Post Politics Hour: More on Harry Reid Comments, Palin, Health Care

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Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 12, 2010; 11:00 AM

Discuss the latest news about the Obama administration and the world of politics with Ben Pershing, who writes the daily Rundown on 44. Pershing was online Jan. 12 at 11 a.m. ET.

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Ben Pershing: Good morning everyone. Congress is coming back to town, just in time to process a wealth of political news. Harry Reid is still around after his race gaffe, Michael Steele is still RNC chair after his own missteps, Sarah Palin is going to Fox and health-care has yet to be decided. Also, there's an increasingly interesting special election race developing in Massachusetts. Points go to the first person who can intelligently wrap all of those issues into one question. Let's begin.

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ThereAreMoreOfUs: Dear Ben,

The health care legislation has been heavily lobbied by interest groups. Is there a "Citizen's Lobby"? that represent people in main street? If so, how are they functioning? If not, why not?

Ben Pershing: Warning: this may sound pretentious. You should go read or re-read Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America." His argument is that "interest groups" are what make our system work. So while there may not be something called a "citizen's lobby," there probably is a group out there that represents your interests and is trying to influence the process. That doesn't mean all the voices have equal say, but they're all out there.

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Washington DC: Do you think the Washington Post should replace your column with one by Sarah Palin so that they can get more readership?

Ben Pershing: It would also be cheaper, since they probably wouldn't have to give her health insurance.

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Detroit: What is Harold Ford's end game? He risks political suicide if defies the White House and every major establishment Democrat in Washington and New York if he challenges Sen. Gillibrand. So why is he doing this, attention? Raising his profile or laying the groundwork for a future run? I am baffled.

Ben Pershing: This is just my guess, but I think you hit the nail on the head at the end of your question. The best explanation here is that Ford is trying to raise his profile and establish himself in New York for some potential future run. And there actually isn't much downside here for Ford. Yes, the White House and Schumer are publicly backing Gillibrand, but privately there are a lot of Democrats who haven't been thrilled with her campaign so far and wouldn't mind seeing her pushed to work harder.

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Writers: I enjoyed the profile of Obama's foreign policy speechwriter/national security aide. Why do some talented writers interested in politics go into the speechwriting side of explaining/making arguments about policy and others go into the reporting side of explaining/discerning different arguments about policy? Is there a common base of critical reasoning and writing for both? Is there a personality trait difference that drives a person to the different roles?

washingtonpost.com: Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes is penning a different script for the world stage

Ben Pershing: If I understand your question, I think you're asking why some writers go into speechwriting and others go into being reporters. The main answer is political passion. If you're a writer who feels strongly that you're a Democrat or Republican and want to help your party win, it makes more sense to enter the political arena than just write about it.

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Prescott, Ariz.: When asked about Sen. Harry Reid's rather inelegant statement, Sen. John Cornyn said (on MSNBC) the following: "Frankly, I don't expect Sen. Reid to resign. What this is about is his hypocrisy and the hypocrisy of folks on the other side when Trent Lott said something that was far more innocuous than the racially tinged comments that Sen. Reid made."

Just to recap, Trent Lott's problem was he said that he voted for the Secessionist Strom Thurmond over Harry Truman, and wished Thurmond had won because "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years". Is there not a good case to be made that Sen. Cornyn's statement that he feels support of secession is "innocuous" speech (with the further inference that racial equality only caused problems) is many times more offensive than what Harry Reid said? Why aren't we discussing whether Cornyn owes some apologies and whether he should resign because of his pro-secessionist position? Seriously?

Ben Pershing: Well, it may be a leap to take Cornyn's (relative) defense of Lott and extrapolate it to say that Cornyn himself is "pro-secessionist." But it is true that plenty of Republicans who defended Lott are now bashing Reid. The question of whose comments are more offensive is a subjective one. Reid obviously got attention for using an outdated and offensive term ("Negro") while Lott didn't use any particular buzzword, but did seem to say that the country would be better off if a pro-segregation candidate had won the presidency.

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One Mass. voter's view: I voted for Obama and I'm fed up with the lack of employment progress, the out of control spending, the lack of accountability/oversight/control over Wall Street (and those bonuses), how long healthcare reform has taken and which will probably not control costs in the end. I'm frustrated by all those things and more but I'm still voting for Coakley. Why? Because I don't want another knee-jerk, conservative Republican in the Senate and I don't want to give the fringe (now mainstream?) Tea Party Republicans a big victory heading into what will already be a tough November election cycle. Just one Mass. voter's opinion. I'll be glad when these TV ads stop next week too (on all the time and both sides taking over the top swings at each other).

Ben Pershing: Thanks for weighing in, Mass. voter. I suspect there are a fair number of people in Massachusetts who feel how you do, which is why it would be that much more stunning of Scott Brown somehow ends up winning next Tuesday. It's just such a heavily Democratic state that it's hard to imagine Coakley losing, even if some voters are disenchanted with Obama right now.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Hi Ben -- Thanks for taking questions today. Does it appear to you that Sen. Reid has weathered the controversy surrounding his comments about Pres. Obama? And have the Republicans, in your view, gotten much mileage out of it?

Ben Pershing: Reid has weathered the controversy in that he will not quit his leadership post as a result of it. But this episode certainly didn't help his reelection prospects in November, which were already pretty weak before this. And it may increase the odds that he pulls a Chris Dodd and just decides to retire. We'll see.

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Arlington, Va.: Will Obama stand up to the union bosses, well known for their Soprano-like intimidation skills, and insist we finally reduce health care costs and make people understand the true cost of health care by taxing Cadillac plans? Every economist, left and right agrees this is needed. Yet, the unions oppose? Why, because they are still in the mindset their members are poor and fighting for their rights. The reality is, union members are upper-middle class and their bosses are rich. All of this at the expense of the taxpayer, whose states are being bankrupted by public service unions and outrageous contracts.

Ben Pershing: You hit on the key internal Democratic divide right now -- between organized labor and Obama. Richard Trumka made an interesting prediction/threat yesterday, saying that union members will stay home if they feel betrayed by the health-care bill. My guess is that there will be a compromise worked out on this. The "Cadillac tax" will stay in the bill but at a higher threshold, and some sort of tax on the wealthy -- maybe through the Medicare payroll tax -- will make up the difference.

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Helena, Montana: What's striking about the reportage on that salacious book Game Changer or some such is that there is no dishing on the Obamas. No inside gossip about throwing things, temper tantrums, etc., that would get you guys in the beltway all atwitter. Seems Obama is no drama even in private.

Ben Pershing: Maybe Obama really is "no drama," or maybe the people close to him just don't leak the way the other camps did. It's normal for losing teams to be more leaky than the winners, so it's not surprising to see lots of dirt coming out of the McCain, Clinton and Edwards operations.

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Anonymous: Curious if you read that quote from James Carville that 80% of "Game Changer" was written by Patti Solis Doyle, Hillary's fired campaign manager?

Ben Pershing: I didn't see that quote. It's entirely possible that she was a key source for the book, but it's likely that just about every staffer on the Clinton campaign talked to the authors. I can't remember a campaign where more people leaked after the fact than that one.

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Alex, VA: Maybe I'm a little slow on the uptake, but how does the insurance industry's lobby protect my interests?

(I'm pretty sure that the hundreds of millions that they spent is to protect their butts, not mine.)

Ben Pershing: The insurance industry may not protect your interests. But maybe you can join AARP. Or the AFL-CIO. Or MoveOn. Or the Consumer's Union. Or start your own group. The idea is that there is probably some sort of lobbying force out there that does reflect what you believe.

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Legal precedent?: Some abortion opponents are threatening that if the health bill is enacted with any money they perceive as providing abortions directly or indirectly, they will withhold the portion of their taxes going to that purpose. However, I seem to recall that pacifists like Joan Baez and some anti-war activists tried to withhold their taxes that funded the Vietnam War, but the courts found it illegal. So wouldn't the same precent apply to abortion opponents' threat now?

Ben Pershing: I'm not a lawyer, but I'm pretty sure it's illegal to "withhold your taxes" for any purpose. Just ask Obama's Cabinet nominees. (Sorry, couldn't resist such an obvious joke.)

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Another MA voter: With respect to the previous MA poster, I was also a strong supporter of the Obama campaign. I'm not a moderate, but a pregressive/radical. So I should be fed up with Obama, too.

But I am not at all disillusioned with his presidency. People had unrealistic expectations about what an administration can achieve in a short time. And frankly, some progressives failed to listen to his campaign position on Afghanistan, and are shocked and disappointed by the troop increase, which are a direct extension of his campaign position and a sound position. These times call for pragmatism, and Obama is nothing if not pragmatic.

As for the MA Senate race, unfortunately Martha Coakley hasn't run a good campaign, it's an off-cycle election in the dead of winter so turnout will be low, and she's not all that likable. But I'm voting for her...the democrat...because anyone who thinks there is no difference is deluding themselves.

Ben Pershing: That's what Coakley's team is banking on -- even disaffected Democrats won't go so far as to vote for the Republican Brown. But as you said, turnout will be fairly low. How low? Brown's only path to victory comes from Democrats staying home in droves.

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Silver Spring, MD: It is my understanding that Sen Reid's remark was made almost two years ago, with reporters present. If true, why is it that this wasn't newsworthy then, but it is now?

Ben Pershing: Reid didn't make the comments in some public venue, he made it to these two authors who were working on their book and obviously wanted to save it for the book. The more interesting question, just from a reportorial perspective. is whether Reid thought the comments were off the record. The two authors -- Mark Halperin and John Heilemann -- have tried to explain how they were able to conduct their interviews on "deep background" but still name Reid as making these comments. I'm not sure if I understand their explanation.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Does the President have a problem with "I was opposed to Taxing Cadilac Plans (during the election campaign) before I was in favor of it (now)"? Or will people accept that he wouldn't have "flopped" if he really didn't have to?

Ben Pershing: I think people will support or oppose the Cadillac plan on its own merits and not get overly concerned with whether Obama changed his position from over a year ago. Obama also opposed the individual mandate during the campaign, before deciding as president that reform just wouldn't work without it. For all the criticism Obama has gotten and will continue to get on health care, I don't think the hypocrisy charge will be particularly potent.

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Little Rock, Ark.: I was born in 1991.

I can't remember a time when there wasn't at least one gossipy book about Hillary and Bill Clinton.

I think by now, a book about their public and private faces not being the same wouldn't be news. Sadly, I'm wrong.

Ben Pershing: Born in 1991? I feel old.

I remember those halcyon days when the gossipy tell-all books were about other presidents. "The Education of David Stockman," anyone? (Actually, I was pretty young for that, but it's still a classic of the genre.)

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Ithaca, N.Y.: My favorite part of "Game Changer" is when Barack Obama is complaining about Joe Biden and says "Will ever stop sayinng so many stupid things" and when Joe Biden hears this from aides, he just says with a smile "Well at least I wasn't talking about bitter folks in small towns who cling to guns and religion"

I like that he humbles Barack Obama (Michelle does it).

I'm just a Joe Biden fan.

Ben Pershing: Whether you are pro- or anti-Biden, you have to agree that the world is a more interesting place with him in it.

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Representation: I find it shocking to discover that some senators - I'm looking at you, Joe Lieberman - think they have no responsibility to represent their constituents. I don't know why we have the Senate if the people we put in it think they have a larger constituency than the people who elected them.

Ben Pershing: Just to play Devil's Advocate here, Lieberman was reelected as an Independent. So is anyone really surprised that's how he's acting -- independent? He did vote for the health-care bill, after all, even if he did play the main role in killing the public option. It's pretty clear Lieberman will never run in Conn. again as a Democrat, so either he thinks he can win again as an Independent, or he's planning to retire.

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Ellicott City, MD: Is Joe Biden really in a beer commercial?

Ben Pershing: Um, no? Though that sounds like a promising idea for an SNL skit.

Also, Biden doesn't drink, so that would be an odd advertisement.

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Cadillac Plans : What is the reply to the argument that the government pushed Cadillac Plans by not taxing them and that many people gave up wage increases to get them?

Ben Pershing: I guess the reply from defenders of the tax would be that just because past government policy has been mistaken (not taxing health care) doesn't mean said policy should go on forever. And that people who currently have to buy their own insurance are penalized, because they have to use after-tax dollars while those with employer-provided insurance use before-tax dollars.

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Boston, MA: I am independent and I hope electing a conservative will force both sides to work together. I am sick of seeing the democrats do everything in secret after I was promised openness by Obama's campaign. Just another thought I hope you share.

Ben Pershing: Consider it shared.

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Arlington, VA: Hi, Ben,

Bigger-picture, isn't forcing the DSCC and DNC to commit resources to the Bay State, isn't that a win in itself for the GOP and Tea Party activists?

Sure, it's not nearly as big a win as Brown pulling the upset over Coakley, but who would have thought her campaign -- in a state where more than three-quarters of the state House and Senate are Democratic -- would need the help of the national party organization?

Ben Pershing: Yes, the fact that Republicans have been able to make this race close is itself a victory for them. And if Coakley wins, but only by single digits, the GOP will be able to make the case that it's more evidence that momentum is on their side.

But on a substantive level -- if Coakley wins, she's the 60th vote for health care. If Brown wins, the reform bill is dealt a serious setback. So I think Republicans would really prefer the actual victory over the symbolic one.

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Harrisburg, PA: Or Lieberman could run for reelection as a Republican.

Ben Pershing: Yes, that's possible. But I think it's less likely than the other two options (run as an Independent, or retire).

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Longmeadow, MA: My concern as a Mass voter is that it is a dull campaign, its winter, Coakley is somewhat bland and all the poll talk has all of Scott Brown's supporters excited. Do you thing there is a real possibilty he could win? I'm in western Mass and a lot of people appear to be supporting Brown.

Ben Pershing: Yes, there is a real chance Brown could win, but Coakley still has to be considered the favorite if only because of her structural advantages (more money, in a very Dem-heavy state).

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McCain on Today Show: Did you see McCain's answer on Today this morning to the charge that he and his staff did shockingly little vetting on Palin before naming her the VP nominee and whether there was enough vetting done? His short answer was "I don't know" and then a long "I'm proud of everyone...." and then questioning the line of questioning as if his judgement on the process of picking someone a heartbeat away from being Commander-in-Chief had no relationship to his judgement on how best to keep our country safe. Not his best performance.

Ben Pershing: McCain has always seemed sensitive on that point. A lot of his campaign message was about promoting himself as a better and more informed decision-maker than Obama. Yet this -- picking Palin -- was the single biggest decision he made during the campaign, and it seems clear he made it very quickly and without a lot of information at his disposal.

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the union bosses, well known for their Soprano-like intimidation skills: Oh come on, that characteriztion out of central casting is insulting and out of date. I have many family members in unions, which are just organizations made up of people, like me and you. People who want fair pay and health care, NOT MOBSTERS. That's really insulting to teachers, nurses, municipal workers, the people who keep the criminals from your house, the people who pick up your trash every week.

Ben Pershing: A fair point. Union members do not equal the Sopranos.

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"government pushed Cadillac Plans": Why are we acting like Cadallic plans are bad wicked things, when in truth, we should be aiming to give EVERYONE a Cadillac plan! Most Europeans have Ferrari plans!

Ben Pershing: Sure, but do you want to pay taxes at the level Europeans do? Do you think most Americans are willing to pay taxes that high?

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Austin, TX: Re: Obama and the unions.

Really, is Obama that concerned with the union support? What are they going to do, support the Republican party's candidates? Of course not, that party is even less friendly to union interests than anything distasteful in the Health Care Plan.

Ben Pershing: The unions may not defect and support Republicans. But if the unions are disaffected they may not be willing to drop the tens of millions of dollars on grassroots organizing in 2010 and 2012 that Democrats have come to expect.

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Nosy Parker: Seems that the likeliest consequence of Sarah Palin's new commentator gig on Fox News is that it will provide her opponents with a wealth of soundbites to use against her should she ever try to run for office again. Also, couldn't it be considered the Tina Fey Full Employment Act?

Ben Pershing: It's entirely possible that Palin will make mistakes on air and give her opponents more ammunition. But the people who like Palin really like her and will continue to do so even if she makes flubs on air. And this gives her more free airtime to say whatever she likes and stay relevant.

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

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