Post Politics: Sotomayor's Speeches, Newt Gingrich, More

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Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 8, 2009; 11:00 AM

Discuss the latest news about the White House and Congress with Washington Post national political reporter Alec MacGillis.

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Alec MacGillis: Good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining us today. I'm Alec MacGillis from the Post National desk, and am glad to take your questions on anything that might be on your mind -- health care, the Muslim speech, the Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary, stimulus spending, etc.

Fire away!

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Fairfax: Merkel, Sarkozy, Harper, Berlusconi, and as soon as there's elections in Britain, Cameron. All from conservative political parties, yet in America, we have elected one of the most liberal presidents in history. How will those divergent ideologies among our major allies impact Obama's ability to accomplish his foreign policy objectives?

Alec MacGillis: A smart observation -- if Brown does indeed fall in England, then there will in fact be a pretty conservative-leaning line up in Europe. But I'm not sure that that necessarily makes for a real rift with Obama -- keep in mind that even Europe's more conservative parties are well left on most issues from our Republicans, really almost closer to what we think of as centrist Democrats. Sarkozy was falling over himself with praise for Obama in their early meetings (though in classic Sarkozy fashion he later badmouthed Obama, as was leaked in the French press.) Even Berlusconi, probably the most conservative in the bunch, was mugging for pictures with Obama. Merkel has had relatively cool relations with Obama, mainly over their differences in stimulus spending, but my hunch is she still prefers dealing with him than with Bush on most other issues -- global warming, Iran, etc. And I'll bet if Cameron does become p.m., he'll doing his best to cozy up to Obama himself, given the cuddly moderate image he seeks to project, and Obama's popularity among Britons.

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Boston: Does the Obama administration's zig-zag on whether Sotomayor had a one-time poor choice or something else (after the 1994 speech came to light) drip some unnecessary blood in the water for circling Republican sharks? Why wasn't that 1994 speech uncovered and reviewed before the nomination was announced so they could get their stories straight? How much, if at all, will this affect her confirmation in the end?

Alec MacGillis: In fact, the release of the speeches last week shows that it was not just one additional speech in which she used similar language about the potential superior judging ability of women or Latina women, but several speeches at various points through the 1990s. Which only drives home your question -- why did the White House defend the one "wise Latina" speech that got out first, the one given at Berkeley, by saying it was just a poor choice of words, when it had to know from its background work that there were other instances when she'd said roughly the same thing? One theory is that since the wording in the Berkeley speech was particularly eyebrow-raising, the White House genuinely thought that that speech showed a poor choice of words beyond what she'd said elsewhere. Or maybe they were just getting so much heat for that speech that they felt they had to go out and defend it, even if the defense was going to be undermined a few days later with the release of the other speeches. The fact is, though, that the defense seemed questionable from the get-go, as some critics have noted, given that the questions raised by the Berkeley speech were less about wording in any particular line but by the argument that lay behind a whole portion of the speech. I suspect we'll be hearing plenty more about all this in weeks to come.

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washingtonpost.com: Sotomayor Speeches Woven With Ethnicity: High Court Nominee Criticized Stereotypes

Alec MacGillis: Just to follow on that last answer, here's our article from Friday's paper on the speeches that were released, which includes quotes from a 1999 speech that also used phrasing similar to the "wise Latina" speech at Berkeley.

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Boston: Hello,

The Obamas are catching a lot of flak for their date night in NY and for sight-seeing in France (because of tax payer expense). Do the taxpayers pay for the vacation or is that for the cost of secret service to follow them around?

Also, I did not hear similar criticism when Bush and Clinton were in the White House. Did former presidents such as Bush, Clinton not take these types of vacations or am I forgetting that Bush and Clinton generated the same flak for their trips? Or is it just a more sensitive issue with our current economic problems?

Thanks.

Alec MacGillis: As I understand it, the way it's supposed to work is that the Obamas technically pick up the more personal, touristy aspects of the trip -- say, the cost of having the girls along for sightseeing. But obviously that's more symbolic than anything -- the vast, vast cost of the trips is the security, which is picked up by the taxpayer. And yes, it was done the same way under the last two presidents. We're probably hearing more about it now because of the economy -- and because Bush was much more of an early-to-bed homebody, and not taking Laura out for date night on Broadway...

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Falls Church, Va.: So which Virginia gubernatorial candidate in the Dem primary has the best chance of winning the general? Because that us whom I want to vote for. Thanks.

Alec MacGillis: This is the question that many Virginia Democrats are asking themselves. It all depends on how you look at it. Terry McAuliffe would argue (and in fact, is arguing, in his final TV ads) that he's the most electable because he'll have the most money to spend. Brian Moran would argue that he's got the strongest base in the most vote-rich region of the state, Northern Virginia. And Creigh Deeds would argue that it's him because he's got a more moderate profile and roots in non-Northern Virginia, which might allow him to hold his own against Bob McDonnell in the rural, small town swath of the state while also benefiting from Democratic-northern Northern Virginia; McAuliffe and Moran will do badly in rural Virginia, his camp argues, because they're not only from Northern Virginia but from out of state originally, and McAuliffe's got his famously smooth national political vibes to boot. Deeds' claim maybe winning out in the final days, as polls show him on the move. The editorial board of this paper, for what it's worth, seems to think Deeds has got the strongest case in this department, which is one reason why they endorsed him.

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Salinas, Calif.: Why do you think Newt Gingrich has backtracked on labeling Sonia Sotomayor a racist? Could it be that (incredibly) his name keeps coming up as a prohibitive favorite for Republican presidential nominee in 2012?

Alec MacGillis: Who knows why Newt does what he does. I'm not sure he is monitoring his comments with a 2012 run in mind, because the fact is he's said plenty of things in his cable appearances in the past few months that perhaps were not so politic from the standpoint of a potential candidacy. In this case, my hunch is that he popped off about the 'racist' thing, in a Tweet no less, if I remember right, and then was a bit chagrined to see that this comment became part of a snowballing trend of harsh rhetoric against Sotomayor that put Newt together with Rush Limbaugh and Tom Tancredo, perhaps not what he had in mind.

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Philadelphia: "yet in America, we have elected one of the most liberal presidents in history."

Can we please smackdown this non-sense? Obama is a pragmatic centrist, pure and simple. Under Eisenhower, the top tax rate was in the 70s and he oversaw expansion of the federal government, whereas Obama has no plans to raise the top marginal rate even to 40 percent, and at the same time has signed the largest single tax cut in history. Reagan raised taxes 11 times, and was very cautious in deploying our armed forces, even withdrawing from Beirut after a single attack; Obama by contrast has increased our presence in Afghanistan, maintained our presence in Iraq and dropped more US bombs (by Predator) than Reagan authorized in eight years. Nixon expanded the welfare state in ways that Obama never would dream of doing, while signing environmental standards that would be enviable in today's political climate. So, even comparing Obama to three iconic Republicans (selectively, granted, but I haven't even ventured into comparisons with Carter, Wilson, FDR, etc), it's quite clear that "most liberal" is an absurd, fantasy-land tag from the reality-challenged community.

Alec MacGillis: I'll just put this up here to further the debate on this score. For my part, I'll say that there's certainly merit to this perspective, but that I also think we have to be careful about accepting without skepticism Obama's claim to "pragmatism." I wrote a piece about this for our Outlook section a few weeks ago -- Obama certainly is pragmatic in how he moves toward his goals, but the word itself doesn't really tells us much about what the goals are that he is moving us toward. And when it comes to some areas, he plainly does have quite strongly liberal or progressive views, such as his desire to shrink the gap between rich and poor through more progressive taxes and other means.

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washingtonpost.com: Sounds Great, But What Does He Really Mean?

Alec MacGillis: Here is a link to my piece on Obama's pragmatism, referred to above.

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Eyebrow raising? : In a speech to Latino law students about the court and discrimination, it is now eyebrow raising to say that a woman or a Latina or any person of color may be better able to understand discrimination is eyebrow raising?

I'll tell you what is eyebrow raising: read the Justices questions and commentary during the recent hearing for the 13-year old girl who was strip-searched for Tylenol. That is eyebrow raising.

Here's Sotomayor's speech, take the ten minute it takes to read and tell me how that one sentence is so eyebrow raising?

washingtonpost.com: Lecture: 'A Latina Judge's Voice' (New York Times)

Alec MacGillis: The speech can certainly be read any number of ways, and defended on any number of grounds. I was simply pointing out there that while she had indeed made a similar argument in previous speeches, the Berkeley one went further than the previous ones had in its exact language. For instance, the 1999 speech focused only on gender, while the Berkeley one opposed a "wise Latina" judge against a white male judge. The fact is, Judge Sotomayor has very strongly held views about the value of diversity and affirmative action in the public sphere. She has a good case to make. But it seems likely that this will be the source of the most contentious debates over her nomination.

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Diversity: Doesn't Justice Breyer's comments equating having to undress for PE and a 13 year-old-girl having to undress before school administrators looking for drugs show that diversity is needed on the court? I think any woman, latina, wise or otherwise, would have shot that stupid comment down.

Alec MacGillis: No doubt, as the previous questioner also noted, Breyer's comments make Sotomayor's case as well as anyone could. In fact, Ginsburg made this argument explicitly after that case was heard, saying she thought that that case was one case where the guys on the bench just didn't really get it.

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The "Public Option"?: Isn't most of the argument about a public option for healthcare that a government-offered plan would be able to provide the insurance service much more efficiently and cheaply than private carriers? I presume that if there were quality advantages to the private plans, the insurance carriers wouldn't be so worried that everyone would switch to the public plan. Given how hard they're trying to put the kybosh on the popular public option, the private insurance carriers (and congressmen in their pockets) sure don't seem to have much confidence in what they're selling, do they?

Alec MacGillis: This is a well-articulated version of the argument for having a public option. As has been noted by many supporters of the public option, the private sector is always talking about the need for competition, but here is a case where it seems to fear the prospect of compeitition and wants to stave it off. Now, the private insurers would argue that what they're worried about is not just competition but the prospect that the federal government will tip the playing field in favor of the public option, and as a result, many conservative Democrats are arguing for severely hamstringing the public option, and limiting the degree to which it can undersell the private insurers. But if one hamstrings it too much, then it defeats the whole purpose of the public option helping to keep the private insurers honest and keep costs low as possible.

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New York, N.Y.: When it comes to Sotomayor, we've got a judge who has a decades long public record of judicial decision-making. And from that lengthy record, her opponents have so far produced exactly zero examples of any of the accusations they are leveling at her. (Actually, the examples that have surfaced actually contradict those accusations). In a rational world, opponents of a Supreme Court nominee would need to marshal at least some evidence to back up their accusations in order for those accusations to warrant even minimal public discussion. But that's not the world we live in -- where any and all baseless claims made by a disgraced former Republican Speaker of the House must, for reasons that defy all logic, be treated seriously and discussed by serious people. Why, Alec? Why?

Alec MacGillis: You're right, her actual judicial record shows no sign of blatant bias, as has been duly reported. And that's a big reason why I suspect this may not come to all that much in the end. But I would argue that if you have a former speaker of the House declaring that a Supreme Court nominee is a racist, that is not something that can be ignored -- and look, the fact is that the reporting on that comment mainly redounded to hurt Newt, not the nominee herself. To the extent that we've focused a lot on her views on ethnicity in our stories, it's less because of what Newt said but because her views on this are very, very strong, a defining part of who she is.

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Princeton, NJ: Let me correct Phildelphia (whom I agree with) The top rate under Eisenhower was 91%; it was 70% or over in 1946 - 1973. Starting in 1973 the percent of wealth and income of the country going to the richest 10%, 1% and 0.1% has been increasing at an every increasing rate (except during Clinton's time).

It would be nice if Obama reversed this terrible trend, but I have seen no signs of any proposals to do so.

(Are you accepting any comments on health care?)

Alec MacGillis: Thanks, Princeton. Will post this to get your numbers out there.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: Although Post subscribers have been subjected to numerous puff pieces on Sotmayor filled with glowing quotes from her friends, there has yet to be a single report from the Post on her membership in questionable, race-based organizations, such as La Raza. What is the reason for not covering both sides of the Sotomayor story?

washingtonpost.com: Sotomayor's College Activism Was Passionate but Civil

Alec MacGillis: Actually, Dunn Loring, I mentioned her membership in La Raza in a front page article that I did my with my colleague Amy Goldstein. And as best I can tell, her membership in the group didn't amount to much -- she was a member for four years, from 1999 to 2003, and her membership consisted of little more than sending in her $35 a year. The organization can't find evidence of her even attending conferences. Now, if you believe like Tom Tancredo does that La Raza is the "KKK" of the Hispanic world, then maybe even that limited involvement is an issue, but most people would argue otherwise.

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Concord, NH: Alec, you did a great job with the Concord Monitor and continue to do a great job.

I agree with your response to Fairfax - the conservative parties in Europe are well to the left of the Republican Party in this country, so politically they may have more common ground with President Obama than they did with President Bush. I would also point out that President Obama is extremely popular in all of these countries, so there is a big political incentive for these leaders to appear to be working with Obama.

Alec MacGillis: Thanks, always good to hear from my old New Hampshire stomping grounds. You're right on European voters, and the fact is that on Obama's swing through Germany last week, he and Merkel were doing everything they could to downplay any coolness between them. The sense I get is that Merkel's beef with America right now has more to do with the Fed's easy-money policies than with anything Obama's done.

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Minneapolis: Hi Alec -- Thanks for taking questions today. The Supreme Court today declined to hear a challenge to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and the Obama administration is taking some heat for not moving more swiftly on DADT. What's going on with this hot button issue that we're not seeing, or has the president simply put it aside for now, given everything else that he has going on? Might he even put it (and other similarly divisive social issues) on hold until a second term, assuming he gets one?

Alec MacGillis: I've gotten several questions on this today, and it's definitely a big deal. No doubt, he is slow-walking on this particular front, and it's hard for them to argue that that's simply because he's got so much else going on, because the fact is he's sure managed to do a lot of other things despite having the full plate. That said, I would be very surprised if this one waits until a second term.

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Fairfax, Va.: It makes perfect sense to me for Mr. and Mrs. Obama to take the family with them on the obligatory trip to Europe to honor the veterans of D-Day. However, the timing of the immediately previous Broadway "date night" felt awkward to me, coming right before the family trip, at a time of economic need, and with no other events in New York (even a school visit) to lump in with it. The "date nights" within driving or easy helicopter distance in the DC metro area seem like a fine thing. It's just that plane trip to New York that, while perfectly legit, seems a little less politically savvy than usual.

Which leads up to my question: Is this why Michelle Obama's chief of staff just got abruptly replaced? It's hard not to see a cause and effect for me.

Alec MacGillis: Boy, I hadn't thought of that possible connection. You're right, her chief of staff Jackie Norris did leave last week. But my hunch is that they're not connected. I really don't think that the Obamas feel particularly defensive about making that trip. And they're decision to make the trip would've been their own, not a staffer's. More likely, I would guess, that Norris left because she just wasn't that close with Michell -- Norris was a bona fide political operative in the Obama caucus campaign in Iowa, not part of Michelle's personal circle, so maybe they just weren't clicking that well. Her replacement is very much a Michelle person. Also, Norris has three young sons -- maybe it was turning out to be too much.

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re: Sotomayor: I think you're right that the administration had to address the first speech that came out, although they weren't quite ready to release the rest.

I think the administration deserves a lot of credit for transparency, however, in collecting as many speeches as they could find and releasing them. Get it all out there, give the Senators and the pundits time to ponder it all. This removes the case for delaying the hearings because of a drip, drip, drip of new information coming out.

Alec MacGillis: Will just put this up without comment, except to add that from a selfish reporter's standpoint, I would have appreciated them releasing the 80 speeches before 4 p.m. in the afternoon -- just try reading 80 speeches in an hour or two...

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Bethesda, Md.: "Bush was much more of an early-to-bed homebody, and not taking Laura out for date night on Broadway..."

True, but he spent more than a year (!) of his presidency clearing brush in Crawford, not to mention another huge chunk of time at Camp David. I think we're hearing a lot of grumbling because, frankly, Republicans haven't yet found a criticism that can get traction. (And because, you know, they hate everything about him.)

Alec MacGillis: True, true. Democrats can argue that the taxpayer is still getting more bang for his buck, considering all that Crawford time. But the brush-clearing was pretty low cost...

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London, England: As an expat American and political junkie (enjoying quite a show with the British government spinning out of control), I can second your opinion that "Conservative" in the UK is quite similar to "Democrat" in the USA. In fact, Conservatives over here support things that we Americans would consider positively socialist, like socialized medicine, broad social housing goals (think housing projects up to median income), aggressive environmental goals, and much more. David Cameron is to the left of Obama and Obama is beloved over here by all save the BNP (the ultra right wing that wants to throw out everyone who arrived after the Saxons and Jutes.)

Alec MacGillis: Another good voice on this score, from across the pond...

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Washington, D.C.: I would like to know who, if anybody, is focusing on the SUPPLY side of health care reform? Most doctors I know are limiting their Medicare patients because the reimbursement rates are so low. New doctors are saddled with high med school debt, and malpractice insurance premiums go up every year. My own PCP is thinking seriously of changing her practice to a no-insurance boutique practice. Is anybody in the White House or Congress thinking about how, exactly, is going to care for all these newly-insured patients when they try to get appointments for medical care? Everyone seems solely focused on the demand side of the equation. Thanks.

Alec MacGillis: A very good question. And yes, although much of the coverage right now is focusing on coverage questions, the White House and Congress are indeed thinking very hard about the supply questions, because so much of the cost dilemma has to do with how we deliver care, not how we insure it. By far the best take on this so far this year was Atul Gawande's piece in the New Yorker from two weeks ago, titled the Cost Conundrum. Everyone should read it.

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Evanston, Ill.: Does Newt Gingrich really think he can be president? He may be smart but he is exceedingly unattractive. He should become Palin's "brain" a la Karl Rove and Bush.

Alec MacGillis: Ah, but the question is not how you see Newt but how he sees himself. I suspect his estimation of his own appeal is somewhat higher. As for the suggestion on his being Palin's brain, a very intriguing notion, that, but one that could have been undermined by all the dissension surrounding tonight's RNC fundraising dinner in D.C. -- Palin was supposed to be the main speaker, then her people said she wasn't coming and the RNC got Newt instead, but then Palin said she was coming after all, but the RNC decided she shouldn't speak because she might overshadhow Newt. All very awkward...

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Alec MacGillis: Well, time's up for today. Thanks to all for the great questions and sorry I couldn't get to even more. Join us again soon!

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