Post Politics Hour

Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Campaign Finance Reporter
Friday, August 1, 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.

Post campaign finance reporter Matthew Mosk was online Friday, Aug. 1 at 11 a.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

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Matthew Mosk: Good morning,

The Washington Post newsroom is buzzing this morning as reporters gather more information about the suspect in the antrax attack. But members of the politics team have their collective heads down as they examine the latest back-and-forth between John McCain and Barack Obama. I look forward to chatting with you about all of that this morning.


The "celebrity" ad: Chris, I know it's dangerous to apply logic to political ads, but could you or someone else at the Post ask the McCain campaign this question:

They're claiming that Obama is only a celebrity and not really qualified to run the country. Yet John McCain's political hero is Ronald Reagan, whose biggest claim to fame before getting elected as Governor of California was...being a celebrity.

Doesn't this mean they think Ronald Reagan should never have been elected governor and begun his career in politics?

Matthew Mosk: Thanks for this question. First off, my apologies on behalf of Chris, who is in transit right now and was unable to be here today. I've gotten on the horn with Tucker Bounds, a spokesman for the McCain campaign, to respond to your question.

Here's what he said:

"Being politically active before his election as governor as one of Americas largest and most economically consequential states is a stark contrast from a senator who literally has a record of underwhelming accomplishments, who has consistently opposed measures that would reduce the price of gas for hard working Americans, opposed the successful surge strategy in Iraq, and demonstrated the type of judgement we can't afford in the White House."


University Park, Md.: Good Morning. Thanks for taking the question. McCain campaign was armed with ammunition and jumped the guns. They accused Obama playing the race card.

Obama said that he is different from all president on dollar bills. Frankly, we know that Obama has one thing that makes him different from all presidents of the U.S. and that makes him unique. Being a worldwide phenomenon, a charismatic rock star may be a good chance for him to be on a future dollar bill. Obama probably misspoke a little but he is excited like his staunch voters.

I think deficit thinking is on McCain campaign's part. What are your thoughts?

Matthew Mosk: The Obama statement in question, about being different from the presidents on the dollar bill, has been a stock part of his stump speech for some time (though he framed it somewhat differently this time). I heard him say largely the same thing out on the trail a couple months ago.

I think the McCain campaign has identified this moment as the time to start going on the offensive to define Obama. I suspect that the race card comment is all part of that effort.


Rockville, Md.: I got my undergraduate degree in "political science" but am so disgusted with the level of dishonesty that I would never work in the field. Mostly I have been in government service and the FDA. Does that ever happen to reporters? I guess you can put some distance and reflect on your code of ethics as a antidote. But who gets burned out?

Matthew Mosk: I appreciate your sentiments, Rockville. I think there has probably always been dishonest in politics at times, especially in the midst of a hard fought campaign. Rather than get me down, it makes me feel more strongly in the importance of the role the press can play in making sure the public is not misled. I think The Washington Post accomplished that mission early this week (and again today with an analysis by Howard Kurtz) by providing a frank and thorough assessment of the current McCain advertising strategy.


Dunn Loring, Va.: After your hit piece last week trying to tie a Republican donor with financial problems to John McCain, Ann Kornblut stated in her chat that you would soon be doing some hard reporting on Obama. When can we expect a unflattering piece on Obama from you? Have you ever broken a negative story about Obama?

Matthew Mosk: Hi Dunn,

Thanks for your question. You touch on an interesting question here that I don't think many reporters have the opportunity to address head on. What motivates our reporting? I think it is true of most reporters, and certainly for me, that we are looking for the most interesting and informative stories we can find that will benefit our readership. The "hit piece" you mention was part of a series of stories I have written about the motives of people who are raising money for the presidential candidates. Here's an article with a similar theme I wrote about Sen. Obama's fundraisers:

Big Donors Among Obama's Grass Roots (Washington Post, April 11, 2008)

And here's another story along the same thing about someone raising money for Sen. Clinton:

When Controversy Follows Cash (Washington Post, September 3, 2007)


Baltimore, Md.: I read your paper's profile of The Mind of McCain this morning, expecting a hagiography. Yet it's surprisingly subversive. McCain is an emotional thinker who doesn't like shades of gray. Scary, frankly.

Matthew Mosk: I thought this was a fascinating piece, and provided a really good look inside the way Sen. McCain thinks. I am hoping Bob Kaiser, who wrote the story, is planning to do the same for Barack Obama.


Atlanta: Hi, Matthew. I'm very puzzled by the poll numbers. Do you think there is a cell phone effect? I'm in my 50s and half my friends don't have a home phone anymore. I would think the cell-only percentage would be much higher in people younger than my age group. Which leads me to wonder if younger Obama supporters are not being polled, thereby skewing the results and making the race look closer than it might really be. Your thoughts?

Matthew Mosk: Hi Atlanta,

Thanks for this question about polling. I've inquired with The Post's polling guru, Jon Cohen, about the "cell phone effect."

He suggested I refer you to this article that suggests polling results are not influenced by people using cell phones as their primary means of communicating. Cell Phones and the 2008 Vote, An Update (Pew Research Center, July 17, 2008)


Chicago, Ill.: How is Dana Milbank holding up? Dana is an equal opportunity opportunist and the left never complains when he attacks myriad right wingers. However, when he so much as disturbs a hair on Obama's body they get apoplectic. He seems to be doing all right. Check out his live discussion from yesterday: Washington Sketch (Washington Post, July 31)

Matthew Mosk: Just went to see if he was at his desk, but didn't find him. He must be in hiding.


Concord, N.H.: That was an amazing non-answer from the McCain rep on drawing a comparison between Obama's and Reagan's "celebrity" status as candidates. It would have been nice if he had quantified McCain's support for Reagan's political involvement prior to being elected with examples of that involvement. Instead, he couched his answer solely in terms of Obama's lack of achievement without giving concrete evidence of what Reagan did prior to being elected that could draw distinctions between the two. Nicely done!

If the constant sworls of hot air coming from both campaigns in response to perceived slights and non-events could be bottled, the search for reusable forms of energy would be over.

Matthew Mosk: I suspect that neither the question, nor the answer, was ever really about Ronald Reagan. :)


Reston, Va.: Matthew, do you think Obama's energy plan (inflate your tires and there's no need to drill for more oil) will hurt him any? Or will this gaffe become a distant memory quickly? Should McCain's camp pounce on it?

Matthew Mosk: I understand that Obama's inflate-the-tires remark played big on conservative talk radio. I'm not sure how much impact they will have with the broad electorate. (Probably not that much).


Richmond, Va.: I am glad to see recent articles in the Post that reverse the often hagiographic treatment of Obama by the media, especially during his overseas trip. Is this part of a new trend at the Post? These include Milbank's article on Obama as a "presumptuous" nominee and another article noting Obama's treatment as "the One", a la Neo in The Matrix. This campaign -- so long on rhetoric and short on legislative and governing experience -- has to be the biggest bubble of hot air in U. S.history since the Hindenburg exploded in 1938!

Matthew Mosk: I think there is a lot of suspicion on both sides that reporters (or entire news outlets) are trying to skew their coverage. I have not seen evidence of that in the Post newsroom. We like to stick with the facts (such as, the Hindenburg exploded May 6, 1937).


D.C.: I can't find today's Kurtz article on McCain advertising (perhaps because of the Post's infuriating insistence on not including author's names in the article summaries). A link, if you will? McCain's Ad Formula Employs Lowest Common Denominator (Washington Post, August 1, 2008)

Matthew Mosk: your request is our command!


Sacramento, Calif.: I'm going to put you on the spot: I know that we have a long time until the election and anything can happen between now and then, but if you were forces to guess, who do you think will win, Obama or McCain?

I'm an Obama supporter, but I think moderates will break for McCain in the battle ground states but Obama will win the popular vote.

Matthew Mosk: Barring something totally unforseen, I can say without equivocation, one of them will be the next president.


For the First Poster...: Next time that McCain celebrity ad comes on, turn on the "mute" button. It then looks like an Obama ad! This ad has been panned by many including McCain's own allies!

Mr. Mosk, would you agree that this ad seems doomed to backfire?

Matthew Mosk: I don't know. I have spoken to several Republican strategists who are very excited about this new line of attack. They see an advantage to be gained in turning Obama's strength, his broad appeal, into a potential liability. I think it will be instructive beyond 2008 to learn whether an ad campaign like this can be successful. If McCain wins, I think this will be viewed as an important turning point.


Cell phones: I don't think I really buy Pew's argument that cell phones make only a small difference in polling. I mean, they're trying to keep themselves relevant, no? If cell phones really do skew the results, they'd be in trouble.

I know anecdotes don't really count, but I'm 33, live in DC, and only know one person in a circle of about 20 friends who has a landline at home. And none of us would answer a call on our cells if we didn't know the caller.

So I'm skeptical.

Matthew Mosk: Things are certainly changing fast, and while I don't see any reason to doubt the Pew study, I do think that while the effect may be small now, it may not be small for much longer.


RE: Your Response to Atlanta: News organizations, politicians and political pundits are mesmerized with political polls, especially for contested elections. Reporters and pundits delight in reporting a "tight horserace" or abruptly changing poll results. However, political polls cannot predict future events reliably because they don't meet the prerequisites for valid statistical inference. Political poll results that indicate "a statistical dead heat" or "within the margin of error" can be misleading because most represent just a collection of disparate views of a few hundred individuals who are available and respond to questions - some of which are unartful. The fallacy of political polling could be seen if pollsters published their polling designs and error margin calculation methods for scrutiny.

News organizations and political parties spend millions on political polling. Yet voter turn-out often is the decisive factor in elections. Other than producing dazzling graphics, is it a case of the blind following the blind or that there's nothing better to do with political contributions and news organization budgets?

Matthew Mosk: Whew! That's an interesting way of framing it, RE. In the spirit of the chat, I will respectfully disagree with you. I think polling is one of many important ways for both campaigns and those who cover them to gauge how the public is responding to the politics of the moment. I think responsible publications will use them to take a pulse, but not to try and predict where an election will wind up. Other thoughts?


Re: Inflating Tires...: Again, this was taken out of context. Obama merely said that inflating tires can improve gas milege and it can:

Keeping Your Car In Shape

This is from a government web site!

Matthew Mosk: More information about tires! (thank goodness)


Boston: I know the conventional wisdom is that when you insult Obama, you get tons of negative feedback from the [add gratuitously insulting name for Obama supporters here].

Is it really more then normal for a Presidential campaign? And if so, do you think its because for once people actually like a candidate rather then simply tolerating him?

Matthew Mosk: I think this misses the point, Boston.

It's almost four years to the day from the Swift Boat ads. What the McCain campaign is doing, as the Bush campaign did effectively four years ago, is trying to create a competing narrative for Obama's story. Was Kerry a war hero or a blow hard? Is Obama beloved, or simply in love with himself? This is what the Republicans seem to be after. And I do think it is a normal part of a presidential campaign.


"If McCain wins, I think this will be viewed as an important turning point. ": If this ad is what turns the election for McCain, then I'm REALLY fear for our nation as a whole.

I don't object to a McCain victory per se, but if this is the template on how to win an election, then that's a sad commentary on our how our system is working.

Matthew Mosk: Thanks for this, another point of view.


Enough-already, USA: I already have decided which candidate I'm voting for and frankly, I'm getting a migraine headache thinking of having to endure another three months of stick-to-the-message-and-ignore-the-question surrogates out-shouting each other on TV and insult-my-intelligence ads (from both sides). Any idea of how many more of me there are out there? (And if you know of a good place for us to hide until November, please pass it on.)

Matthew Mosk: Though I completely get what you're saying here, wouldn't you agree that this is one of the most fascinating and important presidential campaigns of our lifetimes? Frankly, I'm riveted by every twist and turn!


Milbank's article: I tried to follow the link provided to Washington Sketch, but got an "access denied" message.

Could you tell me, briefly, how Milbank responds to the complaint that Obama's quote about being a symbol was altered in a way that changed its meaning? Did Milbank hear the comment himself? (I thought it came in a meeting that was closed to reporters?) If not, how can he be certain that he got it right? So sorry! Please try this link instead: Washington Sketch (Washington Post, July 31)

Matthew Mosk: whoops. let's try to make sure no one is denied access to Dana!


...: I read on a regular basis stories on McCain based on the sentiment that while his campaign may have taken a nasty turn, McCain himself is still an honorable person. The WP story yesterday, "As Aides Map Aggressive Race, McCain Often Steers Off Course" is a perfect example.

Reporters more than anybody seem to view McCain as he was, not as he is now. It's like if a friend of yours saved you from a burning fire and then robbed a bank. The tendency to rationalize and make excuses for him would be strong.

Facing reality for what it is and not for what it was or we want it to be is one of the harder parts of being human. Some pundits and reporters are better at it than others. As Aides Map Aggressive Race, McCain Often Steers Off Course (Washington Post, July 31, 2008)

Matthew Mosk: This is an interesting point. I'm not sure it's how reporters are making their calculations, but I welcome other thoughts on this.


Princeton Junction, N.J.: Does anyone in Washington actually believe that Barack Obama is more arrogant than John McCain? It seems to me that in order to run for president, an extraordinary amount of personal confidence and conviction are required. Both men have this confidence which is well-earned by their notable achievements in several fields of endeavour. McCain, the son and grandson of admirals married to a multi-millionaire heiress would seem to be a better candidate for the title of "elitist" than Obama. So then why does the media follow the GOP talking points in glibly sticking Obama with this unsupportable label?

Matthew Mosk: You must have watched the Daily Show last night, Princeton!


Race Card: So, what would an actual racial attack on Obama really look like in this day and age? We know the Republicans won't come out and use the "n" word, but they do kind of skirt around about it. Let's see - white blond women with a black man, that doesn't have any subliminal racial context? Now Obama can't make a statement about what is happening without them saying he is using the race card? I know they think he has an advantage over the pasty-faced McCain, but I also think they are using a racial subtext and don't want anyone to notice.

Matthew Mosk: I agree with you that, in this day and age, it would be highly unlikely to see a major presidential campaign make an overt attack on an opponent based on race. To do so would be suicidal. So how would a racial attack happen? The most instructive thing I've seen on this was written by Kevin Merida, on some of the racially tinged incidents that Obama campaign workers encountered out on the trail. There is undoubtedly going to be an element of racism out there during this campaign, but it's not likely to emerge in any officially sanctioned way.


Richmond, Va: As someone who is a Democrat yet felt McCain was a different kind of Republican, I have been disgusted at the same character assassination techniques that he has used in the past week. Does he realize how many of us on the fence are disgusted by the right's slash and burn politics? I hope for once the GOP will not pull out a victory based on character assassination and then be deemed political geniuses by the MSM. If you guys don't think they are playing the race card through surrogates I will be happy to send you some of the filth that clutters my in-box on a daily basis.

Matthew Mosk: Another point of view about the McCain approach. Thanks Richmond.

_______________________ Racist Incidents Give Some Obama Campaigners Pause (Washington Post, May 13, 2008)

Matthew Mosk: Here's that Merida piece. It's worth reading.


Princeton Junction, NJ: Actually, I missed the Daily Show last night, but I am glad to learn that Jon Stewart agrees with my analysis. What is your answer to my question about the media's views of the two candidates?

Matthew Mosk: I don't anyone could answer that question because the media is not a monolith. The Daily Show piece, for those who didn't see it, provided a look at how some news outlets have run with the McCain messaging -- that Obama is in some ways arrogant. The point of the piece, as with our friend in Princeton Junction, is that both candidates have to be sufficiently arrogant to place themselves in contention for the position of leader of the free world. I think that's a fair point, no?


Boston Again: Sorry, I was unclear. I was talking about the feedback reporters and talking heads get when they are negative about Obama.

Do you get more outrage in terms of volume for a negative Obama article then for a negative McCain article?

Matthew Mosk: Hi Boston. The answer, at least for me, is no. I get a fair bit of outrage in response any article that casts either candidate in a negative light. There are supporters of both who believe their candidate can do no wrong. (And their opponent can do no right.)


Bethesda: I'm with Enough-already. I consider myself a political junkie (I started watching the Sunday morning shows when I was still a teen in flyover country), and I'm already so fed up with all of it that I just want to hide until November. And yet, because reading papers and watching TV news are so ingrained in my daily habits, I feel stuck. (I seriously need to get a new hobby.)

Matthew Mosk: You're just the kind of reader we're counting on, Bethesda. If I had time, I'd drive out to your place and thank you for making the paper part of your daily life.


Matthew Mosk: Okay, gang. This was fun, but I've got to get back to my day job.

Thanks for all the great questions, and stay tuned, even if it's involuntary!


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