Post Politics: Sotomayor, Obama's Stance on Israeli Settlements, More

Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 17, 2009 11:00 AM

Washington Post Supreme Court reporter Michael D. Shear was online June 17 at 11:00 a.m. to discuss latest news about the White House and Congress.


Michael D. Shear: Sorry everyone, I am a bit late. But there's plenty to talk about. A new scandal for a GOP senator, a health care battle beginning to pick up steam, new rights for gay federal employees, a supreme court nominee....

And whatever else is on your minds...


Washington, D.C.: Senator John Ensign has just gone public about his affair with one of his staff members. What prompted him to do this? Was the news media going to report it, if he didn't come out with this?

Michael D. Shear: So shall we start with high-brow stuff? Nah! Let's start with sex.

My colleague Chris Cillizza says its not clear what prompted this admission. It's possible that there was something going on that we don't know about -- yet. But it's also possible that he was trying to clear the decks well in advance of his reelection in 2012.

Would that work? Look at Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, whose name was found in the DC Madam's little black book some years back and yet he seems headed to reelection.


Hell's Kitchen, NYC: Michael, don't you find it a little strange that many of the same people who are now expressing their solidarity and support for the Iranian people (McCain, Podhoretz, Kristol, etc.) are the same ones who have publicly endorsed plans to bomb the country and kill many of those same Iranians. At some point, don't those advocating for a military action against Iran need to face up to this fundamental contradiction: Bombing that country would, in addition to generating many casualties, significantly strengthen the hand of the hardliners, poison public opinion against the West, and stifle reform efforts?

Michael D. Shear: OK. Let's go from sex to war.

You raise an interesting point, and one worth asking some of the people you mention. Having covered Sen. McCain for almost two years during the campaign, I think what he would say is that he draws a distinction between the Iranian people and the Iranian leadership.

His many comments about taking an aggressive stance toward Iran (remember "Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran," sung to the song Barbara Ann?) were aimed at ultimately freeing Iran's people from its autocratic leadership.

But as you point out, a military effort like that would inevitably kill some of the very people he says he's trying to free. That's worth thinking about.


Fairfax County, Va.: I'm interested in the new benefits for gay federal employees' partners. It seems too late to make the gay community happy. They are angry about the wording of the government's defense of DOMA, angry about continued firings of top-flight military people under don't ask don't tell, angry about White House silence on gay marriage advances in several states this year. What a shame, since this seems like a concrete and helpful step. Do you agree it's too late to mend this fence? Or is there a divide between the interest groups and advocates and actual gay Americans who will be pleased by this advance?

Michael D. Shear: President Obama clearly had to do something to respond to the anger that you correctly document. I have sat in several White House briefings as Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was peppered with questions about why the administration doesn't move to end "Don't ask, don't tell," as Obama said he would do.

Will this be the end? Like you, I suspect not. But if Obama responds to some of the other things you mention, I would think the gay community will come around. After all, where else do they have to go?


Hampton Cove, Ala.: What's with Obama smearing Mr. Walpin for exposing the abuse of government funds at Americorps? I have seen the guy on TV, he is hardly confused and disoriented. Is that the game plan -- go after the whistleblower and protect those who cheat the taxpayers?

Michael D. Shear: This is an interesting one. The letter from the Obama officials to members of congress were quite something, describing him as disoriented, etc. However, they specifically noted that it was his behavior at a particular meeting, and then at subsequent times. I suppose that could indicate concern that something was affecting his behavior at particular times, which would not rule out other times -- like the ones you have seen on TV -- in which he seemed fine.

I think we have to reserve judgment about the theories about the Obama motivation until more facts come out about this story.


Lakeland, Fla.: This is the most shocking part of the Ensign affair, "Ensign's affair began a few months after he called for his colleague to resign, according to a timeline provided by his office." His "colleague" was Larry Craig. So will another Congressional hypocrite do the honorable thing and resign? Not a chance. Rules only apply to little people, and hypocrisy is a way of life in Washington. Will this at least end any talk of Ensign running for President in 2012?

Michael D. Shear: Lakeland! I lived in Lakeland for almost a year, working for my first paper, the Tampa Tribune, in the Lakeland bureau.

To quote a famous line in a movie, Lakeland is "shocked, shocked! to find hypocrisy in Washington!"

It's true, Ensign was critical of Larry Craig. It does make one wonder how politicians can carry on such double lives -- pontificating about morality publicly while failing to practice it privately.

Let me put your question about Ensign's potential presidential run to Cillizza.

He says President Ensign is unlikely.


Northern Virginia: Last year I spent a lot of time watching political polls, first in the Democratic contest, state by state, between Clinton and Obama, and then in the electoral contest, both state by state and nationally, between Obama and McCain. I think I got into a bad habit, because I now watch the Gallup daily poll each afternoon to see how well Mr. Obama is faring. When the total ticks up I feel better and when it ticks down I get worried. I also worry when the unfavorable rating goes above 30, as it has a few times in the last week or two (31).

As a reporter, do you think it makes sense to watch this day to day, and have observers done this on a daily basis for past presidents as well? I never did this before with past administrations, but just took a reading from occasional news stories about presidential popularity that turned up a few times a year. Thanks for your perspective.

Michael D. Shear: Northern Virginia, I worry about you. You have contracted a political disease for which there is only one cure: You must go cold turkey. Stop the madness. Your life will never return until you stop reading polls daily.

(If this is Jon Cohen, my colleague and Washington Post pollster, please disregard this advice.)


To the moderator: Is there any standard url that will take me to that day's Post Politics Q&A - one that doesn't change over time, so I could just bookmark it? Live Q&As -

Michael D. Shear: For everyone's information...


Rockville, Md.: When people ask for an end to settlements in the West Bank, do they mean they want an immediate end without anything in return? Or are they talking about a negotiating position? I get confused. Or is the "roadmap" considered a negotiated settlement? if so, when did they agree to have rockets every week from Gaza?

Michael D. Shear: I'm by no means a Middle East expert. But as I understand it, the "roadmap" was primarily about the creation of a Palestinian state by setting forth criteria that both sides would have to do.

On the Palestinian side, it called for Palestinians to offer Israel more security assurances (that would, presumably, include the rockets being fired into sderot and other border towns in Israel). On the Israeli side it largely involves stopping the settlements -- no new settlements and no expansion of existing ones.


Baltimore, Md.: Why Ensign went public: In reading around on the web, it seems that the aggrieved husband (also a former staffer) was asking for money. No assertion of blackmail, but...

Michael D. Shear: The blogs are full of information. I'm not working this story actively, so I can't speak to this.


Salinas, Calif.: Hi Michael. Do you think that the Senate Republicans have pretty much finished their initial posturing over Sonia Sotomayor and that she will ultimately be confirmed without much more drama? I have the feeling that if they try to hammer her in hearings over her "wise Latina" comments, they will just end up proving her point.

Michael D. Shear: Sorry for the delay. Got stuck talking to an editor. (If you know of ways to avoid that, please send em to me!)

I do think the Republicans found themselves in an uncomfortable spot early on after some of the more outspoken members of the party (Rush, Newt) made some really provocative statements that forced party leaders to pull way back.

The White House does expect a conservative pushback as the hearings get closer, and some aggressive questioning from senators. But I think the conventional wisdom is that the GOP will have a hard time stopping her nomination.


Richmond, Va.: Are there any plans for the White House, and Obama in particular, to get involved in the governors election here in VA in the fall?


Michael D. Shear: Another of my old haunts!

I suspect that there is no doubt that the White House -- and Obama in particular -- will indeed get involved in the race between Creigh Deeds and Bob McDonnell in Virginia.

Keep in mind, Virginia was very good to Obama, giving him some much needed credibility in the primaries and then delivering for him in the general.

It's also the case that his DNC chairman is the governor of that state. Tim Kaine is personally close to Obama and will be able to get the president to come campaign unless it looks absolutely hopeless.


Boston: Not that I am one to normally defend a Republican, but I read in one place that Ensign was legally separated from his wife when he had the affair. Is this true? If so, shouldn't this be a part of all the news stories in general? I think it makes a big difference.

Michael D. Shear: I'm not sure about that. It's the kind of detail that reporters don't put in unless they are sure, and the story broke pretty late yesterday.

I suspect that before this story is over, we will all know more than we've ever thought possible about Sen. Ensign's marital relations.


Washington, D.C.: Back to Iran. Is there any real evidence of a stolen election? Most of the press seems to be whining about the reformist who lost. I think Obama is right to go cautious on this one. After having helped overthrow the first democratically elected government in Iran and the supporting the Shaw the USG has ZERO credibility with the Iranian people. They may like Americans but they don't trust the USG any further than their own.

Michael D. Shear: I think the evidence is unclear at this point. My sense is that the Obama administration is indeed trying to move carefully, especially since they don't want to give the hard-liners in the country any ammunition to use by pointing to interference and meddling by the U.S.


New York: I see that both Pat Buchanan and Dick Lugar have now separately backed up President Obama on his handling of Iran, Buchanan extravagantly praising him for bringing protesters out into the streets and undermining the rule of the mullahs in Iran with his openness policy and his Cairo speech. On the other side, you have many many more, people like McCain and Romney, the radio guys and the other anti-Obama jingoists, all of whom would dearly miss Ahmedinijad if he ever left. Is this a crack in the united front of the GOP?

Michael D. Shear: What united front of the GOP? There hasn't been one of those in years!


(If you know of ways to avoid that, please send em to me!) : Tell your pesky editor that you're doing the "consumer marketing" part of your job & you'll be done at 12noon. Or doesn't your editor want to maintain good online relations Post readers?

(Nice and loaded!)

Michael D. Shear: Hmmm. That might work.


Michael D. Shear: Ok everyone. Time to call it a day. Sorry again for the slightly late start. See you in a couple of weeks.



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