Broder on Politics
Friday, April 18, 2008; 12:00 PM
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and Washington Post columnist David S. Broder was online Friday, April 18 at noon 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."
washingtonpost.com: For a Neighbor, a Worrisome Drama in Pakistan (Post, Nov. 8)
The transcript follows.
Archive: David Broder discussion transcripts
New York: When is this race going to be over? It has been dragging on for months. Please tell me when it's going to be over.
David S. Broder: Welcome, everyone, to today's chat. The first question comes from a person in pain because of the length of the contest. All I can tell New York is that he or she has plenty of company, but I have no idea when it will be over. Grit your teeth.
State College, Pa.: Your columns are very moderate politically, but you give at least as many kudos to Republicans as you do to Democrats. Why do you do this when you should be denouncing Republicans for their pathetic policies that have ruined the country during the Bush administration? Are you a "closet" Republican?
David S. Broder: I'm not a closet anything, and I think anyone who subjected themselves to rereading the past eight years' worth columns about the Bush administration and the six years of Republican majorities in Congress would not mistake me for a Republican apologist.
San Francisco: The median age of those interviewed for your recent column was embarrassing. The youngest, 26, gave you only two sentences. The next youngest, at 49, based her views of the Clintons entirely on her dad's. The rest were in their 60s and 70s, and yet you called these Democratic voters "typical." Are you aware that those under 50 can vote? Or were all the young people in Pennsylvania listening to that rappity-hop music on their portable Victrola devices?
washingtonpost.com: What Pennsylvania Voters Are Saying (Post, April 17)
David S. Broder: I was interviewing during the day in Pennsylvania, and I expect many younger people were at work.
Edinburg, N.Y.: In my opinion, the length of this presidential campaign has been a disaster -- not necessarily for the Democratic Party, but for the democracy. The press coverage has been trivial and stupid, and every day they manage to top themselves, turning our political discourse into a laughing stock. There is now little difference between our process of selecting a president and "American Idol."
The free-market allegedly has given rise to this curse of the 24-hour cable yak-fest, and we can't simply arrest all the media gasbags and put them to work doing something useful, like making barrels or something. But can't we do something about the insane length of these political races? Who needs two years to pick presidents? Why don't the parties do something -- or are they about to? What would you do?
David S. Broder: I agree that the two-year presidential campaign is unnecessary and tends to demean the candidates and trivialize the issues. I don't know that the parties can do much to shorten them, but I think they could rationalize the primary calendar, and perhaps reduce the incentives to start the campaigning so early.
Boston: Mr. Broder, last week ABC news broke the story on who was at the "principals" meeting in the White House as they made torture the new brand for America. ABC followed up, with the president basically saying "so what?" The Post put the story on A3 and promptly forgot about it, which is better than the rest of the major corporate media which refused to report this at all. On Wednesday, "The Daily Show" brought on Jack Goldsmith and spent the entire program focused on this unprincipled torture travesty.
Do you think that this carelessness with issues that matter and the relentless focus on lapel pins may be the reason why no one under 70 watches TV news and newspaper circulations spiral downward? The flip to those numbers is the increasing importance of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, YouTube and the blogs, where real issues are treated with the seriousness they deserve.
David S. Broder: I strongly agree that the story about the White House meetings on torture policy was badly underplayed. I am skeptical that the popularity of the programs you mention is a reflection on the establishment media. I think their audience, which is still relatively small, likes the "attitude" they bring to the news. I'm old-fashioned enough to want my news straight.
Philadelphia: Hi. I enjoyed reading your article in which you interviewed Philly-area voters, but I was surprised that you didn't venture into the actual city, where the vast majority of the metro area's Democrats live. Suburbanites have valid views, but they're hardly typical Pennsylvania Democrats -- and Philadelphia is one of the staunchest Democratic cities in the country.
David S. Broder: In the limited time I have for face-to-face voter interviews, I always have gone to swing areas with ticket-splitters, who often cast the decisive votes in a contest. I know Philadelphia is very important, but its votes are more predictable than the suburbs.
Boston: I enjoy watching you on "Meet the Press." Do you think the candidates hamstrung themselves on the tax questions in the debate, playing the "no new taxes" theme? And did Hillary set a dangerous precedent with her "umbrella" commitment statement about retaliation in the Middle East?
David S. Broder: I will pass on the "umbrella" question, because I do not fancy myself an expert on the Middle East. But I think all three of the remaining candidates likely will have to eat their words about "no new taxes" This country is in a real fiscal mess, and higher taxes almost have to be part of the solution.
Austin, Texas: Don't you think that the November election is probably going to be decided much more by events than by anything that the candidates do or say (unless one of them really stumbles badly)? Seems to me that progress in Iraq (real or perceived), gas prices and the overall state of the economy are going to determine this election.
David S. Broder: Real-world events always are vital in the outcome of an election, but I also think campaigns make a difference, and I don't know which is more important in the abstract.
Bow, N.H.: Do you think the Republicans stumbled onto their strongest general election candidate despite themselves?
David S. Broder: I think John McCain is that candidate, but I wouldn't say that Republicans "stumbled" onto him. They tested him against all the others in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, and came to the decision that made sense to them.
Washington: Why is ABC News taking so much flak over the debate? It was no more boring than any of the others!
David S. Broder: I have not piled on the ABC interviewers, but I thought it was questionable judgment to go as long as they did before raising any questions about the economy and Iraq, the two issues voters overwhelmingly say are most important to them.
Rochester, N.Y.: A few months ago, you were sharply critical of the moderators of some of the debates on CNN and MSNBC. I gave you a lot of credit for that, given the unwritten law that pundits don't criticize each other. What were your thoughts on Wednesday's debates? I thought it was much worse than anything we've seen before. To focus on flag pins when we're at war and facing the worst financial crisis since World War II makes a mockery of our democracy. Do you agree with this assessment?
David S. Broder: As I said to the previous questioner, I question the agenda the ABC interviewers set on Wednesday night. The voters are less caught up in the current campaign incidents and controversies than the TV interviewers.
Re: Your Response to Edinburg, N.Y.: The long election cycles are money-making opportunities for the parties and those who run campaigns -- nothing more! The Iowa caucuses enable the state parties to raise money, and they defend being first in order to keep their perceived money-making advantages. What impact did Iowa caucuses have on today's nominees, other than enabling the parties and the people running at the time to raise money?
David S. Broder: You may be right, but my impression is that Iowa and New Hampshire fight to stay at the head of the primary parade mainly because they enjoy the psychic income of all the attention the candidates lavish on them.
Washington: With the pope in town, was there any man more uncomfortable than Justice Anthony Kennedy, a devout Catholic who supports upholding Roe v. Wade? Do you think the pontiff had a few words with him?
David S. Broder: If he did, it escaped the notice of the many reporters covering the pope's visit to Washington.
Chesapeake, Va.: I think most on Capital Hill have missed the point. The Arabs have beat us not with terrorism as we expect, but with financial terrorism. Look at our nation today -- it seems to me it has been going downhill since Sept. 11. Our president and his staff and their pertinacious attitude has perpetuated the problem by feeding into the need for a war that was unwarranted, spending our tax dollars for war rather than here where it is badly needed. What a blunder. By the way, didn't he work in oil?
David S. Broder: You are right to point to the economic consequences of our misadventure in Iraq. We will be paying for this mistake for many years.
Minneapolis: How can John McCain say that looking back on how we got into Iraq is an "academic" exercise? If we don't look back to see how things happened, we can't fairly judge the value of the "experience" that McCain claims to bring to the table, can we?
David S. Broder: I agree. We need to look back, and equally, we need to make realistic judgments about what to do next in Iraq. We should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.
Washington: Hi David. It's interesting that U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown met not only with President Bush, but also Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Of the three candidates, whom do you think he'd get on best with? McCain? Thanks.
washingtonpost.com: Britain's Brown Gets Feel for Future of Alliance With U.S. (Post, April 8)
David S. Broder: I don't know the prime minister well enough to guess what his private reaction is to the three candidates.
Re: "apologist": You write "anyone who subjected themselves to rereading the past eight years' columns about the Bush administration and the six years of Republican majorities in Congress would not mistake me for a Republican apologist." Would you agree, though, that you severely misjudged Bush by writing so glowingly about him during the 2000 campaign and his first few years in office?
David S. Broder: Yes. I thought he would be a rather cautious, don't-rock-the-boat kind of president, as his father was, and instead he has been radical in the classic sense, both at home and abroad.
Southwest Nebraska: The correspondents dinner hasn't been the same since Colbert's appearance. I think it is seen as "elitist," but then according to Jon Stewart that's not necessarily a bad thing. I like my news cogent and pointed.
David S. Broder: I haven't been to the White House Correspondents Dinner in several years, but I see no harm in having a few laughs along the way.
Rural U.S.: Anybody examining what Clinton meant by "umbrella" for Arabs or "massive retaliation" against Iran? Or is that too substantive?
David S. Broder: It is substantive, but campaigns ought to deal with substance. Infrequent press conferences impede the reporters' ability to ask that kind of question.
Re: Edinburgh, N.Y.: You wrote that a long campaign "tends to demean the candidates and trivialize the issues," but I don't think it's the campaign that does it -- it's our political journalists who prefer to focus on the "sizzle" rather than the "steak." Thoughts?
David S. Broder: We in the press certainly contribute to the trivialization of issues in the campaign, but the main responsibility lies with the candidates and their consultants, who sometimes seem to be preoccupied with seizing on anything -- no matter how irrelevant to governing -- that might give them an advantage in the next contest.
Pittsburgh: Just hypothetically, who do you think would be the major parties' nominees for President if the election process didn't start till after Labor Day 2008, when there would be a same-day nationwide primary in which the largest popular vote-getter became his/her party's nominee for the November general election? This would spare us so much of the current misery (which we're suffering here in Pennsylvania right now). Or would that render too many political pundits unemployed?
David S. Broder: I would not advocate a single-day national primary to pick the presidential candidates -- there is a value in testing candidates' ability to deal with a variety of constituencies and to discuss a variety of issues, and it takes a certain amount of time for voters to become familiar with candidates. But it shouldn't take two years. The problem with a national primary is that it would greatly advantage the candidate with most money and greatest name familiarity, and virtually close the door on those (like Barack Obama in this campaign) who have to earn voters' attention and support gradually.
Re: Misjudging Bush: You write "I thought he would be a rather cautious, don't-rock-the-boat kind of president, as his father was, and instead he has been radical on the classic sense, both at home and abroad." Does having been so colossally wrong about one president cause you to re-examine your methods for evaluating future presidents, or are you staying the course, like the president you so badly misjudged?
David S. Broder: I wish I knew a surefire way to predict presidential behavior in office on the basis of their campaigns. I think it is very useful to examine their records in prior office and to take seriously the judgments of those who have served with them and observed their pattern of behavior over the years. But I'm not sure in the case of President Bush that those clues would have led me to the right answer. Other presidents have not deviated as much from the expectations, so I don't know what the lesson is to be drawn.
Arlington, Va.: To go "old school," the election of 1828 that put Jackson in office started the instant John Quincy Adams took office. Jackson and his supporters were furious, and felt that they had been robbed of the presidency. A two-year campaign cycle seems tame compared to that.
David S. Broder: That's true, but with our ubiquitous communications system, the country cannot be spared much of the campaigning, as it could in 1828.
Baltimore: In your column about Gen. Petraeus and Sen. Lugar, you mentioned that Petraeus went off record in his visit to The Post. I know you can't comment on what was said, but my question is, why allow him to go off record in the first place? I'll be the first person to admit I know nothing about the news business, but -- not intending this observation towards anyone in particular -- it seems like it is a setup for more self-serving quotes from anonymous administration sources. Why? There has been too much secrecy from this bunch already. If Petraeus et al want to tell their side of the story, and maybe address a really intelligent question from Sen. Lugar, then why not make them have the whole interview on record?
washingtonpost.com: The Question Petraeus Can't Answer (Post, April 11)
David S. Broder: The Post (and I personally) much prefer to have officials speak on the record. In this case, Petraeus was mostly on the record, but said when he arrived at The Post that he wanted to be able to go off the record when discussing matters that either were sensitive militarily or involved policy questions outside his area of authority as a field commander. No one wanted to send him away without learning what we could from a highly intelligent general.
Phoenix, Md.: Mr. Broder, you were one of the first commentators to point out that John McCain still is a formidable candidate, even with the historic race the Democrats are having. But do you think he is formidable enough to break the strong trend of people voting with their wallets?
David S. Broder: I don't know. What I have written is that he faces several formidable challenges: the economy, the war in Iraq, and the poor reputation President Bush and the congressional Republicans have earned in recent years. But he also has important assets against either of the Democratic candidates, including his plausible claim that he might be able to end or ease the bitter partisanship in Washington.
Cindy McCain: Senator McCain has just released his tax return but he will not release Cindy's. I know that 's the way Kerry did it, but I don't think Kerry and McCain are coming off the same blocks. Without Cindy, there would be no "Sen. McCain" -- her family established him in the party and bankrolled his campaigns. Kerry was a sitting U.S. senator for more than a decade when he married Teresa. Why is McCain so scared to be labeled a "kept man" (just kidding)?
washingtonpost.com: McCain reports 2007 taxable income of $258,000 (AP, April 18)
David S. Broder: I understand your point, but absent any evidence that his wife's wealth from her family's beer distributorship creates any conflict of interest for the senator, I do not regard this as a major issue.
Chicago: I just read your colleague Dana Milbank's piece on the Bush-Brown meeting yesterday. Milbank reports that our president explained his strategic objective in Iraq as follows: "So long as I'm the president, my measure of success is victory and success." Honestly, has it ever been this bad? Five years into a disastrous war, and the president who started it still can's explain in coherent terms what it is we're doing there or how it will ever end? Do any of his predecessors even come close? Thanks.
washingtonpost.com: Isn't That Special? (Post, April 18)
David S. Broder: Perhaps Jimmy Carter was as inept in foreign policy, but he did not start any wars.
Boonsboro, Md.: For those who harp about the recent emphasis on candidates' misstatements, please remind them when Gerald Ford said Poland was not dominated by the Soviet Union in the 1976 campaign -- it made him look dumb and helped cost him the election. Thinking on your feet and not saying stupid stuff is part of the president's job.
David S. Broder: I agree.
New York: For the record, I am grateful for this campaign. Almost everyone will get to vote in a meaningful primary, including minorities. We're going to have a meaningful primary in Puerto Rico, for chrissakes. I believe the people who are upset about this campaign are the insiders and manipulators whom Obama is roosting from control of the party.
David S. Broder: I think the voters' large turnouts support your view that this campaign has been meaningful and positive for a great many citizens. I'm especially pleased to see young people re-engaging in politics in large numbers. But the question raised was whether two years of campaign ins too much of a good thing, and I think it is unnecessarily more than the candidates (who are exhausted) or the country really needs.-
Re: McCain:"...including his plausible claim that he might be able to end or ease the bitter partisanship in Washington. " Changing the tone in Washington ... where have we heard that one before?
David S. Broder: We've heard it often, most recently from George W. Bush, but it remains an important goal for many voters -- and McCain can claim plausibly that his record offers hope he might nudge things in that direction.
Washington: Another thought re: misjudging Bush: This is not directed specifically at you, Mr. Broder, but rather at the entire journalistic community which, in 2000, never really looked at Mr. Bush's lack of qualifications for the presidency. Yes, he twice had been elected governor of Texas, but that is a constitutionally weak position in a state that gives a lot of power to the lieutenant governor and the legislature. (If you remember, Lt. Governor Bob Bullock said to Bush, upon his election, "you do what I say and we'll get along just fine.")
The younger Bush's previous accomplishments in business and politics were nonexistent, and when his resume was placed beside that of Vice President Gore it was obvious who was more qualified for the demands of the office. Yet this disparity never was communicated by a press fixated on Gore's "earth tones" and on keeping alive falsehoods, such as his supposed claim to have invented the Internet. For my money, it was 2000 when the American political press lost its ability to really perform a hard-eyed evaluation of candidates and instead focused on "gotchas." Recovery from that debacle is yet to come. Thanks.
David S. Broder: That's a fair critique of our performance. I think that what crippled Al Gore in 2000 was his inability to define his relationship to the Clinton presidency. He never gave voice to what we now know was his repugnance at Clinton's personal behavior, or to identify himself clearly with the successes, particularly in the economy, of the Clinton years. The 2000 election, in my view, was much more a referendum on "a third Clinton term" than it was a judgment on George Bush and his abilities.
Benefits of starting the primary process late: It would've spared us Jimmy Carter, not to mention Nixon and six more years of Vietnam (because maybe RFK wouldn't have been assassinated).
David S. Broder: It's hard to rewind history and guess what would have happened, but that is a plausible scenario.
Helena, Mont.: When speaking of bitter partisanship, I often wonder why the Republicans are not taken to task more often. After all, the Senate now has to get 60-plus votes for anything. There is a pro forma filibuster from the Republicans. Isn't that "bitter partisanship"?
David S. Broder: The 60-vote requirement is not recent; Democrats used it when they were in the minority, as Republicans do now. It certainly is a factor in the partisan gridlock in Washington.
Thank all of you for your excellent questions. I'll look forward to our next visit.
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