Wednesday, Feb. 18 at 1 p.m. ET

Real Life Politics: Ruth Marcus on GOP Opposition, the Housing Rescue Plan and More

Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, February 18, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Ruth Marcus was online Wednesday, Feb. 18 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her recent columns, her posts on the Post Partisan blog and the latest news.

The transcript follows.

Read today's column: Peer Pressure in the GOP

Ruth Marcus is an editorial writer for The Post, specializing in American politics, campaign finance, the federal budget and taxes, and other domestic issues. She writes a weekly column that appears on Wednesdays.

Marcus has been with The Post since 1984, beginning as a reporter on the Maryland staff, covering local development and other issues, and then transferring to the District staff to cover lawyers and legal issues. She joined the national staff in 1986, covering campaign finance, the Justice Department, the Supreme Court and the White House. From 1999 through 2002, she served as deputy national editor, supervising reporters who covered money and politics, Congress, the Supreme Court, and other national issues. She joined the editorial board in 2003.

Discussion archive


Ruth Marcus: Hi everyone. Looking forward to answering your questions.


Enough rope to hang themselves?: Burris is the latest exemplar that the true goals of most elected politicians (Republican and Democrat) are all toward gaining power for self-interest, self-enrichment, self-aggrandizement, pure selfishness and self first.

If a few "regular" citizens and people are helped, so be it, but that's merely a P.R. opportunity.

The ongoing republican spin-machine with regard to the stimulus package is just the most recent example of their utterly corrupt ideology and total party hypocrisy.

I think Obama has made a few missteps, but my real hope is that he gives the selfish and hypocritical enough rope to hang themselves no matter what their party affiliation. Do you think he's smart enough to do just that?

Ruth Marcus: I think he's plenty smart, but you have outdone me on the cynicism front. I think most politicians, like most people, are complex mixtures of self-interest and public interest. And while I disagree with congressional Republicans about many things, including the stimulus, I would not subscribe to your view of "their utterly corrupt ideology."


Tulsa, Okla.: Many of us on the left think that the grand ulterior motive of Republican tax cuts and the underfunding of government programs is to fulfill their own prophecy that government can't do anything good for people.

To what extent do you feel that Congressional Republicans want the country to get worse over the next two years, for their own perceived electoral advantages?

Ruth Marcus: I think there is always some conflict of interest inherent in being the out-party and looking at the economic picture. It certainly helped Democrats and President Obama that the economy was suffering during the campaign. I think most Republicans want to see everything get worse, economically, over the next two years? No, I don't; I think everyone understands that the current economic situation is dire. I was appalled to hear Rush Limbaugh talk the other day about how he hopes the stimulus will fail, but I do not think that is the majority Republican view, even behind closed doors.


New Brunswick, N.J.: The "crass reality" explanation you mention in the piece is the "real" explanation. I don't think Republicans CAN break ranks and support Obama without their party's withering away even faster than it is doing now. Put another way, the Republican Party only exists now to hinder anything the Democrats do.

They have already shoved aside social conservatism -- that was a means to an end for them. Their only remaining policy is cutting taxes. That has already been tried and has failed. But they can't give it up, else they give up Republicanism -- and their source of income. Hence my conclusion: Republicans will continue a near 100 percent opposition to Democratic policies because they cannot do otherwise without vanishing altogether.

My question: how well do Democrats understand this Republican imperative?

Ruth Marcus: I think they have an alternative, although it is hard to make it work given the current gerrymandered state of congressional districts. Look at Republican governors and their policy positions, including on the stimulus, vs. Republican members of congress. The alternative is to be a reasonable opposition, not simply hindering, because that is not a strategy back to a majority for them.


Atlanta: I'm not a die-hard Republican, but I admittedly have made that Churchillian turn toward being more conservative than liberal. So, with that said, I think we will have to wait 2 years and see how this all turns out for the Republicans.

Although left-leaning columnists suggest that a stimulus package was supported by the majority of economists (whoever they might be), the bill does not appear to have been the product of that unidentified group's thinking. Instead, it was the product of the Democratic Congressional leadership. Two years from now, once people will have had a chance to read the bill, it will be much clearer how much pork (and is there is any serious argument that there is not pork) stuffed into the bill, and whether and how much the Democratic leaders personally benefited from the same.

And, of course, we will then have an idea of how many and what kind of additional jobs have been created through the stimulus. In the meantime, Democrats will have pushed their other legislative initiatives, all of which will cost still more dizzying amounts of money. It's true that conservatives need to figure out a way of how to make just saying "no" look like something other than mere obstructionism.

Democrats have their crosses to bear in this same way, e.g., how to make not wearing a flag lapel pin not make them look unpatriotic or how being for criminal defendant's rights doesn't make them look soft on crime. But, I wouldn't bury the Republicans and/or conservatives just yet. At least to me, signing on to this stimulus bill seemed like a bad risk/reward situation for Republicans and certainly for conservative Republicans.

Ruth Marcus: Well, one person's pork is another person's needed investment. I am not an unthinking cheerleader for the stimulus measure, but I think you go way too far in suggesting that Democratic leaders "personally benefited" from its provisions. I was/am convinced that it was important to have a large stimulus measure; it is hard to spend that much money in the most traditionally stimulative (e.g. Food Stamps, unemployment benefits) ways. Therefore you run the risk of programs that are not well thought through policy because they have been rushed into being so quickly or that become a permanent part of the federal budget. We'll see President Obama's first actual budget next week, so that will give a glimpse about his administration's willingness to do some belt-tightening down the road.


Chantilly, Va.: Okay -- here's the housing plan in a nutshell: Are you irresponsible with your money? Overextended on debt? Like to buy more than you can afford? Here's your handout ...

My wife and I have passed on purchasing fancy televisions and new cars so that we could afford a modest home in a decent neighborhood on our income. We're nowhere near "underwater" on our home. We both come from a modest background and have worked hard and watch our finances prudently in order to do things right. I guess we're the suckers in this game, huh?

Ruth Marcus: This is a very fair and difficult point. There is an inherent risk of moral hazard whenever you deal with bailing out homeowners, and I think the Obama administration was very cognizant of this. But with the housing market tanking and many homeowners underwater/in foreclosure through no fault of their own, the imperatives of acting outweighed the legitimate downside that you point out.


Evanston, Ill.: Hey Ruth, what did you make of the Tom Defrank article about Cheney and Bush? It is terrific stuff. It almost reads like they hate each other now. Ex-VP Dick Cheney outraged President Bush didn't grant 'Scooter' Libby full pardon (NY Daily News, Feb. 17)

Ruth Marcus: There have been other glimmerings of Cheney-Bush tension -- for example, when Cheney filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court on the Second Amendment. But I think hate is too strong a word. I'll stick with tension.


Anonymous: Any inside scoop on how/when/if Burris will resign?

Ruth Marcus: Why would he go anywhere? Seriously, the guy has shown himself to be a clown, and a dishonest clown at that, but it does not seem to me that he will leave voluntarily, because there is no incentive for him to do so and in the meantime he gets to be a U.S. Senator. The mechanisms for displacing him are incredibly slow-moving. I hope I'm wrong, but...


re: "their utterly corrupt ideology": I say that as an ex-Republican who was much more of a Goldwater Republican -- yes the "classic Republican" philosophy still has great value -- I guess I don't see many of those people currently serving (nor many from the past 30 years) as adhering to the goals of classic republican philosophy.

Certainly not those in leadership positions.

If I am cynical about politicians, especially the party I once supported, it is due to a lifetime of evidence which they have so amply provided.

Ruth Marcus: Well, one thing that you see happening right now is Republicans trying to reclaim some of their squandered credibility on "classic Republican" issues such as fiscal responsibility.


"The Republicans should have thanked the three...": Actually several non-print outlets reported that plenty of Republicans privately thanked Spector, Snowe and Collins for their votes, but weren't brave enough to vote yes for fear of "Club for Growth" challenges. That leaves me of two minds concerning how Pelosi/Reid should have acted. I would have loved for them to strip funding for districts and remove amendments offered by "No" voters, to make it clear that posturing wasn't an option, but on the other hand, the President got pretty much what he wanted, when he wanted, and the House GOP took a big hit in popularity right out the gate. What's your opinion?

Ruth Marcus: The leadership was as furious behind the scenes with the three of them as they were in public.


Scottsdale, Ariz.: I'm here in Arizona where President Obama just did a great job explaining the problem and his proposals to address the housing crisis. What was equally important is that he talked about what his plan will NOT do, e.g., bail out speculators.

Now, about your column regarding the Republican party. What is with John McCain? He had no interest in economic issues until the Fall of 2008. Now, he's acting as if he's the world's foremost authority. Is it bitterness? Or is he worried about his reelection to the Senate?

Ruth Marcus: I don't think economics are McCain's strongest point, but it is overstating to say he had no interest in the economy prior to 2008. I don't think his recent stance had to do with reelection. What I'd love to see is for McCain and Obama to find another issue -- climate change is the one I have in mind--on which they could join forces and tap into the maverick/bipartisan McCain instead of, as you suggest, the bitter one.


Re: Atlanta: The "majority of economists" would have stripped the income tax cuts and almost all the tax measures from the stimulus and inserted more infrastructure spending, both of which would have angered Republicans even more.

Ruth Marcus: Not sure I agree about what the majority would say about the personal tax cuts; the business provisions were less stimulative. I think most economists would have rejiggered the personal tax cuts/refundable credits to make them more stimulative by concentrating more of the benefits to those more likely to spend, i.e. those with lower incomes.


Yonkers, NY : This might seem crazy, but what if the GOP were to split up into three constituent parts, the social conservatives, the economic conservatives, and a small libertarian branch. Wouldn't this leave a vacuum of sorts, and induce the Democratic party to split as well, perhaps into a blue dog faction, a labor faction, and a neo-isolationist group, perhaps? Once the spell of the two party system is broken, I think it breaks everywhere.

Ruth Marcus: Why would a GOP split lead to a Democratic one? I think the two-party system is pretty well entrenched -- or at least entrenched enough that the likelihood would be of a third party, not third, fourth, fifth, etc. parties.


GOP Senators: Aren't several of the no vote GOP Senators in retirement mode anyway? Gregg, K.B. Hutchinson to name but two. What do they need stimulus funds for, anyway?

Ruth Marcus: Actually, one might have thought that the retirement issue could have freed some GOP senators -- Mel Martinez, George Voinovich -- to vote for stimulus, against party.


New Brunswick, N.J.: "The leadership was as furious behind the scenes with the three of them as they were in public. "

And why is that? Why is it that in a time of dire crisis - REALLY dire crisis - some Republicans can't break ranks and support some relief measure without INFURIATING the leadership? Even if they pleaded that they were moved by desperate constituents.

It's because the Republicans can only exist at this point in US history as in total opposition to Obama. They dare not chance that his policies will work. If that happens, Republicans will disappear at least for a while as a political (and funded) force.

Come on, ask yourself, is fury a reasonable response in an emergency like this?

Ruth Marcus: I did not think it was a smart response. But I don't think simply sitting around and hoping that Obama fails is smart either.


Seattle: On Rachel Maddow last night, Rachel was asking Gov. Pawlenty if GOP governors who were lobbying for "No" votes on the stimulus shouldn't accept funding from the stimulus. Your thoughts?

Ruth Marcus: The point is to try to fix the economy, not punish political opponents.


Marginal Rates: Ms Marcus, why not much higher marginal rates?

1. During the period 1946 - 1973 taxes were much higher. Marginal rates averaged 70 percent; they were 93 percent under Eisenhower. The economy was better than what we now have. For example, median wages went up about 3 times as fast as since then. Also I recently saw a graph of the national debt as a percentage of the GDP from 1946 to the present. It started high, went straight down until 1973, and then flatten out and in 1980 made a sharp turn and went straight up except for a wiggle during the Clinton administration. CEO's earned 50 times what their workers earned; it is 500 times today. Staring in 1973, the percent of wealth and income taken by the richest 10, 1 and 0.1 percent has gone up at an ever increasing rate

2. We are now told that taxes were too high during the Clinton administration, and it would be terrible to go back to them, but the economy was better then than what we have now. For example, 20,569,000 million private sector jobs were created during Clinton's terms while Bush created 417,000 with 2 trillion in tax cuts.

3. In you look at other countries, you will see that that many have much higher taxes, but also higher growth rate. For example, our total tax rate is 26.1 percent while Sweden has a total tax rate of 50.2 percent, the average per capita growth in the GDP 1995 - 2005 was 2.1 percent for the US and 2.6 percent for Sweden. Spain had a 50 percent higher tax rate and 50 percent higher growth. Japan, on the other hand, had a lower tax rate and its growth was less than half of our growth. Again executives in other countries earn much less and make better decisions.

Ruth Marcus: I don't think this is the right time to raise taxes, but as a general matter government needs more revenue than it is bringing in, and certainly returning marginal rates on the top brackets to where they were during the Clinton years would make sense.


Washington, D.C.: I can hardly look at the television screen when I see McCain, Boehner, and the rest talking about "spending our children's money" on the stimulus package -- yet they voted for tax decreases on billionaires while paying for the Iraq war with loans from China. Who will pay back the loans? Never in the country's history have we decreased taxes in the midst of war.

It is really frustrating that the mainstream media does not seem to make this connection, or question any of these GOP leaders on this obvious contradiction.

Ruth Marcus: Sorry, but we made this points endlessly on the editorial page, and in opeds. Here's one.


Washington, D.C.: People like the chatter from Chantilly frustrated me. Your reward is that you are safe and sound. Your reward is your daily peace of mind, and contentment with yourselves!! Whatever the "others" get is not going to be some great price or's an attempt at a solution to a problem we cannot deny existing. So I wish people like Chantilly would just take satisfaction in themselves rather than spending time be jealous that the have-nots are getting something. I did all the right things too, and I noticed those around me making unrealistic decisions.....but hey, I can sleep soundly at night.

Ruth Marcus: Okay, Chantilly, better read this.


housing "suckers": If you did everything right when you bought your house, then you are still benefiting from the housing plan. Because your neighbors will be less likely to go into foreclosure and bring down your property values. Now, I, as a renter, am disadvantaged by this plan which keeps housing prices artificially high. I would very much like your property values to go down. Nothing personal. Its just all about what's best for me, you know.

Ruth Marcus: Noted...


Princeton, N.J.: Republicans will have to give up their cherished myths. Cutting taxes does not increase tax revenue. Higher taxes do not inhibit growth. Look at the period 1946 - 1973 when taxes were much higher (marginal rate = 70 percent) and the economy was much better. We cannot predict the future of Social Security. Look at the record of these predictions. Single-payer heath care systems are simply more efficient than our mess. Other countries get much better health care as measured by all of the basic public health statistics at much lower cost.

When this happens, Satan will have to buy a down jacket.

Ruth Marcus: Cherished myths on both sides, methinks.


Opinion "Journalism"?: I was reading yesterday across the blogosphere that there were several misstatements of fact in George Will's most recent column, which offers up some stunning misinformation on global warming. TPM received no response from Fred Hiatt and Will himself as to how this misinformation ended up in the Washington Post. My question to you is this: If something is labeled "opinion," does that mean it doesn't get fact-checked or edited, at all? Are columnists at the Post (and other venues) actually allowed to not only offer up their own opinions, but also their own facts/statistics?

Will's column: Dark Green Doomsayers

TPM article: Hiatt, Will, On Global Warming Misinformation: Talk To The Hand

Ruth Marcus: I can't speak to the Will column because I don't know anything about the particulars. But my columns are fact-checked by very good people at The Washignton Post Writers Group, which syndicates the column, and on our editorial copy desk, and they have caught more factual errors of mine than I would care to admit, for which I am endlessly grateful.


New York: The other Post -- the embarrassing NY Post- has a political cartoon today depicting the author of the stimulus package as a berserk monkey, shot by police. This is a reference to a recent tragic incident in Connecticut, where a 200-pound chimp had to be destroyed after it attacked a woman.

Do you think this is a racist cartoon? Do you think that the tabloid press has gone off the rails trying to compete with other unsupervised media, like the blogs?

Ruth Marcus: Haven't seen the cartoon. Don't think we can blame this one on blogs dragging down standards. I can see why the cartoonist would have wanted to seize on the crazy chimp story, and also why it would be a dangerous place to go (you risk being accused of racism.) I wouldn't call it racist, but I think if I were the cartoonist I would have found another way to make my point. Then again, that might make me not a very good cartoonist.


Pittsburgh: Given that Alaska's economy is dependent in large measure on oil, how has Sarah Palin's popularity as governor been affected by the recent significant drop in oil prices per barrel? How much money are the state and its citizens (who receive state checks based on oil income) losing as a result?

Ruth Marcus: Not sure that Alaska voters will punish her for oil prices that are obviously outside her control, but clearly that will put a strain on the state budget. I did see that there is some friction between Gov. Palin and the legislature, but I suspect that has more to do with her national ambitions vs. state responsibilities than with falling oil prices.


Ruth Marcus: Okay, everyone, thanks for the chat. I'll be back in two weeks--when, I suspect, Roland Burris will still be senator. If I'm wrong, though, I'll be happy to correct!


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.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company