Post Politics: Health-Care Ads, North Korea, More

Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 5, 2009; 11:00 AM

Discuss the latest news out of Washington with Ben Pershing, who writes the daily Rundown for The Post's Political Browser. Pershing was online Wednesday, Aug. 5 at 11 a.m. ET to take your questions about politics and his latest story, about the brewing ad battle over health care: Groups Take Health-Reform Debate to Airwaves.


Ben Pershing: Good morning, all. Sorry for the late start. I was at a press conference with a senator, and they do like to talk. Let's get started.


Ocracoke, NC: Morning, Ben. Now that Bill Clinton is back (in both senses), do you think there'sa chance he'll overplay his hand? Or will Obama (and Hillary) be able to keep him on a tight leash? When they do, he is an invaluable public servant, so here's hoping. Thanks

Ben Pershing: Hello Ocracoke. I wish I was there in the Outer Banks with you right now, rather than in Washington. As to your question, I wouldn't overestimate the extent to which Bill Clinton "is back." Yes, he played a high-profile role the last couple of days and seems to have handled it well. And it is possible the Obama administration will occasionally ask him to take other global ambassador-type roles. But I think those moments will be rare. Neither Obama nor, probably, Hillary Clinton necessarily want Bill Clinton to be front and center all the time, overshadowing the current president and administration. I'm guessing Bill Clinton gets that and won't "overplay his hand."


Oklahoma City, OK: In yesterday's politics chat one of the posters wondered why it was "legal" for vocal critics of the administration to show up at congressional town halls and sometimes shout and yell. Does no one on the left recall eight years under George W. Bush when everywhere he went there were shrieking leftist protestors shouting "Hitler!" and hanging him in effigy? Some folks act like amngry fringe types are uniqie to the right.

Ben Pershing: That is a good point -- it's certainly not a new phenomenon to have protesters show up at town halls and other political events and try to disrupt the proceedings. And there were plenty of fringe-y liberals who demonstrated loudly at Bush events. But I'm not sure if there was quite the level of coordination on the left as there is currently on the right, where conservative groups aren't just putting people at Democratic events, but actually encouraging them to yell at lawmakers.


Elkridge, MD: Who's footing the bill for the trip to and back from North Korea to free the journalists? Bill Clinton, Al Gore, the journalists, or the taxpayers?

Ben Pershing: That's a good question I haven't yet seen answered. I'm almost positive it's not the taxpayers -- my guess is that it's either the Clinton Foundation, Al Gore's TV network (Current) or some combination of the two.


Rochester, NY: A number of outlets have reported on the fact that many of the people disrupting Congressmen's health care town hall meetings have been bussed in by groups like Freedomworks. Is this a story that the Post will be following?

Ben Pershing: I actually wrote about that very subject this morning, as you'll see if you click on the "Political Browser" link at the top of this chat page.


St. Louis: The "Birther" movement is fascinating. Ben, give us your favorite Birther moment, key player, quote, whatever you'd like.

Ben Pershing: I think my favorite character in this saga is Orly Taitz, perhaps the most vocal leader of the Birther movement. I just think it's odd, funny and disturbing that mainstream outlets and TV networks keep putting her on as some sort of credible source. And I like that she's both a lawyer and a dentist.


Des Moines, Iowa: I read The Rundown today, and I too noticed the sentence on North Korea's shunning of Al Gore for Clinton in the LAST sentence of the piece. I'm glad the women are safe at home now, but this little tidbit has the most intrigue, I think. All those years Gore battled to get out of the Clinton shadow, then when he's worked so hard to get the two journalists (ultimately, his employees at Current) out of Kim Jong Il's lair, Clinton gets the credit. You can't make this stuff up.

Ben Pershing: Yeah, I did find that same detail striking. It's like the North Koreans said, "Gore? But he lost in 2000. We want a REAL president." Gore just can't catch a break.


Confused?: Stephen Colbert is, as usual, correct. He had a piece on the "grassroots" protesting of health care reform. It is CLEARLY being funded by a combo of insurance companies, pharma and Republicans. Not to mention that polls (which I know y'all love) show that 70% of Americans do want health care reform. Despite this, the protestors are being taken seriously by the media? It's too bad you didn't take the opposition to the Iraq war similarly seriously - but I guess the minority only counts when it's Republican and crazy, right?

Ben Pershing: I've seen plenty of media stories on the health-care protests and who's organizing/funding them, so I'm not completely sure who you're criticizing here. Maybe mainstream outlets should cover it even more, but this story certainly isn't being buried. I'd also point you to the WaPo story this morning on the fake "astroturf" letters on the climate change bill as evidence that the press does pay attention to these things.


Lexington, Ky.: Bets: Who will retire first, Helen Thomas or Robert Byrd?

Ben Pershing: Ooh, that's a tough one. Can we throw Brett Favre into the mix?


poll question: According to Politico, Obama's approval ratings are 4% higher this week than last week. For serious? This makes no sense to me - an additional 4% of people decided he was doing a good job, all of a sudden? It's not like he just passed health care reform. Can you explain this please?

Ben Pershing: I haven't seen that particular poll but I wouldn't attribute too much into a 4 percent increase or decrease in any particular week. That is within the margin of error and so basically statistically insignificant. I would watch for trends over longer timeframes and across several different polls.


foreign policy prof: Rescuing of US captain from Somali pirates with snipers? Check. Freeing of journalists from North Korea? Check. Any comments from the geniuses at the GOP on this? For all their squawking about legitimizing NK by having Clinton go there, seems like they're forgetting the fact that two young American women were freed.

Ben Pershing: I think everyone agrees that it's good news that these two journalists were freed. What some critics, particularly John Bolton, worry about is whether the North Koreans were promised anything in return, and whether it's a good idea to be complicit in any arrangement that confers some sort of legitimacy on the regime there. It's the same argument for why we're not supposed to negotiate with terrorists for hostages -- because it just gives them an incentive to take more hostages.

That said, I'm not sure if Bolton or any other conservatives really think we should have let those two women stay in prison forever.


BUSH - Town hall - more: For Bush town hall meetings - unless you were a Republican, you couldn't get in. They were always closed to anyone else.

Ben Pershing: That is mostly true, but I certainly remember at least a few disruptions. I'm thinking more of town hall events held by Republican members of Congress, rather than Bush.


Arlington, Va.: How do you think the full video of Obama saying he wants to eventually get a single-payer health-care system operating in the U.S. will affect this debate? The fact that many Democrats and liberal groups prefer a single-payer system is one of the worst kept secrets in Congress.

Ben Pershing: The video has definitely gotten a lot of attention, courtesy of Drudge and the White House itself, which chose to push back in a high-profile way. I'm not sure if "many Democrats" in Congress prefer a single-payer system, but definitely some do. At the same time, nearly all of them recognize that such a system isn't politically feasible anytime soon, and wouldn't be popular with the public.

_______________________ Obama Returns to Grass Roots for Reform


Northern Virginia: I feel so good to see these two journalists come home, with a Clinton-Gore hug on the tarmac to boot. There's much more info on Current TV's site now and it turns out the women are real journalists, not two crazy kids, as had been implied.

It may not be SEALs versus pirates, but to me it feels the same, especially the sudden happy ending. Add the hyper-successful clunkers program, quasi-good economic news, and Sotomayor confirmation and I feel like the tide is turning (again). Even the Democratic Senators were "fired up and ready to go" yesterday.

Do you agree the mood is changing? If so, will it shift the August health-care momentum, which had looked bleak?

Ben Pershing: I think those are all positive points for Obama, but I'm not sure whether any of them really affect the health-care debate with the possible exception of the economic news. If the economic indicators look even more positive in September that would definitely help Obama's health-care cause, because it might reduce concerns a bit about the reform package's price tag.


confused: Why should I take Republicans seriously when a significant chunk of them (granted, mostly concentrated in the South) believe Barack Obama isn't an American citizen?

Ben Pershing: I assume you're referring to that Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll which found that 28 percent of Republicans think Obama isn't really a U.S. citizen and 30 percent aren't sure. If those numbers are right, they're striking. I wonder what the GOP party leadership thinks of those numbers -- they certainly don't help the party's efforts to appeal to moderates and Independents.


re: poll question: : Just a hunch, but it might be the success of the "Clunkers," as well as the positive GDP numbers that has led to the uptick in poll ratings. But as you said, the move was within the margin of error.

Ben Pershing: Those are both plausible explanations, but let's wait for more poll data before we start reaching any conclusions.


Minneapolis: As Tina Brown noted, I'd like to see Bill Clinton show up in the Blue Dog's districts and talk HEALTH CARE. Or as Henrik Hertzberg said, "Sic the Big Dog on the Blue Dogs."

Ben Pershing: Is Bill Clinton popular in Blue Dog districts? With the exception of Arkansas, I'm not sure there are a ton of rural, conservative districts where Clinton would be a big help. But maybe I'm wrong -- this question probably hasn't been polled since the height of the 2008 Democratic primary.


Re: Re: Elkridge: Even if taxpayers pick up some of the expense of Clintons mission to N. Korea, if it has helped to break the loggerheads over other issues with Kim Jong Il (and who's to follow), then it may turn out to be the best taxpayer investment in international diplomacy in the last 10 years.

Ben Pershing: There's no evidence yet that it helped "break the loggerheads" with North Korea on any subject. It will be awhile before we see whether Obama's overall strategy toward N.K. yields good or bad results.


Journalists in Jail: I've heard suggestions that the two journalists in North Korea and the three in Iran did not exactly "stray" into forbidden territory. That they were deliberately trying to further their careers by these antics---get international attention and sympathy, cool their heels in a Prison Lite while the NK and Iranian officials make deals with the US. Now it's time to write up their reports and make book deals.

Ben Pershing: You've heard "suggestions" that these two reporters actually wanted to be thrown in jail in North Korea, perhaps the most unpredictable and repressive regime on Earth? Did these suggestions come from anyone who had any evidence whatsoever to back them up?


Washington, DC: Ben,

SO your now quoting Daily Kos as an accurate news source on polls? WOW

You should correct your readers and tell them that the Daily Kos is a left wing blog, not a news source when sighting that poll.

I know some on the left use that sight for news, but that just isn't what it is.

Ben Pershing: DailyKos is a liberal site but the poll itself was conducted by Research 2000, which is widely considered to be a reputable survey research firm. So I have no problem citing the results of their poll. That said, I would like to see more polls of this same question.


no Clinton-care: I'm glad that the journalists are safe, and appreciate President Clinton's efforts.

But don't send him out on health care. It will remind folks too much of the last go-round.

Ben Pershing: That's a good point. For most voters, Bill Clinton doesn't necessarily remind them of successful health-care reform.


Kansas City, MO: Are Democrats making a mistake by letting non-supporters in town halls? Bush for the most part didn't and didn't have to deal with non-supporters. Bush had little support but from town halls you got the opposite impressions. Lot of people support health care reform but the town hall image give the opposite impression.

Ben Pershing: Members of Congress don't really have the ability or resources to restrict entry to their town-hall events. And if they did crack down on letting opponents attend, that would get negative attention in the local press. If lawmakers really don't want to risk hearing from their political opponents at these events, they'll probably have to just cancel them altogether. Some members don't do town halls, period, for exactly that reason.


question: Do the town hall screamers realize that they will at 65 years of age be eligible for Medicare which is (gasp!) a government-run health care program? If they're against the public option or against any role for the government in health care reform, can they please not opt into Medicare? It would certainly save me money on my taxes for the next few decades.

Ben Pershing: That reminds me of a (possibly apocryphal) anecdote that's been making the rounds a lot lately -- someone standing up at a town hall meeting and telling a member of Congress, "Tell the government to keep its hands off my Medicare."


Astroturf letters: Daily Progress had the story July 31. What took the Post so long to cover the story?

Ben Pershing: Nothing. There was a story on the subject in the Aug. 1 edition of the Post. Today's story just added more details.


Re: Journalists in Jail: Show me a North Korean country club, and I'll show you their "Prison Lite."

Ben Pershing: Yeah, I don't think conditions in North Korea are particularly cushy, even for VIP prisoners.


Ben Pershing: Thanks for the good questions, all. Until next time ...


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