Hadley (the national security adviser) why the president would suspend the surveillance program because the law expired, if he believes he has the authority under the Constitution to conduct such a program without legislation in the first place -- as he asserted when the program first was disclosed. Hadley said that they were deferring to a strong desire to have the program covered by legislation.


New York: A staggering one-third of our AIDS funding in Africa is tied to (failed) abstinence programs. Isn't it likely those praising Bush were those on the funding gravy train? African AIDS Crisis Outlives $15 Billion Bush Initiative (Post, Feb. 20)

Peter Baker: Well, it's actually one-third of the money targeted for prevention, which is not the entire program. But there is certainly a debate about the program's emphasis on abstinence programs, and that will come up this week during congressional debate about reauthorizing it.


In the past, Democrats on Capitol Hill have huffed and puffed but in the end usually backed down to President Bush on matters of national security, but this time they defied him.: Was it planned to defy bush on FISA? My take was that the House Republicans and Democrats were expecting an extension to be approved. The House Republicans had planned to walkout decrying the extension, but some House Democrats voted with the Republicans -- to the surprise of all -- on not voting for extension, therefore the bill expired. I think the Democrats just caught a PR break; no plan was made to allow FISA to expire.

Peter Baker: You ask a good question, and I'm not informed enough about their thinking to give you a good answer. I don't know whether it's a PR break or not -- it may prove not to be and instead a move, planned or not, that gives the Republicans ammunition in the fall. But it's also true that Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats had come under withering fire from many on the left who felt they simply had caved to the president time and again, so this may assuage the party base to some extent.


Bremerton, Wash.: Peter, thanks for having these chats with us. We're about to have the 20th Democratic debate tonight, and I forget how many Republican ones there have been. I pay attention to debates more than stump speeches, but as a White House reporter, do you feel debates are the best indicator of a future president's temperament and management style in office? If you stepped into Tim Russert's shoes tonight, would you change anything?

Peter Baker: The best indicator? Maybe not. But I'm not sure what the alternatives are. Stump speeches are fine, too, but there's something revealing about a candidate when he or she is challenged to defend their ideas, to reconcile conflicting statements, to give positions on issues they'd rather not talk about. Obviously that doesn't really tell you too much about management skill or other key factors voters might want to consider, and obviously glibness in a debate format is not necessarily the same as judgment in a crisis, but there's something fundamentally healthy about a system where the people who want to lead us have to submit to questions first. I spent four years in Russia, where Vladimir Putin never once deigned to debate his opponents.


Re: Picking arguments: I think that for a lot of voters, picking arguments with the Broders and Dowds of the world is seen as a positive. I support Obama, but his embrace by the Georgetown cocktail circuit concerns me. They've been wrong about everything else...

Peter Baker: I'm not sure many voters care whether a campaign staff mixes it up with journalists, and obviously I have no worries about David Broder or Maureen Dowd holding their own against intemperate spokesmen. Most of the journalists at that breakfast, by the way, are working reporters who aren't taking sides.


Boston: From your photo you look like you may be too young to remember, but the reason President Reagan has been deified is not for his actions as president (so-so on accomplishments, and very willing to deal with Tip) but for his words. He was an actor, and as an actor he really could deliver a good speech; on top of that he was great with a quip. I don't ever recall seeing an article in the '80s on how being a "Great Communicator" was both good and bad for Reagan ... why does Sen. Obama, who is good with speech and better on a quip, gets a front-pager on how being a "Very Good Communicator" (he's not Reagan -- whom I disliked, by the way) has its downsides? Finding Political Strength in the Power of Words (Post, Feb. 26)

Peter Baker: Oh, I am old enough, yes, and I remember plenty of articles -- and books and so forth -- examining the advantages and disadvantages of President Reagan's rhetorical skills versus other leadership skills.


Boonsboro, Md.: The main purpose of the litigation is not so much monetary damages." Please, we are not that stupid. This is about nothing but money for lawyers...

Peter Baker: There may be lawyers who want to (or will) get fat off the calf, but that's not what's behind groups such as the ACLU that are sponsoring the suits because of their political beliefs.


Alexandria, Va.: I thought the Christian Science Monitor breakfasts usually were off-the-record. Today's article was a fascinating blow-by-blow report, and very unusual. Can Clinton use any leftover campaign funds to arrange mental treatment for her staff, who apparently have taken leave of their senses to live in their alternate-reality worlds?

Peter Baker: Actually, the ones I've been to always have been on the record. There may be exceptions, but I think the idea generally is to have them be public forums.


Rockville, Md.: Thee seems to be a significant effort to get Hillary to quit before the votes in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Is this true? If so, why? I don't think anyone who has paid attention to Texas politics will underestimate her strength in South Texas or the degree that East Texas resembles the "old South." So what is going on? Hillary's Diminishing Returns (Post, Feb. 26)

Peter Baker: There are certainly Democrats who would like her to exit gracefully as soon as possible; most of them of course are supporters of Sen. Obama, so there's no real surprise there. And there's certainly a desire more generally in the party to put the fight behind them quickly and turn the focus to Sen. McCain and the fall. But my guess -- and it's just a guess -- is that there won't be a truly serious effort by senior Democrats independent of Obama supporters until after Ohio and Texas, and only then if she fails to win both. Could be wrong, but I think there's a recognition that we're going to wait to see how Texas and Ohio vote first.


Washington: Either the House Democrats are playing games on FISA, or the administration is using a false deadline to make political points of its own. It seems to me that if the House were at fault here, wouldn't the administration push for a six-month extension so it could get the surveillance tools it needed ASAP, and then use the time to prove its case on telecom immunity? Otherwise, doesn't it look like its the administration playing the political games?

Peter Baker: There's certainly some gamesmanship going on here, but far be it for me to declare one side more cynical than the other in playing them. I'll leave that to you to decide.


Princeton, N.J.: Most of lawyers on the FISA and Gitmo cases are working pro bono, at least on the plaintiffs' side.

Peter Baker: Thanks for the input. I'll post this.


Southwest Nebraska: On judging the ability of a candidate when he gets into office -- does a well-run, disciplined campaign reveal anything about a candidate's administrative ability?

Peter Baker: Probably something, sure. Certainly if you run a slipshod, disorganized, financially broken campaign, it would be a warning sign, so the opposite presumably suggests at least some facility for management. Of course, even a huge campaign of the sort required today -- a $150 million organization, for instance, thinking of the two Democrats and how much they've raised -- pales by comparison to running a $3-trillion-a-year federal government.


Dodd Endorsement: From a Republican Obama supporter: big deal. Obama's going to win Connecticut by twenty points anyway, and given Dodd's campaign "success" in the past decade, no one outside Connecticut and the District knows who he is anyway. The Trail: Dodd to Endorse Obama (, Feb. 26)

Peter Baker: Certainly not a blockbuster endorsement, but to the extent that it has value, it's the increasing acceptance by the Democratic establishment that Sen. Obama is a serious force at this point and really may win the nomination. The argument, I suppose, would be that if someone as serious and experienced as Sen. Dodd thinks Obama is qualified to be president, it should alleviate the concerns of others who worry that he's untested. But it's significant only in the accumulation of such indicators.


Anonymous: Is there anything in it for Hillary to continue if she has a poor showing March 4?

Peter Baker: It gets harder and harder for her if she were to lose Texas and Ohio next week. Former president Bill Clinton said she has to win those two to win the nomination. And she may -- our last poll has her tied in Texas and up by 7 percentage points in Ohio, though I saw a CNN-Gallup poll yesterday that had her slipping somewhat in Texas.


Wilmington, N.C.: Did you know a search for the term "humanize" on The Washington Post web site returns 11 results in just the past 60 days -- two for articles unrelated to politics, and all of the remaining nine use the term specifically in reference to Sen Clinton (and all are from news reporters, not opinion columnists). For example, you wrote on the front page Jan 10: "Howard Wolfson, the communications director, pressed to find ways to humanize the candidate, while Penn thought that was not the highest priority and focused instead on proving how tough she is, several advisers said."It appears the use of "humanize" there is yours, not Wolfson's. When you used the term, were you concerned with it's inaccuracy? Are you surprised to learn this quirk in its use, or were you already aware?

Peter Baker: Well, I'm not sure why you think it's inaccurate. It's not my word -- it's the word her advisers used and still use. We're reporting on their considerations and strategy debates using the terms they use.


Los Angeles: Peter, earlier this year, the Clinton campaign team touted the alliance with Matt Drudge: "Mrs. Clinton's communications team, led by Howard Wolfson, is not leaving Mr. Drudge to the Republicans. Five current and former Democratic officials said Mrs. Clinton has on her side the closest thing her party has ever had to Mr. Rhoades in Tracy Sefl, a former Democratic National Committee official, who has established a friendly working relationship with Mr. Drudge -- and through whom Mrs. Clinton's campaign often worked quietly to open a line of communication." Why are they trying to disavow this communication network now? Do they see a negative backlash to the garment story yesterday? Clinton Finds Way to Play Along With Drudge (New York Times, Oct. 22, 2007)

Peter Baker: They certainly have found ways to interact with Drudge, but I wouldn't necessarily consider that proof positive of anything regarding the photo. To tell you the truth, I don't think the photo "story" is all that interesting or meaningful.


Naperville, Ill.: Thanks for chatting this morning. What approach do you think Hillary will take in tonight's debate? It seems like she has to go on the attack, but that hasn't worked too well for her in the past. Any strategy tips for her?

Peter Baker: She has had a hard time finding a balance that works -- positive one debate, negative the next. Either way, she hasn't gotten much traction in the past few weeks. Some of her advisers believe she doesn't necessarily come across well when she's on the attack -- fairly or unfairly, she turns some people off. But on the other hand, some of those advisers believe they've been too soft on Sen. Obama and need to take him on more forcefully. They're frustrated that he seems to be somewhat Teflon, to use a word associated with President Reagan, and they're angry with the media, which they feel has given him too much of a free ride.


Washington: I think the Politico has been reading your chats, Mr. Baker. In presidential campaign, life imitates TV (Politico, Feb. 20)

Peter Baker: Ha! Our readers are almost always ahead of the curve. Thanks for pointing that out.


Bloomington, Ind.: Hello Peter. From your own personal perspective, what is the mood among the West Wing staff these days? Any notable comments or opinions from high-level staffers on current political matters?

Peter Baker: They're keeping mum on the campaign to a large extent, but they're clearly very invested in the idea that Sen. McCain win this fall and carry on President Bush's policies, particularly with regard to Iraq. They think that if McCain can bring Iraq to some sort of successful outcome, it ultimately will vindicate Bush's presidency.


Peter Baker: Thanks for another great session today. Too many terrific questions left behind, but we'll try again next time. Have a great day.


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