Real Life Politics

Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, October 2, 2008; 2:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Ruth Marcus was online Thursday, Oct. 2 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss her recent columns, her posts on the Post Partisan blog and the latest news.

The transcript follows.


Ruth Marcus: Hi everyone. Great to be back here. I'm really looking forward to answering your questions -- and to tonight's debate. Certainly a lot to talk about.


Gotcha!: I'm sorry, but "How much is a gallon of milk?" "Who's is the President of Burkina Faso?" are gotcha questions; simple questions about politics and policy hardly are gotchas for someone who has been in politics for more than a decade, as Gov. Palin has. Palin has just shown that she has as much interest in government, politics and policy as my wife has in baseball and the Red Sox -- none!

Ruth Marcus: I have to confess that I'm with your wife on baseball, but I'm with you on gotcha questions. I don't think she has been subjected to gotcha questions, with the exception of the question on the Bush doctrine, which I thought was badly worded. I was just reading and watching Gov. Palin's answer to Katie Couric about what Supreme Court decisions -- other than Roe v. Wade -- that she disagreed with, and she simply was stumped. That's quite unsettling to me.


Bellingham, Wash.: Howdy Ruth -- posting a tad early from the West Coast. ... I am reading in today's Washington Post that Biden can't be "mean" tonight, or "talk down" to Sarah Palin, but I have not read anywhere that she will be held to the same standard. Her scripted appearances have been, to this listener's ears, nothing if not mean and condescending -- from denigrating Obama's years as a community organizer at the GOP convention to constantly attacking "elites" (apparently anyone who can name at least one newspaper they have read in the past ten years). Is the media setting up Biden up for a fall if he goes on the offensive, and are they giving Palin a pass to be as aggressive as she wants? Seems a tad sexist to me. ... Thanks in advance...

Ruth Marcus: Hi Bellingham. I do think that Sen. Biden needs to be careful in how he talks to Gov. Palin. Is that sexist? I wouldn't use that term, but I think it's just a fact of life that male politicians are still figuring out how to do battle against women politicians without looking condescending or threatening or whatever.


Richmond, Va.: Would you mind me saying that the vice presidential debate this evening is just plain silly? Here we have an experienced candidate, who, if I had to guess, will dumb himself down and deprive us of his qualifications, so as not to put his inexperienced counterpart in a bad light.

Ruth Marcus: Silly? No! I think it is vitally important, much more so than any other vice presidential debate that I can recall, even Quayle-Bentsen. And I don't think that Biden will "deprive us of his qualifications" -- it's not in his nature to do that, really, and I think that while he will be restrained in going after Palin. His whole goal will be to put her in a bad light.


Washington: Good afternoon! I've been hearing a lot of pundits and commentators say how the bar has been lowered for Palin so much that all she has to do is "be herself" and she'll win the debate. I find this maddening. I'm a woman, and I don't want her bar to be lowered; I think she should be held to the same standard as Biden. Aren't they competing for the same job, essentially?

I also get the sinking sensation that some are forgetting that winning an election isn't like winning homecoming queen. Once the ballots are counted and the oaths are sworn, these people have a job to do. Pithy comments and a bright smile won't do much when the work begins. How do you feel about the dumbing-down of the election? Or do you agree that that has happened?

Ruth Marcus: Same job actually, though I imagine they'd have hugely different portfolios in office. I think the election has been disappointingly lacking in substance but my complaints about this pre-date Palin's arrival on the scene.


Albuquerque, N.M.: After the debate I said to my husband "Waziristan?" The next day you wrote a great column. Brava!

Ruth Marcus: Thanks! For anyone who missed it (how could you?) I wrote in my column Tuesday about how Sen. McCain had racked up frequent flier miles to Waziristan.


Vice Presidential Debate: It appears that many people are having second thoughts about Palin's qualifications (according to a Post story this morning), so even if Palin has a "good debate" performance, that wouldn't make her inexperience more experienced, would it? It would just make her a good debater or crammer of facts, right? Skepticism of Palin Growing, Poll Finds (Post, Oct. 2)

Ruth Marcus: I love this question. It's something we've been talking about a lot here. Certainly, the fundamental question is her preparedess/readiness/qualifications for the job, as it is for any candidate. That manifests itself in different ways, however. Gov. Palin's ability to give a very good speech at the convention was an important demonstration of her communications skills. This matters. Her performance in interviews could have been so strong, so well-informed, so thoughtful that many doubts about whether she had the background for the job were assuaged. Instead, she came off to me as less prepared than I would have imagined. But to the extent that she manages to do well tonight, that would suggests a quickness of mind and an ability to marshal and convey information that would be at least somewhat (and I think more) relevant to an overall assessment.


New York: In the interview with Katie Couric, Sarah Palin said that she does believe their is an inherent right to privacy in the constitution. Isn't that one of the cornerstones of the Roe v. Wade decision that she had just disagreed with? Doesn't the rest of her party widely disagree with her on whether there's a right to privacy? I got the impression that she was just going along with the affirmative on a question she didn't fully understand the wide reach of.

I also get the impression that she can respond to the questions she's been prepped on (the first question from Couric), but once it veers into something she hasn't been coached on, her brain just melts (as in the second question, which as Howard Kurtz pointed out she was just heavily involved in a Supreme Court decision on Exxon Valdez damages that didn't go her way).

Ruth Marcus: Finally, an opportunity to defend Sarah Palin! The question of whether the Constitution protects a right to privacy is related to but separate from the question of whether that right includes, as the court said in Roe, protection for a woman's decision whether to terminate her pregnancy. It has become common, accepted, and I would say de rigueur for Republican Supreme Court nominees since Judge Bork to assert that the Constitution protects privacy rights -- after all, just look at the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. That's not inconsistent with opposing Roe.

Brain melt -- good diagnosis.


Seattle: So, aside from the "gotcha" quality, can we expect any hardball questions and real answers, as opposed to misdirections, from either vice presidential candidate? Or will this be a night of catchphrases and drifting off topic on ice floes with drowned seal pups?

Ruth Marcus: Well, I write this as a friend and fan of Gwen Ifill, who I met on my first day as a reporter here 24 years ago when I walked into the Prince George's County bureau. So I think Gwen will ask very good questions and do her best with follow-ups to pierce through the catchphrases -- on both sides.


Philadelphia: Will there be economics talk tonight? McCain once said he'd select a vice president who was strong in that field, given that he isn't, but I haven't seen anything about Palin's background there.

Ruth Marcus: I'd be stunned if the first question isn't about Topic A, which is economics, specifically the bailout -- um, I mean rescue -- bill.


New York: In your Sept. 22 column, you wrote: "The private account plan suggested by President Bush and backed by McCain would not have applied to anyone born before 1950. It would not have changed benefits by a single penny for current retirees like the nice Florida folks that Obama was trying to rile up."

Except, that that's incorrect -- the money to pay current benefits comes from the payroll taxes of current workers, and if any of that money is diverted from Social Security to "private accounts," that money is not available to pay current Social Security benefits.

Social Security is an old-age insurance policy designed to be paid by the current workers. It never was meant to be a risky investment strategy. And that's just what "privatization-cum-private-accounts" actually is: A way to destroy a program that actually is working very well, thank you. See how that works? Care to retract? Closing the Whopper Gap (Post, Sept. 22)

Ruth Marcus: Sorry, no retraction. The accounts would have been phased in, and there would have been plenty of money in the trust funds to pay the current benefits.


Bronx, N.Y.: We owe this Gov. of Alaska an apology. According to the Couric interview, when asked which specific papers she reads, she said "all of them." Imagine the demands on her time, and the speed reading capabilities she must have! I myself have attempted this feat -- and I'm not running for anything -- and I've had the devil's own time keeping up with the latest developments in the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Sacramento Bee just in the last week alone.

What must concern the campaign, on the eve of this debate, is not whether she'll be able to parrot pleasing bromides and slogans in apparent answer to the questions -- that's the usual formula, is it not? The real problem is that, with each appearance, Palin begins to sound more and more like the "Saturday Night Live" impressionist, and the polls show that she already has started to become a drag on the ticket. To me, it sounds like George Will is trying to send a hint that it's time for her to spend more time with her family -- and unlike most politicians, for real this time.

By the way, is it sexist to ask why Palin, unlike every other woman in the world, is totally immune to partum, and whether this is the best time imaginable for her to be going through the stress of a national campaign? My wife is a feminist, but there's no way she could have done something like this right after our daughter was born. I think many women are wondering the same.

Ruth Marcus: This is my day, because I get to defend Gov. Palin again!

Totally immune to post-partum? Post-partum depression? If so, not every woman has that. Post-partum exhaustion -- I'd say many women are back at work four or five months after giving birth. I don't have any doubts about her physical capacity to do the job.


New York: Re. Privacy/Abortion: If Palin believes the Constitution enshrines an implicit right to privacy, how does that square with her stated desire to have the states decide whether abortion should be illegal, or not? If I have the Constitutional right to privately take steps with my doctor to terminate my pregnancy, then whatever the states do to stop that is unconstitutional, QED? Right?

Ruth Marcus: QED? Not so fast. I believe the Constitution does protect the right to privacy and that includes the right to abortion, but it is certainly possible to believe that there is an implicit right to privacy that does not reach so far.


Arlington, Va.: It looks like "Uncle Ted" may get off scot-free from his federal case. The prosecutors "forgot" to hand of potentially exculpatory evidence until the last minute. The judge is now considering dismissing all charges. Could this be yet another case where the White House intervened and told the prosecutors to intentionally screw up the case so that senator could walk? Judge Could Dismiss Stevens's Indictment or Declare Mistrial (Post, Oct. 2)

Ruth Marcus: Oh, for goodness sakes, no. Prosecutors want to make good cases, and these are, I'm sure, career prosecutors who would have brought an attempted obstruction of justice prosecution against anyone who suggested that. "Yet another case where the White House" told them to intentionally screw up? What's the first one?


Pittsburgh: Is "name all nine Supreme Court Justices" a gotcha question? I can do it without breaking a sweat, and I'm not a candidate for anything. (For the record: Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Scalia, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito and Chief Justice Roberts).

Ruth Marcus: Gotcha-esque. How about "name all seven dwarfs?" What's important is not the actual names, it seems to me, than the sense of broad understanding of the court, its rulings and its role.


Minneapolis: Hi Ruth -- thanks for taking questions today. I appreciate your insights. With the race appearing to solidify in Obama's favor, what might the next McCain "shakeup" be? Is there time for one, or is that window closing?

Ruth Marcus: The "shakeup" window is closing, I think.


Re: Roe and the right to privacy: You can believe that the mother has a right to privacy but that the fetus is a separate entity entitled to rights of its own that trump the mother's right to privacy. Not that I would have expected Sarah Palin to spell it out like that.

Ruth Marcus: Well said.


Austin, Texas: The election is coming down to a referendum on Bush, isn't it?

Ruth Marcus: I'm not sure it is. It might be a referendum on the economy, but Bush is seeming almost irrelevant.


Laurel, Md.: Why isn't the McCain campaign taking more heat for having put Gov. Palin in this position? It's painfully obvious that she is, and has been, out of her depth. Don't these recent events also raise questions about her own judgment of her qualifications? She had to know that she was getting in over her head.

Ruth Marcus: Seems to me that they're taking a bunch of heat.


New York: Given that tonight's debate format doesn't allow direct conversation between Biden and Palin, how do you expect Biden to even be able to "put her in a bad light," as you wrote above? Seems from the CBS News interviews aired last night in which Couric asked both candidates the same question and showed answers back-to-back, all Biden needs to do is answer the question coherently -- and Palin will look bad all on her own, as she flails around trying to find words to string together in meaningless ways. No?

Ruth Marcus: Well, most presidential/vice presidential debates haven't had that direct conversation. Last week's was an exception. But it's fair for Biden to comment on and respond to her answers, and the format provides for that.


Germantown, Md.: What does Palin need to do tonight to maybe get this back on the right track for McCain?

Ruth Marcus: Sound smarter, more thoughtful and more knowledgeable than she has in the past few weeks. Reassure voters that she could step into the top job if needed.


Seattle: So, Ruth, do you agree with David Broder that there will be a Bush Bounce that will recover his sub-30s support and lift up Comrade McCain as we all sing kumbaya about the Bush Bailout Bill and how wonderful it is to have we in the middle class bail out the ultra-rich? Or do you in Washington feel our anger yet?

Ruth Marcus: Well, I think some people in Washington (see: House Republicans) have felt that anger. I'm not seeing a lot of kumbaya singing in the next few weeks.


Ridgefield, Conn.: Have all the Republicans who are voting for the TARP taken into consideration that there will be a new Secretary of the Treasury spending the money in about four months? I cannot fathom why people aren't more concerned that we are giving a $700 billion check to an unknown person to spend! From Post congressional reporter Paul Kane's discussion earlier today: "They're giving the money to the Treasury in what they call 'tranches.' ... First bite, $250 billion, then $100 billion, the final $350 billion, congress would be able to block the next Treasury secretary from accessing."

Ruth Marcus: I think that there's a lot of concern, and this is one reason that limits have been put on it.


Washington: I think at the end of the day the Ifill issue is at least a significant appearance issue. In any forum, I couldn't imagine it being okay that the person moderating the debate has such a clear appearance of a conflict. Maybe Ifill will be very fair, and if there hadn't been already a lot of press in the past months on how Obama has gotten favorable coverage by the press, it might seem something Republicans should be magnanimous about, but I think it is wrong for the one vice presidential debate to have such an obvious conflict hanging over it.

Ruth Marcus: As I said, Gwen is my friend and I have a lot of confidence in her abilities and her fairness.


Well said, my....: Ruth, once we get to "the fetus is a separate entity entitled to rights of its own that trump the mother's right to privacy," then I guess we do have to jail women who get illegal abortions for murder. Don't we?

Ruth Marcus: My point was only that the right to privacy doesn't lead inevitably to a right to abortion. To repeat: I think it does, but we got started on this topic by one questioner asking whether it was inconsistent to find one and not the other in the Constitution.


Alexandria, Va.: As an educator, I am curious if the topic of education will be broached tonight, or if that will be appear to be bias because of Palin's known creationism stance.

Ruth Marcus: Read a bunch of vice presidential debate transcripts and I think most if not all touched on education in some form. I can't imagine that Palin's support or non-support of creationism -- the record seems murky to me on this -- would stop the issue from arising. Nor should it. In fact -- better to clear it up.


Chicago: I have no doubt that Gov. Palin is a quick study and has accomplished a lot in her life, but it's also becoming increasingly clear to me (and many others) that she just doesn't know very much about a lot of things. It may not be a big deal if she can't name all nine Justices, for example, but she also can't carry on a coherent discourse about constitutional jurisprudence.

Nor does she show any evidence of having given much thought to most of the pressing issues a new vice president would face. My point is, I'm with an earlier poster who wishes we'd stop lowering the bar for her and letting her "win" the debate if she merely shows up, smiles and puts a few sentences together. This is real-life politics (pardon the pun), and not everything is subjective -- we should expect an objective minimum bar that must be met in our candidates, or else we get stuck with the buffoons in Congress who derail the economy because a grandmother from San Francisco was mean to them. Thanks.

Ruth Marcus: Yes, and high-stakes politics. But congressional Republicans didn't derail the bailout because Nancy Pelosi was mean to them -- they and/or their constituents hated the bill, and that was, I think, an excuse.


Where does McCain stand:... on the abortion issue, by the way?

Ruth Marcus: McCain opposes Roe, has said he would leave the matter to states, and has said he believes abortion should be illegal except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.


Boston: Obviously this couldn't be a debate question, but I would love a reporter to just ask Palin: "Governor, could you tell me about a government issue that you know well and take me through the various arguments around it?" I really would like to see how she actually thinks.

Ruth Marcus: Why not a debate question?


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Are there any examples of a vice-presidential debate making a difference in the outcome of a presidential election?

Ruth Marcus: Nope!


Disappointing Election: You might hate the tone of this election, as do I, but let's start giving credit where credit is due -- it's the right wing slime machine that causes at least 90 percent of it. It has been the same story since Clinton "forced us to look into his sex life." These people think they are entitled to rule, and they'll do anything to hold onto power, including dragging our campaigns into the mud. The Rev. Wright nonsense; the Muslim stuff; the "whitey" lie about Mrs. Obama; the congressman who talks about "uppity" candidates; now the Mad Bomber buddy.

There's lots of slime available that can be heaped on McCain (a do a five-minute wiki search if you're curious), but somehow the Democrats don't use it while the GOP does, and it has been their way of life since Lee Atwater. Listen to Limbaugh this week informing his pathetic listeners that Obama is "half-Arab." Read the racist comments to these chats and others. They believe in their heart of hearts that it's illegitimate for the Democrats to win. There's only one side that can't afford an honest examination of the issues, and that's the one that's responsible. Why not admit it?

Ruth Marcus: Sorry, but I don't think Democrats have entirely clean hands here. See my column a few weeks back about Obama on Social Security.


Wokingham, U.K.: If there were a genuine debate between McCain and Palin, what differences of belief, rather than of information, would appear? They both are intensely, even menacingly, nationalist -- but perhaps her commitment to, and his luke-warmness about, religion would drive a wedge issue or two between them?

Ruth Marcus: That's an interesting question. I think there would be a lot of issues on foreign policy that she hasn't thought too much about, at least in comparison to him. They could have a good debate about ANWR, or maybe, sort of, about global warming.


The Ifill Kerfuffle: It's amazing to me that so many people commenting on these boards know that Gwen Ifill's book -- which has not yet been published -- will speak in hallowed terms about Sen. Obama. If it is a clear-eyed look at some of the "new generation" of politicians who happen to be African American, I would expect her to point out his flubs and missteps as well as his successes. Unless there are a bazillion advance copies of this book floating around out there, people are just applying their own ideological filters to the fact that she is writing this book and moderating these debates.

Ruth Marcus: As I've said, I'm not an impartial observer here.


Maryland: I, like many, are utterly skeptical of Gov. Palin's executive experience and are nervous about her potential to assume the presidency. However, the issue of presidential "experience" is a vague and unsettled field. Furthermore, I am unsure how much of a difference certain portfolios of experience between the candidates will make in terms of the ability to make decisions. My question is this: All else being equal, do you think Gov. Palin will be equipped to choose qualified members of her administration who will provide good reporting or advice? Do we know anything about the choices she may have made in Alaska?

Ruth Marcus: There was a good piece about her choices of high school friends, etc. to serve in her administration in Alaska.


San Francisco: What was McCain doing in Iowa, anyway? The video of his temper flare with the editorial board has gone viral, and the state is firmly in Obama's camp. Who's making these decisions for his campaign? They don't seem like good ones -- another unforced error.

Ruth Marcus: I didn't think the temper flare was so badm but I did think Mike Murphy had a good point with "what they were doing in Iowa anyway?" But maybe their internal polling shows something different.


Columbus, Ga.: Hi Ruth. Why is it that Americans want the Average Joe to be president or vice president? What is wrong with having someone smart and who knows more than they do? We strive for our children to be smart in school, but when it comes to politicians America wants the Average Joe. I've dated a few Average Joes, and that's sometimes just what they are -- average.

Ruth Marcus: Do they? (Want an Average Joe as president?) Not sure. They want somebody they can feel comfortable having a beer with -- but maybe somebody more qualified than them to actually be president.


Boston Again: It's not a debate question because I would hope the answer would take longer than 90 seconds.

Ruth Marcus: Maybe.


Austin, Texas: A month to go, and Obama's lead is looking pretty substantial (although fluid). My question: Do you have any feeling for how big a lead can be overcome in how much time, based on history? In other words, is McCain really in the danger zone now, where he may need a huge external even to turn things around?

Ruth Marcus: Two things that makes this question hard to answer is the increasing prevalence of early voting, and the unknown size of the Bradley effect (Obama doing worse than the polls show, because of his race). But this all still seems very tight to me, and fluid.


Cache Valley, Utah: So, is being a member of the PTA, and popular with Joe Six-Pack make Palin qualified to be vice president of America? As I recall, George W. Bush was lauded as being likable and thus presidential -- how's that workin' out so far?

Ruth Marcus: But never in the PTA!


Atlanta: Let Sarah Palin be mean! I can't see that kind of attitude helping her with anyone but the most core of her core supporters.

Ruth Marcus: I think she manages to do mean in a nice way -- for example, her convention speech was quite biting, but she did it with humorous affect that took off some of the sting.


Sen. McCain had racked up frequent flier miles to Waziristan: Well, Sarah Palin has racked up frequent flier miles to Wasillastan.

Ruth Marcus: I can never keep all those "-stans" straight.


Seattle: But what if we don't want to have a beer with someone? Like most Republicans, I prefer a good wine.

Ruth Marcus: I believe if you don't want to have a beer, you are not a real American.

Kidding, kidding. Most Republicans are wine drinkers -- are you sure? I thought Democrats were the Chablis-and-brie crowd...


Washington: Can we not pretend to be surprised when Palin gets a boost after the debate? All she has to do is show up and she has exceeded expectations.

Ruth Marcus: Sorry, I disagree. She has to do a lot more than just show up. Any forthcoming boost very open to question, in my view.


Bradley Effect Null and Void?: Wasn't the so-called "Bradley Effect" debunked using exit polling in subsequent campaigns (including 2006 campaign with Harold Ford)? If not, please advise!

Ruth Marcus: My point is that we simply don't know on a presidential scale whether there will or won't be such an impact.


Post-Partum: Most working women have to go back 6-12 weeks after delivery, not four or five months. That would be a great question for the candidates -- do they support more flexibility for the working family? My concern about this debate is that the format is tailor-made to prop up Palin's weaknesses. I suppose 90 seconds could be a very long time, but that's something she was effective at in her past debates.

Ruth Marcus: That would be an interesting question.


Anonymous: I think that the Republicans made a serious error by sheltering Gov. Palin from the press. The campaign trail is a learning experience. Once you have answered a question 10 times, you know how to answer it well. Palin's handlers deprived her of this experience, and I am afraid it shows. What do you think?

Ruth Marcus: I have wondered about that, but the problem is that it's pretty hard to start off-Broadway if you are the vice presidential candidate. in other words, you don't have the luxury of doing tryouts and getting the answers down before people start to pay attention. And the fact that she performed so poorly in what were, after all, not especially hard-hitting interviews (Couric was the best, but this was hardly the Spanish Inquisition) suggests that more might not have been better for her. I suspect they analyzed the product they had and figured out the best way to sell it.


Re: I believe if you don't want to have a beer, you are not a real American.: I did some research for a business class, and I found out that when it comes to per-capita beer drinking, Americans are amateurs, especially compared to Germany, England, Belgium, etc.

Ruth Marcus: Okay, wellm that's going to have to be the last word. See you in a few weeks -- goodness knows what might have happened by then.


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