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Post Politics Hour

Alec MacGillis
Washington Post National Political Reporter
Monday, March 9, 2009 11:00 AM

Don't want to miss out on the latest in politics? Start each day with The Post Politics Hour. Join in each weekday morning at 11 a.m. as a member of The Washington Post's team of White House and congressional reporters answers questions about the latest in buzz in Washington and the Post's coverage of political news.

Alec MacGillis, Washington Post national political reporter, was online Monday, March 9, at 11 a.m. ET to take questions about the economy, President Obama's plan to lift the ban on stem cell research, the GOP fighting back after criticism of Rush Limbaugh and more.

A transcript follows.

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Archive: Post Politics Hour Discussion Transcripts

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Alec MacGillis: Greetings, everyone. Alec MacGillis here. Thanks for joining us this morning, and please send along any questions you might have. I'll try to get to as many as I can. I'll take ones on any topic, though I've been writing a lot about the stimulus package in particular these past couple weeks.

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Arlington, Va.: Are the Republicans on board with Rush Limbaugh in hoping that Obama fails in trying to revive the economy? Do they think this is a good strategy and do they really think their own jobs are safe if the economy is failing?

Alec MacGillis: This was the big story last week, of course -- it really kind of came out of nowhere, and we'll see how much it lingers on this week. No doubt, there is a wide range of thoughts among elected Republicans about Rush's hopes for Obama's failures -- some certainly share that sentiment, though they wouldn't put it so baldly, while others probably think it's outrageous for him to say that -- after all, congressmen own stocks, too...But as for their own jobs: keep in mind that the vast majority of congressional Republicans are now in quite conservative districts. While the Democrats do still have their eyes on a few possible targets for additional pickups, most remaining Republicans (at least in the House) feel pretty safe right now.

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washingtonpost.com: Money Stimulates Debate in States Over Plan's Goals (Post, March 9)

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San Diego, Calif.: I'm sure many in America will scream loudly about the President lifting the ban on stem cell research because it will involve "killing human beings" by their logic. However, has any reporting been done to determine whether critics of lifting the ban have looked for ways to either (1) hold responsible the parents of the frozen embryos in question or (2) search for available wombs in which the embryos can be implanted? If the critics aren't looking for a solution to what they see as a moral problem, then to me their moralistic chatter is pointless.

Alec MacGillis: Good question, San Diego. This has long been one of the overlooked aspects of the stem cell controversy, that what scientists have been pushing for was doing research using some of the countless embryos that are created during fertility treatments and that are likely to be discarded. It's been interesting that many of those questioning the ethics of using those embryos for research have not directed the same kind of fire at the fertility procedures that create those embryos to begin with. That said, there is widespread support for using those embryos for research, which is why Obama's announcement today will probably be well received. This thornier question is whether Congress will go further and lift a ban on actually creating embryos for the purpose of research, which would be even more useful from a scientific perspective but does raise other ethical issues.

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Fayetteville, N.C.: I read Rep. Cantor's comments on stem-cell research. It sounded more like "slow down, we can't keep up" than any real complaint.

Is the administration throwing so much at the Republicans they're have trouble rallying any real defense?

Alec MacGillis: A couple things here. One, the Republicans are probably war of mounting a full throttle battle on the stem cell measure because it does have majority support in polls, and some Republicans in Congress also support it, such as Orrin Hatch. But as to the Republicans' broader strategy, I do think they are struggling somewhat now to decide just which targets to take on, and whether to direct their fire at Obama or Congressional Democrats. At first, they seemed to be trying to triangulate Obama and Congressional Dems, criticizing the latter while praising Obama, to try to score political points without going after a popular president. But my colleague Perry Bacon had a good article over the weekend reporting that they have more recently decided that they'll have to go after Obama more directly, since the budget plan that they so decry, for instance, is most definitely his creation.

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Burke, Va.: If, as the Obama administration argues, stem cell research is so promising, why does it require federal subsidies? If the potential to develop life-changing drugs and treatments is so great, why aren't drug companies putting their money down for research? Is this another black hole we're pouring money into (see Citi bank and AIG), in order for Obama to curry favor with political supporters -- in this case abortion rights supporters and left-leaning academics?

Alec MacGillis: There definitely is private research ongoing, and some states have also funded the research on their own to try to encourage the biotech industry in their states. But the fact is that the vast bulk of medical research in this country is funded by the federal government, via NIH and others. Breakthroughs with stem cells are simply far more likely if researchers can have access to federal funds. And it has been a logistical nightmare for many researchers who do work with private funds and with federal funds to keep their different channels of work separate so as not to violate the Bush restrictions.

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Arlington, Va.: So the Dallas Morning News is reporting that Ron Kirk's tax errors don't appear to threaten his confirmation as Barack Obama's U.S. trade representative, according to key senators and tax experts because "The amount of money in this whole thing is not a very big deal." Tax issues won't derail Kirk, key senators, experts say (Dallas News.com, March 4) So do we all get to cheat on our taxes just a little? Why the double standard compared to Sen. Daschel?

Alec MacGillis: This is a good question, similar to those raised about Tim Geithner's tax problems at the time of Daschle's departure. Here's my theory: Daschle's problem wasn't just that he hadn't paid taxes on his car and driver, but the broader image problem that arose from his having raked in so much money after leaving the Senate, in work that was technically not 'lobbying' but sure looked like lobbying; the fact that some of the money came from the health care companies who'd have such a big stake in his health care overhaul also didn't help. Daschle's big earnings and the car and driver just didn't look good at a time when everyone's angry about corporate excess -- it wasn't just his taxes.

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Concord, N.H.: Alec: Paul Krugman says media coverage of the stimulus is only now including voices of economists like him who believe Obama isn't doing enough. What's your take on who has the more cogent critique: those who see the stimulus as too aggressive or those who see it as too timid?

Alec MacGillis: Hello, Concord. Glad to take this one as I used to work at the Concord Monitor. I agree with Krugman with this but only to a point. Yes, it is true that much of the debate before the stimulus package was signed was whether it was too big, not too small. But that's largely due to the course the debate took in Congress -- the fact is, there were hundreds of Republicans and conservative Dems fretting it was too small, and only a handful of Dems arguing that it wasn't big enough, while the White House mostly hung back, even though it later admitted that it worried that the final package wasn't big enough. Krugman's voice was certainly being included in the debate -- he has one of the most visible perches in journalism and made some strong appearances on TV. And, in my own defense, I have to say that I wrote several long pieces for the paper before the bill was signed raising the liberal critique that the bill was not big or transformative enough.

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Sterling, Va.: Followup to an earlier question. Why is President Obama pushing SO many initiatives: Guantanamo, stem-cells, S-CHIP, "moral waivers" for health care workers. I happen to agree with all of his positions, but am curious as to why he is changing so much while simultaneously working on a ginormous spending bill. Is he just trying to push through as much as possible before the honeymoon period is over?

Alec MacGillis: He is busy. But several of the examples you cite are actually ones that don't that much time, relatively speaking -- they are, almost literally, a matter of signing on the dotted line. They are also things that he was getting a lot of pressure on from various quarters, since he had promised action in the campaign. And in several cases he has deferred the toughest parts of the issues til later, such as the stem cell distinction I mention below, and the question of what to do with the prisoners at Gitmo.

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Hell's Kitchen NYC: I keep hearing/reading reporters totally misstate the Employee Free Choice Act. Corporate groups falsely assert that the bill does away with secret ballot elections, which is absolutely not true. Really the only thing that the Employee Free Choice Act eliminates is management's ability to 'insist' on a secret ballot election, which union-focused employees definitely don't want. Isn't that right?

Alec MacGillis: You're right, Hell's Kitchen, the bill does not entirely 'do away with' secret ballot elections, because workers organizing a given workplace will still be able to choose to use secret ballots instead of 'card check' if they want to. But the fact is, most organizers will choose card check instead of the secret ballot option because it is simply easier to organize that way. So both sides are being a bit disingenuous here -- the secret ballot will not be eliminated, as the business side claims, but the unions are also not being entirely straight when they say that this is not about getting rid of the secret ballot. The fact is, the whole point of this part of the bill is to make it easier to organize without the secret ballot. I'm a bit surprised, in fact, that unions have taken this tack in their arguments -- vowing that the secret ballot is safe and sound -- instead of focusing on explaining how flawed the secret ballot process has become, and that it is not the hallowed form of democracy that businesses make it out to be.

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Washington, D.C.: RE; Vetting issues. Isn't one of the problems with the tax problems for nominees that they are being held to a higher standard by the committees than the IRS? Going back for 12-15 years, and then citing lack of documentation, when the IRS only requires you to keep the documentation for 7 or 8 years. How many members of the committees doing the hearings have had such vetting?

Alec MacGillis: This is a good point, D.C. There's been a lot of talk about the 'vetting failures' of the Obama White House, but in some cases it's more a matter of their vetting being more extreme than what has been used in the past than it's being too lax. Some of the problems that have surfaced with nominees wouldn't have even been known about in past administrations. That said, there's some poetic justice at work here too -- Tim Geithner's picks for deputy Treasury secretaries are going through such rough vetting partly to avoid any problems similar to what his own tax issues caused. If it weren't for his skating through with unpaid taxes, his deputies may not be having as tough a time.

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90 percent vs. 2 percent?: Barack Obama has proposed a budget that, among other things, would reduce taxes on more than 9 out of 10 Americans and increase taxes on around the wealthiest 2 percent of the population (actually, just letting Bush's tax cuts expire on schedule). Flipping through the Sunday talk shows, it's striking to see how uniformly wealthy media celebrities think it makes sense to characterize this is a "tax increase" or "raising taxes" and to leap immediately to a discussion of what the impact of these "higher taxes" will be. I think that the 95 percent of people whose taxes are set to go down might be more interested in learning about the impact of lower taxes, don't you, Alec?

Alec MacGillis: You definitely have a point on this one. The TV talk of 'raising taxes' does often leave out the broader context, and Republicans have done their best to frame the debate this way as well. Also left unmentioned often is that the higher rates for the rich will not kick in until 2011. We'll see if the White House decides it needs to do more to push back on this, to make clear again just who would be hurt and helped, because the fact is that polls are showing that taxing the rich right now is a much more popular proposition than it has been in years past.

That said, there are also of course those on both right and left who think that it is unrealistic for Obama to be funded his ambitious program with tax increases on only the top three or four percent -- and that broader increases are inevitable down the line. But that's a whole 'nother issue.

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Re: Krugman vs Republican: The problem isn't so much the amount of the bill, but how the money is being accounted for. Virtually every report that has been released has stated the government will have a very hard time properly vetting all the spending and giving it out in the immediate time frame. It also appears that a number of states want to just take the money and add it on to their current budget. That doesn't sound like it meets the intent of the bill.

Alec MacGillis: I wrote on this very subject in today's paper. You're right, many states are using the money they're getting -- whether for Medicaid or education or other purposes -- to balance their budgets. But the fact is, that was fully expected by the White House and Congress -- the thinking was that that money, while not necessarily creating new jobs, would at least keep states from laying off more people. That said, there are debates going on in several states now about whether it is best to use the money to plug holes or to try to do something more innovative with it. As for 'accounting' for the spending, it's important to keep in mind a key distinction here. There were two purposes for the stimulus: sparking the economy and also trying to accomplish some social goods along the way (new roads, etc.) Hopefully, most of the money will be spent for on the things it was designated for, to accomplish that second goal. But the fact is, even if the money is spent on ways slightly different than intended, economists would say that's okay, as long as the money gets out the door into the economy. In this case, 'waste' may be less of a concern than leaving the money sitting in some account somewhere.

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Slappy Politics?: Over the weekend I read an interesting theory about the whole Rush Limbaugh media frenzy. All of a sudden the media's meme was that raising Rush's profile was begun by the White House (Rahm aided by non-WH aides like Carville and Begala), but seems to me that they didn't do anything but stir the pot. Steele and others kept dissing Rush, and then were forced to bow and scrape to get back in the base's good graces. Doesn't seem like the White House had much to do with that, does it? Seems a more likely explanation is that the situation happened and some craven democratic politicos decided to take credit for the "strategy," which was actually more of a happy accident, due to Rush's power over the Republican base & ability to make Steele and others appear weak. What's your take, Alec?

Alec MacGillis: This occurred to me as well. Clearly, the White House was doing its part to stoke the fire on this. But the focus on Rush started with Rush himself -- with his call for Obama to fail, with his assertion of himself as the party's de facto leader (his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, etc.) and then his speech at the conservative conference and the apologies by Steele and other Republicans who criticized him.

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Princeton, N.J.: To back up your answer to Burke, Va., drug companies always say they cannot cut prices because it would impact research, but not only do they do no basic research, they only spend 11 percent of their budget on research, while they spend 19 percent on profit and 34 percent on "marketing." (see the work of Prof. Alan Sager of BU)

Alec MacGillis: Good point, Princeton. Thanks for the back-up.

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Rochester, N.Y.: Your colleague Perry Bacon took quite a beating last week from readers who are angry about what they see as the general tendency of our media to side with powerful interests as opposed to the interest of the people.

To his credit, he did field these questions. Here's hoping you'll do the same.

I'll start with this one: is it fair to say that the notion of "comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable" now completely dead in our media? It is striking to me that making wealthy people pay a few more cents on the dollar in taxes stirred a media outrage that we've never seen about child poverty or the fact that we have the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Thanks for taking this one, if you have the guts.

Alec MacGillis: I can't speak for the media as a whole on this one -- I don't watch nearly enough TV to defend what they're doing on taxes or anything else, though from the snippets I do see I suspect that I'd agree with some of the critiques here about how they're covering things like the tax plan.

But I have to say that this newspaper can hardly be accused of deserting its 'comfort the afflicted...' dictum. There is no shortage of examples from the past year -- long pieces about lousy medical treatment for those held at immigration jails, a reporter spending a lot of her time reporting from the nightmare corners of central Africa, and some terrific long pieces about the outrages at AIG and elsewhere. We're doing the work -- and if you all keep buying and reading the product, we'll keep doing it.

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Omaha, Neb.: I am honestly embarrassed to submit this question, but cannot help myself. Do you think the citizenry of England is truly miffed over Gordon Brown's visit? (no big press conference, Brown gave Obama a multi-volume Churchill biography, Obama gave him a set of DVDs -- supposedly this represents a lack of thought, concern and manners on the part of the Obamas.) My first reaction upon reading this story is, "really, people? You're investing energy in getting huffy over THIS?" But if it is such a small deal, then why have several major outlets (NPR, WashPost) covered it?

Alec MacGillis: This whole kerfuffle amused me greatly as well. From our vantage here, it is hard to tell whether the upset across the pond was shared by regular Britons, or just a Fleet Stret-generated hullabaloo. I suspect the latter. But I thought it was still notable, and worth getting on the record over here, because it gave us some insight into what star power Obama holds overseas, and how much relatively weaker the standing of someone like Brown is, so that little things like the contrast in gifts would take on such symbolic weight in their media. It's really kind of funny.

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Arlington, Va.: A question regarding the phrase "redistribution of the wealth": Why is it that we only hear this term in reference to the tax code in news accounts?

The federal government redistributes wealth in other areas of the economy, but we rarely hear the term used in other contexts.

e.g. In reference to globalization, the wages of blue collar workers were effectively "redistributed" in order to increase corporate profits and lower the price of consumer goods (for blue collar workers the net benefit of globalization has not off-set lost wages that they might have realized otherwise).

In reference to bankruptcy law changes in 2005, the leverage of investors and creditors was increased over that of borrowers -- so that the economic benefits shifted further from borrowers to investors and creditors.

We've seen wealth redistributed through the de-regulation of financial markets as well resulting in tax-payers carrying downside risk of failed investment strategies.

Even tax-cuts often entail a generational shift in the distribution of wealth (since those tax cuts rarely involve corresponding cuts in federal spending and result in increased federal deficits).

Yet, we only hear "redistribution of the wealth" in press accounts in the context of taxation. Why is this?

Alec MacGillis: You're right, the 'redistribution' phrase is used almost exclusively in the tax context. But Obama seems to be doing his best to make the case that his tax increases for the rich are needed precisely because there has been such a shift toward the wealthy in the past couple decades in just the ways you describe. This may be more a semantic thing than a political one -- we use 'redistribution' when we talk about money shifted down the ladder, and 'growing inequality' when we talk about it shifting up.

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Alec MacGillis: Alright, everyone, going to have to call it a day now. These were great questions, and sorry I wasn't able to get to even more of them. Please join us again next time.

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