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Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 17, 2009; 11:00 AM

Discuss the latest news about Congress, the Obama administration, upcoming elections and more with Washington Post staff writer Michael A. Fletcher. He was online Friday, July 17 at 11 a.m. ET.

A transcript follows.

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Michael A. Fletcher: Happy Friday, everyone. Let's get started.

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Richmond, Va : The CBO seems to be going against the POTUS at every turn. Is this unusual? I don't remember them being such vocal critics in the past. What is the director's background? Are they really nonpartisan? Thanks for your time and answers.

Michael A. Fletcher: Yeah, CBO does not seem to be helping Obama much these days. Their assessment that the House bill does not bend the curve toward slowing the rapid increases in health care costs really does strike at the heart of what Obama is trying to do. But they are indeed non partisan, and the guy who heads it was formerly at the Brookings Institutions, which is considered by some to be left of center. Obama's people say that the savings that will be achieved by reform are not easily "scored" or counted. But that does not feel like a strong argument.

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Arlington, Va.: Michael:

I tried to get inauguration tickets from my parent's Congressman, Vern Buchannan (R-Sarasota), in December. As a result, I'm on his e-mail list. In each e-mail, he includes a very biased polling question, such as this latest one:

"Legislation has been proposed to tax small businesses and upper-income Americans to pay for a government-run health care program for the uninsured.

Do you support or oppose raising taxes by as much as 8 percent on small business owners to fund health care reform?"

Just like all of the other ones, this one has the unsurprising result that 84 percent of the people responding to the poll oppose the tax. What is the purpose of sending such slanted polls, that support whatever position he favors? It can't possibly provide him any type of valuable information, can it?

Michael A. Fletcher: It probably gives him an answer he is looking for to buttress a talking point that he no doubt uses regularly.

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Philadelphia: I was appalled at the blatant racism of most of the Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee. Do they not know that offended and showed their true colors to not only Hispanics, but women, too? Are they trying to become the party of 1950?

Michael A. Fletcher: I watched the hearing in snatches and actually was surprised by how relatively restrained many senators were. I think they really did get the memo that Sotomayor would be hard to block and going too far to criticize her (with her 17 years on the bench, years of work as a prosecutor and corporate attorney, and gold plated academic credentials) would do even more to push Hispanic voters into the Democratic column. The "wise Latina" comment was one they beat to death, but beyond that it seemed like they did not have much to work with when it came to building opposition.

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Manhattan, Kan.: Hi Michael -- Are the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate too entrenched in their opposition to taxing some health-care benefits that the CBO director's testimony to the Senate Finance Committee yesterday was a futile exercise in rhetoric? I had read that the White House might have been willing to show some give on this matter a week ago. Is this no longer the case?

Michael A. Fletcher: President Obama has backed himself into a fairly tight corner by pledging not to raise any taxes on those earning under $250,000 a year, which he reiterated on Monday. And a tax on health benefits over a certain amount could fall into that category. Some in the Senate still like the idea, but the White House is pushing hard against it, making it unlikely that it will be in a final product. But while it may sound good to tax the "wealthy" who, by the way, gained the most in terms of tax breaks and income increases in the past eight years, that is a pretty small sliver of people. But our politics seem to require tax cuts, or certainly no tax increases, for many people, even if they would reap a benefit from, say, expanded health care coverage. Obama calls himself a truth teller, but certain truths are harder to tell than others.

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Pittsburgh: Excuse me, but has anyone pointed out that Republicans undermined their argument against empathy by bringing in Frank Ricci and the firefighters? Republicans criticized President Obama for saying that we need Supreme Court Justices with empathy, and then they showcase the firefighters so we can see and understand the human impact of Sotomayor's decision. But wait a minute, if empathy plays no role in the calling of legal balls and strikes, then it doesn't matter that Ricci had to study extra hard because he has dyslexia, or that the firefighters didn't get to see their children for weeks on end because they were studying for the tests. The cold, hard, objective application of the law -- which the Republicans claim to endorse -- doesn't care about their individuals struggles or circumstances. The only question is supposed to be: What does the law say? Did any of the Democratic Senators stop preening long enough to point this out? How about commentators in the media?

Michael A. Fletcher: Good point, Pittsburgh. Of course, the Republicans do not really mean what they say about empathy. Remember Justice Thomas's confirmation hearings when he talked about looking out of his office window at the D.C. appeals court and watching the shackled (mostly black) men being led into court, and saying "there but for the grace of God go I?" The whole Pin Point strategy, pointing out Thomas's humble beginnings? That was highlighted to point out that he had a unique life experience that would make him sensitive to the real life implications of judging. And the GOP loved it. Now, of course, Thomas -- like many justices, particularly conservatives -- likens himself to an umpire calling balls and strikes. But, as all us baseball fans know, every umpire has a slightly different strike zone.

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Atlanta, Ga.: In just the last 2 days, I heard our former Senator and Governor, Zell Miller, say that Obama needs to be glued down with "gorilla glue," Tom Coburn say to Sotomayor, "You got some 'splaining to do, Lucy," Ron Christie, Republican strategist say he is more concerned about the cost of chronic health conditions, not the people who have them, and Pat Buchanan rail about how white men are being discriminated against and implying that minorities are taking over a country founded by white men. I look at the Republicans on the judiciary committee and they are all old, white men; not a woman, a minority or even a young guy among them.

Michael A. Fletcher: The Ricky Ricardo "splaining" thing, I think, has to be viewed in the context of the conversation. Sotomayor had just used a hypothetical to illustrate a legal distinction where she went and got a gun to shoot Coburn. So they were both in strange territory. And I'm sure many Republican senators would not want to be closely associated with things said by commentators like Pat Buchanan, or even Ron Christie, who happens to be African American. Now, as for that "gorilla glue," the former governor and senator has to explain that one himself. . .

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Rockville, Md.: Much as I like the CBO, I have talked to enough people who work there to know they are not perfect. And studies can be set up to determine the results. I expect the truth is some increase, but not as much as the Republicans would like to think.

Michael A. Fletcher: That could well be true. But CBO is pretty much the best they have in terms of cost projections.

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Taxes: We had a very spirited discussion in my office the other day amongst people from all parts of the political spectrum and ages ranging from 25 to 62. The one thing that all of us agreed on was legalizing marijuana and taxing it like cigarettes. We agreed this would solve a whole host of problems, from state revenues to overcrowded prisons. No one could find a down side. Are we going to wait for all the dinosaurs in the congress to die off before something this intelligent will be considered?

Michael A. Fletcher: In a word: yes. Plus, there is an argument to be made for not putting more unhealthy products out there in the legal market place.

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Biden Gaffe?: I heard on the radio today that Biden stated to the AARP that in order to save our economy from bankruptcy we have to spend more. He reiterated his point.....what gives?

Michael A. Fletcher: I hadn't heard that. But probably what he is saying is that when the Obama administration took office the financial crisis was pushing the economy to the brink of a Depression. The way to fight that was to pump more money into the economy through increasing the money supply and implementing a huge stimulus package. So they spend in the short term but look to balance budgets in the mid to long-term to keep the economy afloat.

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Health and Taxes: Michael, I find it puzzling that as Americans we have no objections to paying taxes for national defense (defense spending continues to ever spiral), yet balk at sharing the burden to protect the well-being of every American by denying access to health care for all. Would we consider it moral that 40 million Americans be denied the protection of our military and police forces because they can't afford the premiums? Just asking.

Michael A. Fletcher: Show me the politician willing to make that argument. I think we've developed a political culture in the country where people truly expect something for nothing. But you have to say that starts from the top with politicians not being willing to truly level with people.

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But CBO is pretty much the best they have in terms of cost projections. : In 1998 the CBO projected we would have 10 years of surpluses. They may be the best we have, but I would rather go with a shaman, a goat and a sharp knife.

Michael A. Fletcher: Yeah, those 10-year projections are always a little tricky...

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Wokingham, U.K.: Isn't it fundamentally impossible, whatever the details, to create universal health care coverage without either detracting from the care that some already have or levying an extra tax, presumably a heavy tax, on everyone? Of course it may be in everyone's interest to have universal coverage in the long term, but the long term doesn't come quickly.

Michael A. Fletcher: I don't know that care has to suffer. Somehow a myth has developed that people get exactly the kind of health care they want now, that nobody is "rationing." But that isn't true. But cost is another matter. Of course it is going to cost and probably for some time. but in our country nobody wants to talk about taxes, unless they are being imposed on somebody else.

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CBO: Weren't the "bend the curve" comments last night about the Senate, and not the House proposals?

Michael A. Fletcher: Actually both: the senate health committee plan and the bill crafted by House leaders.

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Menomonie, Wis.: Good morning, sir. I think the best story of the week has to be the Sen. Jon Kyl episode. He publicly came out and said that the stimulus was not working. So, President Obama actually phoned Kyl and said that if Kyl did not think it was working that Kyl wouldn't mind if the money was taken back from Arizona. Then Kyl said, "Oh no, don't do that!" I guess Kyl believed it was working after all! What are your thoughts on this? Thank you.

Michael A. Fletcher: I think what happened is that Obama administration officials reached out to the Arizona governor to ask whether the state still wanted its share of the stimulus pot. It is interesting that the stimulus has become such as point of contention. Despite its implementation, unemployment has continued to rise and is projected to continue rising. But many economists say the predictions would even more dire were it not in place. But the reality is that is a hard case to make politically, but that is what Obama is left with now. And Kyl and other critics are trying make political hay off of it.

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Atlanta: Michael, you can explain away Coburn and the commentators all you want. I can even explain away Zell: we actually have a product here called Gorilla Glue, similar to Super Glue. But that is my point. How many of these comments do we have to have that are just "explained" away? Kinda like the guy from the swimming pool controversy saying all the black children "changed the complexion" of the swim club. The politicians are professionals, many of them lawyers, who know how to choose their words carefully, yet they do not. There comes a point where its not coincidence anymore.

Michael A. Fletcher: Fair enough.

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CBO 10 year projections : In 1998 the CBO didn't know we were going to start a war in Iraq.

Michael A. Fletcher: Or suffer a terrorist attack, leading to a radical restructuring of the federal government and a sharp increase in defense spending...

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re: Despite its implementation, unemployment has continued to rise and is projected to continue rising: Just a clarification of something that a lot of people don't understand: employment is a lag indicator. Unemployment numbers today are a reflection of where the economy was 4-6 months ago. Similarly, to the extent that there are signs that the economy is improving today (and I'm skeptical about how strong those signs actually are), we would not see employment numbers improve as a result for another 4-6 months.

Michael A. Fletcher: True enough. But the fact is that the Obama administration is stuck with far worse jobs numbers than it predicted, complicating its economic message.

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Dale City, Va.: Are the layoffs by state and county governments that were canceled because they received stimulus funds being tracked anywhere? I know in Virginia it made a big difference, and those folks are not unemployed as they would have been otherwise. They should be documented somehow.

Michael A. Fletcher: Probably state by state, and perhaps even by the stimulus people. What is evident, I think, in this stimulus debate is that people don't realize how bad the economy was, nor do they seem to believe that we were truly on the brink of an economic disaster.

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Ames, IA: I kept hearing on various news reports last night (about the Kyl comments) that very little of the stimulus money has been spent in the states. That would seem to be an important point in discussing whether it is working.

Michael A. Fletcher: Yes, it would. The fact is that the bulk of the stimulus money is only now entering the pipeline. We probably will be in a better position to judge its effectiveness in six months or so. But facts rarely slow down political debate...

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Sen. Lugar: The Post is reporting that Indiana Senator Richard Lugar is the first Republican to express support for Obama's Supreme Court nominee. Does he risk be labeled as a RINO for this? Who do you think in the long run will suffer more harm politically -- Republicans who vote for Judge Sotomayor or those who vote against her confirmation?

washingtonpost.com: Lugar is First Republican Senator to Back Sotomayor (Post, July 17)

Michael A. Fletcher: I think Sen. Lugar conducts himself in such a way that such labels would not affect him. I think the politics of a Sotomayor vote depend on the demographics of a senator's state, with those from places with large Hispanic populations, obviously, risking more by voting against her. It seems that she is not a hard yes vote, given her long record and apparently moderate record as a judge.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard Dean was on Democracy Now today saying he would go to the mat for the public option.

Michael A. Fletcher: Gotta run. As always, it was a pleasure.

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