Post Politics Hour

Dan Balz
Washington Post chief political reporter Dan Balz. (Julia Ewan - Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
Dan Balz
Washington Post Chief Political Reporter
Monday, April 7, 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 chief political reporter Dan Balz was online Monday, April 7 at 11 a.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

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Dan Balz: Good morning to everyone. The candidates are coming off the campaign trail for a couple of days to attend hearings with Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. But with Pennsylvania now just two weeks away and with the Clinton campaign digesting the news about Mark Penn, there's much to deal with. Thanks for joining in.


Washington: Thank you for taking my question, Dan. In terms of a change in message or strategy, is Mark Penn's departure from the campaign too late to have any real impact? How does a candidate really reinvent herself to blow Barack out of the water in Pennsylvania?

Dan Balz: This is the major campaign news of the day. Mark Penn played a dominant role in the Clinton campaign, in large measure because he enjoyed the confidence of Sen. Clinton and former President Clinton. Both, however, could not forgive his lapse in judgment for meeting with the Colombian ambassador and they finally faced reality.

It's not clear whether this will lead to a real change in strategy. Penn has been at odds with others in the campaign for a long time about how to present the candidate to the public, but at this point, there is so much past history to her candidacy that it will be difficult to undo it. We talked last night to Geoffrey Garin, the pollster who is now co-chief strategist, along with communications director Howard Wolfson. He said the key is winning these upcoming primaries but offered no clues as to whether that will necessitate a shift in message or strategy. Inevitably there will be some changes when you swap out chief strategists, but she can't reinvent herself. What we may see is more emphasis on who she is, tied to what she advocates.


Dryden, N.Y.: I always thought Mark Penn cost Sen. Clinton votes every time he opened his mouth on TV. Given his disloyalty in the Colombia affair, why does her campaign continue to retain his services? Can you explain to this puzzled voter why the senator did not make a complete break with this guru? Thank you for the insights. Clinton's Chief Strategist Steps Down (Post, April 7)

Dan Balz: I can't answer this question, but have asked others around the Clintons, with inconclusive results. Obviously they have a long history with him and were probably reluctant to send him off into total isolation. But the demotion is significant -- he will have a voice but one that is far less important. Certainly the campaign will run with less friction now that he's off to the side.


Montreal: Have any of the candidates said anything about the latest Yoo memo, or about torture in general? I have to assume none of these three would continue current and recent policies, but have any said so publicly? Permissible Assaults Cited in Graphic Detail (Post, April 6)

Dan Balz: All three candidates have been on the record for a long time about changing policies with regard to torture. Recall that Sen. McCain fought with the Bush administration over this more than a year ago. Sens. Clinton and Obama have been harsh critics of the administration's torture and interrogation policy. All have said they will close Guantanamo.


Minnesota: The whole Mark Penn thing is a big deal inside the Beltway and to political junkies like me, but do you think it will register with average voters in Pennsylvania, North Carolina or Indiana?

Dan Balz: No. Staff changes have little resonance with most voters. They're focused on real-life issues, not the internecine warfare in the campaigns. It's important to voters only to the extent that it brings visible changes to her campaign -- which is possible.


Silver Spring, Md.: Hillary Clinton claimed that at 14 years old, she met Dr. Martin Luther King. Can you or the media verify that she in fact met him? I kind of doubted the truthfulness of her claim.

Dan Balz: I believe you're referring to the story that, as a teenager, she was part of a church group from her suburban church that went into Chicago to hear King speak. I don't recall whether she "met" King that day but I don't doubt that she went and listened to him speak.


Perspectives : On I read a troubling little statistical snippet on news coverage and priorities. Last week your paper published the story on John Yoo's shameful "Torture Memo." The Yoo story got some 80 LexisNexis hits; Obama's bowling got more than 1,000. What is wrong with the editors and producers making the coverage decisions? The U.S. establishment media in a nutshell (Salon, April 5)

Dan Balz: I just looked quickly at the Salon report and as I understand it, there were -- in all media -- about a thousand references to Obama's bowling escapade and about a hundred to the Yoo memo. The Post ran the Yoo memo story on the front page. We did not put Obama's bowling on the front page. We did two follow up stories on aspects of the Yoo memo and ran an editorial. We had two stories that I can find that mentioned the bowling but they ran inside the A section. I can find only one other reference to it in our database, which was in a column in Sports by Norman Chad.


Goldfield Ranch, Ariz.: Good morning -- Mr. Balz. I am interested in learning your view on what appears to be a persistent "leakage" of superdelegates in the direction of Sen. Obama. Is there a dam holding the most of them back? Is the slow movement toward Sen. Obama likely to change pace? Will the dam burst?

Dan Balz: There has been slow leakage toward Obama but for now no dam bursting. Our sense is that many superdelegates are waiting to see the process play out a little longer. They'll look at the results in Pennsylvania and then the results in Indiana and North Carolina on May 6. If Obama has done well in those three, then you could see more movement. Superdelegates are generally cautious and prefer to take cues from the voters, if those cues are clear.


Ashland, Ore.: To combat the East Coast bias, I'm posting early. 8 a.m. PDT is rough! Penn got canned on Sunday evening -- early enough for maximum exposure on Monday morning's front pages. What message is the campaign sending? Do you expect a noticeable change in the campaign?

Dan Balz: Lovely Ashland, Ore. Hello to you there and thanks for getting up early to join in. Actually, it would have been better if the Penn story broke an hour or two earlier, just to make all the early edition stories more complete. But that's a quibble. They needed to do something to get it off the front pages by Tuesday, and they were getting pressure from allies and potentially allies of the campaign. The story is that Penn concluded he needed to step aside, but he probably had no choice.


Chicago: Good morning and thanks for chatting. The morning talk was about Hillary telling a health care story that turned out to be untrue. On top of the Bosnia fib, does this "mistake" add up to a serious credibility problem for Hillary two weeks before Pennsylvania? Is that going to be the story leading up to Pennsylvania, sort of like Gore being (mostly falsely) painted as a serial exaggerator in 2000? Ohio Hospital Contests a Story Clinton Tells (New York Times, April 5)

Dan Balz: Credibility issues have dogged Sen. Clinton throughout the campaign. The Bosnia episode was damaging because it played into preconceptions about her. The hospital story was an example of sloppiness. She heard the story and repeated it, before the campaign could adequately check it. She could pay a price for it, although I suspect the Bosnia story about dodging sniper fire was more damaging.


Harrisburg, Pa.: What does a political consultant do to deserve $4 million? If a candidate wants to know how we feel, we can can save them lots of money. Come over, sit down and ask us -- won't cost you a thing, we'll even pay for the coffee and sandwich.

Dan Balz: Good proposal. You ought to invite Sen. Clinton in for lunch. I suspect she might oblige.

Big campaigns spend a fortune trying to discern public opinion. They poll nightly, they conduct focus groups, they crunch numbers. This information is valuable -- and costly -- but campaigns sometimes become too enamored with data and sometimes convince themselves that the sky really isn't blue when it's obvious that it is. Good candidates also take something away from conversations with voters along the campaign trail. Frankly it's one of the reasons I've always thought that the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary are useful -- in both states candidates have to interact with voters over many months.


Fifty-State Strategy: Seeing tape of Obama in Montana made me think this long primary is pretty good for Democrats. Montana has two Democratic senators and a Democratic governor. The energy from Obama/Clinton visits can't do anything more than motivate even stronger support for Democrats in this often-overlooked wonder state!

Dan Balz: I totally agree and did a Web piece about this a couple of weeks ago. By the time this Democratic race is over, Sens. Obama and Clinton will have campaigned in virtually ever state, they will have energized Democratic voters, they will have set up organizations in most of them and they will have a familiarity, albeit fleeting in some, with what's going on there. That's all very helpful for a general election.

_______________________ The Democrats' Good News Primary (, March 25)


Easton, Mass.: Hi Dan. How do you decide whether a candidate has national security experience and expertise? Please don't say that reporters don't decide such things, voter do -- reporters use phrases like that all the time to describe politicians. (Yes, voters then can decide if they like or trust that expertise, but the narrative is already out there.)

I ask because I am very concerned about the way John McCain is depicted as having inherent national security expertise, regardless of what he (mis)states now. His time as a POW deserves great admiration -- but to me it is proof of his personal fortitude, not of his knowledge or judgment about foreign policy or national security. But often the media conflates the two. I can't imagine any other candidate getting so little criticism -- even shock -- regarding his recent, repeated confusion about the relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda.

Dan Balz: Voters and reporters make various judgments about the candidates, based on similar information. Clearly at this point, voters see McCain as having substantial foreign policy and national security experience, and I'd say most reporters probably agree with that. But how voters use that information is what counts. Just because a voter believes that McCain has foreign policy experience doesn't mean he or she agrees with McCain's judgments or future policies.


Washington: I'm not a Mark Penn fan, but isn't Colombia an ally of the United States? Is it really wrong for an emissary of the Clinton campaign to meet with an ally?

Dan Balz: The problem is that he was not meeting with the Colombians as an emissary of the Clinton campaign but in his capacity as CEO of Burson-Marsteller, which had a contract to help the Colombians push through a trade treaty that Sen. Clinton opposes. Obviously a dumb decision on his part.


Quickie: Can a 76 year-old get re-elected?

Dan Balz: Not unless a 72-year-old doesn't get elected first.


Tokyo: In the past few weeks, I feel like I'm watching a political version of "Groundhog Day": another stream of stories about the struggling/faltering Clinton campaign, the near-impossibility of her victory and the "when should she drop out" discussion -- which is pretty much what we saw before Ohio/Texas. Has this round of stories affected the race at all? Is it a sign of the Obama campaign's effectiveness in making the delegate/popular vote argument? Or the reporters' (and cable TV's) need to find drama in the long stretch between primaries?

Dan Balz: It's been a long stretch between Ohio/Texas and Pennsylvania and so the coverage may seem a bit repetitive. The odds for Sen. Clinton haven't changed a lot and the farther we've gotten away from her victory in Ohio and her popular vote victory in the Texas primary, the more focus there has been on what it will take for her to overcome Obama's advantages.


Dan Balz: Thanks again to everyone for sending in questions. We're out of time. Today is Pulitzer Day, a big day in the newspaper business.

Have a great week!

Dan Balz


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