Real Life Politics

Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, September 17, 2008; 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Ruth Marcus was online Wednesday, Sept. 17 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her recent columns and the latest news.

The transcript follows.


Ruth Marcus: Sorry guys, I was just answering some reader mail and let the time get away from me. Getting right to reading your questions...


Burke, Va.: Ms. Marcus -- is it outrageous (you say lying!) for a McCain ad to simply make the conservative argument on taxes? Obama's tax hikes will hurt working families because he wants to end the Bush tax cuts and raise taxes on business and our most productive citizens. Slamming a weak economy with higher rates will hurt all families, not just the rich. While bashing the McCain ads, you fail to mention the cruel Obama ad about McCain not being able to type e-mail. He is indeed familiar with e-mail, but he cannot type very easily because of his war wounds!

Ruth Marcus: No -- I have no problem with simply making the conservative argument on taxes. My problem is with the suggestion that Obama would increase taxes on all -- not with the argument that this is foolish tax policy. Here's The Post's Aug. 31 editorial on the subject.


Bethesda, Md.: My question is why politicians manage to get away with so much dishonesty. In the television interviews I've seen, the reporters don't push the candidates very hard on questions, and in turn the candidates just recite the same canned lines over and over. The pundits on "their side" then latch on to and repeat these same lines ... it's just so sickening that I'd rather just play video games.

Ruth Marcus: That's a good and troubling question. I think we tend not to know enough (or have done enough homework) on the questions we're asking, so the follow-ups are too often lame. And the time pressures inherent in television don't allow for the pressing -- candidates can just run out the clock. It's very frustrating.


New York: Richard Cohen's column yesterday was remarkable, a "game-changer," but it's my understanding it did not run in the printed version of the paper. Is this so? The Ugly New McCain (Post, Sept. 17)

Ruth Marcus: I believe it only ran online -- and it got a very good readership there.


Los Angeles: McCain is fast reaching what I call the "Mary McCarthy Threshold." That's when the great novelist and critic declared that every word playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman said was a lie "including 'and' and 'the.' " Hellman sued and, as I recall, lost. Am I right about that? Suit was dropped after Hellman's death. (Wikipedia)

Ruth Marcus: Nice line -- I certainly wouldn't' go that far about Sen. McCain.


Atlanta: Hi Ruth. A comment on your column about McCain: He is even more disingenuous on the tax issue than you realize. His health care plan is going to make contributions by your employer toward your health insurance taxable income for all of us who are on a company-sponsored plan. I call that raising my taxes, and my household income is approximately $100,000.

Ruth Marcus: Actually, I think the taxability of health insurance benefits is a more complicated issue, and hope to write about it some time soon.


Grand Rapids, Mich.: Your column led me to think about Sen. McCain and whether we can trust his promise to clean up Wall Street. As I recall, he said he learned an important lesson about greed, etc., during his "Keating 5" experience in the midst of the Savings and Loan crisis. Has he explained why, in light of that experience, he has been a strong proponent of deregulating the financial services industry? If he didn't learn his lesson from that searing experience then, when he admitted his honorable reputation was tarnished, why should we believe his words now?

Ruth Marcus: I've been spending a lot of time in the past few days reading and talking about both candidates' positions on regulation, and Sen. McCain's change of rhetoric on this issue is truly remarkable.


Washington: Ms. Marcus, I am sure you will have a lot of invective hurled at you for today's opinion piece on McCain, so let me please say: Thank you for calling it like it is! Keep up the good work.

Ruth Marcus: Ha ha ha! I don't believe in Santa, so I can't answer.


Baltimore: Good afternoon. You write in your column today: "Obama would lower taxes for most households, and lower them more than McCain would. The only 'painful tax increases on working American families' would be on working families making more than $250,000." This quote is extremely misleading and taken right out of Obama's talking points. The fact is that everyone that has any stock will have their capital gains taxes raised, and small businesses will have to pay much more in payroll taxes under Obama's plan. Last time I checked, small businesses employ a majority of our workforce. What happens to their jobs when their employers incurs all of these new taxes?

Ruth Marcus: Sen. Obama's plan would be to raise the capital gains rate for those making more than $250,000. Not sure what you mean by more payroll taxes for small business, but the only small business affected would be the very small number that have incomes in excess of $250,000.


Los Angeles: Ms. Marcus: Please offer your view as to why so much of the media (especially TV news) continues to promote this image of McCain as a "maverick." He is uninformed, speaks on every side of every issue and is firmly on the side of Bush's "base" -- the ultra wealthy. Thank you.

Ruth Marcus: He certainly has been a maverick, on many issues. And I think he is getting some criticism (including from me) for his new incarnation.


What change in rhetoric?: For decades Washington has been dominated by an ideology that is proudly, publicly, explicitly allergic to regulation. John McCain has endorsed that ideology. He campaigned for it. He confirmed its appointees. He voted for its bills. So when did McCain's rhetorical "change" you point to actually occur?

Ruth Marcus: There may be some previous snippets, but in its most vociferous form, Monday or Tuesday.


Atlanta: Politico had an article quoting several historians who have said that there is nothing particularly dishonest or nasty about this election by historical standards. Why do the liberal media insist on trumping up this false issue? Historians say McCain camp not sleaziest (Politico, Sept. 16)

Ruth Marcus: I haven't read the piece yet, but I imagine there is one like that in every election: We reporters moan about dishonesty, and the historians remind us about how really nasty and dishonest things used to be. I'm sure they're right, but one thing about this election is that both candidate presented themselves as offering a different tone -- not!


New York: Regarding the AIG bailout, apparently Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke rejected a deal with Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan on Sunday night, unwilling to commit $40 billion in Fed funding. Less than 36 hours later, Paulson and Bernanke accepted a deal with substantially worse terms for the Fed -- $85 billion in funding and zero private funding.

It appears that Paulson and Bernanke were willing to let AIG fail as of Sunday evening, and consequently held a very firm line in its negotiations with Goldman and J.P. Morgan. Didn't the Republican Party decide an AIG collapse would have harmed McCain grievously, particularly after his series of conflicting statements on the economy on Monday? I can't help but believe that the Bush administration found AIG's potential collapse to be acceptable, but not the political consequences.

Ruth Marcus: I don't see any basis for that rather serious assertion. As far as I can tell, they could allow Lehman to go under without huge collateral damage to the economy and didn't think the same was true of AIG.


Washington: Human nature being what it is, it's easier to rationalize, justify or excuse a candidate's exaggeration, misstatement or outright lie if it's a candidate you generally tend to agree with or support than it is if it's a candidate you generally disagree with or oppose. A misstatement by someone you support seems to be well-intentioned, or essentially right even if technically wrong. A misstatement by someone you oppose is simply evidence of the opponent's bad character and the fundamental weakness of his or her arguments.

So when I read your argument that McCain's dishonesty is somehow worse than Obama's, I don't see any more substance to your argument than that, on the whole, you are more in sync with Obama than McCain. (If you're planning to vote for McCain, or truly are undecided, then boy am I wrong.) Before you and other pundits declare your preferred candidate to be the more honest one, I'd suggest you talk with an open mind to people who support his opponent, ask them to make the contrary case, and try to fairly consider the merits of their arguments.

Ruth Marcus: This is a fair point, and nicely stated without the usual accusations of bad faith that go along with such comments, so I appreciate it. All I can say is that I do try very hard to keep that phenomenon in mind and do my best to call it fairly. I have taken, by the way, quite a bit of heat from Democrats I know for giving too much leeway to McCain through the months because -- so they argue -- I cut him a break based on my admiration for him.


Washington: I will probably vote for Obama, but I do like Palin -- though I differ with her on most significant issues. Still, I like her. She's got a good personality and she wants to lead. We see that. Something that works against her is that, because everything 99.9 percent of us are learning about her is new, it makes a much bigger imprint on our brains than if we already had known the person for years and years, though we might not have known about every single incident in that person's life. For those people we've known many years, we care less about those incidents because the overall impression already has been formed.

Ruth Marcus: Sure -- we're taking a crash course in Sarah Palin, every data point feels like a huge one.


Olney, Md.: I do not believe that Sen. McCain's approach to "taxing" health care has the net effect of a tax increase. Replacing the employee-based system also will involve a tax credit, which helps the poor more than the rich, because it is not based on your highest tax bracket. And actually, right now, I have to pay taxes at the end of the year on a part of my employer's health insurance payment, so all Sen. McCain can do is help. And I hate to say it, but as usual, liberals distortions are usually treated by the press as fact. Here is the text right from his web page:

"While still having the option of employer-based coverage, every family will receive a direct refundable tax credit -- effectively cash -- of $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families to offset the cost of insurance. Families will be able to choose the insurance provider that suits them best and the money would be sent directly to the insurance provider. Those obtaining innovative insurance that costs less than the credit can deposit the remainder in expanded Health Savings Accounts."

Ruth Marcus: It has the net effect of a tax increase on some people, especially those with gold-plated health insurance. But as I said, I think it is, in combination with other changes, a change in the right direction.


San Francisco: So, do you think your column today might be a little premature? What with Obama promising to get tougher and more ferocious in his response, and then releasing an ad mocking McCain's age, or mocking the fact that he doesn't send e-mails (which is more because the North Vietnamese broke his fingers as opposed not knowing how), it seems he's ready descend from what ever moral high ground he might have occupied...

Ruth Marcus: The great thing about writing a column -- you always get to do another one the next week. So I have taken both candidates to task in the past and expect to do more in the future.


Seattle: It was nice to hear in your column that you are ready to give up the false equivalencies of balance in discussing partisan politics in this country, but I have to ask, why now? Surely you must have detected the same false equivalencies back in 2000 or even before. In the past couple election cycles, the GOP has relied on this very tendency toward balance (and the Democrats' tendency towards less-aggressive efforts to twist facts) relentlessly. Is the difference that Gore and Kerry were less likeable? That we didn't expect better from Bush? What is it?

Ruth Marcus: Um, this is the first election -- presidential election -- in which I've written a regular column?


Maryland: Why did The Washington Post run a 2,500-word, front-page story last week on the painkiller addiction of Cindy McCain, who is not running for president, yet The Post has an official "off-limits" policy on asking any tough or meaningful questions about Barack Obama's admitted heavy use of cocaine, marijuana and alcohol? Why the blatant double standard?

Ruth Marcus: You'll have to ask the news side about that story, although I think that admitted addiction is different from admitted use. As to Obama's "heavy use" -- I don't know about any off-limits policy, official or otherwise, but we are talking about college.


Los Angeles: I must say, I've been an investment banker for 20 years, and I too, like the previous questioner from New York, was struck by the fact that Paulson turned down a deal with only $40 billion of Fed exposure on Sunday, and took a far worse deal just two days later. Hank Paulson is not a stupid man, but this scenario suggests that Paulson terribly miscalculated how much leverage he had with Goldman and J.P. Morgan. Understand that if Paulson had made this kind of deal while at Goldman, he would have lost his job.

It seems obvious to me that Paulson was willing to let AIG fail as of Sunday evening, consistent with his prior statements that there would be no more bailouts. Something happened between Sunday evening and Tuesday afternoon, and the economic news doesn't explain Paulson's shift (Paulson certainly was not surprised by the extent of Monday's sell-off on Wall Street). I don't think anyone is making a "serious assertion," as you put it. I'm suggesting that political considerations had a very big impact on the margins of this transaction. Do you disagree?

Ruth Marcus: Boy, I'm just not that cynical, and I'm pretty cynical. You mean Bernanke just went along for the ride to thank Bush for appointing him?


Minneapolis: Isn't Obama in a no-win position on attacking McCain? If he doesn't attack McCain, then the media complains he's not attacking (just as they did during the primaries versus Hillary). If he does attack McCain, then he's just another politician. Haven't the media put Obama in a box on this issue?

Ruth Marcus: Or he -- and McCain -- put themselves in a box.


Kingston, Ontario: Ms. Marcus, my gut tells me that McCain's real reason for wanting to be president is that he wants to go to war in order to restore American honor. That's why his statements on domestic and economic issues are so careless. Is that unfair?

Ruth Marcus: Yes. I don't think he "wants to go to war."


"The very small number who have incomes in excess of $250,000": What's the income cutoff for us single people? We always get the short end of the stick.

Ruth Marcus: $200,000.


Philadelphia: When Sarah Palin was picked to run for vice president, there were reports she had admitted smoking marijuana in her past. Was this a false Internet rumor, or has the been squashed, as it might upset the Moral Majority base if they knew about this? If it is true, I find it interesting how outraged some were when Bill Clinton said he did it, yet these same people are silent when it is Sarah Palin.

Ruth Marcus: Haven't seen that, but given her age, it wouldn't be surprising -- or particularly interesting.


Richmond, Va.: I haven't heard anyone state the obvious (if not politically correct) fact that this is McCain's last shot at the presidency, as he is somewhat up there in age. Of course he's going for broke, even if that means means making crap up or flip-flopping on every position he ever has held. Obama can stay a little more in on track because he obviously isn't as desperate in terms of not having another kick at the can. This is McCain's last kick, as it were.

Ruth Marcus: Oh, I don't know about that. I mean, yes, it's his last shot -- but I'm not sure that would lead him to, as you say, go for broke.


Philadelphia: I'm just going to be helpful about point out to San Francisco (who wrote "and then releasing an ad mocking McCain's age, or mocking the fact that he doesn't send e-mails (which is more because the North Vietnamese broke his fingers as opposed not knowing how)") that one doesn't actually need fingers to use a computer. Many years ago voice-recognition software was developed, so many people with disabilities -- people who are blind, people who might be missing limbs, people who can't use their hands, etc. -- still are able to compose, send, receive and read e-mail. Broken fingers may have been a reason to avoid computers back in the early 1980s, but not anymore.

I hate seeing that lie about his being unable to use a computer because of broken fingers repeated because it suggests that people who aren't "normal" are "handicapped" and unable to join in common daily activities. Anyway, my late grandfather, whose fingers were badly broken in World War II and who went without proper medical care for much longer than is recommended, managed to e-mail his friends and family just fine using a regular keyboard up until he died at age 84.

Ruth Marcus: For the record, I thought that was a stupid Obama ad, even leaving aside the question of whether/why McCain can't type or whether he knows how to use a computer. It's part of the trivialization of issues that has become such a disappointing aspect of this campaign.


St. Louis: Ms. Marcus, is it the media's duty to be adversarial to government? This has been the underlying belief of most citizens. When a political party accuses the media of bias, it is incumbent on the media to proceed as they were, regardless of the complaint.

Ruth Marcus: I think I'd favor the word skeptical rather than adversarial. Not hostile, but not blindly accepting. And I think that it's incumbent on us not to be cowed into silence or to overreact the other way when we're criticized.


Re: AIG Bailout: To the New York commenter, I would just like to point out that Paulson and Bernanke didn't give AIG the money, we loaned it to them at 11 percent interest in return for a 79.9 percent stake in their company. The U.S. government now essentially, owns AIG for two years. Yes, if the assets fall through, taxpayers will be on the line, but this is pretty far from a straight bailout. A lot of executives and stockholders lost a lot of paper wealth for the actions and risk-taking.

Ruth Marcus: Well, tell me another place they could have gotten that loan.


Sewickley, Pa.: When the Clinton administration raised taxes on upper incomes, the "Club for Growth" types warned the economy would surely go into a recession, if not an all-out depression. Instead, investors, consumers and businesses saw the country on a trajectory toward a balanced budget and their confidence soared. The stock market went from 4,000 to 10,000 and the economy created more than 20 million new private-sector jobs. The Bush economy has produced about 3.5 million new private-sector jobs, the market is in the tank, and the financial sector is hanging by a taxpayer-funded thread. Do you think Sen. Obama will be able to articulate our economic history as well as President Clinton did?

Ruth Marcus: Please read with a tone of wry humor: I think the person who has the greatest appreciation of, and ability to relate to, the economic accomplishments of the Clinton administration is ... President Clinton


I thought that was a stupid Obama ad: How would you have brought up the point that McCain doesn't use a computer, nor, it seems, has any interest in learning? I find it a salient and troubling issue, especially with regards to our current economy, which is relying more and more on computer-based information systems. How do you explain "social networking" to someone who doesn't even e-mail?

Ruth Marcus: I wouldn't have brought it up. I don't find it particularly salient.


Bel Air, Md.: The way the topic is phrased -- "why should we believe that McCain would be an honest president" -- is interesting. Obviously you are going to follow up tomorrow or next week with another column and discussion session on "why should we believe that Obama would be an honest president."

Ruth Marcus: If/when there is a basis for that. Please see the column that I wrote about Sen. Obama's flip-flop on taking federal funding for the general election campaign.

_______________________ When a Flop Isn't a Flop (Post, July 2)


Minneapolis: The fact that Obama sometimes attacks McCain doesn't mean that Obama is just another politician, does it? Just as it's false to say that Obama will raise your taxes because he has advocated some limited tax increases, engaging in some attacks against his opponent doesn't negate the fact that Obama is indeed many ways different than the typical politician.

Ruth Marcus: I think that's a false comparison. If you say you're not going to engage in low-road politics, then every time you deviate from high road it becomes notable.


Boston: For the record, the New York Times did a big article about Obama's drug use during the primary season ... it fizzled because none of his friends really remembered him doing drugs -- there was speculation that he may have hyped it up a little in his book.

Ruth Marcus: Thanks for noting that.


Orono, Maine: Besides honesty in office, the recent actions of the McCain campaign make me wonder how they would react to Congress and others seeking to find out what they have done. There is essentially a constitutional crisis now in Alaska, with the Palin-appointed Attorney General advising legislators and others not to comply with legal subpoenas on Troopergate. Michael Isikoff reported that this comes from a legal strategy crafted by the McCain campaign. Can we expect some questions and more press attention to this very important issue? We've lived through a period when the president tried to be immune from questions and investigation, and I would like to see more discussion about what McCain and Obama would do in office.

Ruth Marcus: Interesting post -- it definitely bears some thinking about.


Falls Church, Va.: I read your column today. As a journalist, I felt that you could have been unbiased and mentioned true whoppers from the Obama camp as well. And for that reason, you project to be the same as the rest of the media that doesn't practice honest reporting or provide substantial opinions. True Whoppers (Post, Sept. 17)

Ruth Marcus: Well, I tried to mention some that I considered whoppers. But my point was that McCain's whoppers seem bigger to me.


Ruth Marcus: Well, thanks as always for the great questions. I'll be back in two weeks -- and given the velocity of the news, it's hard to imagine what might be happening by then. I look forward to talking about it, whatever it turns out to be.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company