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Real Life Politics

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus.
Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus. (Julia Ewan - The Washington Post)

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Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, October 29, 2008; 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Ruth Marcus was online Wednesday, Oct. 29 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her recent columns, her posts on the Post Partisan blog and the latest news.

The transcript follows.

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Ruth Marcus: Wow -- last chat (as far as I know) before the election. Who thought the day ever would come?

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Reston, Va.: Ruth, do you think that Reid/Pelosi will force President Obama to move further left, or do you think President Obama would force Reid/Pelosi to move toward the center? (Assuming, of course, that Barack Obama is a moderate.)

Ruth Marcus: I think this is the $64,000 question -- questions, actually. who pushes whom, and whether the assumption of Obama as a (relative) moderate is correct. Another piece of it is whether the Democratic congressional leadership will have enough self-awareness and historical memory (1994, anyone?) to withstand their worst instincts and the worst instincts of their caucuses.

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Athens, Ga.: What do you think of Karen Tumulty's idea of Palin appointing herself senator if Stevens wins but resigns?

Ruth Marcus: Appoint herself senator and then get bossed around by the vice president, who's in charge of the Senate? (A joke.) I love Karen and she's a terrific reporter, but Alaskans were none too happy about the most recent governor to appoint a family member to the Senate, and I don't see Palin as particularly senatorial.

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Bethesda, Md.: I was very disappointed in your article today. There can be no comparison between the McCain campaign's overt racism -- inciting crowds to shout "kill him" and "sit down boy" with wild talk about "palling around with terrorists" -- and Obama's negative ads about substantive issues. I cannot imagine why you would want to make such a falsely even-handed argument. Can you really see no difference between negative campaigning that incites hatred against minorities and negative campaigning that focuses on issues?

washingtonpost.com: 'A New Kind of Politics'? Good Luck With That. (Post, Oct. 29)

Ruth Marcus: Sorry to have disappointed you. I think "overt racism" is going too far. I have written previously about the non-equivalence of bad behavior between the two campaigns. But ignoring transgressions on Obama's part, of which I think there have been many, would produce a lot of (justified) e-mails from people on the other side from you that I will excuse anything from Obama.

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Princeton, N.J.: The GOP is warning about "one-party power." How would a Democratic "one-party power" differ from when they were the one party in power?

Ruth Marcus: Um, maybe spend with less abandon? (Only kidding.) Sauce for the goose tastes different, I guess. I do worry about one-party power no matter who is in charge, but I suspect we will find out how Democrats wield it, and whether they wield it more smartly than the last time around.

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Germantown, Md.: One of the two senators must lose the election; who has burnt more bridges with his party and Senate colleagues? I would think that, in part because of age, Sen. McCain might have less influence (unless of course he becomes a Sen. Byrd or Sen. Stevens).

Ruth Marcus: Well, McCain likes to say he hasn't won any Miss Congeniality contests among his colleagues. I think a continuing Sen. Obama would be much more of a force in his party than a continuing Sen. McCain.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I've long admired John McCain, but I've also noticed a recurring pattern in his life: He indulges in questionable episodes (affairs on his first wife, Keating Five, other lobbyist coziness) and then later offers touching, sincerely heartfelt "mea culpas" wherein he takes profuse, full responsibility, and then moves on. I fully expect a couple months after Election Day to see him offer a public apology for "presiding" over this parody of an ugly campaign. At what point does the sin-and-confession game permanently leave him a tragic figure? What will history's image of him be?

Ruth Marcus: Good question. I wrote a few weeks ago about how he apologized for his stance on the Confederate flag after the 2000 campaign.

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Edinberg, N.Y.: I wasn't going to vote for Obama because he's got this crazy reverend who says outrageous things, but then I was presented with a succession of reasons not to vote for him -- terrorist, Bill Ayers, "who is this guy anyway?", several in the middle which I've forgotten, Secret Muslim, and now we've arrived at Socialism. Frankly, I can't decide which reason is the best, so I might stay home.

I'm joking of course, but this insult-of-the-month-club strategy may someday be a separate chapter all to itself in the textbook of political tactics under "stupid." Have you ever seen such an imbecilic approach to electing a candidate, especially given that they still haven't given one good reason why we should vote for their guy, as opposed to against the, uh, "other"? Did these same guys really successfully elect Bush in 2000 and 2004? I sure don't see it.

Ruth Marcus: Imbecilic approach? Um, Willie Horton and American flag and card-carrying member of the ACLU? That worked pretty well.

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Arlington, Va.: I am disturbed that the Los Angeles Times refuses to release a video where Obama praises a Palestinian "activist." The person supposedly has questionable views on terrorists acting against the Israeli state. By not releasing the video, its looks like the Times is trying to cover something up for Obama.

Ruth Marcus: I'm in favor of releasing things so people can judge for themselves, unless there's a good reason not to.

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Washington: I love your chats. Bottom line: Does McCain even have a snowball's chance? Thanks.

Ruth Marcus: Where's the snowball?

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Sen. Palin: While you might not see her as being particularly senatorial, if her eyes are set on 2012 -- as many navel-gazers are saying -- wouldn't it be better for Sen. Palin to run than Gov. Palin?

Ruth Marcus: The current election notwithstanding, the history of senators running for president has not been kind to the wannabes. I think she'd do better sticking to the executive experience argument.

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Self-Appointment to Senate in Alaska: Apparently, by law, the governor of Alaska only is able to appoint an interim senator to the post, until the seat is filled via special election. In theory Gov. Palin could appoint herself, but would face a near-immediate referendum by voters in a special election.

Ruth Marcus: Like the first President Bush used to say, nah gonna happen.

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Chicago: Warning about one-party power is nice in theory, but it's only half the equation -- it doesn't logically follow that you're qualified for a job just because you argue the other guy isn't. Given recent history, I'd rather have the Democrats control all branches of government than put the Republicans in control of any of them. The GOP never seems to address this flaw of theirs, because lately they've become all about criticizing the other guy rather than talking up their own merits. Telling me that Bill Ayers is a terrorist does nothing to assure me that the Republican alternative is any good. (It's why being anti-Bush didn't carry the day in 2004.) They need to start addressing that if they want to change their prospects. Thanks.

Ruth Marcus: I agree: Being concerned about the prospect of one-party power doesn't answer the question of whether that should influence or determine your choice. And certainly the McCain campaign has not made a great affirmative argument for their candidate. I do wonder whether the one-party argument might have some more force in congressional races, where people are deciding whether to throw out the incumbent Republican bum for a new Democratic one.

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Where's the snowball? : In a steel furnace in Ohio. Unfortunately the plant has closed.

Ruth Marcus: Yeah, I think that snowball is pretty mushy then.

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Jonesboro, Ga.: Is there any truth to the "in-fighting" in the GOP? Is it a fractured party as we are made to believe? In all honesty, do you think that this newcomer, Palin, would be able to stake her claim and lead the GOP after Nov. 4 if they lose? Would this not be disastrous, as the GOP once again would be hijacked by the nutty right?

Ruth Marcus: If Obama wins, you ain't seen nothing yet in terms of GOP infighting. Yes, there is some already, and there will be a pitched battle for the party after Nov. 4 if McCain loses. No one will be able to stake a quick claim and lead the party. Palin clearly would like to try, but so would many others. There will be a fight for leadership in the House, and possibly in the Senate as well. And it is not only a traditional libertarian vs. social conservative fight, it's even more fractional than that, I believe -- traditional fiscal conservatives who worry about the deficit vs. anti-taxers who aren't so bothered, and moderate compromisers with Democrats vs. true believers.

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The Real $64,000 Question: The Senate, with its filibuster and deliberately anti-democratic (in a good and purposeful way) nature, are the real limitation. If the Democrats get 58 or so seats, then Obama's agenda will have to draw in two or three Republican votes. A related question is also how Republicans will react. In 1992 they reacted by trying to deprive Democrats of victories to improve Republican prospects in subsequent elections. They may try a similar strategy to prevent Democrats from taking credit for any economic recovery.

Ruth Marcus: Well, 58 is pretty close to 60, so that might not be much of a check in and of itself, depending on the issue -- and 60 is looking closer every day. I think there is every reason to expect Republicans to do the best they can to trip up Democrats, just as Democrats would if the shoe were on the other foot.

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New York: "I'm in favor of releasing things so people can judge for themselves unless there's a good reason not to." I agree, but their story ran six months ago. Releasing the video now might be seen as aiding the McCain camp. And apparently they promised their source never to release it, which is a promise a newspaper should keep.

Ruth Marcus: A good reason would include a promise not to. I read something about it this morning that did not mention the promise.

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Arlington, Va.: In what should be a democratic year, is it possible that Rep. Murtha (D-Pa.) will lose? The recent "Saturday Night Live" skit did him no favors with voters, and the most recent poll I saw had him down by a couple of points, but still within the margin of error.

Ruth Marcus: That would be pretty astonishing. I'm not much of a Murtha fan -- see this, when Pelosi backed Murtha for majority leader.

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Class of '63: When I was in high school, the "it" book to read on the Kennedy/Nixon campaigns was Theodore White's "The Making of the President 1960." Which author(s) do you think will write the definitive (not to mention best-selling) work(s) on this year's presidential election?

Ruth Marcus: There's a number in the works, including my wonderful colleague Dan Balz (and former colleague Haynes Johnson), and another duo, Mark Halperin of Time and John Heileman of New York magazine. I hope they're all best-sellers!

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Burke, Va.: In your column today, you say Obama "was airing ads warning that John McCain wanted to privatize Social Security and would slash seniors' benefits almost in half. You can't get much staler than that." Have you read the Republican platform, which explicitly endorses "personal accounts"? Have you read any Florida newspaper lately, which is likely to be chock-full of stories of senior citizens who only could wish that their retirement savings had been merely cut in half by the recent stock plummet? There is nothing "stale" about attacking the Republican notion that converting the Social Security safety net into a crapshoot is a good idea.

Ruth Marcus: Well, and sorry I keep posting previous columns today, but here's my take on the Social Security fight. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/21/AR2008092101207.html. Here's some of it: "If my opponent had his way, the millions of Floridians who rely on it would have had their Social Security tied up in the stock market this week," Obama said Saturday as he campaigned in that retiree-heavy state. "Millions of families would've been scrambling to figure out how to give their mothers and fathers, their grandmothers and grandfathers, the secure retirement that every American deserves."

This is simply false -- even leaving aside the incendiary language about "privatizing" Social Security. As the invaluable FactCheck.org noted, 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. The sensible notion was that workers at or near retirement age should be able to rely on promised benefits and should not be subject to the vicissitudes of short-term market fluctuations.

There is a fair argument to be had about the wisdom of having workers invest part of their Social Security taxes in private accounts. This year's plunge buttresses the contention that such accounts are too risky to comprise even part of what was conceived, after all, to serve as a safety net.

But Obama's cartoon version of private accounts is not what Bush suggested, and it certainly is not something being peddled by McCain now. Under Bush's plan, workers would have been able to invest less than a third of their Social Security taxes in private accounts. Unless they specifically chose a riskier course, workers, beginning at age 47, would have had their investments put in "life-cycle portfolios" that shifted from high-growth funds to more secure bonds as retirement approached.

Obama's ads on Social Security are equally misleading. "Cutting benefits in half, risking Social Security on the stock market," it warns. "The Bush-McCain privatization plan. Can you really afford more of the same?"

Cutting benefits in half? As FactCheck notes, "this is a rank misrepresentation." No one at or near retirement age would have been affected. Those retiring in the future would not have received benefits as big as what they have been promised under current law -- but those promises cannot be paid for under the current system or even through the payroll tax increase on the wealthy that Obama has proposed.

The Bush plan would have limited benefits for some workers to growing at the rate of inflation rather than at the generally faster pace of wages. In other words, these workers would be getting benefits equal in real dollar value to those received by current retirees. But under the "progressive price indexing" approach endorsed by the president, lower-income workers would continue to receive all their promised benefits; medium-income workers would have their benefits reduced somewhat; and high-income workers would take the biggest hit.

The Obama campaign stretches the truth beyond recognition when it says that this would cut benefits in half. Under progressive price indexing, the average-earning worker would see a 28 percent cut in promised benefits -- in 2075. In other words, trims of that magnitude would affect workers not yet born. Today's average-earning 25-year-old would experience much smaller reductions in promised benefits upon reaching retirement age -- more like 16 percent.

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Pittsburgh: Where's the snowball? Well, it's snowing here in Western Pennsylvania today, evidently pretty heavily up in the mountains. On a serious note, Pennsylvania doesn't allow early voting, so which party do you think will be favored here if voting is suppressed next Tuesday by another snowstorm?

Ruth Marcus: The traditional answer would be that Republicans are more likely to get out and vote in bad weather but I suspect that the Obama GOTV operation is in better shape and that snow might favor D's.

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GOP Leadership: One of the names I've heard tossed about as someone who could step in and lead the GOP is none other than Newt Gingrich. Do you think he would stand any chance of assuming a leadership role once more?

Ruth Marcus: Sure loks like he wants to. He defnitely had the itch to run this time around before he decided not to.

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Alexandria, Va.: Thanks for taking some time today to answer questions. There are a couple sound bites that I have heard in the past week that have perked my ears up. One was during a Barrack speech where he said that everyone making under $200,000 would get a tax cut. Then two days ago Joe Biden said it would be good to get things back to the old days for the middle class and have tax cuts for those under $150,000 in income, but raise taxes for everyone else.

What is going on here? Both candidates on the ticket have lowered the amount that Obama has been preaching, in which 95 percent of working Americans would get a tax cut under him and the increase/decrease threshold would be $250,000 in income. Are they changing their position late in the game for a bait-and-switch maneuver when they get into office? I would find it hard to believe that this is just a simple speech gaffe considering how long the $250,000 has been a talking point.

Ruth Marcus: Two different things. Obama says he won't RAISE anyone's taxes except individuals making more than $200k and families making more than $250k. Then, there are the people whose taxes he says he will CUT, which is, I think,

the under $200k crowd. Not certain where the Biden number comes from but I wouldn't make too much of it.

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Washington: Any chance we Democrats will ever be rid of Pelosi and her lack of leadership? I haven't seen her lift a finger for Obama, even in safe Democratic states. Wexler for Speaker! From a disgruntled former Hill staffer.

Ruth Marcus: hard to imagine dems canning a speaker who just won a bunch of seats, which she is likel to have done.

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Rockville, Md.: McCain says that Obama's tax cuts are socialist because the tax rate for upper income will be what it was under President Clinton, instead of what it has been under President Bush. Why isn't Obama and the press arguing the opposite -- that McCain's proposal will take money from the middle class and give it to the wealthiest Americans by extending the Bush tax cuts and denying the middle class the Obama tax cuts. That seems to me to be a simple way of getting across the Obama message.

Ruth Marcus: Noted.

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Atlanta: Seriously, one reason the McCain campaign has to show you who Obama is is that the media is not. There has been little to no vetting of him -- there are all sorts of questions he won't answer, and most of his answers are flippant and/or belittling (I just heard him say "my opponent will tell you I'm a communist because I shared my toys in kindergarten" -- an appalling reaction).

Ruth Marcus: Not sure what questions he's failed to answer.

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Kensington, Md.: There's actually a very good reason why the Los Angeles Times shouldn't release that video that was just mentioned above. It's all of six days before the election, and the first thing that would happen would be that the wingnuts would take it to the editing room. By the time they were finished they'd have 10,000 YouTube posts of Obama riding an H-Bomb aimed at Jerusalem, a la Dr. Strangelove. Obviously I exaggerate, but I'm sure that the editors don't want to let this sort of stuff help determine the election, and I can't blame them. If it were six weeks or six months instead of six days, I might feel differently.

Ruth Marcus: If that's the only reason, I would be uncomfortabl with holding it back for that reason. More information is better than less information, and once we in the press start worrying about the impact of providing information we stop doing our jobs and start doing one campaign's or the other, even inadvertently.

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Washington: Would Obama be another Adrian Fenty, with bright ideas that lead to disaster? We had confidence in the Mayor Fenty, and he has run our city into $135 million in debt. He has no leadership. The people he has surrounded himself with have no experience. He has cut jobs, and has no use for the older worker. Will Obama be the same? I know that Obama and Fenty are friends; would he also follow Fenty's lead and ruin the country? I have great concerns regarding this. Would he also be against the older worker? Would he hire experienced workers in top positions? I am black, but I have my concerns, and they are with cause. Adrian Fenty has taught Washington residents a lessons when it comes to saying what he thinks you want to here and then not delivering when he gets the job.

Ruth Marcus: I'm not sure they're comparable figures, other than that both are relatively young and African-American.

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Bowie, Md.: In your opinion, why is the race as tight as it is? Isn't it strange that McCain has made so many mistakes and still in the race? Does this reflect badly on Obama, or is it more reflective of the good will people feel for McCain?

Ruth Marcus: Lots of reasons, I think. Obama has relatively little experience, that gives some people pause, understandably so. McCain did start with a lot of good will, though he's squandered a whole huge chunk of it. And there is the discomfort with race lurking under the surface, at least for some people.

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Newt Gingrich: What's the theory here? That McCain has proved you can still be a powerful politician if you cheat on your wife, as long as you fess up later?

Ruth Marcus: I think the theory is that nature abhors a vaccuum and Gingrich abhors being out of the limelight!

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Arlington, Va.: This whole socialist thing seems idiotic to me. We always have had a progressive income tax system. By definition it is "redistributing" the wealth. Was Reagan a socialist? Bush? These people are morons. And why does America think it can have everything it wants for free? I personally think we don't pay enough taxes in this country. But frankly, I am a socialist.

Ruth Marcus: Well, I'm not a socialist, and I think it's idiotic too. I wrote about it a few weeks ago, but somehow they decided to keep going :)

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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.: I am the mathematician who has written to you before about this. It would have to affect current benefits, because Social Security is a flow-through system, and if you divert the inflow, you reduce the outflow. If you want to be stupid, you can use up the trust fund, but even that will not last for long.

Ruth Marcus:"If you want to be stupid..." well, that's what's been happening so there's no reason to think they wouldn't keep going with that. And in any event, the plan was explicitly to keep current benefits in place for current retirees.

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Would he hire experienced workers in top positions?: It's a bit difficult to argue that Obama's advisers are not experienced.

Ruth Marcus: Agreed, he has assembled a very good team, I think.

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Re: That GOP Flaw: The GOP problem is that, since 1980, they have been running on a platform of "elect us, we're the anti-establishment." However, when they got total control of the government in 2000, the coalition of insurgents went wild because there was a common electoral philosophy but not a common governing philosophy.

Ruth Marcus: Well, I think there was a common governing philosophy during the Reagan administration. Not this time around, though. Is there a commong governing philosophy among Democrats? I suspect we'll get a chance to find out.

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Ruth Marcus: Ok, everyone, see you all after Election Day. Looking forward to it.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Hi Ruth. Already there seems to be a backlash growing against Obama's TV spot tonight -- too arrogant, he's already overexposed, etc., etc. My view: If you have the money, why not spend it? And more importantly, if voters are concerned about who he "really" is, then what better way to try to answer that question? What's your take?

Ruth Marcus: ok, and this one last question: yeah, I don't get the complaint about the spot. Like 30 seconds is ok but if he wants to communicate for 30 minutes, how dare he? Different question from the inequality in campaign funding, which is a problem, but if he's got it, I don't see any problem in using it to communicate with people.

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