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Real Life Politics

Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, June 25, 2008 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Ruth Marcus was online Wednesday, June 25 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. I've been away for a few weeks so I'm glad to be back and chatting.

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San Francisco: Hello Ms. Marcus, and thanks for chatting. Have you actually read the questionnaire regarding public financing and Barack Obama's response to it? If so, how do you define the word "promise"? Why would Sen. Obama ever undertake a negotiation with someone like John McCain, who already has violated campaign finance law this season, according to the outgoing head of the Federal Election Commission?

Ruth Marcus: Yes, I've read the questionnaire and Sen. Obama's response.

The Post editorial page and I personally heaped a lot of praise on Sen. Obama for trying to salvage the public financing system. See this, for example.

With all respect, you overstate the McCain situation -- there was no determination that he "already has violated campaign finance law this season."

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Yonkers, N.Y.: You admit that Obama has a "healthier mix" of small donors than McCain, yet you find it "galling" that he opted out of public financing? Pardon me, but I thought getting more small donors was the point, and McCain looks to be a tool of lobbyists and the usual GOP greed-heads at this point. But never mind. I find it galling that Kerry screwed up his financing and we've got all these people dead for absolutely no purpose, and both Roberts and Alito to plunder the Constitution for the next three or four decades as a result.

If Obama threw away his financial advantages to please people like you and the editors of the New York Times, I would be seriously alarmed about his guts and willingness to fight for this office. I'm old enough to remember Nixon blowing the '60 election by adhering to a witless pledge to campaign in all 50 states, including Alaska!

Abandoning foolish positions is part of wise governance and statesmanship. The best thing that Reagan did in office was to withdraw our Marines from Lebanon after he stupidly put them there in the first place. Obama was wrong to make the pledge, and possibly he didn't realize how well the fundraising machine would work, but no matter. He did the right thing. If Obama doesn't get elected under these conditions, his name will be anathema for all time. That is a pledge he damn well better keep.

Ruth Marcus: I didn't say it was galling that he opted out of public financing. To the contrary, I said that I didn't take issue with it, and that it was smart strategically for him to exploit his financial advantage. But don't expect me to applaud it as a bold and selfless move.

As to the Supreme Court, please see last week's column.

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Albany, N.Y.: What do you make of Charlie Black's comments about a terrorist attack helping McCain? Do you think that an attack on Iran might also help McCain?

Ruth Marcus: I think the fuss about Black is nonsense. What does it tell us about McCain? Nothing. Does anyone think John McCain is hoping for another terrorist attack? I don't. Do most people think that a terrorist attack, as horrible as that might be, would be of political benefit to McCain? I do, and I'm no Charlie Black. It was a dumb thing to say, but the ado about it is even dumber.

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Cape Cod, Mass.: Obama only promised to pursue an agreement on public financing. Given that the Republican National Committee and various 527 groups undoubtedly will attempt to Swift Boat Obama -- we already have seen that with ads reported in the New York Times that attempted to paint Obama as a Muslim -- and that McCain has said he will make no attempt to police them, why should Obama try to live to a bargain that wasn't actually struck? Do you intend to criticize McCain when the serious Swift-Boating begins?

Ruth Marcus: The prospect of "Swift-boating" and 527s and RNC attacks was fully obvious way back when Obama made the promise. The major thing that has changed was the demonstration of his fundraising capacity.

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Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Ruth, of all the chatterers we love you the most, but you're way off the reservation on this one. No one cares if Obama failed to make the New York Times happy and give away his huge advantage on fundraising to the GOP. Here's a huge, huge issue that everybody in the media is ignoring: Sen. Dodd is right now attempting to do a Jimmy Stewart in the Senate and run out the clock on the FISA Telecom immunity bill that Steny Hoyer, Rockefeller and some other telecom money-grubbing sellouts are trying to foist on the American people.

Dodd's support is both with the left and with the right, with people who just want our Constitutional privacies back. If these corporations get immunity, all the lawsuits will be dismissed and we never will know what criminal violations of FISA that Bush and Cheney committed. There is no constituency for letting the telecoms get away with this, without even knowing what "this" is! Except for the sellout congressmen and senators, of course. This might be the biggest constitutional issue of the year, more important than the prisoners at Gitmo, but it's being ignored. Why? And if Ruth Marcus is not going to do it, then who?

Ruth Marcus: Thank you for your kind comments on chats, but I'm afraid I need to doubly disappoint you today because I'm not with the Dodd program on FISA. I care a lot about making sure that there is a system in place in which the president is bound to comply with the statute (in other words, the exclusivity provision) and that there is meaningful court oversight of the surveillance to protect privacy interests. But using the telecoms as a mechanism for getting at Bush and Cheney -- which as you concede is what the immunity issue is about -- has struck me as both unfair and unwise.

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Johnson, Vt.: Ms. Marcus, thank you for taking my question and for chatting. A couple of recent polls show Obama with a significant lead (low double digits) over McCain. Does that indicate has solved his problem with "Hillary" voters, or does he still have work to do to win them over completely? Related to that, will Obama be in trouble again if he doesn't select her as his vice president?

Ruth Marcus: He still has work to do, and no, it doesn't mean he will be in trouble if he doesn't select her. I expect that while not everyone will be mollified, the hard feelings will die down. The two will be campaigning together this week, and the more that happens the better Sen. Clinton's supporters will feel. And I thought she handled the veep question just right yesterday, saying that this is Sen. Obama's choice.

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Philadelphia: This weekend your ombudsman wrote about the fact that one of your opinion writers, David Broder, appears to have taken speaking fees in violation of the paper's policies. As a member of the editorial board, is this an issue you need to address?

Ruth Marcus: Oh, for Broder's speaking fees. (Just kidding.) I do a pretty small amount of public speaking, most of it free.

You may have missed my boffo appearance at the Temple Beth El Sisterhood the other day! Also, my father's book group -- even though I haven't written a book.

Seriously, I try -- and I think we all try -- to be very careful about not making appearances, paid or unpaid, in situations where we could be viewed as giving partisan comfort to one side or another, or one interest group or another. I say no to some things, yes to others, and check in with my boss, Fred Hiatt, whenever there's something I think is questionable. I thought the Howell column was an important reminder to all of us about that.

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Re: Swift-Boating: You write that "the prospect of 'Swift-Boating' and 527s and RNC attacks was fully obvious way back when Obama made the promise." Does this mean that you condone Swift Boat-style attacks on Obama?

Ruth Marcus: Of course not. I mean only that his explanation for his about-face is not convincing.

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Reston, Va.: Ruth, what do you not understand about Obama only promising to pursue an agreement on public financing and not promising to only use public financing?

Ruth Marcus: However you'd prefer to parse it -- and I guarantee you that I heard no complaints from the Obama campaign when I repeatedly wrote back when that he had promised to accept public financing if his opponent would do the same -- I think the notion that he has "aggressively pursued" an agreement with McCain is ludicrous.

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New York: Are you serious? You blame those who criticize Black more than Black himself? While most Clinton supporters have come around, it seems you have become unhinged.

Ruth Marcus: Excuse me, but this comment manages, in just a few short words, to include almost everything that drives me, well, unhinged about political discourse today. Not that reasonable people can look at situations and disagree about them, but that my viewpoint obviously is affected by my alleged affiliation as a "Clinton supporter" and my disagreement is not just wrong but "unhinged." I've written all sorts of columns critical of Sens. Obama, McCain and Clinton, just trying to call it as I see it.

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New Orleans: Ms. Marcus, I couldn't agree more with you: One cannot fault Obama for privately financing his campaign, but he came off badly in his explanation. He looked less like an agent of change and more like a typical politician. Question: I understand Obama and the Democrats have their eye on the November prize, but does Obama's decision to forego public financing favor Republicans in the long run? Is Mitch McConnell having the last laugh on his "friend" McCain?

Ruth Marcus: The McConnell-McCain relationship is an interesting question. I think Sen. McConnell's last, best laugh would come when President McCain's Supreme Court strikes down McCain-Feingold. I don't think Obama's move is great for the future of public financing, but it's not something that gives Republicans a strategic advantage in the long run, as far as I can see.

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Re: Charlie Black's comments: With all due respect, how can the McCain campaign on the one hand say that is will stop terrorist attacks while on the other admitting that it would benefit from such attacks? Why should Americans trust McCain to stop an event that his advisers' believe will be beneficial for him?

Ruth Marcus: So Osama bin Laden calls Charlie Black and tells him the attack will come at x time in x place. And Black, because he wants to see McCain elected, sits on the info. Please. Black was, as I said, foolishly stating a perfectly obvious piece of political analysis out loud.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Personally, I feel that exclusive use of the public financing system is a horrible idea. I only donate if a candidate truly inspires me, and I really would rather my money not go to a candidate whose views I abhor. If we were on a purely public financing system, I never, ever would donate again, and thus likely would become increasingly disengaged from the process of choosing our leaders.

On that basis, wouldn't one need to buy into the value of the public financing system before accepting as fact that deciding to not limit oneself to using it is not the more "patriotic" alternative? In so far as heavy emphasis on compiling direct private or bundled donations relies on actually convincing people you will represent them in good faith, is that not the more "patriotic" option?

Ruth Marcus: A reasonable argument against public financing. Alas, one with which Sen. Obama does not agree. He has sponsored legislation to fix the public financing system, and said in opting out that "it's not an easy decision, and especially because I support a robust system of public financing of elections." Back when he was trying to figure out a way to stay within the system, he told the FEC that "Congress concluded some thirty years ago that the public funding alternative ... would serve core purposes in the public interest: limiting the escalation of campaign spending and the associated pressures on candidates to raise, at the expense of time devoted to public dialogue, ever vaster sums of money."

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Gainesville, Fla.: One thing I've discovered is that while I might be able to stomach voting for Obama, I truly cannot stand the whining and "sore winner" arrogance of his obamafanatical supporters. He still needs Hillary's voters in November to win, doesn't he. Why are they such sore winners? Couldn't retiring Clinton's debt be seen as paying for the lessons Obama got to learn early as opposed to being "bushwhacked" later by McCain and the Republicans?

Ruth Marcus: Well, he has just asked supporters to help Sen. Clinton with her debts. I don't think the Obama campaign especially enjoyed the bushwhacking -- no less enough to pay for it!

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Baton Rouge, La.: With all respect, you overstate the McCain situation -- there was no determination that he "already has violated campaign finance law this season." That's only because the FEC didn't have a quorum. The head of the FEC (a Republican) did say that McCain couldn't simply opt out of public financing for the primary. Getting a loan using public financing as collateral and then unilaterally opting out of said public financing is more than a little shady. Why hasn't this been covered by you guys?

Ruth Marcus: Yes, the FEC didn't have a quorum until just yesterday, and the editorial page has written about this repeatedly, urging action to get a functioning commission in place for the election.

On what Sen. McCain actually did: I don't think he gets any merit badges in campaign finance reform for this one. What he did was to qualify to receive matching funds for the primary. He did not actually receive any such funds. After he effectively had secured the nomination -- meaning that it would have been suicidal to take matching funds and that he didn't need them any more -- he moved to withdraw from the system. (I'm going to deal with the loan in a bit.) The chairman said that withdrawal required a quorum, which the FEC did not have. Would anyone think that it would be a fair outcome to have Sen. Obama free to spend as much money as he wanted during the primary season (that is, until the conventions) while Sen. McCain, having reached the maximum spending limit, just sat on his hands? That was an unfair situation in 1996, when Sen. Dole was in a similar position vis a vis President Clinton, and it would be unfair now.

The loan complicates matters, but the loan itself states directly that the matching funds are not collateral for the debt. He did promise that, if his campaign went badly, he would stay within the system in order to be able to obtain the funds and repay the bank. As we put it: "However the loan terms are understood, this is not Mr. McCain's proudest moment as a reformer: He derived some benefit from the matching funds system and then abandoned it when that was to his advantage."

This was our editorial on the subject, by the way.

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San Francisco: Ms. Marcus, thanks you for shedding some daylight on Obama's "favor" to the American campaign financing system (disclaimer, I'm a McCain supporter, but I haven't cast my ballot yet...). I see it as a continuation of a pattern. For example, he criticizes John McCain for having paid lobbyists on his staff, while Obama's lobbyists are "volunteers."

For me, I'd rather my candidate have paid lobbyists -- at least there's some other potential motivation for them working besides securing favors for their clients. Volunteer lobbyists, if we're to believe the Democrats about how scummy, self-serving and underhanded lobbyists are, really have no other motivation than to secure favors for their clients after the election. Your critique of my logic, please?

Ruth Marcus: I never have been moved particularly by the no-lobbyists-on-my-staff argument. See, this column, from when John Edwards was making a lot of noise on this subject. Back then, I said:

"I don't think it would much matter if Democrats were to live in The World According to Edwards, who has never taken lobbyist money. Nice symbolism, perhaps, but how does it make candidates any purer to disdain checks from lobbyists while avidly vacuuming up contributions from the various industries they represent?

"Edwards is no less tainted by the trial-lawyer money he scoops up by the bucketful than he would be by lobbyist contributions. Obama is no more ethical now than when he was an unknown Senate candidate dutifully calling lobbyists and asking for a check, please."

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Bethesda, Md.: Ruth, I just wanted to say I agree with your column, and am glad some liberal columnists are willing to call Obama out on this. Obama always struck me as more thoughtful and intellectually honest than most politicians, and I maintained hope he eventually would make good on his "new politics" image. Ultimately, I'll still vote for him, but to me the whole "declare independence" thing officially has sealed him as just another politician.

Ruth Marcus: From a fellow Bethesdan, thanks.

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Concord, N.H.: I appreciated your article on Obama, Ruth. It seemed clear that you were not condemning his choice -- it was obviously the prudent one -- but that doesn't mean you let him off the hook as far as why he changed his mind. Couching his change of mind as anything other than a rational finance decision is disingenuous and transparently false -- and I like him.

I have to say that I'm not surprised at the tone my fellow posters are taking today. You can't make any criticism of Obama -- even criticism that is well-reasoned and polite -- without getting spoken to angrily by supporters, who make comments about one's inability to see how wonderful he always is. Their idealism could be dangerous to the expectations of someone who, after all, is just a man.

Ruth Marcus: Thanks!

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London: American citizen living overseas here. This is my first "big" election while living overseas, and although I'm fine on how to obtain a ballot, etc., I was wondering: Is there some way I can donate to my preferred candidate? Do you know how?

Ruth Marcus: I hear there's this Internet thing. Don't mean to sound snarky, but that's the first thing you see if you click on any candidate's Web page.

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Rockville, Md.: One of the faults of current discussion is the notion that if someone does not agree with one's own views (and that means 100 percent), then they must be mad or bought off. I think it comes from people who have no long-term view of events and positions -- they really do not know the difference, and resent anyone who does. I don't agree with you all the time, but I like your writing and am happy to see you in print. I really want a thousand blossoms, so to say. It is a pity, because a little courtesy would improve our discourse so much.

Ruth Marcus: Thank you, the lack of courtesy really is astonishing. I made the mistake of reading some online comments this morning.

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Fletcher, N.C.: Ruth, I think it is a real mistake for Obama to pay off any of Hillary's debt. I believe that donors to his Web site and others are going to think they gave money to him for his campaign -- not to pay off the debts she ran up knowing that she was going to lose, and that he would pay them off. He needs all the money he can get after turning down the public financing. He could go broke and lose because of it. Hillary is not going to care -- she wanted to be president.

Ruth Marcus: He's not going to -- and I'm fairly certain he's not allowed to -- pay off her debt directly. He'll just ask his donors to give to her.

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Washington: Why do people never challenge the made-up fact that 527 attack ads are mostly GOP-leaning? According to The Post, 80 percent of them in 2004 were liberal attack ads hitting Republicans -- yet the term "Swift-Boating" never is challenged. I mean ... the Swift Boat guys didn't lie, and they didn't make stuff up ... so why all the hatred? Kerry was offered a $1 million to his favorite charity if he could disprove one thing they said, and he couldn't.

Ruth Marcus: I believe strongly that the Swift Boat attacks were untrue and unfair. They were so successful that they have come to define a 527 attack. But you are correct that the big money was spent on the Democratic side, just less effectively.

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San Francisco: Ms. Marcus, thanks you for your article today, one of the few I've read that give short shrift to Obama's breaking an often stated promise to work with his opponent to maintain public financing. One of Obama's major justification was the GOP 527s. Can you give any insight as to how effective these (aside from the Swift Boaters) have been, compared to the Democrats' MoveOn.org and others?

washingtonpost.com: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Bundlers (Post, June 25)

Ruth Marcus: Pretty quiet on the 527 front so far, although -- as Sen. Obama notes and Sen. Kerry now knows -- that can change overnight.

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Northville, N.Y.: Who has done more harm to our republic, Monica Lewinsky or Monica Goodling? If you think its the latter, can we forever banish from public life those reporters and pundits who seem congenitally unable to discuss the '90s without immediately reminding the reader of the Big Bad Horrible Terrible Thing That Clinton Did?

Ruth Marcus: Both are minor figures. But having covered the Justice Department -- during the Meese era, no less -- and having a lot of respect for its traditions and its personnel, I thought the report about the politicized hiring was stomach-turning.

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Wokingham, U.K.: Obama's argument about funding seems to be that he has got where he has with the aid small donations from a mass of people, and that it has become clear to him that continuing to connect to this type of support achieves the aim of public funding -- to somewhat limit the influence of the rich -- better than direct public funding would, in keeping with founding American ideals and all that. This argument seems to me as far as it goes actually to be valid, somewhat contrary to what you say.

Ruth Marcus: How would taking all your money from the government (i.e. taxpayers) make you more beholden to the rich than taking some of your money from small donors, some from big ones?

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London: Er, yeah, but their pages all ask for your U.S. address, etc. I don't have one, and don't have U.S.-based credit cards. And oddly enough, when I call, I can't get through.

Ruth Marcus: Oh, I'm sorry. That may be a problem because the campaigns all are spooked about taking foreign donations. Maybe send a check and a copy of your passport.

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Ruth Marcus: Boy, lots more questions. I think I must have been typing slower today. Sorry, our time is up.

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