Real Life Politics

Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, July 9, 2008 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Ruth Marcus was online Wednesday, July 9 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her recent columns and the latest news.

The transcript follows.


Ruth Marcus: Hi everyone. Let's get started...


New York: Hi Ruth, I'm submitting this question early before I forget it. At this point, is Parhat still in detention because the U.S. can't find a country to take him, or because it still believes him to be an enemy combatant? Thanks for a column that probably could be written about hundreds of other detainees as well.

Ruth Marcus: Good question. He is still in detention because the U.S. can't find a country to take him, as I understand it. But the U.S. continues to claim that he is an enemy combatant as well, and actually had him in solitary confinement for most of the past year and a half.


Minnesota: Ms. Marcus, do you believe any of the detainees are where they belong?

Ruth Marcus: If the question is "do I believe any of the detainees should be detained," you bet. But I think that the existing mechanisms for determining whether they are enemy combatants are appallingly and unnecessarily unfair.


Alexandria, Va.: The entire Parhat episode makes me wonder whether every single thing the administration has said and done has been based on nothing but lies. If he's no danger at all, why hasn't he simply been released to the U.S. (which, after all, is in complete control of his whereabouts and activities anyway right now)? Free This Detainee (Post, July 9)

Ruth Marcus: Imagine the reaction if a man the U.S. still argues is an enemy combatant -- albeit a releasable one -- is sent here. I'm not disagreeing with that outcome, just saying you'd hear a lot of yelling about it.


Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Ruth, what excellent questions you pose to Sen. McCain and the chief justice! As an American lawyer, I have been dismayed by the lack of justice afforded the detainees, and proud of those -- such as judge advocate general attorneys and others -- who have defended them. My clients include entities -- almost exclusively Islamic charities and their supporters -- that have been designated as supporters of terrorism or risk such designation.

Like the detainees, they are not automatically entitled to counsel (they need a special license from the Treasury Department), they cannot see the evidence against them (not even a summary), and they only can appeal the designation to the office that designated them in the first place. While they are not considered to be accused of committing a crime -- they are, after all, only terrorists -- anyone who provides material support to them risks felony prosecution. The material support laws are so broadly written as to cover buying someone lunch or writing a newspaper column critical of U.S. policy. I have been told by the Treasury Department that these designations are temporary -- that they will be lifted as soon as the "war on terror" is over.

On July 10, the federal district court in Oregon will hear oral arguments in a key case on this subject. I hope that the judge in that case takes heart from his colleagues on the D.C. Circuit Court. I am posting this in advance of your chat because I will be in transit when you are online. Again, thanks for your good work.

Ruth Marcus: Interesting post, not a subject I've delved into. I am posting here to share.


Sherman, Texas: In your op-ed on "flip-flops" by the presidential candidates, how did you manage to ignore that McCain violated the law by taking a loan on the basis of the McCain-Feingold campaign financing plan, then not doing as he said he would in order to gain that loan? When a Flip Isn't a Flop (Post, July 2)

Ruth Marcus: Fair question. We have editorialized about Sen. McCain and the primary matching funds, and I'm glad that we now have a Federal Election Commission that has confirmed commissioners and can look at this issue. But whether or not you consider Sen. McCain's loan having been impermissibly been based on the collateral of expected matching funds, I don't think that fits into the flip-flop category.


Mundelein, Ill.: I had an opportunity to tune into Morning Joe on MSNBC this morning He and Pat Buchanan did about four hours of pretty one-sided attacks on Obama. They must have used the term flip-flopper more than a hundred times while saying he was doing the right thing by flip-flopping! It appears that you mainstream media types have decided that Obama has inherited the flip-flopper tag. Given that McCain has at least as impressive a record -- if not more so -- of flip-flopping, how do you guys decide to tag one guy and not the other?

Ruth Marcus: What mainstream media types? I must have missed the meeting, because I made a different argument last week. Here's the link.


Rochester, N.Y.: While I liked your recent column on Gitmo, I fear that this issue -- which goes to the heart of who we are as a society -- soon will be swept under the waves of endless stories about haircuts and arugula. As a journalist, do you find this fact depressing? Do you ever feel tempted to try to do something about it?

Ruth Marcus: I thought I was trying to do something about it by writing the column! Yes, I find the paucity of stories covering substantive policy issues depressing.


Arlington, Va.: I realize you're on the editorial page now, so facts don't matter, but didn't you have some obligation to explain why the subject in today's piece -- or anyone else -- would go from China to Afghanistan for no reason? I mean, if he's not with Osama -- and you seem to presume he's not -- why was he there?

Ruth Marcus: Excuse me, but facts matter very much to me. He went to Afghanistan, as I understand it, to escape oppression in China and agitate/fight against the Chinese. China definitely should consider him an enemy combatant, but he did not have a beef with America -- and as I understand it, he hoped that America would help the Uighurs.


Re: Flip-Flops: You write "But whether or not you consider Sen. McCain's loan having been impermissibly been based on the collateral of expected matching funds, I don't think that fits into the flip-flop category." So you're saying that breaking a law that McCain himself wrote is not "flip-flopping"?

Ruth Marcus: Sorry, Sen. McCain didn't write that law -- but leaving that aside, I'm saying the issue of whether he was or was not permitted to withdraw from the matching funds system is different from the question of whether he flip-flopped.


Evanston, Ill.: Hey Ruth, Is the media holding back its dirt on certain vice presidential hopefuls until they actually are selected?

Ruth Marcus: Darn, I missed that meeting, too! Seriously, in this environment, if one news organization had a great story about a serious vice presidential contender, what would be gained by holding it back?


Chambersburg, Pa.: I've heard that I would have a better chance of getting struck by lightning than being directly harmed in a terrorist attack. If this is so, how can the president claim this is a war with imminent dangers. I have no doubt that terrorism is very serious, but equating it to world war is a huge exaggeration. Without war, how do we justify detainees? When did the U.S. declare war? Ceding power to fight terrorism is not the same thing as Congress actually declaring war, is it? Who are we at war with? It was al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, then supporters of "terrorism" (Saddam), and now just "terrorists."

Ruth Marcus: I'm going to come out on the other side here. Whether or not you accept the war metaphor, there are obviously dangerous people with enormously hostile intentions toward the United States. Some of them are at Guantanamo; some of them are at large. We need to work hard to find the ones at large and simultaneously to figure out a fair and Constitutional way to hold them once captured.


San Francisco: Senator McCain's latest national commercial cites his military service and experience as a POW as presidential qualifications. Is it okay to question that now?

Ruth Marcus: It's okay to question it. It's not very smart, though, in my view.


Re: Campaign Financing: Leaving aside the question of legality, how is it not a flip-flop for McCain to opt out of public financing for the primary, given that he is probably the most visible proponent of public financing in the entire country? Forgive me for saying this, but I think you're just as easy on McCain as Chris Matthews and the rest.

Ruth Marcus: Well, let me quote myself, if you don't mind, in my own defense against the Ruth equals Chris Matthews charge.

This is from last week's column: "Of all the flip-flops of campaign 2008, McCain's reversal on taxes may be the most disturbing, because it represents a stark turnabout on a key issue. But the important aspect is not that McCain changed his position -- it's that his 'no new taxes' incarnation is so recklessly wrong. Still, it's a lot simpler to yell 'flip-flop' in a crowded blogosphere than to hunker down with a set of distribution tables."

In addition, here's a link to our editorial about Sen. McCain and the matching funds. The most relevant part:

"Second, and more problematic, is the question of whether Mr. McCain used his eligibility for matching funds as collateral for a $4 million loan; if so, Mr. McCain would be deemed to have used the matching fund program to his financial advantage, even without having received any money, and so would be bound by the spending limits. Mr. McCain didn't directly pledge the expected matching funds as security, but he did promise that if his campaign went badly, he would stay in the race and seek matching funds in order to be able to repay the bank. The McCain campaign and the bank say that this does not rise to the level of using the FEC certification as collateral for the loan and that they were careful to avoid that trap. The DNC has filed a complaint with the FEC asserting that it does rise to such a level and that Mr. McCain is therefore stuck in the matching funds system. 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."


Fairfax County, Va.: I was charmed by the interview with the whole Obama family, although I was surprised to learn that "Access Hollywood" would be doling out even more of it in later evenings this week. Those are two good, nice girls, and of course that reflects well on their parents. To me, it complemented Mrs. Obama's appearance on "The View," which I also enjoyed. Now I read that Sen. Obama regrets the interview and won't have his kids doing more of them. Even though this one seemingly went so well, that seems like a smart decision too -- let the kids be kids. What are your thoughts on the whole thing?

Ruth Marcus: I watched the video, and I thought it was completely charming -- though the younger daughter didn't exactly seem thrilled to be there. But I thought Sen. Obama was right to say he regretted it. The media have been pretty good about respecting the privacy of presidential and would-be presidential children, especially when they are children. But when the president or candidate opens the door to exposing the children to the media, that greatly risks upsetting that restraint.


Montgomery, Ala.: Historically, the taller of presidential candidates tends to win. What are other historical factors and their relative significance, such as economic conditions at election time, or the immediate length of in-office time of the party of the losing candidate?

Ruth Marcus: As a certifiably short person with no chance of being president, I'd focus more on economic conditions first, and then the incumbent party.


Bellingham, Wash.: On the subject of "flip-flopping": I've just finished an article about Rush Limbaugh in an um, rival Sunday newspaper's magazine, and thank God Obama "flip-flopped" on accepting public financing. The reporting I've seen on the subject often mentions that Obama was overreacting because Republican 527's were not organizing a coordinated attack on his campaign, but I've always thought the real threat was from the free attacks offered by Limbaugh et al on cable and AM radio. Obama will need all the help and money he can get to counter the three to six hours a day of free, high-wattage AM radio Republican attack ads that Limbaugh will be offering from now until November.

Ruth Marcus: Except that Sen. Obama probably knew about Rush Limbaugh when he originally said he'd try to take public financing.


London: Do you know when (if it's definite) when Obama's going to be over here? I (an American) have an office full of giddy (non-American) colleagues who are desperately hoping to have the chance to hear him speak, but I can't find anything about dates or plans on his Web site. Thanks.

Ruth Marcus: They haven't said anything yet about the timing. Hold that giddiness!


Houston: My question is regarding your May 28 column. Do you think the "dearth of credible female presidential candidates" can be erased because Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Secretary of State Condi Rice are being discussed as vice presidents for McCain, along with Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Sen. Hillary Clinton for Obama? Isn't the mere discussion of these credible women seen as growth, as so many people are agreeing that a woman as vice president would be exciting and electable?

Ruth Marcus: I could end up eating these words, but I doubt that, in the end, a woman will be the vice presidential candidate on either ticket. I'd be delighted to be wrong, though.


Princeton, N.J.: Do you and the editorial board now see what the war you consistently have viewed through rose colored glasses has led to? Do you see how your editorial today in favor of spying on American without any oversight as long as a target is not named, and which allows companies to obey an unlawful order unlawfully given without punishment, is part and parcel of the same paradigm that is responsible for Parhat? Do you see? FISA's Fetters (Post, July 9)

Ruth Marcus: Actually, I'll take on the FISA part of your question because I think the FISA editorial and my Parhat column are entirely consistent. They both emphasize the importance of having adequate court review. What is important to me about the FISA debate is making certain that there is not a repeat of the warrantless, extralegal wiretapping of the original Terrorist Surveillance Program. That is why I was glad to see a strong exclusivity provision stating that FISA was the sole authority -- which is also stronger congressional and inspector general oversight.


Arlington, Va.: Re: Your response to San Francisco, so what's not smart -- McCain for bringing up his POW history, or McCain opening the door so he can be questioned on how being a POW qualifies him to be president? By the way, I hate the ad. No one cares about the '60s any more. The only people that do care are the ones who didn't have any sex and were too poor (or too friendless) to buy any grass.

Ruth Marcus: Sorry, I meant that I do not think this is a particularly productive avenue of attack on Sen. McCain. See the Obama campaign's response to Gen. Clark's remarks.


New York: Ruth, this may be out of your bailiwick, but what might be the U.S. government's legal liability down the road for incarcerating innocent foreigners? Could our grandchildren someday be paying substantial damages to these people? I shudder to think of it...

Ruth Marcus: Of all the bills our grandchildren should be worrying about having to pay, this is the least of them. I would highly doubt that there is any cause of action against the U.S. government that would succeed and would result in a damage award.


Charlottesville, Va.: Hi, Ruth - thanks for chatting. You said "there are obviously dangerous people with enormously hostile intentions toward the United States." Yes, true, but hasn't that been true since the beginning of the 20th century (at least)? I think if anyone looks at a history book, we were scared of all kinds of anarchists, Marxists, etc., back then, some of whom actually threw a few bombs. Perhaps the bombs (and the buildings) are a bit bigger now, but does that really change the nature of the problem?

Ruth Marcus: Sept. 11 changed the nature of the problem, in my view. Or it changed the way we understand the nature of the problem -- and correctly so. When it comes to bombs, size matters. Al-Qaeda scares me a lot more than a few scattered anarchists.


New Orleans: Why will no country take Parhat? One would think a country wanting to thumb its nose at America would take him.

Ruth Marcus: There were a group of Uighurs released to Albania, and as I understand it there was a big uproar there. It wouldn't be nose-thumbing at America -- it would be doing us a big favor, actually.


McCain's Jokes: Hello there. I know this is off topic, but John McCain's joke about killing Iranians with smokes is bugging me. First, I can't think of a time, (and I am a total nobody with no ambitions) that I have ever felt the need to joke about killing a whole category of people. But also, if "we" are killing them with cigs, what are we doing to our very own? Seems like a horrible horrible statement that I can't just sweep away with "oh it was a joke."

Ruth Marcus: I had missed this whole brouhaha until I got your question and another one on the chat today. So I just went and looked, and, sorry, I can't get too worked up over this. It just seems like more of what the earlier chatter commented on -- focusing on haircuts and arugula rather than what's really important. And I take it as good news that McCain says cigarettes kill!


Princeton, N.J.: Well, if you are favor of oversight, you haven't carefully read the bill. The attorney general is authorized to institute spying on a group or area without a warrant as long as an American is not named as a target. There is a good article on the bill in Congressional Quarterly.

Ruth Marcus: Please read our editorial on the topic. It discusses the minimization, reverse targeting and other protections contained in the bill.


Los Gatos, Calif.: Why aren't we seeing more coverage about the librarian who was cited for trespassing for carrying a "McCain = Bush" sign at a McCain rally? Were people with McCain buttons also cited?

Ruth Marcus: Sorry, I missed this one too. But I do think it's stupid for campaigns to do stuff like this, if the McCain campaign did. In my experience, Sen. McCain likes to call on people wearing T-shirts supporting other candidates -- he likes to mix it up.


New York: Just to respond to the comment from Arlington, Va. -- in the United States, we don't convict people of crimes because they can't come up with a good reason for something. They don't have to prove anything. The government needs to prove they're a criminal -- and if they don't meet that burden, the person goes free. This is a bedrock principle of American liberty. It's why we're a better and stronger country than others. I remain shocked that the administration has abandoned this principle, and alarmed that people (like the above commenter) don't think it's important. In my opinion, the fact that we do things the right way -- the fact that we're the good guys -- is the only thing that justifies going after terrorists.

Ruth Marcus: I would leave open the possibility of a category of people who would be held without being tried in ordinary criminal courts. There are people who the government may not be able to prove to be a criminal, but whom it might be extraordinarily foolish to set free. What we need is a discussion of how to handle these situations better than we have.


Albany, N.Y.: Your colleagues in the media seemed much more disturbed by Bill Clinton's extramarital affair than by torture and Gitmo. Does that bother you?

Ruth Marcus: I think there has been quite a bit of focus on torture and Gitmo, including by The Post's editorial page.


Braintree, Mass.: I just started watching the "John Adams" HBO series because I don't have cable (otherwise my cable package would come bundled with a divorce). Being reminded about how John Adams defended -- in open court -- and won acquittal of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre made me both proud and very sad. Before we were a country or had a military or any international standing, our leaders stood for justice in the face of peril and oppression. Now, even though we stand unchallenged as the most powerful country in the world, our leaders hide behind secrecy and lies rather than trusting in the rule of law and justice.

Ruth Marcus: Haven't seen the series yet, but I do love that episode in Adams's life.


Re: Gitmo: You write that "there are people who the government may not be able to prove to be a criminal, but whom it might be extraordinarily foolish to set free." By that reasoning, why shouldn't the government be able to lock up anyone whom it might be extraordinarily foolish to set free? Are you familiar with the basic concepts of our legal system?

Ruth Marcus: I want to respond civilly to this, but I would humbly suggest that if you read today's column you might get some sense that I am familiar with the basic concepts of our legal system. Of course the government should not be free to lock up anyone, especially American citizens, willy-nilly.


Baltimore: Any idea why Sen. Webb took himself out of consideration as vice president? Had he been eliminated, but was given the opportunity to say he was not interested? Frankly, I had hoped Sen. Obama would pick him, because he appeals precisely to those elements less favorably disposed to vote for Obama.

Ruth Marcus: I thought that was awfully interesting. I read somewhere that he was asked for the various documents that the vetters want to see and took himself out at that stage, so that suggests pre-elimination. I think choosing Sen. Webb would have opened up a lot of discussion about his views on women, especially women in combat.


Ruth Marcus: Thanks, everybody, for reading, and for the interesting and provocative questions. I look forward to being back in a few weeks.


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