Post Politics Hour

Ben Pershing
Capitol Briefing Blogger
Monday, March 3, 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.

Capitol Briefing blogger Ben Pershing was online Monday, March 3 at 11 a.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

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Archive: Post Politics Hour discussion transcripts


Ben Pershing: Hi folks. I hope you all had a great weekend. There's no better way to spend an hour on a Monday morning than talking politics, so let's begin.


Arlington, Va.: Hi, Ben. Will both McCain and Obama wrap up their parties' nominations on Tuesday?

Ben Pershing: You could argue that McCain essentially has wrapped up his nomination already, though hauling in a bunch more delegates on Tuesday should help strengthen his position. Mike Huckabee still doesn't seem interested in dropping out, though.

Obviously the real action is on the Democratic side. Obama can't mathematically clinch the election Tuesday, but his campaign clearly hopes that a strong result for him will convince Hillary Clinton to leave the race. What will be really interesting is if they split Texas and Ohio, or Clinton gets just enough delegates to make her think she should stay in through Pennsylvania on April 22.


Seattle: The Obama campaign has not reported February fundraising numbers. Is this a sign that numbers were lower than the $40 million-$50 million estimated by pundits, and that the campaign does not want to put out"negative" news prior to Tuesday?

Ben Pershing: Well, the Obama campaign could leak or publicize their fundraising numbers whenever they want, but officially, the campaign does not have to report its February numbers with the FEC until March 20. So it could be a while before we see those totals.


"Winning": Given that the Democrats' delegate distribution practice is proportional, why do the media persist in identifying who "won" a state? For example, if one contender gains 51 percent of California, she/he did not "win" California, only gained X delegates based on that 51 percent. It seems like using "win" in this context is sloppy journalism.

Ben Pershing: I wouldn't call it "sloppy" journalism as much as "horse race" journalism. It's true that it's simplistic to just say which candidates have "won" which states, but that has been the metric of campaign coverage for so long that I think it's hard for everyone to break out of it. And come November, it really will matter who "wins" each state. I'd also say that I've seen plenty of articles, both in The Washington Post and elsewhere, that focus specifically on the fight for delegates and who's winning more delegates in each state.


Orlando, Fla.: The president still is pressuring the House to pass the FISA amendment of 2007 which provides, among other things, immunity to the telecommunications companies that broke the law at the direction of the Bush administration. What are the latest developments in the House and with the Bush administration with regards to this issue? What is the best way to communicate disagreement with the Bush administration's pressure against our leaders in the House?

Ben Pershing: There aren't really many new developments on this front, other than that there is still a standoff between congressional Democratic leaders and the White House on the immunity issue. The two sides have all but agreed on many details of a new terrorist surveillance law. It's just this immunity question that is holding everything up. Democrats are trying to work on some sort of compromise, but Republicans don't want to come to the negotiating table. They want the House to simply take up the same bill that the Senate passed easily last month (which contains immunity for the telecoms) and push it through.


Washington: Do you think more candidates will take the "do not robocall" pledge? Reps. Foxx (R-N.C.) and Boyda (D-Kan.) already have signed on with The National Political Do Not Contact Registry and agreed to not robocall voters who have placed their phone number for free on the registry. Which of the presidential candidates would be more likely to do so?

Ben Pershing: Good question. I hadn't really thought of this in the context of the presidential campaign. I suppose you could argue that John McCain would be the most likely candidate to agree to an anti-robocall pledge, given his close identification with campaign finance reform, etc. But then McCain easily could pledge not to do robocalls and still have sympathetic outside groups do them on his behalf. Under the law, he couldn't force those groups to stop robocalling for him, because he's not allowed to coordinate his activities with theirs.


Henly, Texas: The Clinton campaign placed its own spin on her fundraising by "pre-releasing" her February take, an amount they report as $35 million. But my guess is that a large portion of that may be from donors who already legally were maxed out for the primary, which means much of it may be somewhat meaningless money, useable only in the general election. Otherwise, she wouldn't be letting Obama outspend her two-to-one on TV and mail. Has anyone seen the actual breakdown?

Ben Pershing: I haven't seen the actual breakdown of Clinton's cash so I don't know how much of it is primary money vs. general election money. Obviously her campaign has faced stories in recent weeks about their financial disadvantage, so they thought it made sense to get the numbers out there. And I'm not sure whether all these donors really have maxed out. The Clinton campaign says a lot of the money came through the Internet, and Web donations tend to be of the small-dollar variety.


Bow, N.H.: The White House (again) has threatened to veto an energy bill because it raises taxes on oil and gas companies to pay for (as required by the pay-go rules) tax cuts for alternative and renewable energy. What is more dangerous for congressional Democrats: having no energy bill at all, or having one that requires them to waive pay-go?

Ben Pershing: I think Democrats would rather get the energy bill to Bush's desk one way or the other than worry too much about pay-go (that's shorthand for "pay as you go" budget rules, which say that any new tax cut or spending increase must be offset with tax increases or spending cuts).

Much as Democrats have talked up pay-go rules, they ignored them last year when they patched the Alternative Minimum Tax, and they ignored them again this year on the economic stimulus package.


Kensington, Md.: It didn't get much coverage, but on Friday Jay Rockefeller, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, answered the "3 a.m. question" by saying "Barack Obama." Will his endorsement carry much weight in southwestern Ohio, or does the West Virginia media market not spill over much there?

Ben Pershing: I don't think Rockefeller is so well-known in Ohio that he will have a direct impact. But he is the kind of credible surrogate with foreign policy experience that Obama's campaign wants to feature as much as possible, especially with the current focus on the question of which candidate knows how to handle international crises.


Vermillion, S.D.: Thanks for taking this question! Hillary criticized the media in last week's debate for being unfair to her. In fact, it is a common message that has been coming from her campaign lately. The media, it seems, has picked up on this and asked itself whether it is being unfair to Clinton. Have you thought about this yourself? And what conclusions have you come to? To me it seems like stories about Clinton, overall, are more negative than stories about Obama but this negativity is well-deserved. If Hitler and Gandhi were running for president, I wouldn't expect the press to play fair and give each equally good press. I know that Hillary is not even close to Hitler (I just used that analogy to dramatize my point), but it is fair for the media to note that Obama has a clean record, that he inspires a fervent following and that it is very mathematically improbable for Hillary to win more elected delegates than Obama. Of course the media coverage is going to seem slanted in favor of him -- the facts just line up better for Obama!

Ben Pershing: Putting aside the "Hillary vs. Hitler" comparison, which is obviously beyond the pale of any rational discussion, I think there are two different questions here. Is it fair for the media to write that Obama is in the better position right now, and to ask Clinton whether she's going to drop out? Of course it's fair, because it's a fact that Obama is on a huge winning streak, has more delegates, more cash and so on. But Clinton's complaint isn't really that the media is writing about Obama's momentum, it's that the media holds her to a tougher standard and hasn't focused enough on Obama's shortcomings compared to her shortcomings. That seems like a reasonable complaint to make, even if it may seem like sour grapes to her opponents.


Annandale, Va.: New Mexico governor and former candidate Bill Richardson said on Sunday that "whoever has the most delegates after Tuesday should be the nominee." He also stated that  Sen. Obama "is ready -- he has great judgment, an internationalist background." This sounds like he's gotten very close to endorsing the Illinois senator without quite saying so. Richardson also indicated that he still may make an endorsement before Tuesday's primary. How do you read all of his positioning?

Ben Pershing: Richardson always seems to be positioning for something, and he has made some very favorable comments about Obama recently. An Obama endorsement by Richardson would be especially interesting because his career really took off because of the cabinet positions given to him by Bill Clinton. It also would be nice for Obama to get a high-profile Hispanic backer, because Obama has trailed Clinton among Latino voters so far. And Obama could use the help in the Southwest, especially if he faces the Arizonan McCain in November.


Lee Center, N.Y.: Was the "Saturday Night Light" skit with Hillary and the subsequent anti-Obama cartoon a violation of the equal time rules that the FCC sets for TV stations and networks? Are there any watchdogs left to investigate? What recourse would the Obama campaign have if "SNL" were to have violated the fairness doctrine?

Ben Pershing: Anyone out there know the definitive answer to this question? It's an interesting one. I believe that as a parody show, "Saturday Night Live" is not obligated to provide equal time to the candidates. The show has been spoofing elections for three decades, and I've never heard of it being forced to provide equal time. And I don't think shows like "The Daily Show" or the "Colbert Report" have to either.


Montgomery Village, Md.: So Richardson makes a "non-endorsement" endorsement of Obama, a little surprising since he worked for Bill, but where are Edwards and Biden? Do they think they may have a role after tomorrow and be part of a "neutral" group who calls Hillary on Wednesday and tells her it's over? Richardson set the criteria yesterday. Edwards' silence is deafening.

Ben Pershing: We've covered Richardson, and I don't think anyone beyond Edwards himself and perhaps a very small circle of advisers know what he will do. I'm not sure Edwards has quite the stature or widespread respect in the party to be the one to ask Clinton to drop out. The media has speculated for awhile about who does have that credibility. Maybe Al Gore, who has stayed neutral and still has a good reputation within the party. Or how about George Mitchell? He helped make peace in Northern Ireland and is trying to get steroids out of baseball. Maybe this could be his next cause.


Washington: What are the two or three congressional races that you have your eye on this year?

Ben Pershing: There is one very good race that actually is happening this Saturday in Illinois. (I just wrote about it on my Capitol Briefing blog this morning.) It's the special election to replace ex-Speaker Dennis Hastert, and the race has been very close, expensive and hard-fought. Republicans have spent an awful lot of money there that they can't really afford to spend in order to keep the seat red.

There will be other good contests in Illinois this year. I also closely would watch the two open seats coming in New Mexico, and the race to replace Rep. Deborah Pryce in Ohio.


Wokingham, U.K.: I'm just about to visit my son and family in the United States for the first time in a year. What changes in the political atmosphere from spring 2007 to spring 2008 will be most apparent? Greater resignation to a long military stay in Iraq? Greater concern about immigration? Greater concern about the economy?

Ben Pershing: Hello Wokingham! I think the single biggest change in the past year's political environment has been the shift in focus to the economy and housing issues, which really have become the dominant concern for votes. Last year Iraq and immigration dominated the debate, but this year both those topics have slid down the list in most national polls.


Washington: Prince William County, Va., begins its "crackdown" on illegal immigration today. Who, in your opinion, ultimately would be more sympathetic to illegal immigration reform: Clinton, Obama or McCain? It may seem like an obvious response, but I get "lost in the weeds" when the candidates talk. Thanks.

Ben Pershing: Not sure exactly what you mean by "sympathetic to illegal immigration reform." All three candidates generally have vowed to "secure the borders first," and all three have been in favor of further steps beyond that, whether you call it a "pathway to citizenship" or "amnesty" or just increasing visas for certain types of workers. What's tough for McCain is that he really has gone out of his way to disavow what he did last year on the issue, because so many fellow Republicans disagreed with him. Could he eventually pivot back to pushing comprehensive reform again? Probably not, at least not while he's campaigning. If he actually wins the White House, that's another story.


Claverack, N.Y.: "Much as Democrats have talked up pay-go rules, they ignored them last year when they patched the Alternative Minimum Tax." I call foul. They certainly did not "ignore" the pay-go rules; Harry Reid tried very hard to pass a package that was paid for. Republicans refused to allow a vote on such a package, calling it a "tax increase"; faced with little alternative, the Democrats chose to vote on the package they could pass.

Ben Pershing: Okay, fair point. Democrats did not ignore the pay-go rules on the AMT issue, but they did decide that actually passing a bill was more important to sticking to pay-go. So there's no reason to think Democrats won't make that same calculation again on energy and other big-ticket items this year.


Manchester, N.H.: Why does the millionaire's amendment only apply to congressional races and not the presidential race?

Ben Pershing: Because that's just what the law containing the millionaire's amendment said. It's a good point, because otherwise Hillary would have triggered it with her $5 million campaign loan, and Mitt Romney would have triggered it right at the start of his campaign.


Troy, N.Y.: As Warren Buffett commented this morning, we are essentially in a recession. Typically government revenues are not robust during tough times; the state of New York has decreased the amount by which they are increasing the budget! Getting to my question, is the war in Iraq included in these various $400 billion-$500 billion budget deficit projections for 2009 onward?

Ben Pershing: Generally, the Congressional Budget Office and the White House either have not included or have downplayed the costs of Iraq in their budget projections. A lot of the war has been paid for through so-called "supplemental" or "emergency" spending, which falls outside the regular budget process. And I don't think anyone really knows how much the country will spend in Iraq in, say, 2011. There are just too many variables (including who the president is at that point) to make a good guess.


Silver Spring, Md.: Thanks for taking my question. Maybe I've missed it, but have the remaining presidential aspirants seriously talked about how they plan to address the enormous financial problems facing the country: the exploding budget deficit, trade imbalance, etc.? I keep reading about the awful economic situation we'll be leaving our children and grandchildren, but I haven't heard any of the candidates give details on what they propose to do about it.

Ben Pershing: I think all the candidates have talked extensively about these issues. In particular, Obama and Clinton have spent a lot of time in Ohio talking about economic challenges, and they particularly have focused on trade policy. Just this morning there was quite a bit of coverage about Obama's position on NAFTA.


San Francisco Bay area: Good morning. Guess tomorrow's results may tell us whether or not Hillary's Cheney-esque fear tactics have helped her campaign. In the meantime, tell us how you think her crying female victim, and implanting Bush/Cheney fear messages have helped or hurt her.

Ben Pershing: There were certainly some analysts who thought Clinton's crying moment before the New Hampshire primary helped her win that state, though I'm not sure I would call her a "crying female victim." As for the "fear" question, I'm not sure how fair that is. If Clinton says she's the best candidate to handle a terrorist attack or crisis, is she simply touting her own credentials and preparedness, or is she saying Obama can't handle a crisis? It's not like she said "if Obama were elected the terrorists will strike again." It's a subtle distinction.


Augusta, Ga.: Will we ever have a non-millionaire president again?

Ben Pershing: I suppose we could. A lifelong public servant or member of Congress could get to the White House without being a millionaire, though I suppose that's an increasingly rare proposition. Compared to other presidents the Clintons weren't that wealthy when they were in the White House, but have become very rich since then, with Bill's speeches and Hillary's book.


Washington: Hey, Mr. Pershing! At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, did you catch "60 Minutes" last night? Aside from the visceral pleasure of seeing a reporter getting hit the with Pentagon's new heat-ray weapon, there was a very interesting exchange between Sen. Obama and a "60 Minutes" reporter. When told that one guy in an Ohio focus group was worried by a rumor he heard that Obama was a Muslim who didn't know the words to the National Anthem, Obama replied "did you correct him?" That raised my eyebrows a little. Do you think that comment reveals something about Sen. Obama's relationship with the press and his apparent expectation that they actively refute obviously false allegations about him? By the way, the "60 Minutes" reporter assured Sen. Obama that he did refute the obviously false allegations.

Ben Pershing: I did see that, and I agree that it was a telling moment. I think what Obama was trying to convey there was that it is really the media's job to dispel the myth that he is a Muslim, and that if there are still a lot of voters out there who think he is a Muslim then that might be a sign that the media hasn't done enough to make that fact clear. Of course, Obama was laughing and smiling when he made the comment, but it clearly touched a chord with him. I think he is genuinely tired of having to answer questions on that issue.


Ferguson, Mo.: Morning, Ben. I won't ask you to shine your crystal ball for the presidential candidate, but what's your best guess as to Democratic pickups in Senate? If they can get to 60, isn't that really more important than which Democratic candidate ends up as president? Is that number within reach? Thanks.

Ben Pershing: Democrats are in a very good position to gain seats in the Senate but it's very hard to see how they would get to 60 seats. They have good opportunities to win in Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado and New Hampshire. Then they have more difficult but winnable races in Minnesota, Alaska and Maine. And they have to protect Mary Landrieu in Louisiana. So starting with their current 51 seats, Democrats would have to win essentially every remotely close race (including in places like Kentucky) to get to 60. It's possible, but unlikely.


Ben Pershing: Thanks for the great questions, everyone.


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