Post Politics Hour

Matthew Mosk and Tim Curran
Washington Post Campaign Finance Reporter; Washington Post Political Editor
Tuesday, August 26, 2008; 2:00 PM

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.

Washington Post campaign finance reporter Matthew Mosk and Post political editor Tim Curran were online live from the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Tuesday, August 26 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the latest news in politics, and The Post's plans for covering the conventions.

The transcript follows.

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Atlanta: I keep hearing that the Democratic National Convention is nothing more than a glorified infomercial with little or no real news value, but it sure seems like your reporters are keeping busy.

Matthew Mosk: Hello Atlanta,

This seems like a terrific place for us to start today. Covering a political convention is a great challenge for reporters. A great deal of effort is put into sorting out what is genuine news, versus what is packaged rhetoric. One thing I know all of the Post reporters are doing is giving careful scrutiny to what is said from the podium, and also, paying close attention to what is happening behind the scenes at parties and receptions.

Does, for instance, the Obama position on lobbying jibe with the role lobbyists play at the convention? Does the message of party unity that will be repeated in prime time speeches match what's happening in closed-door meetings?

Those are the kinds of issues we will explore this week. And yes, it will keep us very busy.


Philadelphia: Do you think Bill Clinton could do more favors for Barack Obama by giving a really honest speech tomorrow night? Instead of just pretending there aren't any hard feelings, would it be better if he just spoke to Hillary's supporters about how he hasn't gotten over it either, but for the good of the country, he'll vote for Barack Obama?

Matthew Mosk: This is an interesting question, and I would love to hear more thoughts on this. I think there's no question that Bill Clinton's speech will mark one of the most important moments of this week. I suspect pundits and reporters -- and Democratic delegates here -- will all be studying President Clinton's body language, his choice of language, and his demeanor very closely. He has a very difficult task, given how much the public thinks it knows about how he's feeling.


Silver Spring, Md.: Do you (or The Post) have any idea how much these four-day infomercials are costing U.S. taxpayers? I've heard anywhere up to $50 million for each convention. That seems like a lot of money to spend when we already know how they are going to end.

Matthew Mosk: I was just looking on the FEC website to see if I could track down that number. My recollection is that the public portion of the bill is about $40 million for each convention. It is a lot of money, though the funds come from a $3 check-off on your tax bill, so it is voluntary.

There are many people I've spoken with who argue it's more troubling that so many private corporations and wealthy donors are footing the bill for the party conventions. Unlike the rest of presidential politics, this is still the wild west as far as fundraising is concerned. The convention host committees can take unlimited amounts from just about anyone.


Franconia, Va.: How much coverage and analysis do you anticipate devoting to Mark Warner tonight, and how much will the Hillary tsunami take over? For us in the Washington area, he is both a local story and a national story, so I hope you will pay attention to him. Now that tonight is all about women's causes and Hillary (two things that could not be more distinct in my mind, speaking as a Democratic woman who would never vote for her), how the heck does Warner speak for himself? It seems to me he's in a tricky spot.

Matthew Mosk: I suspect you will find excellent coverage of Mark Warner within the package of stories you'll get on and in the morning paper. In addition to the dozen or so national political reporters covering the convention, we have two metro reporters here in Denver. One of them, Tim Craig, is our Richmond bureau chief, and he is keeping a close eye on both Govs. Warner and Kaine.


Richmond, Va.: Good morning, Mr. Mosk. According to a recent poll -- on the eve of the Dem convention -- 30 percent of Clinton supporters say they will not back Obama. Even if Hillary says to back him, if the supporters don't and Obama loses, won't part of the blame be placed on Hillary, fairly or unfairly?

Matthew Mosk: You are tapping into one of the most fascinating aspect of this year's conventions. The emotions from the Clinton supporters about this event are very complex. In terms of how people will look back at this critical moment in the campaign, there's no doubt that the Clintons and their speeches will play a big role in shaping events. But one thing I've discovered here, and maybe this was always obvious, is that the Clinton supporters are not a monolith. Some of her supporters here seem to have been swept up by Obama and his campaigns. Others are finding it more difficult.

Will she be blamed if he loses? Time will tell.


New York: The claim is, federal laws concerning limits of corporate donations to a political campaign do not cover media corporations repeatedly airing campaign ads for free as "news items." The McCain campaign concedes that its two most recent ads never aired as paid advertising, but instead are being "looped" by the sympathetic corporate media. Do you believe this practice ever will be challenged in court?

Matthew Mosk: I do not. The media has the right to exercise its judgment on which of these ads is newsworthy and which is not. A big factor in determining whether an ad is newsworthy is whether it is actually airing and will actually be seen by television viewers.

A good case in point is the recent 527 ad that attacks Sen. Obama's relationship with Bill Ayers. Before the Post wrote about this ad, reporters here (including me) worked to determine whether it was a real commercial that would be aired. Turns out, it was.


San Diego: Good morning, conventioneers. I thought Michelle Obama did exactly what she needed to do last night, but at the same time I'm kind of sad/disturbed that she needed to do it. It's ridiculous that, in this day and age, she had to "sell" herself and her husband as "normal." The comparison I heard repeatedly from the pundits was to the Huxtables. Are people still so segregated that this is the only positive reference to black people that they have? Obama's Family Night Out (Post, Aug. 26)

Matthew Mosk: Thank you for this comment, San Diego. I think it's worth pointing out, even if this is kind of obvious, that the first family plays an important role well beyond politics. And the First Lady is in many respects a public official in addition to being the wife of the President. Certainly, scrutiny of potential First Ladies pales in comparison to the scrutiny of the nominees. But this can be an important proving ground.


Seattle: Is there any reason why national media coverage focused on Ted Kennedy -- a guy younger than John McCain, but still really, really old -- instead of Michelle Obama? Or is it just you can't be bothered to stay up late with the other half of the country?

Matthew Mosk: Oh Seattle. So cynical! Surely you can see the authentic drama in a man battling brain cancer leaving his sick bed to make an appeal to his party. We were up late to see the rest of the event, and I dare say, covered a lot more than Ted Kennedy. But to underplay that story would have been a mistake, no?


Anonymous: Matt, does Denver have problems with illegal immigration? What is your sense of the issues that are most important to Colorado residents?

Matthew Mosk: I'm sorry to say that I don't know. The convention feels really like it could be happening anywhere. But for the beautiful mountain backdrop and the nice downtown neighborhoods, the convention really operates in a bubble.


Matthew Mosk: Okay gang. I've gotta dash. But I will pass the baton to our esteemed political editor, Tim Curran, who can give you real insights into how our coverage decisions are being made.

Thanks for taking the time to chat!


Western Springs, Ill.: Last night the Democrats stuck to the biographical case for Obama, and tonight it sounds like it's going to be restricted to peacemaking with the Clinton campaign and women voters. If Obama's job on Thursday is to make the substantive policy case for his own candidacy, who do you see getting the job of making the case against McCain?

Tim Curran: Howdy from Denver, where we're still reeling from our colleague J. Freedom DuLac's report that we won't be getting a hearty dose of Bruce Springsteen on Thursday night. But the show must go on.

A good question, WS. Obama has made it clear that he is not comfortable going on the attack. There's no question that he's sharpened his tone as the race has narrowed, but I think the selection of Joe Biden as No. 2 came in part because Biden is made to take the attack to Republicans. Pretty sure the Obama camp believes Biden has what it takes to get under John McCain's skin.


Fairfax, Va.: Ted Kennedy, for whatever faults the man has, has been at the center of the debate on any issue related to health care, education or workers' rights. Can any one senator fill the void after he's gone?

Tim Curran: Last night has a real passing of the torch feel to it, didn't it? The short answer to your question about filling the role Kennedy will eventually leave behind is, no. But it will be fascinating to see whether Sen. Clinton, having been denied the presidency, seeks to reframe herself as the kind of liberal icon that Kennedy became. There are quite a few people who believe she could be a remarkably effective legislator if she put her shoulder to it.


Franconia, Va.: How much coverage and analysis do you anticipate devoting to Mark Warner tonight, and how much will the Hillary tsunami take over? For us in the Washington area, he is both a local story and a national story, so I hope you will pay attention to him. Now that tonight is all about women's causes and Hillary (two things that could not be more distinct in my mind, speaking as a Democratic woman who would never vote for her), how the heck does Warner speak for himself? It seems to me he's in a tricky spot.

Tim Curran: Trust me, our intrepid colleagues in Metro will be all over Mark Warner's role.

You're right, it is a tricky spot for him, but in some ways, the focus on Clinton may take a bit of the pressure that comes with the keynoter role off. I expect a fairly brisk speech. Warner himself would concede that he's not Democrats' greatest orator.


Baltimore: What are your predictions for potential poll bounces coming out of the conventions? In the past, the conventions were the general public's first exposure to the candidates, but McCain was a media darling for years, and the chances are good that most voters have seen at least one of the seven(!) hagiographic Newsweek cover stories on Obama. So can we expect a bounce for either?

Tim Curran: John McCain predicted a 15-point bounce for Obama out of the convention. I'm taking the under on that one.

As someone who has been to a few of these things over the years, I find that the weeks surrounding the conventions are the worst time to make predictions about how the race is going to work out. Let's face it: The people who will decide this election probably aren't going to make their decisions until the final weeks of the campaign.


Boston: I often see polls asking "who do you better trust to be commander in chief?" McCain wins by double digits. Why? Why are Democrats portrayed as weak on military matters? After all, Democrats were in power when we won both World Wars.

Tim Curran: The short answer is that people just don't know very much about Obama at this point, while John McCain has been in the spotlight for decades. The Democratic convention is all about the Obama campaign trying to fill in those blanks, taking control of the narrative about his biography. After that, I have no doubt that they'll turn their attention to trying to convince America that he can be every bit as tough as McCain when he needs to be.


Virginia: I'm not a political junkie, so please pardon my ignorance: Why are the Clintons so important? I mean, are they the new Kennedy dynasty? I understand that many Clinton supporters are threatening to vote for McCain. Wouldn't true Democrats prefer one of their own in office rather than a Republican?

Tim Curran: Bill Clinton is the first Democrat to win two terms in the White House in most of our lifetimes. For many Democrats, they're a hard habit to break.


Olney, Md.: As a dedicated and devoted Hillary Clinton supporter, I anxiously am anticipating the most important speech at a Democratic convention since Mario Cuomo's famous keynote speech. What do you anticipate her saying? She has denounced the recent McCain ad featuring a former Hillary supporter. She is such a classy and savvy political figure -- I expect a speech full of ideals and wisdom. I look forward to campaigning for her again in the near future.

Tim Curran: There is no doubt that her speech will be the defining event of the first two days of the convention. I expect her to say all the things the Obama campaign hopes she will -- that he is ready to be president, that he is a patriot, that he understands the problems and struggles of average Americans, and most importantly, that he has her full and UNEQUIVOCAL support.


Buffalo, N.Y.: The difference between the Democrats and Republicans on TV is that a GOP operative/pundit will toe the party line and stick to the talking points no matter how ludicrous ... the Democrats just can't do it. James Carville last night on CNN said he thought the first night was a waste and that it was a squandered opportunity. Why do the Democrats, year after year, shoot themselves in the foot right out in public? The Republicans may voice misgivings on deep background, but you never see one of them dissing their candidate or party in open discussion. I just shake my head in amazement. Why do you think there is such a difference in discipline?

Tim Curran: You are spot on with that one.

Democrats love palace intrigue and can often be the masters of the circular firing squad. One of the things that allowed the Obama campaign to get this far is that they have displayed a remarkable message discipline (at least within the campaign), just the way "No Drama Obama" likes it. But there's not much they can do about the cable yakkers. Or disgruntled Clinton supporters, for that matter.


Philadelphia: I am curious: How do so many delegates suddenly have "Kennedy" or "Michelle" posters to wave in the air? Has anyone written the story of the workers -- whomever they are -- who manage to deliver posters to people? Who are the unseen people? Where do they come from? Also, out of curiosity, what happens to the posters afterward -- do they then collect the posters after they are used, are they recycled, do delegates get to take them home and sell them or eBay? In sum, who makes these posters happen and where do the posters then go?

Tim Curran: Conventions are all about stagecraft. Those "spontaneous" moments are anything but, and those signs were being printed up well in advance as the Obama folks worked on the program, schedule and message they wanted to deliver.

One particularly interesting aspect of this is that, almost without exception, the nominee's campaign will either write or heavily edit every speech you hear this week, regardless of who's delivering it.


Arlington, Va.: During her speech last night Michelle Obama stated that "your word is your bond" is one of the guiding principles both she and Sen. Obama learned growing up. Any chance one of the more than 1,000 crack reporters covering the convention could put down their goodie bags and free drinks and ask her how she squares "your word is your bond" with Sen. Obama's refusal to honor his written pledge to accept public campaign financing for the fall?

Tim Curran: Good question. We wrote quite a bit about Obama's decision to forgo public financing, which will give him a potentially huge financial advantage over McCain but does expose him to charges of hypocrisy on the issue. The truth is, campaign reform is not something that ranks very high when voters are asked what issues are most important to them. I challenged a Democratic senator on this very topic yesterday as he was carping about how much time he has to spend fundraising. I asked if he had spoken to Obama about where overhauling campaign laws would rank on his priority list. The answer was not encouraging if you believe money plays too big a role in politics.

Looks like that's it for me today. Thanks for joining us online. But would it kill you to subscribe to the print edition?


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