Post Politics Hour

Paul Kane
Paul Kane
Paul Kane
Washington Post Congressional Reporter
Thursday, August 21, 2008; 11:00 AM

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Washington Post congressional reporter Paul Kane was online Thursday, August 21 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest in political news.

The transcript follows.

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Paul Kane: Good morning, folks. It's T-minus 134 hours or so till the really big news of next week hits: the Alaska Republican primaries, in which two incumbents with roughly 76 years of combined congressional tenure are facing tough battles just to win the right for an even tougher general election battle. Oh, I see, you're all focused on that other thing: T-minus 110 hours or so to the start of the Democratic convention (and an undetermined countdown clock till when Obama makes his veep pick). I quick review of your questions shows an intense focus on the presidential race, McCain's house-counting answer, and endless veep speculation. I'll take those questions, but I'll do my best to pick out the congressional questions first and foremost. Meantime, let's all give a warm round of applause to the Washington Nationals. Their very presence in the National League East is what keeps hope alive for my Phillies, because the Nats just stink these days. On to the questions!


La Vale, Md.: I was surprised to read yesterday that Sen. McCain seemed to say that the only way we could win the war on terror is to reinstate the draft. Has his campaign issued a statement backing off from what he said, or is he now in support of the draft? Does McCain Favor a Draft? Nope. (The Atlantic, Aug. 20)

Paul Kane: I wasn't there to hear how McCain handled this question, so it's hard to judge his intent. (As a McCain watcher in his Senate days, sometimes the tone of his voice reveals just how sarcastic or serious he's being.)

But I know one person, for sure, who agrees with this sentiment: Charlie Rangel, the House Democratic chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

An Army veteran himself, Rangel believes that a draft is the only way to spread the service and sacrifice across all income levels and all races and ethnicities. Rangel has legislation calling for reinstituting the draft. He knows it's going nowhere, not gonna pass, but he thinks it's important to even have the legislation drafted.


Reading, Pa.: Paul, interesting line-up on the discussions today -- Bob Barr and Tommy Chong. I think Barr must be smoking the same stuff as Chong if he thinks he has any chance this November. Why would Barr, or any candidate for that matter, spend time and money in such a losing cause?

Paul Kane: If there's one that thing that those of us who covered Congress in the '90s learned, it's that Bob Barr loves attention -- loves seeing himself on TV, loves seeing his name in print. I believe Barr was the first person in Congress to actually draft war legislation against Islamic terrorists after Sept. 11, knowing full well that the White House and Pentagon were working in bipartisan fashion with leadership to draft actual war legislation. Didn't bother Barr, he introduced his own bill -- and he got TV cameras to show up to cover his press conference. That's what this is all about.


Naperville, Ill.: Thanks for taking my question. One can find a lot of sites dedicated to an analysis of Senate races and house races likely to change hands this year (The Post's own The Fix has a weekly column on the subject). My question is, what Senate race has the potential to be a total shocker in November? It seems like there is always one race where an incumbent no one expected to lose gets knocked off. What's your guess as to which race this might be?

Paul Kane: Great question. There are now six races that are high-profile, top-tier contests in which the current party holding that seat is in serious danger of losing that seat: New Hampshire, Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico and Alaska. All Republican, so none of them would be surprises if Democrats win. The next tier: Louisiana, Minnesota, Oregon, North Carolina, Mississippi. All Republican except for Landrieu in Louisiana.

But if we're talking about a really big surprise -- something on the level of Cleland in Georgia in '02 or Allen cratering at the finish in Virginia in '06 -- then I think you should keep your eyes on Kansas. Pat Roberts -- first elected to the Senate in '96 with 62 percent of the vote, running uncontested in his '02 re-elect -- hasn't had a real race in a very long time. Those are the incumbents that cause political strategists to wake up in cold sweats in nightmares late at night/early in the morning. I think Roberts will win, it's Kansas after all. But there have been some polls showing Democrat Jim Slattery within striking distance. And if Roberts has Macaca moments in the final two months of the campaign, I'm not sure how he'll respond because it's been so long since he's been in a competitive race.


Charlottesville, Va.: Mr. Paul Kane! Long time reader, first time questioner. Please tell me that there is at least a one in three chance that my cantankerous, sophomoric, national embarrassment of a Congressman -- Virgil Goode -- could be swept up in the Mark Warner/Obama tide in Virginia.

Paul Kane: I'm sorry, I just don't see Goode in deep trouble yet. If Goode loses in November, dear lord, that would probably mean Democrats pick up 30 seats again. And I'm just not ready to say that, so I don't see Goode losing.


Biden's acceptance speech: Paul, I just thought I'd pass along a scoop: Internet word is that Joe Biden's preparing a 50,000-word acceptance speech (edited down from the 200,000-word version he would have given in 1988) for the convention. He has been scheduled to start Wednesday evening and wrap up on Thursday. Just thought you'd want pass this along to your colleagues!

Paul Kane: Ha ha. Very sarcastic and ironic. As for Biden, did anyone know that he's actually up for re-election this fall? I forgot until I just spent more than a week at the Delaware beaches. There aren't even any road signs touting the Biden race, from him or his opponent. So this makes the governor's race there very, very important if Biden were the veep pick for Obama, because state laws there allow Biden to continue running for his Senate seat even if he's also running for veep. But then the governor would appoint his replacement once he was sworn in as veep, making the Delaware governor's race very important to the future shape of the Senate. The same thing applies to the Indiana governor's race should Obama pick Bayh. If either of those senators are the veeps, pay close attention to the governor's races.


Potomac, Md.: Why are people wasting time talking about whether the McCains own six or eight houses? That's a credit to the McCains for having the foresight to host the media in comfort when they come out for BBQs and to review the campaign's talking points. Focus on what's important, like why Obama looks French.

Paul Kane: I'll take just one question on this whole manufactured flap. These sorts of little things that we in the media spend lots of time running around in circles panting and moaning about, they usually add up to nothing at the polls. Every time something happens of this level to Obama (Rev. Wright, "bitter") the response from Democrats is that in really tough times like this the American voters are not going to be swayed by these little things and the attacks and the negativity that follows, that the voters will focus on the really big issues. That's what comes from Democrats. So, does the same not apply to something like this?

At this point in his national political career McCain is not going to be transformed into a super rich elitist. He's just not -- the voters won't buy it. It has the potential to reinforce questions about his age, I guess.

Still, with war, peace and prosperity on the line, I don't see this as a huge deal.


Roseland, N.J.: I'm just kind of having a nightmare here: an election so close it comes down to ... Alaska. Where Obama quietly has been buying air time in the state, and the GOP brand is under indictment. Is this election year so surreal that, yes, it's possible the Land of the Midnight Sun will turn blue?

Paul Kane: Sorry, I'm not sure the management of any newspaper on the continental United States will allow any of us to answer a question such as this. You realize how much that would screw up our production schedules? The polls don't close in Alaska till -- what? -- 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. our time back east? Sure, Juneau and Anchorage aren't that far behind (four or five hours) but there are portions of that state that will have polls open till our wee hours of the morning. God save us all.


New York: What do you think about the GOP's choice of Giuliani as keynote speaker? Do you think that McCain's two eliteness gaffes this week (his high estimate of how much it takes to be rich and his failure to know how many houses he owns) will cause any lasting problems? Thanks.

Paul Kane: As for Rudy as keynote speaker, I think it just shows how much McCain wants to appeal to centrist voters -- and how much he values good personal relationships. Rudy and McCain have been friends for a decade or more. This is why I always have doubted the Romney-as-veep talk. McCain just won't lower himself to pick someone he dislikes so obviously.


Washington: Paul, could either Rep. Young or Sen. Stevens be defeated in the Alaska primaries next week? Thanks.

Paul Kane: Alaska is everywhere in this chat! Okay, so, on Tuesday Young and Stevens face tough primary climates. Young is in the most serious peril, facing state Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, who is running as a reformer saying Young's decades of pork-barrel politics (and the multiple investigations those have spawned) are a thing of Alaska's past. Young, who never has been confused for being warm and cuddly, angrily accepted Parnell's challenge when he announced it at a state GOP convention in March: "Sean, congratulations -- I beat your dad and I'm going to beat you." That's a reference to Young's 1980 three-to-one victory over Parnell's father, who was a Democrat.

Stevens is considered much more likely to survive Tuesday, but then the question becomes whether he comes under pressure to bow out of the general election before his trial starts Sept. 22. He has until about Sept. 17 to get out of the race; after that it appears pretty clear that, even if Stevens is convicted, he would remain on the general election ballot against Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.

That's high-stakes poker for Republicans.


Prescott, Ariz.: Did McCain really slow-roll the Abramoff investigation and steer it away from his Republican Senate buddies? Did he really ignore subpoenas to Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist?

Paul Kane: Okay, this is where folks in the blogosphere just really do take things and twist them dangerously out of control. In 2005 and 2006 I covered McCain's Indian Affairs Committee investigation of the Abramoff-tribal-casino clients for Roll Call. He and his aides were unmerciful toward Reed and Norquist. They released dozens and dozens and dozens of pages of damaging e-mails, memos and documents that effectively destroyed Ralph Reed's political career. Any suggestion that they went soft on Reed is crazy. They could have more fully embarrassed him by calling him to testify in public, I guess. But that was the only sign of restraint. I don't think they ever subpoenaed Reed because he cooperated and turned over extensive documents about his deals with Abramoff.

The committee subpoenaed Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform and got into brutal public fights with Grover. As for his fellow senators, only Conrad Burns came under scrutiny in connection to Abramoff, who basically dealt almost exclusively with House Republicans.


Washington: Paul, terrible news about Rep. Tubbs-Jones and condolences to her family. Can you explain some of the confusion in the news reports yesterday? Thanks. Ohio Congresswoman Tubbs Jones Dies at 58 (Post, Aug. 21)

Paul Kane: Yes, yesterday was a bad, sad day for Congress. Tubbs Jones was beloved by her colleagues, and she was trusted enough that they made her the ethics committee chair, a position that you can only give to someone who you trust will be impartial in all dealings.

As for the media, it was a terrible day. But in these situations we're only as good as our sources -- and they were just dreadful. Sources in the Ohio Democratic Party were telling media outlets Tubbs Jones had died, sources on Capitol Hill were telling media outlets she had died, it was just terrible. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, with multiple sources both connected to the medical and political fields, posted a story saying she had died. This prompted other sources who also "knew" that she had died to confirm the news to other media outlets, and at that point everyone had the story "confirmed."

Was it irresponsible, given the gravity of what we were reporting? Of course. There's no coup as a journalist to reporting first that a congresswoman of her stature had died. But, think of it this way: There's also no incentive on the part of our sources to tell us someone had passed away. There's no partisan motive behind our sources in an instance like this, so of course we believed our sources knew she was dead -- of course we trusted them.

Turned out she wouldn't die for another six hours. Just an awful day.


Iowa: That 50,000-word-Biden-speech bit is from the Borowitz Report. Just giving credit where credit is (or isn't) due.

Paul Kane: Thanks for the credit where credit is due.

One other thing about Biden: If he gets the nod, it will complete the total transformation of the world's most important political science department going from Harvard's Kennedy School to the University of Delaware. Yes, you heard me right. The Fightin' Blue Hens are just dominating this presidential campaign, with David Plouffe (Obama's campaign manager) and Steve Schmidt (McCain's top aide) also products of Delaware's political science department.

Sadly, neither Plouffe (shoulda been class of '89) nor Schmidt (shoulda been class of '92) actually graduated, both leaving school a few credits early to work on campaigns. Biden, class of '65, played running back on the Delaware football teams.

Disclaimer: I'm also a Fightin' Blue Hen, class of '92. No, I didn't know either Plouffe or Schmidt while I was there on campus. And yes, I gossip all the time with Biden about all things Delaware football. We both think Joe Flacco has great potential, but probably needs some time to learn the pace of the NFL game.


San Diego: I fully agree that Obama's ad on Reed is blown out of proportion, but this is another example where the myth of McCain-as-maverick has taken over the reality of McCain-as-party-hack. His aides yelled at Reed? That's what we're supposed to take away as evidence that McCain wasn't "soft" on Reed? I'm sorry, these were hearings into serious wrongdoings. McCain deliberately decided not to call relevant witnesses who may have put some of his Senate Republican colleagues in jeopardy. He also decided that there would be no investigation into members of the Senate. And no, Abramoff was not just mostly involved with House Republicans.

Paul Kane: Sorry San Diego, I know more about this topic than you do, so I have to call you out. You're not right, you're wrong on the nature of the investigation. McCain was chairman of the Indian Affairs committee, not the head of the Justice Department's public integrity unit and not the chairman of the ethics committee.

His job was to investigate the fleecing of tribes. He did not have the power or jurisdiction to investigate his colleagues, he wasn't allowed to by all sorts of basic internal precedent. If he came across anything that seemed very sketchy about his colleagues, then his job was to turn it over to the Department of Justice or Senate ethics -- which, in the case of Bob Ney and Steve Griles and some others who testified before his panel, he actually did. The committee and its staff appeared before the federal grand jury to testify about potential lies told under oath to the Senate, which is a felony. So, no, he didn't go soft on his colleagues.

And Reed gave up all the documents showing the trail of tribal money. Sure, he could have called Reed before his panel just to humiliate him. he could have done that and lots of people who don't like Ralph Reed would have enjoyed it. But it wouldn't have added any actual investigative value to the Abramoff probe.


Re: Biden's Acceptance Speech: Is that 50,000 words all unplagiarized text? I'm a liberal and I can stand this guy's lack of creativity.

Paul Kane: Ah, you're talking about something that happened in September, 1987. Biden's never been accused of stealing anyone's words since then. He's actually developed such a reflexive nature to those charges that, when he tells a story on the stump, he often raises his right hand, as if he's testifying, and says something like "honest to god's truth" or "true story, I swear."

It's as if those charges still linger in the back of his mind and he likes to let everyone know he's not telling tall tales.

His problem isn't a lack of creativity -- he's more creative than about 90 or so of his colleagues -- it's that Biden is often too creative. He goes on too long with his own ideas and starts saying things that are impolitic and get him into trouble.


Washington: Good morning, Paul. I'm surprised that the North Carolina Senate race has tightened so much. In your opinion, are there any other House or Senate races -- previously quiet -- that might do the same? Are there any Republicans you are speaking to who are starting to get nervous (or more nervous)? Thanks.

Paul Kane: There are plenty of Republicans getting nervous, period. In this environment -- even after the last month of them being on offense on the energy issue -- almost every Republican needs to be scared. They simply lack the institutional ability to defend incumbents who slip up and find themselves in trouble. Remember, after Allen's Macaca moment, national GOP committees pumped about $10 million, maybe more, into Virginia trying to save him. This time around, those same committees are broke, so any GOP incumbents that go Macaca in the final weeks of this campaign are on their own to defend themselves.


Paul Kane: Alright gang, thanks for the questions, as always. I'm leaving for Denver on Saturday, will spend the week there and then head straight to the Twin Cities. But let's remember these beneath-the-radar dates ahead: Aug. 26, the Alaska GOP primary; Aug. 27, the one-year anniversary of Roll Call breaking the story of Larry Craig's restroom arrest; Aug. 30, Springsteen closes out last stop on "Magic" tour in Milwaukee; Sept. 4, the NFL season opener between 'Skins-Giants; Sept. 8, Congress returns from summer break; Sept. 10, Larry Craig gets his appeal hearing before Minnesota courts in an effort to revoke his August '07 guilty plea.

See you again soon.


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