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Real Life Politics

Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, August 20, 2008 2:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Ruth Marcus was online Wednesday, August 20 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss her recent columns and the latest news.

The transcript follows.

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Ruth Marcus: Hi everyone. Glad to be back--I was travelling with the Obama campaign during the last scheduled chat.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I keep hearing how if Obama selects a female vice president other than Hillary Clinton, that would be seen as an insult to Hillary supporters. But why would that be any more insulting than selecting a male vice president?

Ruth Marcus: Well, I gather that thinking is along the lines of "if you're going to pick a woman, why not Hillary." I do cringe at pigeonholing people that way, though.

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Atlanta: Today's column prompts this: After head-faking everyone with his Biden-Bayh-Kaine troika, has Obama set the stage perfectly to name the vice presidential candidate who would give him the bigggest bounce going into and out of the convention, and shore up the fence-sitters you chronicle today? I can't believe it, but I'm starting to think he may actually need ... Hillary?!

Ruth Marcus: I will eat my hat--I don't have a hat, but I will go out and buy one and eat it on a live video feed--if Hillary Clinton is the nominee.

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Helena, Mont.: I heard you on "All Things Considered" on NPR last week. Robert Segal introduced you and a conservative as "differing viewpoints," but you didn't have a different take on anything from the conservative. Why do you take on the role of representing the view from the left when you really are not a voice for the left and hold the left in such disdain and contempt? This seems like a lack of truth in advertising -- we are told we will get different viewpoints, but you just echo the conservative point of view, and no one is there to give the liberal or left point of view. You actually are taking a job from a true left-leaning pundit.

The one thing that really stood out from that exchange on NPR last week was your take that McCain should do everything to placate his conservative base, but Obama should do everything to alienate his liberal base. I could understand if you were going on these programs to be the neutral observer -- you do that very well -- but I hope I don't hear or see you trying to do the "left point of view." That, you don't do well.

Ruth Marcus: Thanks for listening--and, I hope, reading as well. I definitely have a different viewpoint than Matt Continetti, who I was on NPR with. I'm much more to the left. But that doesn't mean I am in lockstep agreement with everything "the left" or Barack Obama says. How boring an analysis would that be. I hope what I bring to the table--writing or talking--is a willingness to analyze things from a perspective that is opinionated but not bound by orthodoxy. It would be a completely reasonable decision by NPR or any other news outlet that they wanted to have someone more cookie-cutter liberal or moderate or conservative but I'm going to say what I think regardless of what niche I'm theoretically filling.

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Roseville, Calif.: I was horrified by your appearance on "The NewsHour." Do you really believe that McCain is "ahead" of Bush and Obama on the Georgia and foreign affairs issues? How many presidents do you believe we should have at times of crisis? And how dare McCain send the two senators to Georgia on his behalf. To do what?! We did not need two conservative viewpoints. Your attempt to be "even-handed" resulted in an outrageous backing of McCain.

Ruth Marcus: Ok, might as well take these two questions back-to-back and get the non-Post stuff out of the way. Thanks for watching, sorry you were horrified. I did say that McCain was taking a risk by looking both too bellicose and too intervenionist-presumptuous when we do already have a president. But I also pointed out the historical fact that other nominees have sent envoys to various hotspots. Of course, Sen. Biden--granted, he is the chairman of the Foreign Selations Committee--has just gone to Georgia with Sen. Obama's blessing. And I think given Russia's subsequent actions, Sen. McCain was "ahead" of the president and Sen. Obama in his criticism of Russia and Putin. Sorry if that seems outrageous to you. I don't think that makes me a representative of the conservative viewpoint--I certainly don't think conservatives see it that way!

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Re: Claire McCaskill: Hi Ruth -- loved the column today. My question: While I don't think clinton has been ruled out as vice president, I'm curious why Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill hasn't been talked about in the veepstakes? She is a first-term senator, was a single-mother (for seven years -- she just got married), she's on the Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees, she's a centrist Democrat from Missouri (we all know the importance of this state in general elections), and she was the first woman ever elected to the Senate from Missouri. Your thoughts?

Ruth Marcus: No disrespect to Sen. McCaskill but I don't think, if I were Barack Obama, that I woudl pick another first-term senator to join me on the ticket.

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Buffalo, N.Y.: Ms. Marcus: You always have such intelligent commentary on politics, so I'm curious what you think makes a politician the ideal choice for women voters ... we all remember Elizabeth Edwards saying that her husband was a better advocate for women's issues than Hillary Clinton, so it's not reducible to the politician's gender. But I have to think that what matters to older female voters who haven't come around to Obama yet is that they have lived as women, have experienced workplace discrimination, have picked up the domestic slack for decades, etc.

Given that so many think Obama's win was yet another example of a young male showing up an older, dedicated, experienced woman, is there anything he can do to persuade them he's their guy, or does his mere existence as the nominee suggest that it's a (black or white) man's world still? I'm a former Hillary supporter who definitely will vote for Obama, but I confess I feel little joy at the prospect for some of these reasons. Thank you.

Ruth Marcus: One of the things I tried to write about today, through the prism of Lilly Ledbetter, was Obama's effort to speak to women (and men as well) about ways in which he shares their concerns about pocketbook issues (not pocketbook as in what women carry--I had an email about that this morning, but pocketbook meaning "can I afford to fill up my gas tank?") and show that he understands the pressures and cross-pressures they face.

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Alexandria, Va.: If Obama picks Bayh and wins, then the Republican governor of Indiana picks his successor and there goes the chance for a veto-proof 60 vote majority. If Obama's choice for vice president is going to be a sitting senator, then it looks like mainly Biden fits that bill, with a Democratic governor in Delaware. What say you?

Ruth Marcus: I think 60 is still a pretty elusive number, that is certainly part of the equation (if I were Harry Reid or Chuck Schumer I would be urging him not to pick Bayh for that reason) but I think from Obama's point of view the more important question is who would be best at helping him win and helping him govern, and the loss of a Senate seat a secondary consideration. Same issue for Jack Reed of Rhode Island, by the way.

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Rockville, Md.: I was very concerned to hear about the grave medical condition of Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones following a reported aneurysm this morning. While wishing her a speedy recovery, I wonder what her (hopefully brief) absence from the convention and the Cleveland political scene will mean.

washingtonpost.com: Capitol Briefing: Rep. Tubbs Jones Hospitalized (washingtonpost.com, Aug. 20)

Ruth Marcus: Sad news to report here. Rep. Tubbs Jones has apparently passed away. http://voices.washingtonpost.com/capitol-briefing/2008/08/rep_tubbs_jones_dies_from_brai.html

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Obama supporters already looking for scapegoats.: The fact that Obama still hasn't closed the deal and has been losing ground already has his devotees searching for a scapegoat (aka Clinton) instead of looking in the mirror (and at the stenographic pool aka those in the media -- present company excluded -- those who have been in the tank for Obama from day one of his campaign). Isn't that one more bad sign for Obama if the faithful already are losing hope?

Ruth Marcus: I think it's a little early to be hunting scapegoats. I did not expect that Obama would have "closed the deal" by now and I think those who are nervous about the state of the polls should hunker down and get used to it...I've always said I think this is going to be another nail-biter.

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Northeast Washington: Why do the pundits and columnists phrase Obama-related questions as "problems"? Why aren't such questions asked about "McCain's problem with active-duty military"? It seems as if such questions related to Obama are feeding into some prewritten narrative that the media is ready and willing to prove is correct?

Ruth Marcus: Sorry, but I'm not sure what you're referring to.

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Washington: I read that filmmaker Michael Moore is trying to make a case for Caroline Kennedy as Obama's vice presidential selection. Any possibility at all, do you think? I don't seriously believe Obama would take his advice from Moore, I'm just curious if there's been any other talk in that realm.

Ruth Marcus: I'm sorry, I admire Caroline Kennedy but I think that would be completely ridiculous. She is an accomplished and intelligent woman but she has had no experience in office. I will buy another hat and eat that one too, with ketchup, if it happens.

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Pittsburgh: How much prestige is there in being the reporter who breaks either vice presidential nominee's name? I recall how four years ago some sharp-eyed person spotted "Edwards" freshly painted onto the Kerry campaign plane here in River City. Are journalists staking out airports, stationery printers, etc., right now?

Ruth Marcus: A lot of prestige for something that will last a nanosecond. My colleagues on the news side are investing what I think is a ridiculous amount of time and attention on the veepstakes, and I have to say I'm glad I don't have to join them in this chase.

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Charlottesville, Va.: Hello, Ruth, and thanks for taking questions. I was interested to read the comment regarding your appearance on NPR, because I had exactly the same point of view regarding your appearance with Rich Lowry on the "NewsHour" last week. It may be true that you don't march in lockstep with liberals, but because you seemed to agree with most of what Rich Lowry said on that program (although I don't doubt that in some ways you may have areas of disagreement) I was extremely disappointed that the "liberal" view was undefended. My views do seem to reflect "liberal" values to the extent that those values can be categorized, and I feel cheated when the person opposite Rich Lowry basically agrees with all of the points that have been brought up on the program.

Ruth Marcus: I told Rich after the program that I had been looking forward to disagreeing with him more, because he and I are pretty far apart on the political spectrum. There was an odd confluence of views because of the amount of time we spent talking about Georgia and the candidates, on which I think we both agreed--but I think most "pundits" on the left do as well--that this was a better issue and week for McCain than for Obama.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Re: Barack Obama's three-to-one campaign coverage, many times on these chats I see questions asking why McCain's divorce, his wife's drug use, Keating Five, etc., are not written more extensively about -- or conversely, about his service to the country, voting record, etc. However, the answer is always the same -- been there, done that. But eight years ago is a long time, and not everyone was paying attention to the primary campaign when these issues were written about in depth. Some of today's voters would have been 10. If we need more McCain coverage, why not go back over these stories? Or is a story newsworthy to a paper only if it's something new?

Ruth Marcus: Not sure that I think number one (divorce) and number two (drug use) are relevant. I do think that the Keating Five story is worth rehashing, for the reasons you suggest--eight years is a long time--but I've always thought of the Keating Five story as a net plus for McCain. His involvement on behalf of Keating was significantly less than that of his colleagues and it was a transformative experience for him in terms of getting him involved in working on issues involving money and politics.

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Re: Obama's female voter problem: During this race, we've heard that Obama has problem with Jewish voters (among whom he leads by 40-plus percentage points), Latino voters (among whom he leads by 30 plus percentage points) and women voters (whom he wins by about half a dozen points on average). It must be great to have political problems like these, no? And might it not be more accurate to say that Obama -- and indeed our whole country -- has a "stupid pundit problem"?

Ruth Marcus: I'll leave the stupid pundit problem up to others. I look at the question in terms of whether Obama is under- or over-performing among these core groups--in other words, whether he is doing better/worse than previous Democratic presidential nominees, better/worse than generic congressional vote. And I was not saying that Obama has a problem with women. In fact, I think I said precisely the opposite, and that women were an available target of opportunity for him.

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Scottsdale, Ariz.: FYI, I'm a 68-year-old white woman who has supported Obama from Day One, and the majority of my contemporaries are equally enthusiastic about him. Do you think the problem with older seniors is the "difference" factor? Might it also be the residual of Clinton's anti-Obama message -- e.g., robo-calls directed at seniors with false claims that Obama intended to tax our Social Security. I have high hopes that, given the correct information (that's your job) regarding McCain's and Obama's positions on the issues, women of all ages will choose wisely and vote for Obama.

Ruth Marcus: I suspect that older voters are more concerned about Sen. Obama's relative lack of experience, in addition to the "difference" factor. For the record, Sen. Obama doesn't want to tax seniors' Social Security--he actually has a (from my point of view) unwise expansion of the pool of seniors who would be exempt from taxes (up to $50,000). He does propose, eventually (that is, in 10 years) raising slightly (2 to 4 percentage points) Social Security taxes for those making more than $250,000.

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Minneapolis: Joe Biden was invited by the President of Georgia; Lieberman and Graham were dispatched by wannabe President McCain. That's a bit of distinction, isn't it?

Ruth Marcus: well, the president of Georgia has been speaking pretty regularly to the wannabe.

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Washington: I have a question regarding that cad, John Edwards. Putting aside the personal side of the controversy (and I fervently hope his wife has male relatives who can take Edwards behind the barn and knock a few of his teeth loose), is there any possibility that the FEC will start an investigation into the allegations that he might have illegally used campaign funds for personal purposes (supporting his mistress)? That certainly would be the death knell of his political life (and good riddance, as far as I'm concerned).

Ruth Marcus: I think the bell has already tolled for John Edwards political life. I'd be very surprised if the FEC were to get itself involved here. There were campaign videos produced by Rielle Hunter's company, so if there was another motive in hiring her I don't think that would rise to the level of impermissable personal use. He is a cad, though.

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Minneapolis: At the Rick Warren event Saturday night, John McCain cited John Lewis as one of three wise people he would consult with were he president. Lewis subsequently has reported that he and McCain have never in the past consulted on any topic. It seems McCain seriously is pandering here, but hasn't been called on it. Why?

Ruth Marcus: I had not seen the Lewis comments but that is pretty interesting. I did see that the wise people question was one that Rick Warren had given the candidates in advance. So I agree--pretty pandery-seeming.

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Pastor Rick: Hi Ruth -- thank you for taking questions today. What did you think of the Pastor Rick forum last week? Between Obama's halting, almost apologetic performance and McCain's smug "I've got this one nailed" attitude, it was difficult to watch. If McCain got the questions ahead of time he took advantage of the moment, and if Obama got them too, then he definitely did not. Given McCain seems to be surging in some polls, and Obama fading, was this a turning point in the campaign? And who is Pastor Rick, anyway?

Ruth Marcus: Rick Warren, incredibly popular author of "The Purpose-Driven Life." I thought it was an interesting episode but not necessarily a turning point. McCain helped himself with people he needed to help himself with, especially by reaffirming so strongly his bona fides on opposition to abortion, but I don't think this was a turning point. Probably a lot more people were watching Olympics anyway.

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Westfield, Mass.: Why isn't Gen Wesley Clark on the lists of vice presidential candidates for Obama?

Ruth Marcus: Gen. Clark had an unfortunate moment when he seemed to denigrate Sen. McCain's military service, so I think that knocked him pretty far out of contention, if he had ever been close. He was a somewhat erratic presidential candidate in 2004.

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Boston: In re: Why aren't such questions asked about "McCain's problem with active-duty military"? That's a ridiculous statement. I wonder if this person ever actually has spoken any active-duty military. My roommate served in Fallujah during 2006 and I have met about a dozen others from his company, and every single one of them is voting for McCain. Sorry, but I just think that blatant mischaracterizations need to be called out.

Ruth Marcus: posting for the record.

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Instead of castigating Hillary supporters: who are asking for more "specifics" and details about what Obama plans to do and how he plans to do it, shouldn't they be answering the questions and providing those details instead of harassing people into conformity and "unity"? It annoys me that they are so intolerant of dissent. What do you think? (By the way I appreciate your independent-mindedness!)

Ruth Marcus: Thank you for those kind words, but I'm not sure about what castigating and harrassing you're referring to. It's funny, I was just rereading some comments from Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama during the primaries about Social Security, when Sen. Obama was castigating Sen. Clinton for not offering enough in the way of specifics.

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Washington: If you don't think that asking questions about Cindy McCain's drug use -- as well as her abysmal treatment of her half-sisters -- is relevant to how she would act as a first lady, then the reading public is wasting its time by reading anything that you may write in the future.

Ruth Marcus: Ok, fair choice. I'm not sure I would base my presidential vote on an assessment of a first lady very much in any event, but I don't see the relevance of that even if I were to make the spouse assessment much of a factor.

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Re: "Conservatives": You write "I don't think that makes me a representative of the conservative viewpoint." Let's see -- for the Iraq war, generally in line with neoconservatives on foreign policy, anti-Social Security ... sounds pretty conservative to me. Is that a fair point?

Ruth Marcus: That might be a fair point if it were an accurate statement of my views, but it's not.

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Reading, Pa.: George Bush played at the Olympics while Russia aggressively occupied an ally. Hasn't this president been out of touch from the very beginning? (I'm thinking of how totally unresponsive Bush was on the morning of Sept. 11 when he sat in that classroom for presious minutes while we were under attack). Why have so many given Bush a pass on his inability to act in a responsible manner or called him on his clear incompetence in the job?

Ruth Marcus: Somehow I don't think this president has gotten much of a pass, from me or from my colleagues in the press. He's been pretty well battered. It was truly unfortunate timing for the Georgia situation to occur while he was at the Olympics, and the pictures of him chatting with Putin certainly didn't help much.

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Charleston, S.C.: Ruth, I hate to admit this but I really think McCain will win this election -- not because of his policy views or Obama's inexperience, but mostly because McCain is clearly the superior politician. He has defined this debate and campaign so far. He has focused all the attention on Obama and whether he is fit for office. His current ploy may be the best so far, however -- the floating of potential running mates that support abortion rights (i.e Tom Ridge) or are even outright Democrats (i.e. Joe Liberman).

This ploy further demonstrates his independence from the conservative Republican base that is so out of favor with the public right now. When neither of those candidates is selected, the right will breath a sigh of relief and vote for him anyway, while at the same time the fake-out will help him with independents and non-conservatives. Do you agree?

Ruth Marcus: Strikes me that someone who has managed to win the Democratic nomination in his first term as a senator is a pretty good politician also. McCain has had a few good weeks, but he is facing an uphill climb with voters tired of Bush and Republicans. And I'm not sure the "fake-out", as you say, helps much if it doesn't pan out, which I think it won't (in other words, no pro-choice runing mate.) Conservatives may breathe a sigh of relief, but I don't see moderates/independents being mollified much.

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Boston: I'm always surprised by people complaining that Obama needs to give them more specifics. The man is constantly in town halls and speeches detailing his plans. His Web site has an incredible amount of detail. Many of his 30 second ads have policy details in them. I'm not sure what more the campaign can do -- they can't force the media to talk about policy. And the contrast with McCain's spelled-out plans is huge, but nobody complains that McCain is lacking specifics.

Ruth Marcus: I largely agree with this point. I think it was truer earlier in the campaign that Obama was awfully vague on a number of things, but right now his domestic policy positions tend to be more fleshed out than McCain's.

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Hamilton, N.Y.: I like columnists. I like reading essays by people who have well-thought-out positions on politics. But I am getting really frustrated by "political coverage" that is devoted to how the subject of the day is "going to play." Such commentary isn't really about an issue or a candidate's stance on it per se, it's about the spectacle of the horse race -- and sooner or later the spectacle edges out the substance. Your thoughts?

Ruth Marcus: I like questioners who like columnists--better than those who compalin about stupid pundits, anyway. (A joke). I do try, and I think we all should, not to do too much horse race stuff and to delve into substance reasonably frequently. Otherwise, it's like only eating dessert.

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Washington: What has helped McCain in the past two weeks has been the Russia invading Georgia, and the Democrats' typical response -- we egged Russia on, it is our fault, America is to blame ... etc. Most Americans of both parties support standing up to dictatorships and protecting emerging democracies like Georgia. I am not saying Obama thinks we shouldn't, but he is lumped in with those who think we shouldn't.

Ruth Marcus: I don't think this is a fair characterization of Democrats' response, at least elected Democrats. As I said, I thought Obama was slow out of the starting gate, but he made clear very early on that it was intolerable for Russia to violate Georgian sovreignty.

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Re: Active-Duty Military: There was a minor dustup sometime in the last week or so, where the Obama campaign was reported to have received more donations from active-duty military than the McCain campaign. The McCain campaign claimed (I paraphrase): "We have more retired generals and admirals than Obama has military donors." The Obama campaign reportedly has 800-something military donors; I have not seen anyone challenge the McCain campaign's statement. It is amazing that with the nauseating over-coverage of the thus-far nonstory and speculation about whom will be selected as Vice Presidential candidates, there's not apparently one reporter who is following what could be a marginally interesting story.

washingtonpost.com: The Trail: Obama Tops in Donations From Troops (washingtonpost.com, Aug. 14)

Ruth Marcus: Marginally interesting. It was a pretty small number of donors that were being looked at. I'd argue that there are a lot more interesting and valuable ways for us to be spending our time than either counting up generals or stakign out airplane hangars. But it's easy for me to say since I'm not the one who has to worry about being scooped.

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washingtonpost.com: An update on Rep. Tubbs -- latest reports say she's in critical condition, not dead. Ben Pershing is following the story at his Capitol Briefing blog.

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Have we started hearing any more specifics?: As a former independent Edwards supporter who became a Clinton supporter, I'm resigned to Clinton not being on the ticket -- I don't think Obama and his braintrust are brave/savvy enough to be that bold -- and I never again could vote for the current version of what passes for Republican ... but that doesn't mean Obama gets my vote. Have you guys started hearing any more/deeper specifics about the economic plans to jumpstart this economy? Because I haven't heard much more than the standard tax cut/tax credit for families earning $250,000 and less. Is the bloom off the rose?

Ruth Marcus: Sen. Obama had a very good and specific proposal for the first stimulus package, and he has offered details for a next package as well, of which I'm less fond, but still, details. Here's a column on the first stimulus plan,

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/01/22/AR2008012202614.html?nav=rss_opinion/columns, and another on his energy proposals (which would have a $1,000 energy rebate) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/01/22/AR2008012202614.html?nav=rss_opinion/columns

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