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Post Politics Hour: Nancy Pelosi, Leon Panetta, Health Care and Peeing in Space

Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post National Political Reporter
Monday, May 18, 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.

Washington Post congressional reporter Perry Bacon Jr. was online Monday, May 18 at 11 a.m. ET.

The transcript follows

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Archive: Post Politics Hour discussion transcripts

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Perry Bacon Jr.: Good morning. Welcome to the chat. Looking forward to your questions.

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Salinas, Calif.: So, let me get this straight: Republicans are attacking Nancy Pelosi (when she was minority leader of the House) for not standing up against the Bush administration torture procedures that they either actively or tacitly supported? Granted, Pelosi was anything but articulate stating her case last week, but how does John Boehner keep a straight face?

Perry Bacon Jr.: One important difference is that many of the Republicans, such as Boehner, actually don't object to the techniques that were used. As you've seen the last few weeks, former Vice-President Cheney doesn't consider waterboarding torture and still supports using waterboarding. The GOP claim is that Pelosi has changed her view on waterboarding, not opposing it in 2002 but now deploring it and saying we need a truth commission. one interesting thing to watch is some Republicans are less comfortable with waterboarding; Michael Steele sidestepped the "is waterboarding torture" question on Meet the Press yesterday.

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washingtonpost.com: Pelosi Should Present Evidence CIA Misled Her, Boehner Says (Washington Post, May 18)

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Fairlington, Va.: Why are Ariz. State and Notre Dame making such a big deal about the President Obama speaking at their schools and giving him "honorary doctorates"? He already has a doctorate (JD from Harvard) so I don't understand why he doesn't qualify for a "honorary doctorate." It seems like sour grapes since their state's candidate didn't win the presidency.

With regard to Notre Dame, being a catholic, I thought Catholics were against the death penalty and not too keen on the initiation of the Iraq war. But Notre Dame had no problem giving former President Bush an "honorary doctorate."

Perry Bacon Jr.: I found the Arizona State honorary degree flap bizarre myself. The larger issue was that some at Notre Dame view Obama's stance on abortion to be morally wrong. Yes, I think many Catholics were concerned about the Iraq War and the death penalty, which I supposed helped Obama do well in the Catholic vote in November. Important to remember Catholic activists and the broader Catholic vote aren't the same thing. (You can say this about other groups too. Do we really think Obama will lose support among Hispanic voters if he doesn't pick a Hispanic justice? I suspect no, but the Latino interest groups are pushing him hard on that issue)

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washingtonpost.com: Cheers, Protests At Notre Dame (Washington Post, May 18)

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Milford, Conn.: Perry, trust me, I am no fan of Nancy Pelosi. That said, I am amused by the overwhelming defense of the CIA here at the Post and elsewhere in the media.

While there are certainly honorable people who work at the CIA, the very mission of the agency depends on secrecy and to a certain extent, lying. In addition, it is a fact that the CIA has assassinated or supported the assassination of other world leaders and propped up dictators just because they weren't Communists. I certainly would not put torture past the CIA. I guess my question is, why do we trust their word over Nancy Pelosi's?

Perry Bacon Jr.: I don't think we in the media have said the CIA or Pelosi is right, and I think right now we're lacking the evidence to know for sure. Pelosi has probably hurt herself by slighting changing her story on exactly what she knew and when, but ultimately we just don't know enough. Yes, I agree the CIA has not historically been a perfect agency.

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washingtonpost.com: CIA Chief Panetta Rebuts Pelosi's Charges on Interrogation Briefings (Washington Post, May 16)

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Avon Park, Fla.: Much has been made about the Gallup Poll showing a small majority of voters being pro-life. But to me, that's the wrong question to be asking. Isn't the more important political question, "Do you think it should be legal?"

Perry Bacon Jr.: Here are some of the results from a recent Gallup poll, from gallup's site. I think you're right that's the important political question, but Gallup is tracking values and a shift in values on abortion will likely come before a shift in public policy, i.e if more Americans are concerned about abortion, there can be a greater push by politicians to limit it. It's also interesting because polls are showing great support for gay marriage and gay rights, another hot-button issue.

"A new Gallup Poll, conducted May 7-10, finds 51% of Americans calling themselves "pro-life" on the issue of abortion and 42% "pro-choice." This is the first time a majority of U.S. adults have identified themselves as pro-life since Gallup began asking this question in 1995.

"The new results, obtained from Gallup's annual Values and Beliefs survey, represent a significant shift from a year ago, when 50% were pro-choice and 44% pro-life. Prior to now, the highest percentage identifying as pro-life was 46%, in both August 2001 and May 2002.

The May 2009 survey documents comparable changes in public views about the legality of abortion. In answer to a question providing three options for the extent to which abortion should be legal, about as many Americans now say the procedure should be illegal in all circumstances (23%) as say it should be legal under any circumstances (22%). This contrasts with the last four years, when Gallup found a strong tilt of public attitudes in favor of unrestricted abortion.

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Rochester, N.Y.: Perry, Leon Panetta has to defend the CIA (if he didn't, there'd be a revolt - they were already unhappy enough that he was appointed as director), so I am not surprised he did. Given that he wasn't at the agency when they supposedly told Congress what they were doing, how can he be sure what he's being told actually occurred? Also, Nancy Pelosi isn't the only Congress person saying she was misled - Bob Graham has said that too. Frankly, there is guilt on both sides of the aisle - the Republicans enacted cruel interrogation policies and the Democrats let them do it.

Perry Bacon Jr.: I think Panetta didn't have to give as strong of a comment as he did, directly contradicting Pelosi. He could have said the records are inconclusive or something else, although yes, her comments did box him into the need for a response.

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washingtonpost.com: More Americans "Pro-Life" Than "Pro-Choice" for First Time(gallup.com, May 15)

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washingtonpost.com: CIA Chief Panetta Rebuts Pelosi's Charges on Interrogation Briefings (Washington Post, May 16)

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Fremont, Calif.: I'm no lawyer, nor do I play one on television (or on the internet) but I don't see Panetta and Pelosi's statements as mutually exclusive. Pelosi says she was misled by the CIA and Panetta says the CIA did not lie to Congress. While most in the media are saying one statement contradicts the other, that's not exactly true, is it?

Perry Bacon Jr.: Maybe there is some way these comments are not mutually exclusive, I know Tim Kaine said that on television yesterday. I don't exactly see how: it would seem Pelosi has said the CIa told her waterboarding was not being used, Panetta says the records show she was briefing on waterboarding.

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Anonymous: "One important difference is that many of the Republicans, such as Boehner, actually don't object to the techniques that were used."

And that is why we really can't move forward as so many people seem to want to without really airing everything out and discussing it. We don't yet have a consensus on what a future administration should be able to do given a similar situation.

Perry Bacon Jr.: I think Obama has banned many of these techniques and is arguing his election was a referendum on them. But yes, you are giving the argument many advocates of a Truth Commission offer.

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Washington, D.C.: How long will it be before Jane Harman throws Pelosi under the bus? James Carville already did.

Perry Bacon Jr.: From what I've heard, Carville just said Pelosi's press conference wasn't a great idea and she might have avoided getting into a battle with the CIA. these are not unusual views in Washington, even Pelosi herself on Friday seems to dialed back attacking the CIA and more focusing on the Bush administration.

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Charlottesville, Va.: No one is asking why the Republicans have devised a strategy to "kill" Pelosi by making it appear she is a hypocrite and liar. How about facts here. Both Senator Graham and Colonel Wilkerson (Powell's chief of staff) have said that the torture policy was actually a political strategy to try to link Al Quaeda to Iraq. We now know it was a lie.

Now in an effort to divert the public from the truth of that political strategy they are trying to damage Pelosi in order to get some kind of political leverage to defeat any and all Obama programs. It's very ugly and doesn't have anything to do with "protecting" America.

Perry Bacon Jr.: I think the Republicans are attacking Pelosi because they think she has been inconsistent and see it as a way to attack a political rival. I would call that politics, Democrats spent much of 2005 and 2006 looking for Tom Delay's connections to Jack Abramoff. I think every story on this subject mentions that Republicans are seeking political advantage on this issue.

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Leesburg, VA: Why is there a GOP resistance to a "Truth Comission?" If they truly don't believe that waterboarding is torture, and truly don't think that any laws were broken, then the only thing a truth commission would do is vindicate them and prove them right, so why fight it?

For the last eight years, the American people were asked to forfeit civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism, assuaged with the phrase "If you're not doing anything wrong, you don't have anything to worry about?" Is it time that the GOP practices what it preaches?

Perry Bacon Jr.: The principal opponent to a Truth Commission is President Obama, who thinks it will devolve in partisan finger-pointing. The last few weeks of the Pelosi controversy have made it seem as if he might be right.

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Asheville, N.C.: The question remains: When all is said and done, as a signatory of the UN Convention Against Torture, how does the U.S. avoid prosecuting those of its citizens who authorized, committed or contributed to it (torture)?

Why isn't that answerable?

Perry Bacon Jr.: I think there at some point we (the media, the Congress, think tanks, hopefully the public) will engage in some kind of larger discussion of 1.whether the country truly believes tactics like waterboarding are torture 2. if people should be punished for the use of those tactics 3. who should be punished (the cia officers, the doj lawyers, the president and vice-president) I don't have the answers to any of those questions and my sense is people are still sorting them through. I haven't seen a poll on waterboarding, but I think you would be surprised how many Americans would support torture if they think it will stop a terrorist attack. (Yes, then the question is whether any of these methods actually help stop terrorism) I think even liberal lawyers aren't sure they want to prosecute conservative lawyers who gave legal opinions allowing waterboarding.

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Minneapolis: It is curious that there isn't much discussion of the appointment of Governor Huntsman to a foreign service post. Was it a politically savvy move to remove a potential challenger from the 2012 race or just the appointment of a qualified individual to the right job, regardless of ideology?

washingtonpost.com: Obama Picks Huntsman, Republican Governor of Utah, as Ambassador to China (Washington Post, May 17)

Perry Bacon Jr.: Huntsman would seem to have the required experience for the post, and Obama wants to appoint Republicans when he can. I have my doubts that Huntsman would have been a real challenger to Obama, only because I see no way he would have won a GOP primary. The universe of GOP primaries voters who would vote for a Mormon candidate is not 100%, so he and Romney would be fighting for an electorate already smaller than for other candidates. And I think at least for 2012, Huntsman is too liberal/moderate for the GOP base, although maybe that changes by 2016.

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Princeton, NJ: Perry, I am a 70 year old retired mathematician and am very interested in the current debate over health care. I have spent some time looking over the literature, and I have become convinced that a single payer government run health care system is not only vastly better than our current system, but also vastly better than all the proposed reforms that retain private insurance. I have been increasingly frustrated that the media in general and the Post in particular have not been getting the basic facts out to the public.

Here are some of the main points: compare overhead rates of private insurance companies with those of single payer systems, compute howmuch is wasted by letting private companies determine who is covered for what and how physicians must document that their treatment meets these rules, how much is wasted in compliance costs by patients fighting with their insurance companies, how much is spent by drug companies on research, profit, and "marketing", how does the U.S. compare in the bottom line public health statistics and cost with those countries with single payer government run systems. Let me end with a bald statement that is typical of what the public needs to know. Because of the incredible waste in private insurance, we could give a Super Medicare, one with no co-pays or deductibles, few limitations and drug, mental and dental coverage, to every single person in the USA, and it would cost no more than we are now spending on health care!

Perry Bacon Jr.: The Post is not covering single-payer (like the rest of the media) because the President of the United States has repeatedly ruled it out as an option. I wrote recently about a meeting he had with some House Democrats who were pushing the issue and he again said no.

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Boston: Is it a little disheartening as a Washington Post political reporter that the most popular Post story online right now is one on how astronauts pee in space? By the way, do you know how astronauts pee in space?

Perry Bacon Jr.: I actually do not, to answer your second question, but after I read this article, hopefully I will. I love newspapers because of their variety and am concerned about a world in which general interest magazines (I used to work at Time) and newspapers are struggling, while more targeted, less broad publications (U.S. Weekly) are flourishing. So no, not disheartening.

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Boston: Hi Perry,

I find this whole "It was in the past so lets just forget about it," argument to be totally ridiculous. We should never have another trial in this country if this is our new way of looking at crime.

Perry Bacon Jr.: I will be curious if in the wake of the Pelosi news and general frustration on the left with some of his policies that Obama can continue to avoid a truth commission.

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Boston: GQ published a series of prayer sheets that Rummy used to get Bush excited about the Iraq war. Why isn't this revelation getting more attention?

washingtonpost.com: And He Shall Be Judged (Gentleman's Quarterly)

Perry Bacon Jr.: This is a very interesting piece that details how in the view of ex-Bush aides that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld failed the president. The questioner is referring to biblical verses it seems Rumseld included in some daily memos he would send to Bush during the Iraq War ,which people worried would be leaked out and give the impression the U.S. was engaged in a holy war.

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Edina, Minn.: "I think you would be surprised how many Americans would support torture if they think it will stop a terrorist attack."

The question, then, is how you identify which terrorists know of a pending terrorist attack before you waterboard them. Or do you waterboard everyone and hope to find one that can justify the torture by spilling the beans of a pending attack?

Perry Bacon Jr.: Here is the data from our April poll on this. This comes from Jennifer Agiesta, one of our pollsters.

"Basic views on torture divide the country nearly evenly - 49 percent said they oppose the use of torture no matter the circumstance, 48 percent said there are some cases in which the U.S. should consider it. Partisans align on opposite sides of the issue, with most Republicans (69 percent) saying they are open to torture in some cases and most Democrats opposing it in all cases (65 percent). Independents tilt toward considering it, 52 to 45 percent."

I dont' know the answer to your question on waterboarding.

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Warrenville, IL: Mr. Bacon: Maybe a change of subject here, but still about politics.

In the past month or so, I've been reading more and more about the politics of gay equality, a topic about which the President has said nothing, except to make a cheap joke about the subject at the recent White House Correspondents Dinner.

My guess: Mr. Obama plans to avoid the topic in every way possible(except perhaps for that occasional joke) because he realizes that the last two democratic presidents who pushed to extend civil rights and equality saw democratic candidates punished at the polls. Lyndon Johnson predicted as much when he signed major civil rights legislation: He acknowledged that in leading on extending civil rights protections to African Americans he had given the South and the West to the Republicans for a generation. And he was right.

Mr. Obama has no intention of giving any votes to the republicans, and therefore has no intention whatsoever of saying a positive, supportive word for extending civil equality to gay citizens.

Do you agree?

Perry Bacon Jr.: I don't agree with your analysis completely (I think Bill Clinton would say he was the last Democratic president to extend civil rights and equality and he left office fairly popular.) That said, yes, Obama has said nothing in the face of lots of gay rights activism in the states. And Obama's position on gay marriage (he is opposed to it) is now to the right of the person who ran John McCain's presidential campaign. And I think he and other Democrats see little political advantage on a issue that seems to be moving in a more liberal direction without these polls doing anything. My colleague Shailagh Murray wrote an excellent piece on the subject of gay marriage and its politics you should look at.

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Peeing in space: My uncle actually works on that waste system. Despite it sounding trivial, I am sure there is a lot of complicated engineering (and jobs!) that went into designing it.

washingtonpost.com: Ever Wondered How Astronauts Pee in Space? (Washington Post, May 18)

Perry Bacon Jr.: more on the space story.

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Gallup poll: You completely missed the question about Gallup's latest poll on abortion. The other question that was asked (and has been largely ignored by the media) is about it's legality. Seventy-six percent of respondents said it should be legal under any circumstances or legal under some circumstances.

Perry Bacon Jr.: What I was getting is will public attitudes on abortion's legality change if more people call themselves "pro-life?" personally. I don't know the answer to that question.

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Alexandria, Va.: So, we have learned that the right doesn't want a truth commission because they are alright with the practice in the first place. The left wants it so that they can prosecute the wrongdoers and make sure this doesn't happen again.

From the middle, as one who is mighty sick and tired of those two extremes slamming each other and getting the coverage, I will try to come up with a different rationale. As much as I am appalled at the use of torture, I also am very afraid that prosecution of torturers would somehow be paid back in kind by some future GOP congress or administration. It would be seen as a political maneuver, not as justice being done.

Your thoughts?

Perry Bacon Jr.: These are complicated questions and ultimately get to the question of whether we can prosecute people for giving bad legal advice. I think this is something the political process will work out in next few months/years.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you find it ironic that the attack on Pelosi probably will make a truth commission more likely?

Perry Bacon Jr.: One thing we should note here. Nancy Pelosi, who keeps calling for a Truth Commission, is not some obscure, non-powerful person. If she really wants a Truth Commission, she could get the House to pass a bill to create one this week, badger the Senate to do the same and force Obama to sign it. Would Obama really veto that? On some level ,if she is serious about this, the test will be if she lifts a finger to actually get it started.

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Silver Spring, Md.: "I think Obama has banned many of these techniques and is arguing his election was a referendum on them."

True, but is there anything that prevents Obama (or his successor) from reversing that decision unilateraly?

Perry Bacon Jr.: Good point. I think the public reaction would be a problem, but I'm not sure he would have to publicly announce he was changing the policy.

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Perry Bacon Jr.: Thanks for the questions folks. Take care. Perry

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