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Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009; 11:00 AM

Discuss the latest news about the Obama administration and the world of politics with Ben Pershing, who writes the daily Rundown for The Post's Political Browser. Pershing was online Sept. 17 at 11 a.m. ET.

The transcript follows

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Ben Pershing: Good morning America, how are you? We're on Day 2 of pulling apart the Baucus health reform bill and figuring out what it means. We've also got some fresh news today on missile defense, the ongoing debate about Obama and race and so much more. Interesting times we live in. Let's chat.

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NY, NY: Why has no one reported that these ACORN "Undercover" videos were funded by Brietbarth. Why does the story that these were two "citizen journalist" kids seem to be taken at face value. Why is no one questioning this?

Ben Pershing: I'm not sure what should be questioned. Most of the stories I've seen -- including the story in today's Post -- make clear that these two people who made the videos are conservative activists with a clear agenda in mind. They say so themselves. And most every story notes that the stories broke on Breitbart's site, biggovernment.com. I'm not sure how much there is to add on the motivations behind the filmmakers. Yes, they clearly went in there with an agenda, but the videos were real and interesting nonetheless.

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washingtonpost.com: ACORN to Review Incidents

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One Simple Question:: What is the GOP's solution to healthcare reform?

Ben Pershing: There is no one simple answer. Republicans do not have one health-care bill on which they agree (to be fair, neither do Democrats, that's why there are something like six different bills that need to be reconciled). The Republican Study Committee, which included conservative GOP House members, has put out several different bills. Most GOP measures include more market-based reforms and fewer restrictions on health-insurance companies. They emphasize health savings accounts and medical liability reform. But like I said, there isn't necessarily unanimity on the GOP side.

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Carter's vs. Obama: I happened to agree with Pres. Carter's assessment that the attacks against Pres. Obama as racist based, but was surprised at how quickly Mr. Obama said uh, uh, not so, denying that race has anything to do with the attacks? Of course, it seems an obvious strategy to dismiss the racial element, and thereby devaluing the impact. Is it as simple as that, or is there a deeper, underlying strategy by Pres. Obama that I'm not getting?

washingtonpost.com: Obama: Criticism Is About Policy

Ben Pershing: I think the underlying strategy for Obama is that it simply does him no good to make the case that his opponents are racist, regardless of whether privately he believes that to be the case. Obama is in a very tough position here. As Joe Klein puts it: "If everything he does is seen through the prism of race, if he becomes [only] a 'black' President, he loses." (http://tinyurl.com/om5sgg)

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Youngstown, Ohio: I was wondering if you're following the SCOTUS case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (a.k.a. "Hillary: The Movie" case) and how do you the consequences of it?

Are we going to return to the era of "The Senator from Standard Oil" again?

washingtonpost.com: Supreme Court Considers Role of Corporations in Campaign Finance

Ben Pershing: I have been following it, and it's fascinating. It's hard to imagine what federal elections would be like if unlimited corporate contributions would be allowed. At the very least, it would be interesting to cover.

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Detroit: Ben, the Democrats don't need a single Republican vote in either house to pass ObamaCare (or anything else, for that matter). If ObamaCare is right for America, if the Republican opposition is just astroturfed fear-mongering, why not just pass it?

Ben Pershing: Technically, Democrats do currently need one Republican vote in the Senate to move health care (because they only have 59 seats with Kennedy's seat vacant). Democrats could use reconciliation and move a bill with 51 votes, but that creates huge procedural obstacles that probably aren't worth the trouble.

Also, don't assume every Senate Democrat will necessarily vote for the reform bill. Ben Nelson hasn't indicated yet that there's any bill he could support. And Rockefeller and Wyden, among others, oppose the Baucus bill. So Democrats still have a ways to go before they get the 60 votes they need.

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Indianapolis: Could any GOP moderate Senator vote for the health reform plan and still be in the GOP the next morning?

Ben Pershing: Yes. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have voted with Democrats and against Republicans on major issues before, and they'll do it again. There are a few moderates in the House in the same position -- Mike Castle, for example.

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Iraq torture inquiry: Mr. Pershing, Any news on John Durham's torture inquiry?

Ben Pershing: No, but he was only appointed to investigate claims of CIA abuse a few weeks ago. Don't expect any news or conclusions out of that probe for awhile.

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One health care bill: To be fair, the Dems have five bills that are very similar and the one odd duck from Baucus and the health insurance lobby.

Ben Pershing: And the Republican Study Committee has several different proposals that are also similar. Now it's true that Democrats are farther along in agreeing on a substantive proposal than Republicans are, but that's what happens when you're in the majority.

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Washington, DC: I live in the district and bought my first home last year. I used ACORN and they were great and very professional. They really helped me understand the whole process, and because of them I am not paying mortage insurance (I didn't have enought to pay 20% down) and I got a low interest rate. It makes me very angry to see people act as if the organization is some evil communist plot. ACORN helps people! How did this important organization, whom most Americans never heard of until a year ago, get such a bad image? What can people like me do to let Americans know that ACORN is a wonderful organization? Thank you.

Ben Pershing: Good question. ACORN is a huge organization that does lots of different things, so it's a difficult subject to report on. On one hand, I'm sure the group has helped thousands of people (like you) with their mortgages, with tax planning, etc., without any problems or controversy. And they've registered lots of voters in a fair and legal way.

On the other hand, they now have enough highly-publicized problems and misdeeds -- like the new videos and allegations of voter fraud -- that the whole group is being tarred. One question is whether the group wouldn't be better off getting out of the voter registration business and just focuses on providing other services. That's the real reason most Republicans have targeted ACORN, because the group registers lots of Democrats.

It would also be good for ACORN's image if they didn't encourage the opening of any more brothels on camera.

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Arizona: Ben, Any insights on Max Baucus and what in the world he was thinking three months back? Did he really believe six senators from low population, predominately rural states with perhaps the least stake in national health care reform could forge bipartisan consensus and take the lead in Congress? Or was he looking for a moment of personal glory to cap his career and risked squandering health care reform because he thought this was his opportunity?

Ben Pershing: Yes, I do think Baucus really believed he could reach some sort of compromise, if not with all three Republicans then at least with Olympia Snowe. Remember, Baucus has cut plenty of deals with Republicans before (like on Bush's tax cuts) and so he really thought he could do it again. You can also argue that now Baucus can legitimately say that he did his best to compromise with Republicans and they just weren't interested. Gives Baucus the high ground going forward.

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What now ... ?: It's the birthers, it's the tea baggers, it's the death panels, it's socialism, it's the anti-Christ, and now the ACORN thing. Is the GOP just throwing it all out there to see what sticks? Real question: Is is sticking?

Ben Pershing: Some of it is sticking, if you believe the polls. A disturbingly large number of people believe the birther conspiracies, no matter how many times they've been debunked. And there are plenty of people -- obviously rusty on their political science -- who literally believe Obama is a socialist.

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Austin, Tex.: How significant is recent ACORN news to the Democratic party? Does it actually mean anything, or is it just fodder for Fox News?

If the latter, does it actually matter at all? Most FN viewers have already made up their minds about this administrations and this Congress.

Ben Pershing: Personally, I don't think the ACORN story is a huge problem for Democrats. It's embarrassing, yes, but it's the non-election year and my guess is that the media won't pay that much attention to it going forward. It's a distraction, and a win for the group's conservative critics, but that's it. My colleague The Fix had a slightly different take on the subject this morning.

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Salinas, Calif.: Ben, I think the point made over Baucus' compromise health bill irritating all parties (as reported in your Political Browser) is representative of Obama's governance style. If he's getting criticized from all sides of the political spectrum (read opposition party and varied special interests), then he's positioned exactly where he wants to be: squarely against the entrenched status quo. With all the criticism generated against him, many interpret that as failure on his part. I see it as ringing success (as long as he can pull it off and win a second term).

His election was supposed to be about change, wasn't it?

Ben Pershing: Yes, that's a good point about Obama's governing style. The problem he faces is that many of his liberal supporters backed him because they wanted change from 8 years of the Bush administration, not just change from the broader Washington status quo. So, for example, when Obama made a point during his address to Congress of criticizing "some on the left" and "some on the right," his supporters didn't like it. That's not the kind of change they're looking for.

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Virginia: Not sure if this is the right chat/forum, but does the Post have a summary of McDonnell and Deeds' position on various issues?

washingtonpost.com: Race to Richmond: Complete coverage of the 2009 primary and general elections for Virginia governor

Ben Pershing: Why yes, and it's linked above.

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washingtonpost.com: Morning Fix: ACORN -- How Much Danger For Democrats?

Ben Pershing: Here's that Fix column I referenced.

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International Falls, Minn.: I'm a Native American and a small issue with the mass media. I've read columns and seen TV appearances where WaPo staff mention Medicare, Medicaid and Veteran Affairs, yet how come you NEVER mention the long neglected Indian Health Service which was founded in 1955 under the Eisenhower administration I.H.S. had aspects that both opponents and supporters of government-run healthcare can use yet I've yet to see it come up much in the national debate?

Also, what do you think about H.H.S. Secy. Sebelius recent pledge to reform I.H.S.? Just smoke or realistic?

HHS secretary makes reform commitment to Indians (Indian Country Today)

Ben Pershing: That's a legitimately good question to which I don't have an answer. The IHS is probably a good study in government-run health care that I've never read or heard much about.

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Madison, Wis.: Do you agree that the upcoming decision of the International Olympics Committee on whether or not to host the 2016 Summer Olympics in Chicago will inevitably be read as a kind of international embrace -- or rejection -- of the new president from Chicago?

Ben Pershing: I do think it's shaping up that way, and that's why it's fairly risky for Obama to put so much personal effort behind Chicago's Olympic bid. Great for him if it succeeds, but embarrassing if it doesn't. And you never know what motivates the IOC voters in this case, there must be some countries that would like to send a message to the U.S. with this vote.

All that said, if Obama is reelected in 2012 (emphasis on IF) then having the Olympics in his hometown in 2016 would be a good legacy-building event for the last year of his presidency.

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Pittsburgh: Should we read anything into Sen. Rockefeller's half-an-hour private meeting with Pres. Obama yesterday afternoon?

Ben Pershing: Just that Obama is trying to reassure Rockefeller that the Baucus bill is not the end of the discussion only the beginning, and that his concerns about affordability of insurance will be addressed further down the line. Obama gave the same message to Wyden, and both Democrats sounded fairly positive when they were done with their sessions at the White House.

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Re: all liberal questions: Ben, I'm not surprised, but virtually every question you have answered tries to put conservatives or their positions in a negative light. If you wonder why newspapers are failing, or why people are tuning into to conservative media for news, its because MSM has failed on a massive level presenting a balanced, non-biased case for each side. You are guilty of this in your chat, just look at the questions you took.

Ben Pershing: Did you think my answer to the very first question about ACORN "put conservatives in a negative light"? Or my answer to the question about GOP health bills? Have you actually been reading this chat, or do you submit that same question on every WaPo chat regardless of specifics?

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Silver Spring, Md.: "It's hard to imagine what federal elections would be like if unlimited corporate contributions would be allowed."

Agreed. But a SC decision wouldn't be saying this is allowed. It would be saying restrictions of such contributions are not currently allowed under the Constitution. We The People can always amend the Constitution to further restrict the rights/definitions of a Corporations. After doing that, the SC would uphold such restrictions.

Ben Pershing: That's true, but I would put the chances of a constitutional amendment on this subject at near zero. There seems to be little appetite for amendments on any subject, in recent years.

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Charlottesville, Va.: "It would also be good for ACORN's image if they didn't encourage the opening of any more brothels on camera."

Wow... just wow. Your concern for ACORN's image is really something. And they should only avoid encouraging brothels ON CAMERA? Nice, Ben.

Look, you want to downplay ACORN. I get that. But they are a major get-out-the-vote partner for the Democrats. They take in millions of taxpayer dollars. They are partners with SEIU, the thugs patrolling Town Halls for the Democrats. And Obama used to work for ACORN. You've avoided any reporting on ACORN as the scandal has unfolded, and you'll never delve into any of the issues above.

It is simply not believable that it's just a few bad apples when coast-to-coast videos show it's part of their culture. And it must be part of the Democratic Party's culture, too.

Ben Pershing: I understand that you believe that "coast-to-coast videos show it's part of their culture." I'm just not sure how easily I can reach the same conclusion. You may be right, but given the size and the breadth of the organization, there's no way to reach that conclusion without being totally subjective.

As for my ON CAMERA comment, that was sarcasm. Perhaps in the future I'll put little winking emoticons in my answers to connote sarcasm.

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Pennsylvania: If the Senate Democrats call the Republicans' bluff re filibustering a health bill, won't the Republicans suffer more harm to their image in the public eye than the Democrats?

Ben Pershing: I think Republicans believe it's worthwhile to block Obama's reform bill for both substantive and political reasons. So that outweighs any fears that they'll be branded obstructionists.

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Ben Pershing: Thanks for the great questions, everyone. See you next time.

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