Post Politics Hour

In the Loop: On the Hill by Lois Romano
Lois Romano (Julia Ewan - The Washington Post)
Lois Romano
Washington Post National Political Reporter
Thursday, September 11, 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.

Washington Post national political reporter Lois Romano was online live Thursday, Sept. 11 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest in political news.

The transcript follows.

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Archive: Post Politics Hour discussion transcripts


Lois Romano: Good morning. Thanks for joining us.


Cincinnati: Good morning, Lois, from an already overloaded resident of Ohio -- overloaded from political ads, and it's early. Thank goodness for the mute button! I'm curious as to why Sarah Palin continues to repeat her "Bridge to Nowhere" line when many reporters have discredited it. It's close to a falsehood, it takes away from her and John McCain's reformer image, and they don't need to say it. Repeating it does not make it true. And I say this as a McCain supporter with a bumper sticker on my car. He doesn't need to do this.

As a midshipman at the Naval Academy, he lived on an honor code that said he would not lie, cheat or steal. I went to the University of Virginia, which has a similar honor code. He would have been kicked out of school for this. I don't see the political benefit: she could give the same speech without it and its essence would be the same. What do you think?

Lois Romano: The statement on the bridge seems the least of it at this point. McCain's two recent ads -- one accusing Obama of supporting sex education for kindergartners and of calling Palin a pig -- are flat out false. Voters eventually will get sick of all of this irrelevant stuff and demand to know about the issues.


Cameron, N.C.: Good morning. Do you think that the McCain is ever going to discuss the issues -- Iraq, the economy, Social Security, Medicare, etc.? Or are we going to parse every Obama comment looking for perceived insults for the next two months? I've turned off cable TV, should I now forego the A section and the Internet to save my sanity?

Lois Romano: Its pretty bad isn't it. Turn your TV back on for the debates.


Easton, Mass.: Hi Lois. As a regular politics chat reader, I have seen a number of times where Post reporters refer to John McCain's "real" personality/character/views as somehow separate from -- and less negative or deceitful than -- his campaign. (One example: Dan Balz once wrote of McCain's "true voice" as different from the disorganized and negative campaign he was running.) On what are reporters basing this idea of the "real" McCain, and do you think his recent behavior will affect assessments of McCain? Too often it seems the coverage's starting point is that McCain is inherently "honorable" and "serious" rather than starting from a neutral, objective place that considers his current actions on their own terms.

Lois Romano: Very good question. The assessments of McCain are largely based reporters years--sometimes decades-- of dealing with him up close, which would include his 2000 presidential bid. Supporting that was the fact that his own party often had issues with him because he wouldn't walk in lock step with them. While being a conservative, he has always seemed open to other views. Yes, I think this spate of negative ads and charges can impact him negatively. At a certain point you can't say you don't know what's going.

Lois Romano: Very good question. The assessments of McCain largely are based reporters years -- sometimes decades -- of dealing with him up close, which would include his 2000 presidential bid. Supporting that was the fact that his own party often had issues with him because he wouldn't walk in lockstep with them. While being a conservative, he always has seemed open to other views. Yes, I think this spate of negative ads and charges can impact him negatively. At a certain point you can't say you don't know what's going out.


Richmond, Va.: South Carolina Democratic chairwoman Carol Fowler sharply attacked Sarah Palin yesterday, saying John McCain had chosen a running mate "whose primary qualification seems to be that she hasn't had an abortion." Two days ago, the governor of New York played the race card by accusing McCain and Palin of using a racist code word: "community organizer."

Disgusting. Just disgusting. Barack Obama and his supporters have gone so far beyond the bounds of basic human decency. Wasn't it just two weeks ago that Obama said in his Denver speech that he wanted his campaign to be about issues, not personalities? But he's calling Palin a pig (and everyone in the crowd knew it) and having his surrogates launch these kinds of nasty personal attacks. I thought he was a different kind of politician. He is -- he's worse.

Lois Romano: Oh Puleeezze, Richmond! Are you on another planet? Or just on McCain's payroll?

John McCain put up an ad yesterday saying Obama supported sex education for kindergartners, which is false. And no person in their right mind thinks Obama called her any such thing. Obama is fighting back on the attacks and you're right about one thing -- it's disgusting to deprive voters of discussions on issues.


Hampton, Va.: Lois, John McCain has enjoyed a great week-and-a-half, winning the news cycle almost every day and climbing at least even in the polls. Your colleague Howard Kurtz argues that the media is now angry -- particularly at McCain's attacks on Obama -- and we're about to see the pendulum swing. Do you sense that in the media? Are you prepared to jump to Obama's defense? The Anger Factor (Post, Sept. 11)

Lois Romano: The media shouldn't be angry or happy. What reporters should do is just report what is going on and let the public decide.


Phoenix: Lois, what do you think John McCain, the candidate of 2000, would say about the campaign being run by John McCain, the candidate of 2008?

Lois Romano: They would say: Who is that guy?

But as McCain likes to say, he didn't win in 2000, so he had to try a new tact.


Rochester, N.Y.: You write "McCain's two recent ads -- one accusing Obama of supporting sex education for kindergartners and of calling Palin a pig -- are flat out false." You also suggest that voters will be turned off by they lying. What evidence do you have that voters will be turned off by lying?

Lois Romano: I have no evidence, but voters are smart and have a way of getting out the truth.


Powhatan, Va.: Thanks for your work and taking our questions. This being Sept. 11, I realize we are trying as a nation to set aside politics and focus on this day of remembrance. However, it is an election year. Who, McCain or Obama, does Sept. 11 help or hurt. Why?

Lois Romano: I'm just not sure it impacts either -- but McCain believes he shows better in times of national security crisis. Today, however, they both are going to Ground Zero, so both will look presidential.


Richmond, Va.: Lois, this is the second chat where you've called out a questioner as a member of the McCain campaign. I don't doubt both campaigns try to influence these things, but you've never called out someone as a member of the Obama campaign. It makes you look biased that you can sniff out pro-McCain questions but not the pro-Obama ones. I'm the guy who asked the pro-McCain question. I'm not working for him, I haven't contributed to him ... but I'm leaning his way. Poking the media with a stick is just fun.

Lois Romano: I feel like I have called out a writer for being on Obama staff at some point -- although I can't swear to it. Sometimes questions are worded in a way that I think someone is trying to stack the deck. I'm really just playing devil's advocate -- take no offense.


Boston: As a woman reporter do you ever feel that you are being treated unfairly -- that the men get better stories to cover from editors or a that there is a reluctance from interviewees to speak with you because you're female, or that promotions are withheld because you might get pregnant? I think reporting is one occupation that seems unisex, but as a male I can't tell.

Lois Romano: No, I don't feel that. Reporting is really a meritocracy. If you can write and you can report, everyone is given an equal chance.

Like other professions, however, it was once dominated by men. Women writers were sent to the women's pages.


Hartford, Conn.: Lois: In your response to Cincinnati, you wrote that "voters eventually will get sick of all of this irrelevant stuff and demand to know issues." What makes you think this year is any different from the last five or six presidential elections?

Lois Romano: Hope springs eternal.


Rockville, Md.: Lips or no lips, it seems that the Democrats have concluded that Palin will ruin them if they do not attack. How will it play out? Destroyed, or saved by sympathy?

Lois Romano: It's a pretty delicate dance for Democrats right now. Palin has turned into a phenomenon and people like her. But she is also being tightly controlled, and giving the same speech every day. Democrats are hoping that once she strikes out on her own, voters might see another dimension to her. But she may not do that. Apparently, the campaign is considering keeping she and McCain together.


Stone Ridge, Va.: It's pretty obvious what McCain's up to -- keep baiting Obama with Palin and let him bat her around like a pinata, with predictable results. At what point does the Obama campaign wise up and stop responding?

Lois Romano: Yes, you are right. If the McCain campaign keeps throwing the sink at Obama, he stops talking about issues and keeps talking about the sink heading his way. Obama needs to find the right balance for him -- but he can't ignore them. That has proved deadly in previous elections.


Arlington, Va.: Barack Obama seems preoccupied with Sarah Palin. Two questions: don't his attacks inflate her standing? Wouldn't he better better off dismissing her as a political lightweight and ignoring her? Secondly, where the hell is Joe Biden? Isn't the vice presidential nominee traditionally the attack dog? Why is Obama doing the dirty work?

Lois Romano: Biden is out there in big important markets -- like Florida. But Biden is not covered as much as Obama -- he's a magnet for media coverage, so he is delivering the message.


Birmingham, Ala.: Given the debate formats (the first and third with a moderator and nine-minute segments, the second a "town hall" format) who do you expect to have advantages in each? Common wisdom appears to be McCain will dominate the town hall format, but I was wondering your opinion? The way the campaign is going, I can't wait for the debates instead of frivolous he-said/she-said tactics.

Lois Romano: McCain's campaign believes he will do best in the freewheeling town hall setting. Debate are not Obama's strongest platform.

That said, I've quit predicting on debates. Everyone thought Gore would trounce Bush in 2000 -- and some think he did on substance -- but his demeanor gave the victory to Bush. Kerry did trounce Bush in 2004 -- and still lost the race.


Southwest Vermont: Lois, I was a McCain County Co-Chair in 2000, and I'm trying to be objective, but today's "edition" is not the 2000 one. A couple of New Hampshire supporters of McCain have told me that they and a lot of their friends in New Hampshire are switching to Obama, because of the campaign tactics and the selection of Palin. Not scientific to be sure, but your thoughts on this happening elsewhere beneath the poll "radar"? Thanks, and thanks for the comment on that McCain "talking head" from Richmond.

Lois Romano: I don't think we know yet. But picking Palin was always a mixed blessing for McCain: He secured his conservative base -- which he needed to do because they were lukewarm -- ut he may have lost independents like your friends.


Delicate dance?: I disagree -- there are any number of women on the Democratic side that could rebut Palin without being accused of sexism. Let's start with Hillary Clinton, who should be doing just that. Aside from her, how about Dianne Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Mikulski or Geraldine Ferraro -- who, after all, was the first major-party woman candidate? Democrats need to get work, and to counter the Palin nomination no one is better than the women who already lead the party.

Lois Romano: Yes, very good points.


Reality City: I believe you are wrong about McCain's ad being false. Do you think you can airdrop any reporters into Chicago? Anyway, having now looked at the text of the sex education bill in question, it's clear that one of its key purposes was to change existing law that said "each class or course in comprehensive sex education offered in any of grades 6 through 12 shall include instruction on the prevention, transmission and spread of AIDS" to "each class or course in comprehensive sex education offered in any of grades K through 12 shall include instruction on the prevention of sexually transmitted infections, including the prevention, transmission and spread of HIV." Yes, the legislation permitted parents to take their children out of the class. But that was already existing law.

(Note that the legislation also aimed to change the language from "all public elementary, junior high, and senior high 20 school classes that teach sex education and discuss sexual intercourse shall emphasize that abstinence is the expected norm in that abstinence from sexual intercourse is the only protection that is 100 percent effective against unwanted teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS)" to "all public elementary, junior high, and senior high school classes that teach sex education and discuss sexual activity or behavior shall emphasize that abstinence is an effective method of preventing unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV when transmitted sexually.")

Yes, there is a section stating that course material ought to be "age and developmentally appropriate." But the bill also talks about alcohol and drug use education instruction in grades five through 12, so the legislation clearly recognized that some topics are best held until later years, but deemed that instruction on sexually-transmitted diseases -- not merely "good touch, bad touch" -- wasn't one of them.

Lois Romano: The New York Times (page A18) today does a thorough job of explaining why the ad is a distortion of Obama's position and the intent of the bill. It also shows how it's a recycled -- and debunked -- charge from his Senate race.

Everyone should read the story on the Web. I found it persuasive.

_______________________ Ad on Sex Education Distorts Obama Policy (New York Times, Sept. 10)


San Diego: Palin doesn't answer questions. She's giving her first interview today and tomorrow with Charlie Gibson, but it will be in a tightly controlled atmosphere. Now we learn that everything on her plane is "off the record." At what point, given McCain's desire to prevent the media (or the public) from having actual access to his chosen vice presidential candidate, does the media stop following her around and giving her what is essentially a free, around-the-clock campaign commercial?

Lois Romano: Never.


New York: Lois, thanks, good for you on responding strongly to the phony comments from Richmond. Question for you: Who selects the debate moderators? Are there any guidelines re: the questions, so that substantive issues must be emphasized? (Here's hoping.) Commission on Debates

Lois Romano: I believe everything is negotiated with regard to format and general subject matter. But the campaigns can't tell the moderators what to ask.


Fairfax, Va.: Lois, thanks for taking my question. Polls seem to show that Obama appeals more to those who are better educated and more affluent. His campaign looks to me to be aimed at smart people. However, and with apologies to Adlai Stevenson, he needs a majority. Is he aiming too high? What can he do to connect with the rest of us?

Lois Romano: I believe he's trying, and that's also what Joe Biden is supposed to bring -- middle class roots.


New York: Will Obama give a tacit nod to the 527s to counterattack? Aren't there a number of such groups just waiting for the green light?

Lois Romano: If this line of attack continues on Obama, you will see more from the 527s. But hopefully not because Obama said so -- that would be illegal.


Richmond, Va.: Hi Lois, thanks for taking questions today! Republican strategist John Feehery was quoted in Washington Post yesterday saying: "There's a bigger truth out there and the bigger truths are [Sarah Palin is] new, she's popular in Alaska and she is an insurgent. As long as those are out there, these little facts don't really matter."

I was curious what journalists thought of the apparent Republican strategy that any facts revealed that don't play into the "bigger truth" of Palin's scripted story are considered "little" facts that don't really matter. I know perception and spin are everything in politics, but the Republicans seem to be taking things down to a whole new level of dishonesty. Thoughts?

Lois Romano: Journalists will continue to report when candidates misstate facts and distort records. Feehery obviously was saying that her popularity is such that people will ignore everything else. Hard to say -- it's still very, very early. In politics, 24 hours can be a lifetime. Much can happen in the next 60 days to shift the debate.


Newark, N.J.: It's funny how the left demands that Palin be made available to the media. The assumption is that you'll pick apart her carefully constructed image. But Obama doesn't let the media get close either. Anyone want to demand that Obama meet with the media? Hello? Anyone there? Sarah Palin's strategy is sound. The attacks from the left -- distorting her record with false attacks about banning books, etc. -- aren't working. Her approval rating is fantastic, especially with core demographics in swing states. Why change? I'd stay in that bubble until someone pops it.

Lois Romano: Obama meets with the media. He often talks to reporters on his plane and gives interviews to the networks. Your advice to the campaign is sound -- they will protect her until they can't. Simple as that.


Vienna, Va.: Lois, Dan Balz did a nice piece on the Web site about how polarized the campaign has become. It would have been nice if he had emphasized his key point a little more: the campaign doing most of the polarizing -- if not almost all of it -- is the McCain campaign. Lipstick on pigs, the Bridge to Nowhere and the sex education ad just serve as the tip of the iceberg. I know journalists are supposed to be neutral, but is there any doubt that the polarizing, especially the sleaziest of it, is coming from McCain? The Trail: The Politics of Polarization (, Sept. 10)

Lois Romano: Dan Balz stated it pretty directly, I thought. He left no room for interpretation on that one.


South Riding, Va.: At what point do the Democrats finally figure out that if they ignore Palin and even McCain and simply focus on Obama's clear advantages on the issues that he'll get his momentum/lead back? Right now the Republicans are making them look like a bunch of amateurs.

Lois Romano: Give them a little time. They were caught off guard by her immense popularity -- as was the McCain campaign. This is still very new, and needs to level out a bit longer.


Lois Romano: Thank you all for joining us today. No mystery what's on everyone's mind! Join my colleagues here at the same time every weekday for more insight. Have a good week.


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