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Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, May 7, 2008; 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Ruth Marcus was online Wednesday, May 7 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her recent columns and the latest news.

The transcript follows.

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Ruth Marcus: Hi everyone. Thanks for reading. Happy to talk about anything from primary politics to party planning!

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Themes: My wife is a Cantor in the D.C. area, and in the '80s worked in Los Angeles, where themes were the rage. Her favorite story was the bar mitzvah where the theme was the Crusades (marauding bands forcing the guests to convert, I assume). And then there was the bar mitzvah ceremony at a hotel were a chimp handed out yarmulkes!

Ruth Marcus: This definitely tops any of the stories that I was tempted to tell! Crusades is fantastic.

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Baltimore: Ms. Marcus: I am a 60 year old gentile who spent a lot of time in grade school going to bar mitzvahs for my Jewish male friends, but I do not recall in the 1950s any bat mitzvahs. Is this rite of passage for Jewish girls a newer development? And is it recognized by all three of the major branches of American Judaism? Thanks.

Ruth Marcus: Yes, the bat mitzvah is relatively new, 1960's and 1970's vintage -- mine was in 1970. It is recognized by all three branches mostly (modern Orthodox do bat mitzvahs but not the Hasidim, for example), but practiced differently -- i.e. an Orthodox bat mitzvah would not take place at a regular service, would not include the girl reading from the Torah, etc. Mine, at a conservative synagogue, was far different from my daughter's, including a woman rabbi!

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Rochester, N.Y.: The country is in the midst of a $3.5 trillion war with no end in sight, 45 million Americans are without health insurance, we may be nearing the worst recession since World War II ... and you're writing about bat mitzvahs? Can you say "self-involved and frivolous"?

Ruth Marcus: Well, I was just about to move on to politics when this question popped up, so let me explain: I really believe in writing a column that is different and surprising every week, at least as much as it can be. Last week I wrote about a very serious subject -- two, in fact: the farm bill and the candidates' spending plans. And I have to say, I have gotten far more e-mails this morning about the bat mitzvah column than I did about that one.

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Silver Spring, Md.: So, now that we know what Jeremiah Wright eats for breakfast (mercifully having been spared the underwear question), what sort of nonsense do you figure the press will move on to next? More vetting of Obama's controversial kindergarten essays? While they were fixated on this idiocy, 60,000 people died or are missing in the latest global-warming-exacerbated hurricane, a world food shortage developed and millions here still are without health care. Perhaps the lapel pin business again? That seems urgent to me.

Ruth Marcus: I happened to have been at the MTV event when President Clinton was asked about the underwear, and I really regret not having figured out a better way to write about its outrageousness. But I do have to take issue with the matter of what nonsense "the press" focuses on. Certainly there have been times, too many times, when the trivial took the place of the substantive; I would like to see more serious coverage of the issues. But character matters in selecting presidents, and the differences among the two remaining Democrats on substance are not so great -- hence some of the more trivial aspects. Moreover, I think "the press" has not flogged these issues so much as a particular part of "the press," conservative talk radio.

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Tuckahoe, N.Y.: First, if you're using the same keyboard as Karl Rove, make sure you wash your hands. Second, I think on balance that by continuing in the race to this point Clinton has enhanced her reputation as a fighter, more than she has angered some Democrats about the tactics she's used. A lot of people like that. Provided that she gets out within the next few days, I think she has helped herself, even with some people who formerly detested all things Clinton. You agree?

Ruth Marcus: Interesting question -- and, by the way, my hands are on my own keyboard! I think she has proven her impressive tenacity and endurance and substance, and I do think that -- assuming there is a graceful and not-too-prolonged exit -- she will have helped herself overall, though the Clinton-detesters are an awfully hard to move group. I think the Clinton whose reputation ends up suffering is the former president.

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Bethesda, Md.: You can already hear the pundit-buzz growing louder about why Obama can't knock Hilary out of the race. The real question is, why can't Hilary -- who entered the campaign as the blow-away front-runner -- re-establish herself as the leader?

Ruth Marcus: I think that pundit-buzz has dissipated -- Sen. Obama helped himself last night with a significant win in North Carolina and a very strong showing in Indiana.

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Rochester, N.Y.: As the mother and grandmother of several beloved biracial children, I am not a racist -- attempts to paint me and my generation so will not prevail -- but I refuse to let the liberal media, none of whom have given Sen. Clinton an inch, shove Obama down my throat. From 50 years of voting Democratic Party, this man will surely take us to defeat ala Dukakis, McGovern, Kerry, et al.

Ruth Marcus: I understand the argument that "the media" have given more breaks to Sen. Obama than to Sen. Clinton, but I don't think liberal media shoving Sen. Obama down people's throats possibly can explain the phenomenal amount of money he has raised, the votes he has gotten, etc.

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New York: Why can't Hillary "close the deal" with African Americans and the well-educated?

Ruth Marcus: She is more than not "closing the deal" with African Americans -- that support has been dwindling since the start of the race. I think there is enormous and understandable pride in the African American community about Sen. Obama and his historic race, and some understandable unhappiness about some of the Clinton campaign's tactics/comments on racial issues. And I think the education gap is fascinating -- obviously real, but less intuitively obvious to me.

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mshimazu: Why bury McCain's principled and consistent opposition to agricultural subsidies seven-eighths of the way through your column, while proclaiming at the top that he has offered no budget cuts?

Ruth Marcus: That's a fair question, and something I wrestled with. The column violated a basic rule of column writing, which was that it was about two things -- the candidates' spending/tax plans and, secondarily, the farm bill. Because that was the secondary issue, and because I think his tax plans are so much more irresponsible than his opposition to subsidies is responsible and commendable, that was where structurally could go in the column, and I tried to make up for that by saying it was to Sen. McCain's credit to oppose the measure.

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Minneapolis: A few weeks ago on this chat, you pooh-poohed discussion of the wealth of Cindy McCain and her family's connections to McCain's political success. Subsequently, it has been revealed that use of Cindy's private jet saved the McCain campaign hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the slender amount of information in John's tax returns indicates that most of the wealth in the family is in Cindy's name. Are you ready to call for more disclosure of Mrs. McCain's wealth (at least up to the level of disclosure that Teresa Heinz Kerry did in 2004)?

Ruth Marcus: Yes, fair point, and stay tuned.

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Washington: Where did you hold the special event, Ruth, and how did it go?

Ruth Marcus: At the National Press Club (my daughter's choice, not mine), which turned out to be a pretty timely venue given Rev. Wright's appearance earlier in the week! It was fun for the out of town guests because there are all sorts of interesting pictures on the walls and other memorabilia.

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Arlington, Va.: Okay, character matters. But what does Rev. Wright's character have to do with Obama's character? What does a lapel pin or putting your hand over your heart for the national anthem or Pledge of Allegiance have to do with character? These are phony, made-up "issues" that people toss out there to further inflame small-minded people. This country is going down the tubes fast. The next Great Depression is on its way, people -- if we don't get some real leadership to fix our very real problems very soon, we are doomed. This country gets what it deserves. I agree with Wright that we reap what we sow.

Ruth Marcus: I'd distinguish between those two issues. I think, though people disagree, that Rev. Wright's statements were so troubling that it was fair to at least ask what Sen. Obama was doing sticking with/by him for so long. The flag thing is, by contrast, a total phony issue. There is no reason to question Sen. Obama's patriotism.

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leftofleft: I don't see any sort of budget -- we merely borrow it all from China. Perhaps we have promised (under the table) to throw a few of the games in August.

Ruth Marcus: We borrow too much of it from China -- or, to be more precise, we are lucky in some sense that they are willing to underwrite us -- and we are borrowing too much.

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als47: Perhaps these budgets are a reflection of the nonintelligent (obviously a polite euphemism!) voting masses, who do not seem to make the simple connection between taxes and services expected in a rich, civilized nation. Add to this the total obliviousness regarding the growing deficit and debt, and we have a winner...

Ruth Marcus: I believe in giving voters credit for being smarter than some people think. Look, Ross Perot made the deficit his major issue and got 19 percent of the vote. People understand that the national budget is not very different from their household budget (though the absence of savings and the amassing of credit card debt might suggest that this understanding doesn't take them so far.) Anyway, I have really enjoyed the gas tax debate in the past few weeks because it has posited the possibility that a candidate could be against a gimmicky, irresponsible, probably ineffective but juicy-sounding tax break and, if not benefit from it, at least not be punished too much.

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Arlington, Va.: With an Obama camp that is not nearly as Pro-Israel as the Jewish population is used to, strong support for Israel by McCain and strong rising stars like Eric Cantor, how long until we start to see Jewish support become at least 50-50? The religion as a whole tends to be trending to the right as so many liberal organization throw Israel under the proverbial bus.

Ruth Marcus: My guess is that the Jewish voters' support for Sen. Obama will be much less than the usual Jewish support for the Democratic nominee.

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jack824: Ms. Marcus -- thanks for continuing to shine a light on this incredibly important topic. These are the hard issues that should be the focus of presidential debates, not relegated to the opinion page.

Instead of asking candidates whether they will take a no-tax pledge, moderators should be asking how they intend to pay for them -- and pushing the issue beyond the popular but inadequate "I'll cut earmarks" or "I'll make the oil companies pay" responses. You get my vote for inclusion on the next panel of moderators.

Ruth Marcus: Thanks, but no one has asked! And I believe we have a Post policy against participating. But I really enjoy helping raise these issues, both in columns and in my day job as an editorial writer, and I always appreciate seeing Sunday show questioners and others raise them with candidates. Thanks!

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Chicago: If Hillary does not revert to a Mike Huckabee-style campaign, will the media make the incontrovertible point that her only remaining reason to stay in the race is to hurt Barack Obama for the general?

Ruth Marcus: I like the Hillary-as-Huckabee comparison. No doubt that point will be made.

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Atlanta: I thought it was bad enough when I was growing up (and I did not have half the bat mitzvah my friends had). It is so horrible. I mean, really, take the money and save it for college, right? My cousin was so caught up for it for her kids. It was incredible. She was afraid that the kids wouldn't like it (she was telling me stories of the kids leaving early, etc.). I mean, what is the deal with that? If my kid were at a party and they didn't think it was exciting enough, they still would stay to the end -- they would be polite and suck it up. What are these kids looking forward to? What are their expectations about life? It's unbelievable. We're hoping to take at least one of the kids to Israel for the bar mitzvah. It might be as expensive as the crazy party, but it definitely will be more meaningful.

washingtonpost.com: The Mitzvah and the Mania (Post, May 7)

Ruth Marcus: My mother reminded me that she and my father gave me the choice between going to Israel and a party ... and I chose the party. So I guess I don't have standing to complain -- and the kids at our party had, I think, a great time -- they behaved beautifully, and I did enjoy seeing them, and my daughter, have fun.

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Rolla, Mo.: I wonder if Rochester enjoyed the "bitter" taste of Rev. Wright and other nonsense about Obama being shoved down her throat by the "liberal" media?

Ruth Marcus: Everyone remembers and focuses on the negative stories being written about their candidate, and forgets the ones about the other candidates. But that's human nature.

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Chicago: Ruth, your columns are very thought-provoking. Keep 'em coming, even about bat mitzvahs. With that aside, I have to agree with Silver Spring's assertion that "the media" -- not just right-wing radio, or pundits, or other small segments -- is fixated on the trivial and inane at the expense of real issues. I read only mainstream media sources, avoid cable TV, and go into a coma whenever "the blogosphere" is mentioned. I'm also a late-30s lawyer from a privileged background who has worked extensively for big business; in short, I'm the last guy to buy into conspiracy theories or fringe arguments railing against the system.

But the past few months have convinced me that the mainstream media has a dangerous obsession with these idiotic issues like what Rev. Wright ate for breakfast. That obsession is causing real and lasting damage to this country, not only because it crowds out discussion of serious issues but because it punishes the candidate who is anything but bland and noncontroversial. It's such a self-destructive policy. We've already seen the results: eight years of W. It's like getting a drill instructor to teach eighth-graders who makes his students do push ups whenever they ask a question in class but can't answer it themselves. Pretty soon they'll stop asking questions, which is the last thing you want young students to do. Thanks.

Ruth Marcus: Thanks very much for that thoughtful comment. Look, I worry a lot about the present and future of our business, whether we will be able to support and produce the kind of deep, substantive reporting that helped win The Post six well-deserved Pulitzers this year. I certainly think that press coverage in general is too light on substance and explanations of policy differences among the candidates. But I do think that there is a place for character/personality reporting as well, that we do try (even if not enough, even if we don't always succeed) and, well, I said the rest already about the worst offenders.

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zewebster: I appreciate that Ms. Marcus is fighting the good fight on the Farm Bill, but way to bury the lede here. Obama and Clinton may not be paragons of fiscal conservatism, but their plans are vastly more responsible than McCain's batch of almost completely unfunded tax cuts on the wealthy. When there is a difference between Obama and Clinton's planned shortfall and McCain's planned shortfall that is measured in trillions of dollars, shouldn't the media actually report it that way?

Ruth Marcus: That's what I tried to do.

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Savannah, Ga.: Forget the Democrats -- what's up with John McCain's Republicans? He lost over 20 percent of the vote to candidates who already have left the race (either formally or informally). What's up with that?

Ruth Marcus: I looked at that -- probably not so surprising in the sense that you have to be pretty motivated to get up and go out to vote when the election is a fait accompli (though I guess there were some down-ballot races.) And conservatives probably benefit from sending Sen. McCain a message that he can't simply sit back and count on them. And I think he's hearing it (see for example his speech yesterday on judicial nominations).

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Re: Negative stories: You write "everyone remembers and focuses on the negative stories being written about their candidate, and forgets the ones about the other candidates." Do you remember any negative stories being written about John McCain lately?

washingtonpost.com: McCain Missing in Action | McCain Offers Tax Policies He Once Opposed | McCain's Plan for Working Class Offers Plenty for Corporate World

Ruth Marcus: Sure, the story another poster mentioned about his wife's wealth and use of her corporate jet, and the unfortunate New York Times story about his dealings with a female lobbyist.

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Falls Church, Va.: Re: Obama and the flag pin. Let's remember, it was Obama himself who started the flag pin issue. He used to wear one, and he stopped because he objected to the symbolism that he considered it to convey. So, you can argue that it's just a pin, but Obama himself believes, and I don't understand why it should be off-limits to ask him about that belief.

Ruth Marcus: Fine, ask -- that's not off-limits -- but I would say get the answer and move on.

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Wokingham, U.K.: It struck me that the gas tax was remarkable in that it was a genuine policy issue in a contest where policy differences seem to have emerged slowly and rarely. Have there been other serious differences beneath the surface of the Clinton/Obama debate, which has seemed to be about backgrounds, attitudes and feelings rather than plans? I'm particularly interested in plans for us in the non-American world.

Ruth Marcus: A few. The one that has gotten the most attention is Sen. Obama's decision not to include a mandate for individuals to purchase health insurance in his health care plan, while Sen. Clinton has one in hers. On this one, I think Sen. Obama does not come out looking well because of the way he has attacked Sen. Clinton for allegedly forcing people to buy insurance they can't afford, which I think goes too far. Another difference is in their tax policies -- Sen. Obama would devote a lot more money to another big -- and, I think, unwarranted/unaffordable -- tax cut for the middle class and the elderly. So his responsibility on the gas tax gets balanced off, in my book, against his irresponsibility on the other.

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Arlington, Va.: Earlier commenter: "I wonder if Rochester enjoyed the 'bitter' taste of Rev. Wright and other nonsense about Obama being shoved down her throat by the 'liberal' media?" Actually, Wright's sermons surfaced on YouTube and in blogs. It was a long time before the traditional media picked up on the story. To this day, the New York Times news pages still have not reported on Wright's "God damn America" remark.

Ruth Marcus: I can't believe the New York Times has not reported on that comment, but perhaps I'm wrong. And certainly it was the ABC report on the sermon that really caused the issue to explode.

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Washington: Does Obama need to hop to it and find another church, fast?

Ruth Marcus: I don't think so. Rev. Wright has retired. It would look opportunistic and insincere at this point.

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Woburn, Mass.: Sen. Obama should take the golden chance his victory has given to insure his future. He should immediately declare that the Florida delegation should be seated as divided by primary vote, and that the Michigan vote should be split 60-40 for Sen. Clinton based on the fact she got half of the vote there. That way, he is still ahead, he is the one to give Florida and Michigan Democrats representation, and he looks like a generous victor. That will heal a little of the damage his supporters' extremely sexist and aggressive tactics have done, and ensure that in November the Democratic Party can use the fact they didn't deprive Michigan and Florida of their representation, unlike the Republicans.

Ruth Marcus: Without endorsing every element of what you said, I think something gracious that gives Sen. Clinton some of her due and, more important, makes Florida and Michigan feel enfranchised would be a smart move at this point, or some point soon.

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New Baltimore, Mich.: Do you think Clinton really will push the Democratic National Committee to seat the Michigan and Florida delegates as-is? I find her "support" so transparently self-serving. Why wasn't she fighting the DNC to count us before the primary? She sold us out to make nice with the party bigwigs.

Ruth Marcus: She might ask for as-is but she's not expecting to get it. There's a lot of hypocrisy on this one, certainly.

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Helena, Mont.: On May 1, longshoremen on the West Coast staged an eight-hour work stoppage as a way of protesting the war in Iraq. If our elected officials do not bring this war to a resolution within the next two to three years, do you see more actions such as this by the American people?

Ruth Marcus: Probably not. I do think the more effective way to make the point is by voting.

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HFNY: I'm surprised you didn't lead with the McCain-Clinton plan to suspend the federal gasoline tax from Memorial Day until Labor Day. This will help no one -- individuals will save a measly $30 in the course of the summer (about a half a tank of gas), thousands of construction workers will be out of work, and the government will lose about $8 billion dollars, most of which goes to repairing our infrastructure. This is the most egregious fantasy foisted on the public in recent memory, and by two politicians who know better but apparently continue to think the American public is just plain old dumb. Ms. Marcus, perhaps you might want to take a look at this fantasy, too.

Ruth Marcus: I'm not sure that Sen. Clinton had put in her two cents (or 18.8 cents) when I wrote that, but the truth is that while she and Sen. McCain are in the wrong on this, it is a small, albeit telling issue in comparison to larger issues of tax policy and spending.

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childressp: You began the article talking about fantasy budgets, but if memory serves we had projected surpluses just seven years ago! At the very least this shows that fiscal discipline is possible. Then you attack all three candidates, but McCain is less scathed. The funny thing about conservatives is the hypocrisy when it comes to taxes. The three privates interests (drug, oil and job-shippers) all have received billions over the Bush tenure. Where was your conservative outrage over that corporate welfare? AWOL, I guess.

All the while corporate profits soared and the spending class hasn't even maintained. Well, now we're seeing the short-sighted policies come to fruition in the form of a country with no savings, a falling dollar, falling assets, rising prices for fuel, food and commodities, and involved in a war that will run into the trillions. The idea that anyone should take your advice on governmental budgets is laughable.

Ruth Marcus: We did have projected surpluses, although some people warned rather presciently at the time (not me; I was not writing about these issues then), that some of this was in fact fantasy. Certainly, fiscal discipline is possible, and I disagree with you that "McCain is less scathed." I gave him a lot of credit when it came to the tax bill and said he was way more irresonsible in both the amount that he planned to spend (in the form of tax cuts) and in his seriousness about paying for it.

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bkmj : I love the crazy way trickle-down economics work -- give the wealthy money and they spend it to help the poor man. LOL. McCain will give us four more years of the bush league economists that we have had. Congress can give itself another raise, because the cost of food and fuel has risen since their last one. Thank God I only have about four more years to live and enjoy what little I have left to live on.

Ruth Marcus: One could still hope that McCain the president would be more like the first version of McCain the senator (the one who vorted against 2001 anad 2003 tax cuts) and less like McCain the candidate.

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RE: Your John Yoo op-ed: John Yoo's 2003 interrogation memo was a dishonest attempt by Bush administration higher-ups to protect themselves with legal opinions by hack lawyers rather than Constitutional scholars. Bush shrouded Yoo's fig-leaf arguments in secrecy to protect the usual suspects, but left exposed low hanging fruit running Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prisons.

Apparently Bushies felt they, like dreadful leaders throughout history, could do anything in the name of national security without regard to established laws. Bush simply got biased lawyers to argue that -- no matter how frivolous -- anything he and his inner circle did was within his executive authority. Although lawyers claim to be truth-seekers, in justifying Bush's torture program, apparently Yoo and other Bushies considered lessons the world learned from the Nuremberg Trials as quaint arguments, and that Bush's thinking was -- as ridiculous as it now sounds -- infallible.

Ruth Marcus: This was a column from several weeks back that talked about whether John Yoo should be fired from his teaching position at Berkeley law school. I thought--and still think--not, though I thought his memo was appalling.

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Ruth Marcus: Ok, everybody, thanks for checking in--we'll see where the presidential race is in a few weeks when I'm back.

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