Post Politics Hour
Thursday, May 15, 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 congressional reporter Paul Kane was online Thursday, May 15 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest in political news.
The transcript follows.
Paul Kane: Good morning folks. It's another Thursday morning as Republicans get over a second-day hangover from a special election loss in a conservative district they once easily held. Legislatively, the House is taking up a massive war supplemental bill that includes a tax hike on the rich and a new GI Bill for returning vets from Iraq and Afghanistan. On the Senate it's slow going on the floor as the action is over in the Appropriations committee, where elder statesman Bob Byrd is pushing his own war funding bill through.
And, in other semi-related news, Arlen Specter -- a diehard Philadelphia Eagles fan, like yours truly -- continues his lonely crusade to compel the NFL to conduct at least a semi-legitimate investigation into the New England Patriots cheating scheme that helped them produce three Super Bowls. Wow, one week till the Congress wraps up this eight-week legislative session -- can't wait. After that I'm fleeing this town for rest and relaxation in Dublin -- can't wait. On to the questions.
Boston: Paul, Glad to have you back. Is there any such thing as a safe Republican seat in 2008? So many years of gerrymandering, so little protection!
Paul Kane: Good morning Boston, and sorry if my shot at the Patriots hit you the wrong way. (Don't worry, no one's accused the Red Sox of cheating for their two rings, and Clemens started taking steroids after he left Boston. Besides, those Celtics teams got the better of my Sixers in the '80s.)
Anyway, yes, you raise a good point. This is the new mantra from Chris Van Hollen and the House Democrats: There is not a single Republican who is safe, and any one of them -- should the Democrats decide to find a candidate who fits the district's cultural makeup -- could be targeted for elimination. It's fascinating and bold. Granted, the Democrats admit they won't have candidates in every district, nor will they have the money to fund competitive races, but let's go to the numbers.
There are now 199 Republican seats in the House; 25 of those are going to be open in November because of retirements. (This doesn't include Vito Fossella, who still declines to say what he's doing in the fall, or which family he'll decided to stay with!). At least half of those are ripe pickup targets, including two in New Jersey and two in New York (presumably three if Vito resigns). There are another 20-25 Republicans sitting in swing districts who are running for re-election whom Van Hollen is targeting. Now, the Democrats will not win all of these races, but they basically will be putting at least 40 Republican seats on their target list. At this point they are worried about only six to eight seats of their own.
Again, do the math: If they split their seats at risk and the GOP seats at risk -- split them dead evenly -- that's roughly an 18-seat pickup for the Democrats, on top of the three they already have picked up in special elections. Wow.
Jackson, Miss.: Paul, thanks for the chat! I have a question about the Mississippi race. Given that the margin was surprisingly large (8 points), do you see the Republicans writing off the November rematch? Does the party have the money to refight this race, considering the ever-widening playing field?
Paul Kane: This is a great, great, great question, and I'll expand this out to include the Baton Rouge district in nextdoor Louisiana, where Democrat Don Cazayoux won on May 3. Both districts are relatively cheap in terms of paid advertising, and both voted overwhelmingly for Bush (59 percent in Louisiana's 6th, 62 percent in Mississsippi's 1st).
While the Mississippi district is a riper target for Republicans -- more conservative voters, fewer African American voters who have voted reliably Democratic -- the Cazayoux district is actually a more likely Republican target in the fall.
Here's why. Louisiana's primary for the general election will not be held until later this year, so Republicans can go out and recruit a candidate better than Woody Jenkins, who had been around for 30 years in local politics and hardly represented the "change" mantle Republicans are -- ahem -- appropriating from Obama and the anti-depressant drug.
But in Mississippi, they actually already have held the primary for the general election, and Greg Davis won that primary. So, after getting his butt kicked on Tuesday, Davis now has to be on the ballot in November. Same situation in Illinois, where Bill Foster won Dennis Hastert's old seat and Republican Oberweis also is stuck on the ballot in November.
So, I don't think Republicans will put much effort into either Mississippi or Illinois. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice...
Helena, Mont.: Hello, Paul. I have a question about public financing in the general election. If the Senate does not confirm any new commissioners to the Federal Election Commission, can the FEC actually give money to any of the candidates? If not, why would the Democrats even try to bring FEC to full staff -- Obama would be able to raise more than enough from his donors, and no public financing would put McCain at serious disadvantage. Plus, Obama would not even have to backtrack from anything he said earlier regarding public financing -- he can just say there is no functioning public financing in place. And they could blame it on the Republicans for filibustering -- win-win.
Paul Kane: I've been told be highly reliable sources -- and these are Democratic sources aligned with Obama -- that Congress could on its own direct the Treasury to give McCain his $85 million he's due as his party's nominee, without having the FEC having a quorum and voting to approve. The money is already there in the Treasury, waiting to be used. All it needs is congressional action if there is no functioning FEC.
And just so you know, Helena, your suggestion that Democrats intentionally would not confirm an FEC to not give McCain his money -- that's hardly the sorta politics Obama is preaching. So, yes, McCain is going to get his public financing if he wants it, one way or the other.
Alexandria, Va.: Paul, kudos for the great coverage of the Mississippi special this week and last. I'm wondering if it is even possible to overstate the impact on the House Republicans. How depressed are they? Have you spoken with any members who are now considering retirement? Thanks.
washingtonpost.com: Agitated? Irritable? Hostile? Aggressive? Impulsive? Restless? (Post, May 15)
Paul Kane: My colleague Jonathan Weisman and I, along with washingtonpost.com's Ben Pershing, talked to probably 20 House Republicans yesterday, as well as some former members like Tom DeLay. We didn't come across anyone who is contemplating retirement anew because of these special election losses, but I can say this much -- I've come across a couple of guys who already had announced their retirements at the end of this year who told me off the record that they were happier than ever with their decision to step aside.
As for the depression, it is -- as Tom Davis put in his memo -- "deep seated." You have to understand the overwhelming majority of these Republicans -- I'd guess about 140-150 of the 199 of them -- never had served in the minority in the House. They elected 73 freshman in '94, and ever since then bunches and bunches kept getting elected into a majority that, under DeLay, proudly walked around as if they owned the place. Now they're in the minority and looking at the prospects of falling back to the level of minority status they held in the 1980s.
Think about that. That's depressing.
Should probably ask Wilbon: But you said: "Compel the NFL to conduct at least a semi-legitimate investigation into the New England Patriots cheating scheme that helped them produce three Super Bowls." Seriously, you think that's a significant part of why they won three Super Bowls? And that they are the only team spying on signals from other teams? I think the NFL is hoping this goes away so it doesn't blow the cover off a systemic issue that could smear the whole league, not just the Patriots.
Paul Kane: Arlen Specter is a hero to all NFL fans who want answers to this scandal. I'm speaking here solely as a fan of the single most important sports and cultural league in America. Why do 100 million people watch the Super Bowl? Because we love the National Football League more than any other sports, cultural or societal organization in America.
As of now, there has not been a single scintilla of evidence produced that any other team participated in any form of cheating in the manner of the Patriots. There have been whispers other teams did it, but not a shred of evidence put forward. Tonight, on HBO, a former Patriots worker will explain the amazingly complex organizationwide effort to steal opposing team's signals -- using multiple cameramen, then folks in an editing room who spliced the film together, then pulling in backup players to study the film along with assistant coaches, then positioning those backup players right next to the assistant coaches so, once they stole the signals during games, the backup players could immediately tell the offensive coordinator, who would then radio into the Patriots quarterback what play the defense was going to run against them.
So, my question to you is, do you think this didn't help the Patriots? Come on, buddy. You think they went to all this trouble -- probably employing a dozen or more people in this scheme -- and it didn't give them a "competitive advantage"?
Westcliffe, Colo.: Are there any sour-grapes Republicans who lost their seats in Congress (either house) in 2006 who have announced they're running again in 2008, either to reclaim "their" seat or for another one at the national level? It would make for compelling reading why these figures think they're worthy now when the voters clearly didn't think so two years ago.
Paul Kane: Melissa Hart, who lost a close race to Jason Altmire north of Pittsburgh, is running again. So is Jim Ryun, the Olympic silver-medalist miler who lost to Nancy Boyda in Kansas in one of the biggest upsets of '06. Also, for the fourth time in a row, Mike Sodrel is running against Baron Hill in Indiana. Sodrel is trying to tie up their match at 2-2.
Generally, the Republicans running again think they got caught off guard by the Democratic wave, and that with a long period of preparation, they'll win races they should have won in '06, had they known what was coming. Just as interesting, there are a bunch of Democrats who lost narrowly in '06 who are running again in '08 -- folks like Dan Maffei in Syracuse, Darcy Burner in Washington and Linda Stender in New Jersey.
That will be a good measure of how bad a year '08 is for Republicans -- whose repeat candidates win more races?
Iowa: If President Bush vetoes the farm bill, are there enough votes to override his thumbs-down on this gargantuan bill? (Also, as an Iowan supporter of John Edwards, I was very happy to see his exquisitely timed endorsement of Sen. Obama last night.)
Paul Kane: Well, the farm bill got 308 votes yesterday, well in excess of the two-thirds needed to override a presidential veto. To be sure, that included 100 Republican "aye" votes -- that's more than half the GOP conference.
Seems like a good bet the farm bill will pass. It's kinda like the highway bill -- completely parochial in nature, not ideological.
New York: In your article from yesterday concerning the special election in Mississippi, you permitted Roger Wicker to spin unchallenged the results as arising from "voter fatigue" and a "(lack of) interest." For the record, would you characterize voter turnout there as light, medium or heavy? (This is a rhetorical question to see if you are capable of telling the truth.) In journalism school, what word would they have used to describe a reporter deliberately permitting an interested party to make a counterfactual statement, as Wicker did, without mentioning the objective fact(s) that refuted it? (Answer: Hack.)
washingtonpost.com: Democratic Victory May Be a Bellwether (Post, May 14)
Paul Kane: Thank you, New York for being so insulting. So I'm guessing you think that the turnout was higher than expected -- which it was -- so I shouldn't let Wicker get away with saying there was "voter fatigue." Well, 107,000 people voted in that race. I just checked, and in the '96 general election, about 180,000 people voted. So, yes, it was decent turnout for a special election, but it was pathetic for democratic participation. I hope you aren't suggesting that a roughly 20 percent to 24 percent turnout is somehow a good turnout.
And re-read the story -- you'll see the way I set up Wicker's comments to explain the "fatigue" is generally among Republican voters in that district. As reporters, we are duty-bound to explain the reasons why the losing side thinks it lost. Sorry if that insults your sensitivity, but it's our duty. Whether they are right or wrong, yes, we have to explain why they think they lost. And when Democrats start losing races -- at some point years from now, they will -- we dutifully will quote the Rahm Emanuels of the world explaining why they think they lost.
Hell's Kitchen, N.Y.: Earlier this week, after Newsweek published a cover story examining the hardball tactics conservatives might use in the general election, Sen. John McCain's aide Mark Salter fired off a stinging retort that accused the magazine of being "biased." Today, a Wall Street Journal profile of Salter reveals that he also threatened to throw the magazine's reporters off the campaign bus and airplane. My question to you is, how much do fears of being thrown off the bus affect the questions reporters ask McCain and the kinds of stories they write?
Paul Kane: I can't speak for Newsweek, but all I can say is that the campaign bus/plane ain't all that glamorous. It's not a good reporting vehicle. You're stuck inside this floating bubble and find it difficult to report because you're constantly moving around.
So if they threatened to throw me off the bus, I'd take the first leap before they even had the chance to push me!
Washington: Isn't the timing of Edwards' endorsement a bit confusing? He sat out North Carolina. Furthermore, as Obama supporters are quick to point out, Hillary has little -- if any -- chance at becoming the nominee. Why now? Why not June 4? For all of the kind things he said about Clinton is his speech last night (to the boos of Obama supporters in attendance), isn't this endorsement, at this point, nothing more than symbolically kicking her while she's down?
Paul Kane: If Edwards was trying to be relevant, yes, his timing was bad. He provides no real bounce to Obama, because he already has cleared most of the important hurdles in the race. I get the sense that Edwards really couldn't decide between the two candidates. I don't know what to make of Edwards, but I do get the sense that -- like a lot of Democrats -- he was pretty torn up in making up his mind between these two candidates.
Annandale, Va.: I found Tom Davis' memo interesting. I consider him to be a fairly moderate Republican. Is he trying to use the current situation to move the party back more to the middle? I don't think Davis is a real hardliner on taxes or abortion, but more of a compromiser. Will his message be heard by party if it loses big this fall?
Paul Kane: The Davis memo is interesting. One of his colleagues calls Davis a Ph.D student of electioneering. Tom Cole, the current NRCC chairman, is the professor of GOP electioneering. Meanwhile, Tom Reynolds -- the NRCC chairman from '03-'06 -- is the street fighter.
It's an interesting analogy. Tom Davis is retiring, his wife lost her state senate race in Virginia last year, and I think he's coming to grips with the fact that this is it -- he has no political life left after the end of this year. He's done, and doesn't even have his wife's career to help out with anymore. That's a sobering thing; so is the fact that the party he helped steer through the '00 and '02 election cycles is imploding. I think this Davis "white paper" was his thesis on what ails the GOP. Will it be heeded? Too early to tell.
Falls Church, Va.: Paul, please disregard New York's comments. You are doing a fine job and we appreciate your thorough work. Thanks for the input -- love your articles and chats.
Paul Kane: Mom, did you sneak into this chat again?
Indianapolis: Do you truly believe that, given the shape this country is in, what we need is a congressional investigation of the NFL?
Paul Kane: I believe that this country's in bad shape and that it's up to the president and congressional leaders to sit down and work those things out.
But listen, there are 435 members of the House, 100 senators, and almost 50 different committees combined in the two chambers. Not all of them are supposed to deal with war and energy and home mortgages. If not for the heroic work of Henry Waxman and Tom Davis exposing Major League Baseball's duplicity in the steroids scandal, we'd all still have our heads in the sand applauding Barry Bonds as he strokes his 800th home run.
I'm sure people wondered just what the heck young Bobby Kennedy was doing when, as a Senate counsel, he helped lead an investigation into the mob in the 1950s as really big things were happening around the globe (Soviets marching into Hungary, the beginnings of the space race, the Castro takeover of Cuba). Why would a Senate committee then bothered to explore a little corruption in a few corners of a few cities? Because it was there, it was rotting to its core and someone needed to do something.
That's what Tom Davis and Henry Waxman did with steroids, and that's what Specter is trying to do with the Patriots.
Claverack, N.Y.: If the GOP does suffer the congressional shellacking they fear in 2008, I assume John "Let's Vote Against Mother's Day" Boehner will have trouble hanging onto his leadership post. Who do you think would step up to replace him? Pence?
Paul Kane: The $60,000 question -- and the one I'll use to exit the chat.
Boehner for now seems to be in a strong position -- strong enough to survive the current woes -- but it's hard to know what happens if they lose another 20-25 seats. There's not a deep bench on the GOP side, so if they decided to toss aside Boehner, I'm not sure who they would turn to; few people think the No 2 leader, Whip Roy Blunt, would get the post. It may fall to boyish 30-something Adam Putnam, or Richmond's Eric Cantor, but neither appears ready to have that fire in the belly to stir things that much.
Considering how low expectations are now, Boehner could well survive simply by mitigating his losses to about 10 seats, which would be considered a Pyrrhic victory at this point.
Okay gang, thanks always for the questions. One week left of this legislative session. It's been a long stretch, but now the heavy lifting really is coming, with the war supplemental debate. See you back here in two weeks.
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