Broder on Politics

David S. Broder
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, February 27, 2008; 12:30 PM

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and Washington Post columnist David S. Broder was online Wednesday, Feb. 27 at 12:30 p.m. ET to answer your questions about the world of politics, from the latest maneuverings on the campaign trail to developments in the White House.

Broder has written extensively about primaries, elections, special interests and the business of politics. His books include "Democracy Derailed: The Initiative Movement & the Power of Money," "Behind the Front Page: A Candid Look at How the News Is Made" and "The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point." For a Neighbor, a Worrisome Drama in Pakistan (Post, Nov. 8)

The transcript follows.

Archive: David Broder discussion transcripts


Boston: Thank you for your recent column on the delegate rules. I'm troubled both by the exclusion of Michigan and Florida and by their potential inclusion. In 1992, one Clinton campaign theme that struck a chord with me was an appeal to people who work hard and "play by the rules." If Michigan and Florida now included, it will be to the benefit of one candidate who somehow ended up winning states where no one else campaigned. And now she wants the exclusion rules changed. I don't like it -- it's not acceptable to me. But still, is there any possibility of a caucus or primary in those states so they can be included, but not to the benefit of the candidate who didn't play by the rules? Four Rules That Could Be Decisive (Post, Feb. 21)

David S. Broder: My apologies to everyone for being late signing on -- I had a glitch in my computer. The answer to your question is that there are many ways to accommodate Michigan and Florida, provided their inclusion does not change the outcome of the voting in all the other jurisdictions. They could be seated and withhold their votes, or agree to apportion them as the other delegates are apportioned. That would give them representation but not violate the rules.


Canton, Ohio: Last night, Hillary referred to her experience "at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue." Why has the media allowed her to get away with implying that being first lady is analogous to an elected office?

David S. Broder: It is not an elected office, but she is literally correct in saying that she has had experience at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, so I see no problem.


Ferguson, Mo.: David, I am pretty sure I recall you as a panelist on "Meet the Press" in the 1960s. I have to wonder, after so many years of service, do you still love politics? Does it take a fight like this year's to revive you, or are you always "pumped"? Thanks.

David S. Broder: Yes, I still love politics, and this campaign has been the most stimulating since my first in 1960. Thanks for asking.


The Cartoon...: from The Washington Post showing Obama walking on water is very interesting. History has shown that it is dangerous to perceive someone the way people perceive Obama. It is like love at first sight -- with exploding chemistry. But we all know that often leads to healthy long term relationships when the fireworks are over and the object of our affection stand there, with flaws and all. The media is having love-at-first-sight with Obama. It does not mean that he isn't great -- perhaps he is the best candidate -- but we'll see how far this love affair goes if and when he is in power and does not have to convince anyone to elect him. Tom Toles Cartoon (, Feb. 27)

David S. Broder: Experience teaches that campaigns can provide insights into candidates, but rarely expose all the facets of their minds and personalities that become important in the presidency. That was certainly the case for me with George W. Bush, and I expect it would be the case if and when Senator Obama reached the Oval Office.


Long Island, N.Y.: Mr. Broder, thanks for taking time today for this chat. About a year ago you wrote a column where you stated: "It may seem perverse to suggest that, at the very moment the House of Representatives is repudiating his policy in Iraq, President Bush is poised for a political comeback. But don't be astonished if that is the case." I think it's safe to say that this comeback has yet to materialize. In your opinion, what has transpired over the last 12-plus months where Bush has failed to capitalize on any opportunity to garner any significant increase in support outside his high-20 percent core backers?

David S. Broder: That was certainly one of my less astute observations. He has been less flexible in the past year than I expected after the 2006 election, and I think he continues to pay a price for his rigidity -- on the SCHIP program, for one example.


Denver: Mr. Broder, do you think voters should be concerned at this point about details in the candidates' policy proposals (e.g., mandated insurance vs. non-mandate), or should we look for broader directions, and assume the details will work out after the election?

David S. Broder: You make a good distinction. The debate about health insurance is not about details, however. Sen. Obama, by opposing a mandate, apparently has locked himself into a position that would have important implications for policy if he were to become president. The same thing is true about both senators' statements on NAFTA last night. But by and large, I think voters are wise to focus on the big questions of character and judgment and experience, rather than the policy fine points.


Washington: While the possible presidency of Hillary Clinton would be groundbreaking in the U.S., women have led nations such as Canada, England, India, Argentina, Israel and even Pakistan. Has any other major nation had an ethnic minority serve as the head of state? I can only think of Peru.

David S. Broder: I cannot think of another offhand.


Portland, Ore.: The last really contentious primary I recall was the 1976 Reagan vs. Ford Republican contest. The Republican Party seemed pretty united to me in the general election, but Ford did dump Rockefeller in favor of Dole, which must have been a concession to the right. If Hillary pulls the rabbit out of the hat and wins, what will she have to do to unite the Democrats? Also, if Obama wins, what must he do to unite the party? It seems to me their positions on the issues are closer than Reagan's and Ford's were, but they'll need to reach out somehow. It also seems to me that Hillary will have the tougher task if she overcomes Obama's message of hope.

David S. Broder: I think you are right in saying that the Democratic divisions have less to do with issue disagreements than with the differing constituencies the two candidates have attracted. Talking with Democratic governors last weekend when they were in town, they said Obama would have to revisit parts of the country where he had spent less time so far, and particularly cultivate women voters and Hispanics; Clinton would have work to do in the black community and with young people. But I don't see the Democrats as badly divided at this point.


Princeton, N.J.: It is beyond me how you can say it is representation if the delegates are seated, but told how to vote. Do you realize that the Florida Democrats never wanted to move the date of their primary? That the Republican state legislature did it over the objections of the Democrats? That twice as many Democrats voted in the primary as ever before? That neither Obama nor Clinton campaigned in Florida, so the playing field was level? Why do you support letting the Republicans in Florida take votes away from the Democrats? Sound a bit familiar?

David S. Broder: Excuse me, but no one put a gun to the head of the Florida Democratic Committee when it decided to accept the new primary date. They could have opted out, but did not.


Atlanta: You wrote months ago that the specter of a co-presidency could potentially hurt Hillary Clinton. This seems to have been the case. Do you think the Clinton campaign really considered it, or were they convinced that Bill Clinton's popularity with Democrats ultimately made him a big plus?

David S. Broder: Thank you for remembering that column. The Clinton campaign was convinced that he was a big asset; I think now perhaps they have second thoughts.


Winnipeg, Canada: Do you recall a primary season in which the remaining field was so strong? By my assessment, three of the four left standing at this point have the ability to assume office and represent their constituency well without harming your nation in the process. And the fourth remaining candidate doesn't have a realistic chance at the nomination, majoring in miracles notwithstanding. When was the last time voters had this strong a matchup?

David S. Broder: I don't know when the last such time was, but I agree with your assessment of the remaining candidates this year. And I would add that Mike Huckabee has been impressive in many ways.


New York: David, is the intense lobbying for superdelegates still ongoing, despite Gore's suggestions that the uncommitted remain so until the convention? Or did that fall on deaf ears? Thanks.

David S. Broder: There has been a bit of a lull in the wooing, pending Ohio and Texas, but I am sure it will resume in earnest if those states don't settle the contest.


Well, thereisone sad example...:"Has any other major nation had an ethnic minority serve as the head of state?" South Africa. (I believe whites were an ethnic minority in terms of sheer numbers, no?)

David S. Broder: Thank you for your good response.


Cincinnati: I was astonished to hear former Republican Congressman Rob Portman speak affectionately of Bill Cunningham, the outrageous local radio talk show host, at yesterday's McCain rally in Cincinnati. This guy (Cunningham) is chronically out of control ... Cincinnati's answer to Ann Coulter. Did Portman hurt his chances for a possible vice presidential slot with McCain? P.S. We're not all crazies in Cincinnati!

David S. Broder: I never had heard of Bill Cunningham until yesterday, but like you I was appalled to read about what Rob Portman had said of him. I am an admirer of Mr. Portman, and until now certainly considered him a potential vice presidential candidate.


Bethesda, Md.: I realize this is waaaay hypothetical, but being too young to remember brokered conventions I am curious about the following scenario: Let's say Clinton bows out after Tuesday. In the five months between now and August, McCain and the GOP take on Obama full force, and with success (no matter whether it's a one-issue smoking gun or thousands of digs that expose weaknesses).

Come early August, the national polls show a 20-point GOP lead. It is apparently a mathematical given that Obama cannot win the nomination solely via non-superdelegates. Do the superdelegates, sensing a landslide defeat if they go for Obama, resurrect the no-longer-in-the-game Clinton? Do they stick with Obama by virtue of him being the last man standing? Or do they find a third option?

David S. Broder: You've laid out a lot of fascinating hypotheticals, but I have to confess, I'm not smart enough to know what the Democratic convention would do under those circumstances. My guess is that delegates would honor their candidate commitments and hope that the polls prove wrong, as they have done in the past. Michael Dukakis led George H.W. Bush by about that margin at the time of the 1988 Democratic convention.


Rochester, N.Y.: A little while ago you wrote a column (which I agreed with very much) where you criticized the moderators of the debates for focusing too much on superficial, gotcha type questions. Were you as disappointed as I was by Tim Russert dwelling on Louis Farrakhan so much last night? He has nothing to do with either campaign -- he's just a controversial figure that Russert tried to make hay of. Given the quality of the candidates and the importance of real issues, I found this unacceptable. What can be done to get this kind of thing out of the debate? Do we just need different moderators?

David S. Broder: Overall I thought the questioning last night was very professional, but I agree with you on the Farrakhan question. Maybe, if we're lucky, we'll get Jim Lehrer again for the fall debates.


Falls Church, Va.: How much foreign policy expertise did Bill Clinton have when he was elected in 1992?

David S. Broder: Not a lot, but he had been a Rhodes Scholar and had traveled in Russia. Do you regard him as a role model or a cautionary example?


Santa Fe, N.M.: Responding to the question about whether another ethnic minority served as head of state: Was not Egyptian President Sadat half-African?

David S. Broder: I don't know the answer to that.


Minneapolis: How many more times does McCain have to flip-flop or pander before the media decides he's no longer a "straight talker"?

David S. Broder: Examples please; or was that just a rhetorical question to get it off your chest?


Ashland, Mo.: You frequently interview voters. When you do, are they as informed as you expect? Do they have the same concerns as the media? To give this some context, Howard Kurtz notes the Ohio debate covered things people have heard a dozen times. Haven't most people not heard it at all at this stage?

David S. Broder: Repetition is very useful in communicating information to voters, especially on complex policy like health care. I find voters very shrewd in sizing up candidates, but often more than a little vague on the fine points of policy.


Ocala, Fla.: Your thoughts on the passing of William F. Buckley?

David S. Broder: I had very few occasions for conversation with Mr. Buckley, but I loved his writing, and respected his role in launching the new era of conservatism.


Straight Lobbyist Express?: Mr. Broder, most people could care less if Sen. McCain is or is not in bed with a comely young lobbyist. However, doesn't the "straight-talker" take a big hit from the news that the senator is so snuggled up with lobbyists in general? That he even allows one or more lobbyists to conduct his business from the campaign bus/plane?

David S. Broder: Perhaps I have lived and worked too long in Washington, but in my book (and in my life and work), there is nothing remarkable or objectionable about having dealings with lobbyists. The key question is whether you are being influenced by then. I talk to lobbyists all the time, but I'd like to think I'm making independent judgments about the issues in which they are involved. Of course, I have never had to turn to them for campaign funds, and I think the scrutiny Sen. McCain and all other candidates receive on their dealings with lobbyists and contributors is vitally important. But "association" by itself does not determine the verdict on the propriety of their dealings. It is much more useful to look at the actions the candidate, or any other politician, has taken.


Los Angeles: David, I just don't understand the hoopla about Obama wanting to meet with our enemies. Isn't that part of the president's job to resolve crises? Who causes crises ... isn't it your enemies most of the time?

David S. Broder: I don't regard this as a top-line issue, but rather as a measure of the caution or boldness with which Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama would approach international affairs. It's a fair fight as to which quality you want to see in a president.


Examples: Hey for a giant example lets go to the great moral question of our day (and one that as an American I ashamed we even are debating): McCain was against torture until he was for torture. He has played this song and dance a couple of times now, most recently two weeks ago when he voted against the CIA having to adopt the Army Field manual limits on torture.

David S. Broder: You have to come up with a better example, in my opinion. As Sen. McCain has explained, he consistently has said that there are forms of interrogation allowable for the CIA beyond those in the Army manual, so long as they do not violate the Geneva Convention, which he and I both believe covers waterboarding.


Washington: Last night it seemed weak that both Obama and Clinton spoke at length about renegotiating NAFTA and neither one thought to talk about assistance to the victims of NAFTA. People need retraining, job search assistance, health care for their families and education for their children. Why did both Democratic candidates not even think to remember the voters?

David S. Broder: I was disturbed by the NAFTA discussion too, and agree with you that much more emphasis should be placed on effective help for displaced workers, rather than promising to renegotiate the agreement or withdraw from it.


Burke, Va.: What do you think about today's vote on H.R. 5351, which proposes reallocating $18 billion in tax breaks for oil companies toward production-tax credits for renewable energy sources for a 10-year period? Oil companies are making record profits while we pay more than $3 a gallon, and they complain that the public should subsidize them instead of encouraging investment in renewable energy.

David S. Broder: That makes sense to me.


Farrakhan...: With all due respect, many American Jews are quite concerned with the association between Obama's church and Farrakhan and will not vote for him for that reason. Therefore I think it was a very important question that Tim Russert asked. I am not a huge fan of Russert, but I thought this and other questions he asked were good and important and reflected what was on people's minds.

David S. Broder: If it offered comfort to hear Sen. Obama repeat his disdain for anti-Semitism, whatever the source, that is well and good -- but because his position was never in doubt, I am not sure it merited time on the last debate before the two big primaries.


Washington: In 1964, Mississippi Democratic Party refused to follow the national party's rules on selecting delegates. Civil rights activists therefore formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and elected a slate of delegates in accordance with the National Committee's rules. This later created a great controversy at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, N.J. So I am wondering, when Florida and Michigan said they would not comply, why didn't others proclaim themselves the true Democratic Party of each respective state and hold primaries in accordance with the national committee's rules?

David S. Broder: Your history is right; I remember well covering that fight at the Atlantic City convention. I can't tell you why the Michigan and Florida parties did not take that option, or whether it ever was considered.


Ethnic minority as Head of state: The current Indian Prime minister Manmohan Singh (he is a Sikh)! India also has had a Muslim as president (Abdul Kalam).

David S. Broder: Thank you for those examples. This is an impressively informed group of people on today's chat.


Re: McCain: You wrote: "Examples please (of McCain flip-flopping); or was that just a rhetorical question to get it off your chest?" Let me ask then: What do you think of him using possible public financing to secure a loan for his campaign and then backing out of public financing? Isn't that a bit of a flip-flop for someone who has made campaign finance reform his signature issue? I write as someone who voted for McCain in the 2000 primary because of his record on campaign finance reform. Loans Could Paint McCain Into Corner (Post, Feb. 27)

David S. Broder: As a nonlawyer, I have tried to understand the dispute between Sen. McCain and the FEC the best I can. He claims that he wanted to have the option of public financing for the primaries, but never signed up to use it. They say he cannot withdraw his request at this point. Because neither Sen. Clinton or Sen. Obama ever considered accepting the limits that go with public financing, I can understand Sen. McCain's reluctance to be bound by them. I'm more concerned that both nominees take public financing and forego private money in the general election.


Washington: It was encouraging to see McCain repudiate the "Barack Hussein Obama" silliness. Do you think that could portend a dignified general election? Can you imagine Hillary Clinton extending the same courtesy?

David S. Broder: I think a McCain-Obama race would be on a high level, and yes, I can imagine Sen. Clinton doing the same thing.


Williamsburg, Va.: Mr. Broder, do you and Thomas Boswell of the Post share a special kinship? Something struck me today that I should have long ago realized: You both have very similar, solid styles of analysis that often take advantage of insights gleaned from history. (It's no matter that one of you uses the history of baseball or golf and the other political history.) Thanks.

David S. Broder: That is a wonderful compliment, in my book, because I am a huge fan of my colleague Tom Boswell. Thank you.


New York: David, I've wondered why Clinton has taken the attack route during these critical days, instead of making a bold proposal -- like sending a universal health plan to Congress in her first 90 days, a "domestic surge" in the first 30 days to stimulate the economy, etc. I remember when Christie Todd Whitman, running behind incumbent New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio, promised a bold tax-cut plan at the 11th hour and won the governorship. Couldn't something like that have worked for Clinton? Thanks.

David S. Broder: I don't fancy myself as a campaign strategist, but what you are saying makes sense to me.


Minority heads of state: Many dictators are from the minority ethnic group (e.g., Saddam Hussein). So the question should be, has another state democratically elected a head of state from a minority ethnic group? (This still leaves Peru.)

David S. Broder: Thank you for making that useful distinction.


Northwest Washington: Question may be a little late, but who is running the Obama campaign? I see it's David Plouffe, who has an apparent background/history with Dick Gephardt? Is there more to him, or more folks in the mix? What is their background, prior campaign history, etc.? Maybe I need to give Obama more credit,because the history with Harkin and Gephardt do not bode well. Until these upcoming primaries it appears Obama's campaign has been free and clear of the traditional nitpicking and nasty innuendo that apparently is picking up. Whoever is running his campaign deserves some kudos!

David S. Broder: I can't begin to answer your question fully in the time remaining, but I would note that the chief strategist has been David Axelrod, who played the same role in Sen. Obama's campaign for the Illinois Senate seat.


Santa Fe, N.M.: Dave, the term "kitchen-sinking" has been used recently to describe the Clinton campaign's effort to come up with some criticism or other that will stick on Obama and help Sen. Clinton gain traction. What do you think of "kitchen-sinking" as a tactic at this point in the campaign?

David S. Broder: I think the term is an exceptionally awkward one, and the tactic strikes me as unlikely to work.


Brandywine, Md.: Egypt is an African country, and being African in an African country does not make him an ethnic minority. Sadat's Mother was from Nubia, which is a part of Egypt and also part Sudan. I am Egyptian, and Egyptians wouldn't call that being an ethnic minority!

David S. Broder: I am learning a lot from all of you.


Baltimore: Mr. Broder: Was the atmosphere really that tense at the Christian Science Monitor breakfast? From the reporting I have read, the Clinton folks did not really act like grownups with the members of the press, and even seemed to bicker among themselves. It does not bode well for her.

David S. Broder: I sensed no tension at that breakfast, but the remarks of Sen. Clinton's press aide certainly did not go over well with the reporters at the table.


Annandale, Va.: David -- Thanks for hosting this discussion. A couple of points that occurred to me during last night's debate. Firstly, since Harry Truman, there have been 14 presidential elections. Of those, the Democrats have have won five and the Republicans nine. Maybe this is evidence that the public hasn't wanted universal health care (at least in previous elections)? Maybe it's a loser issue for the Democrats?

Secondly: In 1992, we had a choice between a candidate with an impressive and unmatched foreign affairs resume (a former U.N. Ambassador, CIA Administrator, vice president and incumbent) in George H.W. Bush, versus a governor from Arkansas with little or no foreign affairs experience in Bill Clinton. On Jan. 21, 1993, who was ready on "Day 1"? I don't remember it being a question in 1992, and, if it was, it certainly was not a deciding factor with the American electorate.

Third point: Americans want a president who is presidential, and, I'm not sure that being sarcastic and playing the victim suits this role. And finally, while Sen. Clinton is extremely capable and qualified, I came away from this debate more convinced that if I had to hire one of them to work with, based on their resumes Sen. Clinton would be my first choice ... but that after interviewing both of them, I'd want to work with Sen. Obama. Sometimes personality and comfort outweigh the strength of one's resume.

David S. Broder: Thanks for your good message. I would dissent on only one point -- the public appetite for health care coverage. I think that demand is real and is important to many people, and I don't think the electoral history of the past 14 contests in any way diminishes that palpable desire.

This has to be my last response. Thank all of you for a very enjoyable session.


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