Post Politics Hour
washingtonpost.com's Daily Politics Discussion

Peter Baker
Washington Post White House Reporter
Monday, March 24, 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 Monday, March 24 at 11 a.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

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Peter Baker: Good morning, everyone. John McCain gets back today from his overseas jaunt, the Democrats are still ripping each other part and the kids are rolling Easter eggs at the White House. So let's get started.


Seminole, Fla.: Why does President Bush continue to say that Iran seeks to build nuclear weapons when his own intelligence experts say they do not? Secondly, I have read that Israel possesses between 75 and 200 nuclear weapons. Is this true, and if so, how does this affect U.S. policy in the Middle East?

washingtonpost.com: Administration Puts Its Best Spin on Iran Report (Post, March 24)

Peter Baker: The National Intelligence Estimate last fall concluded that Iran had a secret nuclear weapons program that it suspended in 2003. At the same time, Iran continues to develop its ability to enrich uranium. The United States as well as a number of other nations worries that the uranium enrichment program is meant not for civilian energy purposes, as Tehran insists, but for nuclear weapons. The administration says that once Iran figures out how to enrich uranium well enough to make fuel for a nuclear bomb, it could easily restart the weapons program, if it has not already done so secretly. The administration also notes that Iran has been developing ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons. As for Israel, its nuclear capacity is secret but widely assumed. I'm not sure it necessarily has as many weapons as you say, but most security experts believe it does have some. That's the uncomfortable situation most folks in Washington do not like to talk about, but if forced to, what they point out is that Israel has not threatened to "wipe out" Iran the way Ahmadinejad has threatened to do to Israel. They also point out that Israel is not a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and so not in violation of it. But the notion that Israel has nuclear weapons and the rest of the region does not is an issue often brought up by Iranian and Arab officials.


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Regarding The Washington Post's online story about the Democratic candidates for president overstating their legislative/congressional accomplishments -- say it ain't so, Pete! Do you mean to tell me a politician opens his mouth and hooey comes out? Since when? You just have to "believe," Peter. And Tinkerbell will be fully restored to good health, vim and vigor. Honest injun. Thanks much.

Peter Baker: Hmm, folks are restless this morning -- such cynicism!


Tampa, Fla.: As much as I personally would like "do-overs," isn't it a bit disingenuous of the campaigns to make such political hay about "disenfranchised voters" when voters nationwide (outside of Iowa and New Hampshire) pretty much have been rubber stamps in the nominating process for the past 25 years or more? If there is such concern about "disenfranchisement," why doesn't any leader in the Democratic Party propose a dramatically reformed primary/nominating process?

Peter Baker: You make an interesting point. Until this year, at least, you always had 10, 20, maybe 30 states whose preferences in the nomination battle were essentially irrelevant because the contests were effectively decided before it got to them. And of course until the last few decades, only a handful of states had primaries at all. But the image of empty seats at the convention, figuratively at least, from two of the largest states has become a sore point in all these discussions even aside from the Clinton campaign's obvious self-interest in pushing for Florida and Michigan to be seated.


Silver Spring, Md.: From Jay Leno's routine on Friday: "John McCain is now 10 percent ahead of Hillary Clinton and 7 percent ahead of Barack Obama. This is after Iraq, a recession, and no health care. Imagine if the Republicans had actually done something." So far, McCain does not appear to be tied much to the unpopular Bush administration, despite the efforts of the Democrats and despite McCain not seeming to have made much of an effort to spell out in what ways he would differ from Bush. Can he continue doing this?

Peter Baker: Well, the general election has not really begun, so I wouldn't assume we have any real sense of how it will shape up yet. It's hard to judge what things will look like in October when it's still March and the Democrats are still squabbling about their own nominee. After the dust from that settles and the general election battle is really engaged, I would expect the Democrats to spent a fortune morphing Senator McCain into President Bush and I would expect the McCain camp to try to find ways of responding to that.


Seattle: Is the sniper lie the event that ends the Clinton campaign?

washingtonpost.com: The Fact-Checker: Hillary's Balkan Adventures, Part II (washingtonpost.com, March 21)

Peter Baker: Michael Dobbs's truth-squadding of Senator Clinton's version of events when she traveled to Bosnia certainly doesn't help her. It adds to a broader body of reporting that has led people to believe she is exaggerating her experience in the foreign affairs arena -- Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Macedonian and so forth.


San Francisco: Will Dana Perino take an opportunity to exceed the banality of Tony Snow's "it's just a number" comment today now that the U.S. death toll has reached 4,000? Can we expect something from the president?

washingtonpost.com: U.S. Deaths in Iraq War Reach 4,000; Green Zone Is Shelled (Post, March 24)

Peter Baker: Dana Perino was asked about it at the morning "gaggle" (the off-camera briefing held a few hours before the main briefing of the day). My colleague, Mike Abramowitz, reports that she called it "a sober moment" and said that the president "obviously is grieved by the moment but he mourns the loss of every single life." She said the president has no plans to address the moment today. He does have a speech scheduled for Thursday on the war.


Silver Spring, Md.: Okay so we're hit the 4,000 U.S. soldiers dead in Iraq. I assume that does not include contractor deaths (Halliburton, Blackwater, etc). Does anyone have numbers on numbers of contractors killed in Iraq?

Peter Baker: That's a good question. It doesn't include contractor deaths, nor does it include non-combatant American civilians, such as journalists, nongovernmental organizations folks, human rights workers, and so forth. Someone probably does try to tally those numbers as well, but I'm afraid I don't know them off the top of my head.


St. Paul, Minn.: Hi Peter -- thanks for taking my question. Based on my perusal of this morning's headlines, in your paper and others, the fact that the 4,000 soldiers have now died in Iraq is getting fairly limited play. How will the White House address this milestone, or do they plan not to say anything, relying on the new conventional wisdom that the public no longer is interested in the war anyway?

Peter Baker: You can find the White House response in the answer to San Francisco. As for the Post, we did a story on reaching the 4,000 milestone, though not on the front page. Editors make play decisions and I wasn't part of that discussion so I can't describe their thinking for sure. But I'm sure they wanted to highlight a very smart piece of original reporting on Iraq that did run on the front page and jump to a full page inside. That piece, by our Baghdad bureau chief, Sudarsan Raghavan, looked at the tactics used in Fallujah. And we flagged the 4,000-milestone right next to that piece on the front so readers would know it happened and know where to find the story. Even though Iraq has not been as dominant a story lately as it was a year ago, The Post continues to cover it aggressively and extensively. Just last week, we did a big presentation timed to the fifth anniversary of the war, including a full page of voices from different parts of the story -- Iraqis and Americans. And I suspect we'll have more substantial pieces in the run-up to the testimony next month by Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker.


Princeton, N.J.: Michael Fletcher had a magnificent article today on what health care costs are doing to the average American family. Why can't we have a real discussion on health care? Other wealthy countries get much better care -- as measured by all the basic public health statistics -- and they pay less than half as much per patient. Applying Band-Aids to our system won't work. Private insurance wastes $300 billion to $600 billion each year counting the time wasted by physicians. We could give Medicare with no limitations, co-pays or deductions -- and with complete drug coverage -- for less than we pay now because of the above waste. Let's talk about the real problem and the real solution.

washingtonpost.com: Rising Health Costs Cut Into Wages (Post, March 24)

Peter Baker: Michael's story was fascinating and well timed. Hopefully it sparks more conversation.


San Francisco: The Post has a story about how Sens. Clinton and Obama have embellished their roles on some bills. Interesting that Sen. McCain is only mentioned as a hero in the piece, as if he hadn't exaggerated his role in some issues. For example, he's violated McCain/Feingold, which gives him the singular distinction of breaking a law with his own name on it. Funny how that didn't come up.

washingtonpost.com: Both Obama And Clinton Embellish Their Roles (Post, March 24)

Peter Baker: Senator McCain is hardly portrayed as a "hero" in this piece or anything else for that matter -- he's not even mentioned except in a cameo role as part of an anecdote that wasn't about him (as was Senator Kennedy). This is a piece about the Democratic race and its last two contenders as they seek to outmaneuver each other. McCain's not part of that race. But we've certainly written plenty in the past about the McCain's rhetoric and reality when it comes to lobbyists and so forth.


Austin, Texas: The Washington Post has done and continues to do great stories on the War, but your colleagues Karen DeYoung and Thomas Ricks have noticed a large drop-off in reader questions on their weekly chats. There has been recent documentation of a drop off from some 28 percent of the news coverage to less than 6 percent of TV news coverage. I guess that means stories aired. Do you think the war will mater in the November election, given the lack of documented public interest?

Peter Baker: There's no question that Iraq has fallen off the national radar screen to some extent, not just in terms of media coverage but in terms of the political debate, voter concern and so forth. A year ago, it was the number one issue in polls. The latest polls I saw now has it at number three. Two big reasons for that, obviously, are the improvement in security on the ground in Iraq and the deterioration of the economy back here in the United States. I still think Iraq is important to many voters and will be a major part of the campaign debate, but making predictions is probably a bad idea. After all, seven months ago, we thought the election would be all about Iraq, so who knows what things will look like seven months from now, right?


Contractors deaths in Iraq.:"As of June 30, 2007, government figures show 1,001 contractors had died in Iraq since the start of the war. It is understood that the list below is incomplete."

washingtonpost.com: Iraq Coalition Casualties: Contractors - A Partial List (icasualties.org)

Peter Baker: Hey, thanks for the citation. Appreciate that. This is like wiki-Postchat.


Centreville, Va.: In regard to the Wright controversy, I think Sen. McCain raised an important issue regarding rhetoric and specific audiences. In essence, he said that when veterans get together, certain rhetoric is acceptable (including jokes about bombing sovereign nations) -- and that anyone who doesn't find it funny or understand it in that context should "get a life." If you agree with his analysis, would you also agree that Rev. Wright uses rhetoric that is acceptable in the context of the community he is addressing, and that those who don't understand it or find it acceptable also should "get a life."

Peter Baker: One lesson we can draw from both of those episodes is that when you're running for president, you're no longer speaking to just a select group of people who might "get" what you're saying. You're speaking to a country of 300 million (and really, by extension, the world), so humor, invective, rhetoric all have to be calculated against that broader audience. What you and your friends think is obvious or funny or inoffensive strikes others in a far different way. Maybe that's not right, maybe people are misunderstood, but that is reality in the modern age. And any candidate who doesn't get that probably ought to think about getting a life.


Washington: Will Obama's ties to the Bush administration hurt him in either the primary or the general?

washingtonpost.com: Obama and Bush are Cousins! (nytimes.com, March 21)

Peter Baker: Ha! Very interesting. Senator Obama regularly makes light on the campaign trail of "my cousin Dick Cheney," so we'll see if this gets introduced to the dialogue.


Boyds, Md.: Why did Rev. Jeremiah Wright's comments get morphed into an issue of "race" for the Obama campaign instead of an issue of "religion."

Peter Baker: Well, a lot of the grievance Rev. Wright expressed in those sermons was about the plight of racism and his views about the state of race in America today.


Chicago: So do political reporters have the same reaction of disgust and anguish that Gene Weingarten experienced after being exposed to so much spin and bloviating, or do you just get sort of desensitized after a while?

washingtonpost.com: Cruel and Usual Punishment (Post, March 23)

Peter Baker: At some point, you have to block it out just to stay sane! (I know, I know -- "stay"?)


Fairfax County, Va.: Things were getting kind of ugly for a while there, but I must admit that for me, James Carville's Good Friday equation of Bill Richardson with Judas Iscariot took things so far over the top that we are happily back into the political comedy stratosphere. Just realizing that Christians all over the world solemnly were commemorating the Passion of the Hillary this weekend made it a holiday to remember. And as a practical tip, maybe she can turn the water into wine at the next debate and really liven things up. Here I thought it was Obama supporters like me who had the Messiah complex. The smile on my face made me realize how much I look forward to being back on the same side with James in the fall. It will be fun when we are all Democrats together again.

Peter Baker: Don't see a question here, exactly, so let's post it for the sake of the discussion. Hope your Easter was good.


Centreville, Va.: I wholeheartedly agree with your response, but I would like to point out that Rev. Wright is not running for office.

Peter Baker: True enough, but candidates become keepers, to an extent, of their brothers -- i.e. their political supporters, friends, relatives, the minister who conducted their weddings and baptized their children. Rightly or wrongly, Sen. Obama has to answer not just for Rev. Wright but for Samantha Power and Sen. Clinton for Geraldine Ferraro and Billy Shaheen and Sen. McCain for Bill Cunningham and John Hagee. In some ways, of course, it's a gotcha game by political rivals and, yes, the media. But it's also about the search to figure out what informs a candidate's real views when the lights aren't on, not just the political pablum they serve us in stump speeches.


Helena, Mont.: I heard Sen. Lindsay Graham say that McCain's talk about staying in Iraq for "100 years" was not about staying in the Iraq we now have, but an Iraq that is stable -- sort of like Germany or Japan after World War II or South Korea after the Korean Conflict. But, to paraphrase Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, we have the Iraq we have, not the Iraq we want to have. No one seems to question McCain on how to get from the Iraq we have to the Iraq he thinks we will have.

Peter Baker: That quote originates from a town hall meeting in New Hampshire in January when Sen. McCain was asked about the prospect of staying in Iraq for 50 years. "Maybe 100," he said. "As long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed, it's fine with me and I hope it would be fine with you if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where al-Qaeda is training, recruiting, equipping and motivating people every single day." As for how we get from the Iraq of today to an Iraq like that, I think McCain believes we're heading that direction now with the security progress made by sending more troops. That's obviously an open question that will, I presume, be debated this fall with his Democratic rival.


Palo Alto, Calif.: How do you ensure your independence in a campaign like this one? Is is just a "gut" thing?

Peter Baker: Obviously journalists are people too (really!) and we have opinions and viewpoints and so forth. But after you've done it long enough, you grow to realize that no one has a monopoly on truth and wisdom and you value your role as an impartial observer whose goal is to be fair and accurate, not to take sides. For my part, I don't vote because it means I never formally have to choose, never have to push a button even in the privacy of the polling booth and say "I'm for this person or that party." A lot of people, including colleagues, think that's nuts, and I never would suggest anyone else take the same approach if it's not right for them.


College Park, Md.: Hello there! I'm curious to find out if, in the Rev. Wright saga, the United Church of Christ has come out to defend one of its pastors? I haven't seen anything about this, but don't know if it's because there hasn't been anything, or because I've missed it. Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: Congregation Defends Obama's Ex-Pastor (Post, March 18)

Peter Baker: Yes, it did, and in fact, some United Church of Christ parishes included a letter from John Thomas, the general minister and president, in Easter programs at services yesterday defending Rev. Wright.


Atlanta: Peter, how bad were congressional relations between Democrats in the House and Senate and President Clinton in the late 1990s? Some have asked why superdelegates aren't more strongly for Sen. Clinton. Were there thorns between Democratic members of Congress and the Clinton White House?

Peter Baker: They were bad at times, that's for sure. A lot of congressional Democrats resented President Clinton for "triangulating" between them and the majority Republicans, and a lot of them were bitterly unhappy with him for in their view jeopardizing everything they worked for with the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The Clintons often say that Washington never accepted them, including big-time Democrats. So there's been a friction there for a long time that you're now seeing play out to some extent in the superdelegate contest.


Santa Clara, Calif.: How would you rate the press's performance during the primaries? How good a job do you think they did vetting the candidates? The story in The Washington Post about Obama claiming credit for bills he didn't work on was interesting; would it have made a difference if you had done this kind of thing earlier in the campaign? Do you feel the press presented the facts and the candidates without bias? What grade would you give yourselves?

Peter Baker: Gosh, this brings back bad memories of school! I think I'll leave the grades to you guys -- or Howie Kurtz. Broadly I guess I would say I think the press has done a pretty good job -- and could always do a better job. There are plenty of stories still to write and with limited resources and time we can't get to them all as early or as fully as we might all like. Especially if you remember that there were something like 18 candidates until about two months ago. But by and large, I think the press is trying to explore the backgrounds and records of the candidates as fully as we can to present to the readers as complete a picture as possible.


Washington: A lot of people have noted Obama's strength with low-dollar donors, who haven't reached the limit under campaign finance laws. They claim this is an advantage because these people will continue to donate. Is that true though? Will these people continue to donate all the way up to the legal limit later on, or are they maxed-out by their own financial constraints?

Peter Baker: That's a good question and I'm not sure we know the answer. What Sen. Obama has done through the Internet really has been pioneering so we have little history to judge by. One thing that's clear is that the money train hasn't slowed down for him too much, given that he raised something like $50 million in February alone, more than Hillary Clinton and John McCain combined.


Fairfax, Va.: Some years back the operative question leading into a national election was "are you better off now than you were before?" Are you or your colleagues asking that question, and reporting the results? It might say a lot about what outcomes we could expect in the upcoming election, don't you think?

Peter Baker: We don't ask it in the four-years context, but we do ask people in our polling whether they are better off economically these days. In January, we asked this question: "Which best describes your family's financial situation? Do you feel as if you are getting ahead financially, have just enough money to maintain your standard of living, or are falling behind financially?" At that time, 21 percent said they were "getting ahead," 61 percent said they had "just enough" to maintain their standard of living and 17 percent said they were "falling behind."


Bremerton, Wash.: I'm just wondering during Obama's speech on Tuesday if the White House staff was looking at it on the TV or listening to it at their desks. And if I may ask, where were you and the rest of the White House press corps? Thanks for taking my question.

Peter Baker: Good question, and I'm afraid I don't know. At least some White House staff probably watched it, but that's a guess. As for myself, I was at my desk in the newsroom working on another story, with the television on in the background.


Silver Spring, Md.: Peter, Jim VandeHei (at the Politico) recently wrote something many of us had already figured out: the Democratic race is essentially over. However, the media largely still present things as if there is some neck-and-neck nip-and-tuck nail-biter in progress. (Who will get it? It's a toss up!) It brought to mind the many times I have seen a Post reporter come onto an online chat (and bless you all for doing so), happily proclaiming that "the only bias we have is toward the horse race!" Isn't a bias of any kind a source of misinformation for readers?

washingtonpost.com: Story behind the story: The Clinton myth (Politico, March 21)

Peter Baker: Jim's an extremely savvy reporter and has great command of politics. I would say what he wrote isn't that different than what we've been writing even if we're not drawing the conclusion as starkly as he is. The factors that Jim notes are the same ones that we've also pointed out for weeks -- Sen. Obama's strong lead in the pledged delegates, the unlikelihood that Sen. Clinton could catch him in the remaining primaries, especially if Florida and Michigan are not counted, and the reluctance of superdelegates to effectively take away the nomination from him if he does win the pledged delegates and popular vote. (See Dan Balz's smart analysis in his "8 Questions" in yesterday's Post.) It's clear the odds against Sen. Clinton are pretty formidable at this point. At the same time, one thing we've seen time and again over the past year is that the media should be cautious about declaring things to be over before they're over. If we present the facts correctly, readers can draw their own conclusions.


Peter Baker: Whoops, went over time again. Too much fun. Thanks for another great session. Have a terrific week.


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