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Post Politics: Obama and Torture, 100 Days, Poll Numbers, More

Chris Cillizza
washingtonpost.com Political Blogger
Monday, April 27, 2009 11:00 AM

The Fix blogger Chris Cillizza was online Monday, April 27 at 11 a.m. ET to take your questions about who is up and who is down in the world of politics and the latest news out of Washington.

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Chris Cillizza: Good morning everyone.

SWINE FLU!

Now that we have that out of our collective systems, let's move on to the questions....

One note before we do: Dana Milbank and I are combining forces on a new project that will debut on May 4. Stay tuned....

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New York: Hi Chris and thanks for the chat. I am struck by news coverage of Obama generally pitting right against left. But Obama and his team know that elections are won in the middle. The middle class sees the massive stimulus package as targeted to them, and that's why he gets 60-percent overall favorables even though on specific issues his favorables are inconsistent at best. While I realize that the press can't ignore the right/left arguments, sometimes it seems that moderates and independents are marginalized in press coverage perhaps because they don't throw the verbal firebombs. But that's really where the success/failure story lies, isn't it? Just a thought.

Chris Cillizza: It's a good point. I think what happens more often than not when covering any political issue is the loudest voices, which tend to be on the left and right, get the most attention while the folks in the middle get ignored.

Independent voters' behavior is far more difficult to predict on any given issue (hence: independent) than partisans so they wind up getting lost in the shuffle of coverage.

One thing I will say: President Obama's political team is firmly fixed on independents. They know it's why they won so overwhelmingly in 2008 and if they can keep his favorable rating among indies in the 50s or 60s, he will be in strong position for re-election.

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Lawrence, Kan.: I'm astounded by Republicans' insistence on sticking with policies that are proven failures and their general Audacity of Nope (thank you, Stephen Colbert). Do you think this can be a successful strategy?

Chris Cillizza: What is happening to Republicans is an age-old problem for the party out of power in the White House and Congress.

Being so far in the minority in the House and Senate, the only real role for Republicans is as the loyal opposition; they have almost no legislative power to affect the agenda.

Combine that powerlessness with the fact that anytime President Obama says anything, it draws massive press coverage and you see Republicans problem.

They have put out alternatives to the plans being proposed by Obama but there is just considerably less interest in those plans because the American people want to know what the President thinks and what he is doing on these issues.

Therefore, the only time Republicans get any coverage is when they speak out forcefully against the Obama plans.

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Toronto: Is the policy of "just say no..." we've seen from the Republicans since Obama took office a well-crafted policy the GOP thinks could pay dividends in the long-term or just a basic instinct from a party that does not seem to know what it stands for anymore?

Chris Cillizza: Again, I think Republicans are in the wilderness politically at the moment....as McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt said last week, the party is in its "Lord of Flies" stage.

The lack of clear leadership exacerbates the tough political environment for the party -- allowing controversial figures (see Cheney, Dick) to emerge into the vacuum.

Republicans are in the midst of trying to reassert their fundamental principles, a critical analysis if they want to start the march back to majorities in Congress and control of the White House.

Of course, as Republicans examine who they are, President Obama is sprinting full speed ahead with his agenda.

It's something of a mismatch right now.

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Rockville, Md.: President Ford got some bad publicity from his attrempt to deal with swine flu. Will it happen again?

Chris Cillizza: I have NO idea how this swine flu will play out. The Obama Administration is clearly worried about the public relations end of it -- calling a lengthy press conference on Sunday to outline everything they were doing to deal with the flu.

I think how much of a political issue it becomes depends largely on how bad things get. SARS put a pretty bad scare into everyone a few years back but since then there have been any number of false alarms about pandemics.

Is this the former or the latter?

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Boston: To follow-up your answer on independents, aren't they the measure of whether Obama is being partisan or not instead of whether he gets any Congressional Republican votes on a particular bill (especially since there a very few if any moderate Republicans left in Congress)? Why don't we see more polling of independents when particular bills or issues come up to provide greater "bipartisan" context to reporting?

Chris Cillizza: From a political perspective, you are 100 percent right.

Obama's inner circle believes that they don't necessarily need to win over lots of Republican votes on any piece of legislation but rather show the American people they are trying to reach out -- whether it works or not.

As long as Obama remains at 55+ percent favorability among independents, he is in a very strong political position.

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SW Nebraska: It'd be nice to have a Secretary of HHS rather than put more work on Napolitano; any possibilities?

Chris Cillizza: Well, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is expected to get her full Senate confirmation vote as HHS secretary as early as tomorrow.

In a way, the swine flu my speed up the timetable and make it more likely she is confirmed by a strong Senate vote.

Sebelius' confirmation has been held up for weeks by Senate Republicans concerned about her connections to a Kansas doctor who performs abortions.

Worth noting: Sebelius is the ONLY cabinet member not confirmed.

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Pittsburgh: Why does Dick Cheney get any respect from the mainstream media? What has this guy been right about? He lied repeatedly to the American public (when he chose to speak to us at all, which was rarely). I'm touched that he all of a sudden wants to communicate with us, but I'm highly disappointed in the interviews he's participated in. Sean Hannity would be expected to be a sycophant, but John King?? Come on, ask tougher questions.

Chris Cillizza: Dick Cheney gets attention because for eight years he was the second most powerful person in the United States (and maybe the world).

As for the toughness of John king's questions, I think John is one of the best (and fairest) reporters out there.

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Fairfax, Va.: Hey Chris,

I want to talk about Norm Coleman. My question to you is... does it end at the State Supreme Court or if the State Supreme Court does not rule in his favor, can he keep dragging this thing out?

The whole thing seems a bit ridiculous to me and I hope, for the citizens of Minnesota, that it gets resolved soon!

Chris Cillizza: Man.

It is UNBELIEVABLE that on April 27 we are still talking about a 2008 Senate race. But, here we are.

Technically, if Coleman loses his appeal to the state Supreme Court, he could take his appeal federal.

Practically, however, I find it hard to believe he would pursue that course. If the Minnesota Supreme Court rules against him, Coleman's solid support among Republican elected officials will evaporate.

And, a new poll in Minnesota already shows two-thirds of Minnesotans would like to see Coleman concede. Those numbers will only rise if Coleman decides to pursue a federal appeal.

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Chris Cillizza: Another hint on the Milbank-Cillizza secret project. Just got an email from Dana that read: "I have the fake fireplace."

Man, this is going to be good.

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Wilmington, NC: You wrote:"Republicans are in the midst of trying to reassert their fundamental principles, a critical analysis if they want to start the march back to majorities in Congress and control of the White House. "

Have you considered the possibility their "fundamental principles" are the problem, and reasserting them may be counterproductive?

Chris Cillizza: Absolutely.

I think there is a debate ongoing within the Republican party over just what 2008 meant

Was it:

a) a fundamental rejection of the party's principles which requires a re-tooling of what the GOP stands for.

b) the result of eight years of George W. Bush and an economic crisis that voters blamed on Republicans.

Most Republican elected officials I talk to seem to believe the answer is "B" -- a one-time anomaly that doesn't say anything about the long term future of the Republican message.

The 2010 election will be telling...

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Germany: You mean Cheney was the most powerful person in the world, while holding the second most powerful position, don't you?

Chris Cillizza: The trademark German wit on display!

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Bethesda, Md.: So will the GOP finally let a vote come to pass on Sebelius as HHS secretary given the swine flu scare? Or do they want to make Americans even more worried? Given their track record with disasters like Katrina, my bet is on the latter.

Chris Cillizza: I wrote earlier that the likely impact of swine flu on Sebelius is that her confirmation vote will be sped up as Republicans don't want to appear as though they are blocking her on ideological grounds in the midst of a health scare.

I still think that's true.

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Berks County, Pa.: Chris : How serious a challenge will Arlen Specter be facing in the Republican primary in Pennsylvania? Has he damaged himself with his conservative base all that much ?

Chris Cillizza: Um, a VERY serious one.

Former Rep. Pat Toomey came within two percent of knocking off Specter in 2004 and since then the Republican base has shrunk considerably and grown more disenchanted with Specter's moderate voting record.

Toomey, too, will benefit from his first near-miss statewide as well as the prominent position as head of the Club For Growth in recent years.

At best, Specter has a 50-50 chance of winning the Republican nomination. Lots of Republican strategists give him far worse odds.

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washingtonpost.com: Friday Senate Line: Fading Incumbents

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Washington DC: Isn't bipartisan just another word for highlighting the differences between the two parties. Bipartisanship is like the bridge to nowhere, few if any people will use it but it seems to be very popular for the work it creates. Obama talked about being president of all Americans, he didn't say "both registered republicans and democrats." I would argue that if Obama can get 80% support of the people and only 51% of Congress he is leading and sooner or later Congress will follow. I'd give them until May of the midterm election year.

Chris Cillizza: The truth of the matter is that while almost every voter wants bipartisanship, VERY few of them vote on it as an issue.

Voters like the idea of the two parties working together but, in practice, our system is built on litigating out the real and important differences between the two sides.

There are any number of instances in the past history of this country where bipartisanship may have led to wrong conclusions -- the authorization of the use of force resolution in Iraq being the most prominent.

So, while I think the idea of being civil to one another is important, I also don't believe partisanship is a dirty word.

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Torture is partisan?: How did the issue of torture become a right/left partisan thing? It‘s a larger issue human morals and ethics, which many (including me) had thought had been cast aside long ago by ethical, modern nations. I mean, really, Chris. Can anybody say with a straight face that waterboarding a human being 183 times is -not- torture?

Chris Cillizza: Right...I wrote about this very idea this morning in the Fix White House Cheat Sheet -- your one-stop morning stop for everything you need to know about the world of politics.

Many Democrats view the issue of these hardhs interrogation techniques through a moral lens, insisting that there is no right vs left, there is only right vs wrong.

But, according to the latest Post/ABC poll, the American people are VERY divided about how they feel about not only prosecuting CIA officials involved in the interrogations but the idea of torture more broadly.

I am attaching the Cheat Sheet from this morning below if you're interested in reading more.

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Anonymous: Should Spector lose the GOP nomination, does he have the numbers to attempt a "Lieberman"?

Chris Cillizza: He does have the numbers but it is MUCH harder to get on the ballot as an independent in Pennsylvania than it is in Connecticut.

For Specter to qualify as an independent, he would need more than 300,000 certified signatures from PA voters -- a daunting if not impossible task.

Hat tip to the Post's Paul Kane for unearthing those details.

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Reston, VA: I find it a bit funny to see liberals rant about how the Republicans ideas are stale and no one believes in the party's principles anymore.

While I don't recall the exact percentages, I'm fairly certain that President Obama didn't receive 100% of the vote. Believe it or not, there are actually people in this country who do not support the current administration's approach to "fixing" the nation.

Chris Cillizza: Thanks for the thought...the opposing view.

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washingtonpost.com: White House Cheat Sheet: Obama's Tough Call on Torture

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Providence, R.I.: How is the outcome of NY-20 being read? Haven't seen much about it. Too close to be considered a bellwether? Thanks.

Chris Cillizza: Both sides -- big surprise -- are trying to cast the results as sign of strength for them.

For Democrats, the race represents an affirmation of President Obama's economic agenda.

For Republicans, the focus on spending and big government brought them to the edge of victory in a northeastern congressional district and gives them a blueprint of how to run against President Obama in 2010.

My belief: This doesn't mean much of anything. Scott Murphy won the race by 399 votes (or so). It's hard to draw national conclusions from a race that was that close.

Still, if Republicans had won this one, they could have pointed to it as a sign that 2008 was their rock bottom. Now we have to wonder whether they are still in electoral free fall.

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Arlington, Va.: Shouldn't the GOP be doing anything it can to help Specter in PA? As I see it, PA already dumped one ultra conservative Senator. If the GOP base hands the primary to Toomey, isn't there a very strong chance that hands another Senate seat to the Democrats?

Chris Cillizza: I would expect the National Republican Senatorial Committee to endorse Specter and spend money on his behalf ala Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) in 2006.

Of course, although Chafee beat back a conservative primary challenge that year, he went on to lose the general election any way -- a point that Toomey will be certain to remind Republican donors and activists of.

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Abingdon, Md.: So, who has the most to lose in the 2010 Senatorial elections? Are more R's up for re-election, or more D's? Any chance the D's will break the magic 60 mark?

Chris Cillizza: Th goal for Senate Republicans is to not lose so many seats that they have no reasonable hope of regaining the majority in the 2012 through 2016 election cycles when the numbers will favor them.

It's hard for me to see how Democrats don't end up with more than 60 seats after next fall given the raw numbers -- five Republicans retiring and the likely spending edge Democrats will enjoy.

But, is that number 61 or 64/65? That makes a critical difference as Republicans begin to plan their long road back.

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Oradell, N.J.: Can Charlie Crist be defeated in a Senate primary? If not, is there any chance of Kendrick Meek beating him in the general? How would he do it?

Chris Cillizza: The short answer: probably not.

Crist continues to hold off on making a decision about whether or not to run for the Senate but the conventional wisdom has him in the race.

And, because of that sentiment, he is starting to get some bad press about why he hasn't made a decision yet and what his departure as governor would mean for the state.

That said, he remains VERY popular in the state and is a terrific fundraiser -- a tough combination to overcome in either a primary or general election.

Kendrick Meek has impressed me mightily so far this cycle but he would be an underdog against Crist in a general election.

Meek's best bet to win would be to try and duplicate the turnout numbers from 2008 when President Obama won the state -- and that is a very tough thing to do in a midterm election.

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NY, NY: Chris, you forgot to mention the huge registration advantage Republicans have in NY-20...kinda sad that they can no longer win even in districts where they have a registered voter advantage of +300000

Chris Cillizza: It's actually 71,000. But, countering that is the fact that President Obama won the district with 51 percent in 2008.

So, statistics can be used to maker the case for either side.

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Pittsburgh: Arlen Specter can NOT pull a "Lieberman" in Pennsylvania, because the Commonwealth has a "sore loser" law to prevent a defeated primary candidate from then reentering the race. Specter would need to leave the Republican party BEFORE the primary and get on the ballot as described above. Many Keystone Staters believe that Specter could win reelection as an Independent, but it seems unlikely that he'll bolt his party. Toomey may well represent the Republican base here in PA., but only a marginal portion of our entire electorate. Democrats are salivating over the prospect of clobbering Toomey back into political oblivion.

Chris Cillizza: Thank you Pittsburgh.

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Fake Fireplace: Don't try to do a Colbertesque thing, you can't.

Milbank has been shooting and missing on the Maureen Dowdesque thing for a while and while she's a clever writer, she doesn't even come up to Colbert's ankles.

Chris Cillizza: Fake fireplace = Colbert?

interesting Rorschach test.

Also, I don't think either Dana nor I flatter ourselves enough to think we are anywhere near Colbert. We are more like Laurel and Hardy. Or Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Or Fred Flinstone and Barney Rubble.

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Charlotte, N.C.: Do you think Richard Burr is a dead man walking if Roy Cooper decides to run for Senate?

Chris Cillizza: I would never say any incumbent is a dead man walking -- with the possible exception of Illinois Sen. Roland Burris if he decides to run for re-election.

Cooper, the current North Carolina Attorney General, would be an even money bet (if the Fix was a betting man) in a race against Burr.

The 2008 election showed North Carolina's politics are changing but Burr is more ready for a serious race than was Sen. Elizabeth Dole.

If Cooper runs, this is a top five race in the country. If he doesn't, the Democratic bench is surprisingly thin.

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Capitol Hill: Can you give a rundown of what each of the press secretaries at the White House are responsible for? It seems like there are half a dozen that are always quoted in Post stories so how do you choose which ones to go to?

Chris Cillizza: Well, each of the press folks at the White House have a distinct set of issue areas that they handle. Because the White House is expected to know about and have a statement on nearly everything that happens in the United States and across the world, it takes a large number of folks to deal with the incoming every day.

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Just curious...: So, who's Fred and who's Barney?

Chris Cillizza: To borrow another Flinstones reference: I am Pebbles, Milbank is Bam Bam.

The real question: who is the great gazoo?

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Not Colbert, but you're miles ahead of Dowd: So give yourself that much credit!

Chris Cillizza: The Fix hearts MoDo and will brook no criticism of her!

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Chris Cillizza: Folks,

That's all I have time for today. Hope you enjoyed the chat and that it solved whatever ails you -- swine flu, case of the Mondays etc.

Remember to check out the Fix for the latest and greatest political news.

And, don't forget. May 4. Milbank. Cillizza. A fake fireplace. Be there.

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