Nuclear Summit, Supreme Court nomination, more -- Post Politics Hour

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Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 12, 2010; 11:00 AM

Discuss the latest news about the Obama administration and the world of politics with Ben Pershing, who writes for The Post's 44 blog. Pershing was online April 12 at 11 a.m. ET.

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Ben Pershing: Good morning, world. It's a bright and sunny Monday in Washington, where the traffic is horrendous, the world's leaders are meeting to talk nuclear policy, the Supreme Court has an impending vacancy and Congress is coming back to town. It's an all-you-can-eat buffet of political topics. Let's begin.

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Fairfax: Has there been any discussion of President Obama making a recess appointment to the Supreme Court to avoid distracting from the rest of his agenda this session of Congress? Eisenhower appointed Warren and Brennan to the Court this way.

Ben Pershing: In short, no. There is pretty much zero chance of that happening. What would be his justification for doing it? He got his last nominee through in a relatively normal amount of time, and there is no reason to think at this point that he won't be able to get his next nominee through. It would be politically unpopular, difficult to explain, and Republicans would go nuts and block everything else in the Senate in reaction.

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Arlington, VA: The great engine of the GOP in the past year has been "thwart Obama." It's enabled them to sidestep the question "so, what would you do if you had to govern?" (How to deal with the deficit, for example?)

My guess is that they'll win big in November--but still be in the minority in all but (maybe) the House, which will mean they can continue on the same generally accountability-free course. Do you think this strengthens or weakens the chance that they can win back both houses of Congress and/or the presidency in 2012?

Ben Pershing: It's impossible to predict yet what will happen in 2012. Remember, Democrats got clobbered at the polls in 1994, and then Bill Clinton won reelection with ease in 1996 (after cutting some deals with Republicans). Maybe Obama will follow the same course and rebound after a midterm drubbing, or maybe 2010 will be the precursor to an even worse loss in 2012 -- the way Republicans lost big in 2006 and bigger in 2008. Too soon to tell.

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Scottsdale, Arizona: It doesn't take a genius to figure out why Gates and Clinton appeared on all the Sunday talk shows. Preemptive damage control. We all know there will be the usual dissenters and hate-mongerers out there, NO MATTER WHAT PRESIDENT OBAMA DOES! And, we know that the media will be covering that - rather than the facts - because discord is what sells.

Ben Pershing: Gates and Clinton appeared on all the Sunday talk shows because the nuclear summit is the big news at the start of this week and so the administration wanted to send their top national security people out to sell their policies. Pretty standard procedure.

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DC: Hey Ben,

After waiting 14 months, Dawn Johnsen withdrew her name to head Obama's Office of Legal Counsel. Just another sign that Obama and Bush policies with regard to civil liberties are indistinguishable?

Thanks!

Ben Pershing: I don't know that Johnsen's withdrawal means that Obama and Bush's policies are indistinguishable. I do think it means the White House (and Johnsen) herself recognized that Republicans' opposition would be hard to overcome, and that it was a debate that the administration didn't necessarily want to have right now with so many other balls in the air.

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Richmond, Va.: Anyone have any idea how long Justice Ginsberg might stay on the court before she retires? Do you think she might leave while President Obama gets to pick replacements? What are the most number of replacements to the Supreme Court a President has had in a single term?

Thanks for taking our questions.

Ben Pershing: Ginsburg hasn't signaled her intentions either way but she has battled health problems and presumably wants a Democrat to replace her. Whether than means she'll go in the next two years -- or gamble that Obama can win another term and go a bit later -- remains to be seen.

Not counting George Washington, who got to start with a blank slate, FDR holds the record for most Supreme Court appointments with eight. Since presidential term limits were adopted, Eisenhower holds the record with five. Presidents Bush, Clinton and Bush got two apiece, and Reagan got three.

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Buffalo, NY: Why isn't Elizabeth Warren on Obama's Supreme Court short list? Or is she?

Ben Pershing: She is certainly the favorite of some liberal advocates, particularly Arianna Huffington (http://huff.to/dhzhfo). But there's no evidence yet that she is on the White House's short list. She would be a bold pick -- an outspoken liberal, particularly on economic issues, guaranteed to draw strong Republican opposition. One drawback for her -- she turns 61 in June, a bit older than many of the other candidates being discussed.

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Herndon, Va.: Republicans are saying that Obama's next Supreme Court nominee must be in the mainstream. Do they offer Scalia, Thomas and Alito as examples of this?

Ben Pershing: Good rule of thumb when discussing judicial nominations -- each party spends an inordinate amount of time painting their nominees as "normal" and the other side as "radical." It's just standard practice, so get used to it.

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Next to the Security Zone, DC: It looks like a scene from 'Escape from New York' on 7th Street. Can't the world leaders, etc. just have a designated 'meeting island' and take over a resort, and leave the rest of us alone. Especially when nothing much happens at these things anyway. Reagan and Gorby had the courtesy to meet in Iceland, for Gosh sakes.

Ben Pershing: As someone who had to deal with terrible traffic and a crowded Metro this morning, I'm with you. If they can't find a suitable island, maybe they could meet in a blimp. Or someplace with plenty of extra room, like South Dakota.

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Rural Nebraska: The GOP is not only the party of No but the Party of Hell, No, and damn proud of it. Why does Obama persist in trying to cooperate with them?

Ben Pershing: Two potential reasons:

1) He thinks at some point they will cooperate back, and something bipartisan will be accomplished (this may happen with financial regulatory reform).

2) He thinks he needs at least to try to cooperate, so voters will blame Republicans rather than him for the lack of bipartisan accomplishments.

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Helena MT: Regarding new Supreme Court justice: Are we going to reverse the filibuster-of- judicial- nominees fight that we had when Bush nominated Alito? How many Republicans in the gang of 14 that united against filibusters are left in the Senate? I don't think the Republicans will go to the mattresses on replacing a liberal justice like Stevens, but probably will if one of the 5 conservative justices needs to be replaced.

Ben Pershing: Republicans may try to block Obama's choice they way Democrats (including Obama) did with Alito. But it's unlikely such a move would be successful. As for the Gang of 14, only four of the group's seven Republicans are left -- Collins, Graham, McCain and Snowe.

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Washington, DC: "Arianna Huffington"...is she really someone to quote form liberal circles? Didn't she divorce her husband, and take millions from him...never really done anything in her life? And she is the one who is driving liberal opinion? I hope not...

Ben Pershing: Whatever you think of Arianna Huffington personally, the Huffington Post certainly helps drive conventional wisdom among liberals. It's not determinative, but it's influential.

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Washington, D.C.: Given the upcoming Supreme Court nominee fight and the new START treaty debate, is there really room for other major initiatves in this election year? The energy bill perhaps?

Ben Pershing: Good question. Financial regulatory reform is very likely to move this year, but beyond that the agenda is unclear. Democrats talk about moving comprehensive immigration reform this year but I'll believe it when I see it. A full-scale energy bill -- with some sort of carbon tax or "cap and trade" system -- also looks unlikely to me in a tough election year, but a smaller-scale energy bill is possible.

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Re: Dawn Johnsen: Isn't it also possible that the Obama administration may have decided that it didn't really want someone with Johnsen's narrow view of executive power running OLC?

Ben Pershing: I have a feeling the Obama administration knew all about Johnsen's views when they nominated her. It's unlikely they discovered something just in the last few weeks that disqualified her.

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Dale City, VA: I don't think Obama will use a recess appointment for the Supreme Court, but aren't the Republicans already going to block everything in the Seante?

Ben Pershing: No, Republicans aren't going to block everything in the Senate. They are going to slow down many Democratic initiatives, as they have been, but there are ways for the minority to really gum up the works -- prevent bills from moving, prevent committees from meeting -- that they mostly haven't resorted to yet.

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Washington, DC: "Why does Obama persist in trying to cooperate with them?"

Do my Democrat friends really think that the Dems were any better to Bush? Democrats have controlled Congress for 40 of the past 50 years.....

Ben Pershing: That's true, and some eras have seen more bipartisanship than others. Mostly, the two parties work together during times of divided government -- Dems working with Reagan on tax reform, Republicans working with Clinton on the balanced budget. It's more rare when one party controls everything.

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Or someplace with plenty of extra room, like South Dakota. : I hear the moderate wing of the Republican Party has a lot of room these days.

Ben Pershing: Ba-dum bum. Thank you.

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Wokingham: Could a discussion of the world nuclear balance that does not draw top-level participation from Israel, a major nuclear power, be anything but unrealistic?

Ben Pershing: Hello Wokingham! It's true that Netanyahu isn't here for the summit, but Israel does have a delegation here for the event. The other criticism I've read today is that the summit isn't going to spend much time talking about Pakistan, which many countries believe represents the biggest potential nuclear security threat (because the government is weak and Al-Qaeda has such a presence there).

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South Dakota: Hey, what did we ever do to you? Keep those people out of here.

Ben Pershing: It could be good for your economy. Lots of hotels and restaurants would make money if your state hosted the summit. Lots of work for limo drivers, too.

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New York: Ben, what's the status of the unemployment insurance renewal? Still being held up? Thanks.

Ben Pershing: I wrote about this issue in today's paper. The Senate will vote this evening on whether to end debate on a bill that would extend unemployment benefits through May 5. Most Republicans are opposed to the extension because it's not paid-for, and will add to the debt. We'll see whether Democrats can peel off the one GOP vote they need to reach 60.

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washingtonpost.com: Bill to extend jobless benefits faces Senate showdown

Ben Pershing: Here's that story

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Balanced Budget: "Republicans working with Clinton on the balanced budget"

Hardly! Clinton's deficit reduction plan passed in 1993 without even one GOP vote.

All the heavy lifting on deficit reduction was done by the Democrats.

Ben Pershing: It may be true that the 1993 bill laid the groundwork for the balanced budget, but the actual deal was struck in 1997, when Republicans were in charge.

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Conventional Wisdom: For those expecting a GOP run in 2010, you may want to listen to a smart conservative like Jack Welch who sees no such thing in the cards.

The GOP has two huge issues: It is still a regional party (Brown was more about MA Dem Party hatred towards Coakley); and take a look at every economic indicator and it looks like an escalator going up. Americans are not stupid enough to give back power to the party that nearly destroyed the country.

washingtonpost.com: Why the Obama Plan Is Working

Ben Pershing: You and Jack Welch may be right. But that would also mean that pretty much every poll is wrong. The economic indicators may be pointed in the right direction, but will voters be convinced that the economy is definitely rebounding before November. And if they are, will they give Obama and his fellow Democrats credit for it? That remains to be seen.

As for Republicans being a regional party, yes, the GOP leans southern. But Democrats are having problems all over the country. Read The Fix's latest column about Michigan, for example. Democrats are also worried about the upcoming special election in Hawaii.

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Wilmington, N.C.: There's a big anti-tax rally going on in DC this week ..April 15th. Do these events make any legislative difference? Besides the latest failure with the health bill, are there any recent examples where the rallies swayed Congress's vote?

Thank you for these great chats.

Ben Pershing: Rallies can help draw media attention to a particular issue, and politicians certainly notice them. Remember, it was those town hall meetings and protests last August that helped turn the tide against health reform (though obviously the bill passed). As for April 15, politicians don't need a rally to tell them when Tax Day is happening.

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Missouri: Hey, Ben. Didn't Cary Grant almost get assassinated in South Dakota ("North by Northwest")? Maybe not such a safe place after all...

Ben Pershing: Very true. I would advise against holding the summit at Mt. Rushmore, or anywhere near where James Mason has his Evil Lair. It also shouldn't be held in that Illinois cornfield where low-flying planes might try to run you over.

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Re: Your answer to Herndon, VA: For decades I was a good GOP soldier. President of YAF. Friend to bigwigs from Reagan to Romney. And I can tell you that you are 100% wrong on the "both sides do it." You know what they don't and not by huge degrees of magnitude. Over the weekend I started to come to the conclusion that the Dems actually want to govern, and our side (today) only cares about ideology. And I came to that while reading one of our pieces excoriating a good man and a good judge, but all through a prism of projection.

Ben Pershing: On the narrow question of whether each party accuses the other's judicial nominees of being outside the political mainstream, it is true that both sides do it. That's just a fact. Doesn't mean they SHOULD do it, or that both parties are equal in their tactics on other fronts.

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Washington, DC: The conference is about the danger of proliferation. Israel isn't a country we are worried about giving nukes to a third party....ie. Hezbollah or Al-Qaida. Israel a country the size of NJ with six million people living in a sea of hate, many of who think they are fighting a mid-evil war against the infidels.

Israel is a unique case, as every US admin has recognized for the past 50 years.

Ben Pershing: Point taken. But the idea is that all the countries that have nuclear weapons should participate in the discussion. Doesn't necessarily mean that every nuclear-armed country is a threat to proliferate.

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Arlington, VA: The Democrats seem like a regional party, too, given their almost total abandonment of the South and most of the Midwest.

Ben Pershing: Democrats haven't "abandoned" the south, they've just been mostly unsuccessful there. And they definitely haven't abandoned the Midwest. They've actually done quite well there in recent cycles.

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Ben Pershing: Thanks for all the fine questions everyone. Enjoy the rest of your week.

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