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Alec MacGillis
Washington Post National Political Reporter
Wednesday, April 1, 2009 11:00 AM

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Washington Post national political reporter Alec MacGillis was online Wednesday, April 1, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss President Obama's meetings with European leaders at the G-20 economic summit, the administration's decision to join the UN Human Rights Council, the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll and more.

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Alec MacGillis: Good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining us. A lot going on today -- NY-20, Palin bowing out of a big fundraising event in June, the President in London. Fire away!

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New York: I assume that when they're done counting the absentee ballots in upper NY State that the Republican, Tedisco, will squeak through, but If I were Repub I wouldn't be too thilled with the result. Both men have about 77,000 votes, and the GOP registration advantage is 70,000. That's just about the most conservative district in NY, if not the Northeastern U.S. The Dem was a venture capitalist and an unknown, while Tedisco a veteran state rep from an adjoining county with a long track record. The district was McCain country three months ago. Shouldn't have been that close.

Alec MacGillis: This is one of the several political stories around the globe this morning. Pretty amazing that we had yet another closely watched congressional race winding up a virtual tie. Both sides are saying they'll prevail after the absentees, but in general, it's hard to see how either party is going to get much of a spin boost out of the outcome given

Alec MacGillis: Pretty amazing that we had yet another closely watched congressional race winding up a virtual tie. Both sides are saying they'll prevail after the absentees, but in general, it's hard to see how either party is going to get much of a spin boost out of the outcome given that it's going to take a while for the final result to dribble out. You're right, the Republicans have an inherent edge in this district--Kirsten Gillibrand won in 2006 thanks to the Democratic wave that year and to her opponent's being hit just before the election with reports of a 911 domestic violence call by his wife. That said, the Democrats had some reason to hope that Murphy might walk away with it, which was not out of the realm of possibility since Obama did carry the district last fall. Instead, we're left with a kind of muddle, which probably works to Dems' advantage, since the most important thing for them was to avoid giving the Republicans a chance to crow about them staging a comeback.

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Fairfax County, Va.: Just now, I finally saw something has been missing for me in the Obama trip to this point. It was a photo on a British site of the President of the United States shaking hands with a smiling British Police Constable Michael Zamora. I think Zamora is a person of color, but hard to say. One thing for sure, he is the face of the British working class.

Do you think we will see more opportunities for President Obama to be his authentic self in the world spotlight, or will it all be too scripted and grimly serious for the world to get to know him this time? (I agree with your headline writer that the dinosaur conversation with Brown's sons was notable too.)

Alec MacGillis: This is one of the big questions surrounding this trip -- not just what gets decided on the financial regulatory front, but what impression Europeans and others around the world get of Obama. There was a rather amusing piece in England's Guardian newspaper this morning about how Obama was arriving with much less JKF-ish glamour than one might have expected, because of all the gloom surrouding the economy, and some of the hits he's been taking in DC. I suspect that that piece somewhat overstated its case, and that there still will be a fair amount of dazzle surrounding his tour.

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Burke, Va.: After reading about yeat another nominee who was forced to pay back taxes, it is apparent that we have a federal tax system that is either so unjust that it invites cheating, or so complex that even the smartest among us can't figure it out. Neither alternative is a good one. Is the Obama administration or congress seriously looking at a revenue neutral reform of the tax code anytime soon?

Alec MacGillis: You're absolutely right -- the more of these stories surface, the more impetus there would seem to be for the White House to make this a major priority, either after it has dealt with health care reform or perhaps as part of that. Obama has shown real interest in the issue already, with his controversial suggestions for scaling back deductions for mortgage interest and charitable giving for wealthy taxpayers. Having just spent several hours last night working on my own taxes, I'll throw journalistic neutrality to the wind and throw my own support behind any push to simplify things. Not that that should necessarily excuse all these nominees' mistakes, though...

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Tuckerton, N.J.: Speaking of close races, it looks like the Franken camp won another court battle on Tuesday in Minnesota. Coleman says he will appeal. When will the media call this guy out for delaying the inevitable? The election was five months ago.

Alec MacGillis: You're right, it's getting to the point now where one has to wonder how much patience there'll be for Coleman's persistence. The delay in seating MN is starting to have real ramifications in Washington -- for instance, the Democrats can't even think about trying to find a 60th vote to pass the card-check bill (which is looking less and less likely) before they can get Franken as the 59th vote for it.

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NY-20: How important is the "result?" My take is that this is the kind of district the Republican would win in if the Republicans are going to avoid being wiped out in the Northeast. IOW, I see it as regionally significant, a regional bellwether, but not a national bellwether. Thoughts?

Alec MacGillis: This is a very good point. The Republicans' stunning decline in the Northeast is one of their biggest longterm problems. But even though they did not pull off the clear win that they were hoping for in one of their strongest remaining corners of the region, there are some glimmers of opportunities for other possible comebacks, starting with Chris Dodd's weakness in Connecticut. If Rob Simmons can knock Dodd off next year -- in a state that's in the heart of the Northeast, dominated by the kind of suburban voters that Republicans have been losing in recent years -- that will be a huge morale boost, if not a sign of a true comeback.

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Alexandria, Va.: Is Obama still popular among the people of England and Europe? I know that the governments are having some issues, but wonder if his continued popularity could force their hands.

Alec MacGillis: By force their hands, do you mean comply with the US's hopes that they'll do more in the way of stimulus? He is indeed still very popular over there, but I doubt that he'll be able to get more stimulus out of the governments because there just isn't all that much political support for that in many countries there. It's kind of ironic, because we think of European governments as being the big spenders. But it's precisely because they spend so much on their safety nets there that there isn't as much need for major stimulus spending to get things going during a recession -- people are more cushioned when they fall. And in some countries, most notably Germany, there is a very strong ingrained popular bias against deficit spending. Obanma himself is more popular than his vision for global economic recovery.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Did any of Bush's nominees/appointees have tax problems?

Alec MacGillis: There were far fewer reported tax problems with Bush's nominees (Linda Chavez, his nominee for Labor secretary, withdrew amid questions about domestic help she'd hired.) But it is possible that one reason that so many of Obama's nominees have had tax issues is because Obama's team has been so aggressive in its vetting -- if you ask as many questions as vettors are asking, you're likely to find more of this kind of stuff.

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St. Paul, Minn. : To answer an earlier question that was posed, here in Minnesota, patience with Coleman ran out a long time ago. I would say he has pretty [much] ruined his chances for another office (like governor, for example, which he ran for once before, losing to Jesse Ventura). Most people you talk to desperately want this thing to be over, but there isn't anything that can be done. Just my two cents.

Alec MacGillis: Some good perspective from Minnesota. One does have to wonder how much Coleman's calculations at this point are being driven by his political prospects in the state versus his desire to keep up the fight on behalf of the national GOP.

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Crystal City, Va.: Sen. Jim Webb wants [to]avoid jailing non-violent drug offenders, which would essentially legalize, or at least decriminalize "soft drugs" like marijuana. Won't these actions result in an INCREASED demand for these drugs and inevitably lead to more violence among Mexican drug gangs? How much support does his proposal have in the House and Senate?

Alec MacGillis: The argument behind decriminalization, as I understand it, is that it brings the market more into the open and takes it out of the hands of the most hard-core dealers and cartels. It lowers the stakes all around -- lowers the penalties, lowers the price, lowers the profits to be gained in the trade, and ideally, lowers the associated violence. A remarkably high proportion of the revenues sustaining the Mexican cartels comes from marijuana and not harder drugs. This is going to be a very interesting issue to watch -- it's rare for these kind of proposals to come from politicians with the law and order credentials of a guy like Webb.

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Columbus, Ohio: With respect to the announcement that the DoJ will not re-try former Sen. Stevens, could you imagine the Bush DoJ making a similar decision concerning a Democratic senator?

Alec MacGillis: An interesting thought exercise, indeed...

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Wokingham, U.K.: The BBC's European correspondent has just been saying that, despite Brown's rosy rhetoric, the Obama/Brown team has in effect already conceded to the Merkel/Sarkozy team that there will be no internationally coordinated stimulus package -- this would have left Germany paying the bills for all the smaller, less responsible governments in the Euro zone. Do you think this concession has been made?

Alec MacGillis: Hello, U.K., thanks for joining us. My sense is that the White House has in fact greatly lowered its expectations for much additional stimulus. That said, my understanding is that the Germans have made clear that they will stand ready to help bail out one of the smaller Eastern European countries if their economies really edge closer to collapse. It is partly because they are worried about having to do that down the line that the Germans feel it would be unwise to spend more on domestic stimulus now.

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Re: NY-20: Alec, it will only be a "comeback" if the national GOP leaders then applies the lessons to the general electorate in the context of the next presidential electorate. If they want NE or west coast votes, they need to stop pandering to the social conservatives...remember, the younger generations lean liberal and part of why they do is because they find the GOP's social stances on issues like homosexuality, abortion, equal pay for women, etc., regressive.

Alec MacGillis: True, social issues have been a big reason why many suburban and younger voters have drifted away from Republicans. I do think that that lesson is starting to sink in with at least some Republicans, though -- it's interesting that most of the attacks on Obama these days from congressional Republicans or Republican governors have been on economic grounds (for one thing, the attack of choice is now "socialist" instead of the more culture war-ish "liberal.") I suspect that the Republicans' chances for comeback are going to rest more than anything else on something outside of their control: how the economy does in the next couple years, and how Obama does.

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Audubon, N.J.: After reading Paul Ryan's Op-ed I was left wondering, as a 50-year- old cancer survior how will I get health insurance and how will I ever pay for it if there is no longer Medicare? I realize they will contibute some money but will left to get my own coverage.

Alec MacGillis: Medicare is in trouble, and Paul Ryan's been among the most forceful among congressional Republicans in making that case. But the country is a long way from actually giving up on the program, and it seems very hard to envision a day when we'll be left without a health insurance program for retirees. Part of the push for major health care reform is to somehow reduce costs over the long run to help save Medicare. That's going to be very, very hard. But I would not yet assume that you're going be left high and dry at 65.

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Richmond, Va.: The GOP House budget came out today and proposes a big tax cut for the wealthy. Why would they do this at this time? Aren't they afraid of being pinned with the idea that they want to give big tax breaks to the same people who got huge bonuses after taking bailout money? Or are they just trying to attract campaign donations for the super wealthy?

Alec MacGillis: This is the basic challenge for the Republicans right now. Their main economic philosophy does not look very creditable right now in the public eye, but they are not yet ready to seriously rethink it or move on to something else. And while it's easy to mock that, the fact is it is hard at some level to ask what else they might turn to right now. The Republicans have for decades stood for lower taxes, including lower taxes for the wealthy. That is at the core of their identity. Do they abandon that now for something much less distinguishable from the Democrats, or do they wait and hope that the pendulum will swing relatively quickly back toward them if Obama plans fail?

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Marijuana Seriously: Thanks for your serious answer to our marijuana problem. I don't smoke, but I do know that if the U.S. houses 25 percent of the world's prisoners and has an incredible war on its borders, it might be time to look at our drug policy with more than just a flip response to the "online" potheads.

Alec MacGillis: I'd also note here that it was pretty remarkable that Hillary Clinton herself admitted the US's role in the Mexican drug wars in a far more oustpoken way than any top-ranking American official had done previously.

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washingtonpost.com: The GOP's Alternative Budget (Wall Street Journal, April 1)

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Dryden, N.Y.: I'm an Upstater. Two weeks ago, my husband and I drove through the 20th district coming back on Route 2 from Massachuestts. The Tedisco signs and the landscape made us both comment that Murphy would never win. This is, after all, a district that only voted against the last Republican when it became clear that he was a wife beater and a drinker who liked to drive. This is a stunning bellweather and not good news for any Republican who will run for Judd Gregg's seat in N.H. Agree?

Alec MacGillis: That's a beautiful drive on Route 2 -- I've done it often, as I grew up in western Mass. Agreed, this is not a good bellwether for Northeastern Republicans. I would caution against drawing too strong a connection to the NH race, though, because NH has become quite different from a political demographics standpoint than upstate NY -- NH's one of the few places in the NE that's been growing economically and drawing younger and higher-educated, higher-income residents from elsewhere in the country. That said, you're right, the Gregg seat is going to be tough for the GOP to hold. Just think: if the Dems pick up that seat, NH's four congressional seats and governorship will have all flipped to Dem over the course of just four years!

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Nanny problems: Is it starting to dawn on people that we are screwing ourselves by eliminating people from public service who failed to pay Social Security taxes for nannies and the like? Let's face it, practically every middle-class family in this country with kids has broken some law in the process of trying to find decent day care. Ditto in caring for elderly or disabled relatives; a lot is done off the books. Maybe it would be good if some of the people living in the bubble started to talk to real people out here. I would like to check out who's cutting the lawns for all our politicians and elite media types.

Alec MacGillis: No doubt, these revelations discourage people from applying for these jobs, but that's been the case for a while now, hasn't it? After all, the nanny stories date all the way back to Clinton's nominees in '93. The stories do build the case for a simpler tax code, better day care and a more rational immigration system in this country. All that said, though...there are still plenty people in this country who manage to follow the rules.

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Scranton, N.J.: Yeah, he's taking hits in Washington and yet your own poll suggests he's not taking hits with the American people. Everyday on cable news and in the Browser I read something to the effect of "will announcing this (some policy) affect Obama's popularity? That is the big test?" And then it doesn't. Kinda amusing; you guys keep waiting for him to fail in a way that I never saw with Bush (and for the record, I don't agree with all of Obama's policies so far)

Alec MacGillis: I know what you're getting at here. There seems to be two different levels of evaluation going on -- inside the Beltway, where expectations may have been out of proportion, and where many political reporters want to show that they're going to give the rock star president a tough going-over; and around the country, where people seem willing to give the new guy some time to fix problems that preceded him.

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Alec MacGillis: Alright, everyone, going to have to call it a day. Thanks very much for the good questions, and sorry I couldn't get to all of them. Please join us again next time! -Alec

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