Primaries in Indiana, Ohio, N.C., Gulf oil spill, more -- Post Politics Hour

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Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2010; 11:00 AM

Discuss today's primaries in Ohio, Indiana and North Carolina as well as the latest news about the Obama administration and the world of politics with Ben Pershing, who writes for The Post's 44 blog.

A transcript follows.

From The Fix: Primary Day: Five storylines to watch in Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina

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Ben Pershing: Good morning, everyone. What ISN'T happening today? We've got the arrest of the Times Square bombing suspect, the ongoing oil spill disaster in the Gulf, primaries in three states, financial reform inching forward in the Senate and the Lakers prepping for Game 2 tonight. Go ahead, ask me anything.

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Princeton, NJ: Ben,

Thank you for hosting this chat, and for your work on 44. I have to be honest: as much as I like our president, I just don't understand why he has a tin ear when it comes to humor, and why someone hasn't said anything. From the Special Olympics bowling flap, to the channeling Reagan slip up, and now to the drone crack, it just seems like there's no filter for appropriateness. Like the Daily News said, if it was Bush who said it, we really would be all up in arms. But in the short amount of time that Obama has been in office, drone attacks (and civilian deaths) seem to be high.

Ben Pershing: Thanks for reading. I guess when you put all of those Obama joke incidents together it looks a bit like a pattern, doesn't it? It may be true that the media would have reacted differently if Bush had made the drones comment. But at the same time I'm not sure that the majority of the public actually thinks the comment was all that offensive. Our (completely unscientific) online poll on this question yesterday had 30 percent of respondents saying it was offensive, 70 percent saying it wasn't. Humor is in the eye of the beholder, no? You could say the same about Jon Kyl's reported "joke" about Obama, Pelosi and Reid drowning: http://bit.ly/c1bqDu

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DC: President Obama's joke about predator drones and the Jonas Brothers was hilarious. Boo to those who are making a BFD about it. No wonder the White House wants to plug up leaks with that kind of axe grinding going on.

Ben Pershing: So you represent the opposite view of the last questioner. That's what makes the world go round, yes?

Sorry, that's a horrible cliche.

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Arlington, VA: On the drive into work this morning, I heard someone on the radio mention that it's time to start assessing blame for the BP oil fire. My first reaction to this was, "Great, now the political posturing and finger-pointing will begin, with Republicans trying to paint this as President Obama's Katrina, when he himself had nothing to do with it."

But then it occurred to me--why is it necessary to even assign blame? Have we as a society completely forgotten the fact that, in life, terrible accidents like this occur for no reason at all, through no fault of anyone at all? That for lack of a better term, spit happens? (Forgive me, I did my best to paraphrase here.)

Ben Pershing: Hmm, not sure whether I agree with you. Isn't there a way to responsibly assess what happened and what went wrong in hopes of ensuring it never happened again? Does "spit happens" really apply to a fire on a man-made oil rig? It's not like this was caused by an earthquake or a hurricane. Maybe it's BP's fault for not having a functioning shutoff valve. Maybe the Obama administration should have enlisted the Pentagon sooner, or had the equipment in place to burn off the oil. These seem like legitimate questions to answer. Can they be answered without a lot of pettiness and political gamesmanship? That's a separate question.

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Falls Church, Va.: So, Mayor Bloomberg blamed the bombing on opponents of the health-care bill, and now we see that the bomber was actually a Pakistani terrorist. Does this gaffe spell the end of any presidential hopes that Bloomberg might have had?

Ben Pershing: I don't know if I would go so far as to say that his political future is doomed, but it was an odd thing to say. Why would an opponent of the health care bill set off a bomb in Times Square? What kind of point would that make?

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Vernon, B.C., Canada: Ben, please oh please oh please correct the mistake that seasoned journalists are continually making. In Howie's article last week he said that Matt Lauer on the Today show said that 70% of Arizonians support the new immigration law, then in yesterday's chat, Howie himself said that 70% supported...when actually it was 70% of POLL RESPONDENTS supported the controversial law. There is a HUGE difference between 70% of the population of Arizona, and 70% of 1,500 people. Was there a statewide referendum with this on the ballot that we have not heard about or is it sloppy journalism? Don't get me wrong, I love Howie and his show, but this is so wrong!!! And it unfairly paints Arizonians too...

Ben Pershing: A couple of thoughts here. It's not uncommon for journalists to take the results of a poll to say, "Americans believe X," instead of saying "respondents to this poll say X." That's just standard practice, particularly if it's a national poll done by a respected pollster. It is true that both Gallup and the NY Times/CBS polls found majorities of respondents were in favor of the Arizona law.

But Jon Cohen, the WashPost's polling director, makes an important point: It's very tricky for a pollster to ask a question about a subject as complicated as the Arizona law. How many respondents actually understand what the bill does or doesn't do? When they say they like or dislike the bill, are they basing that on an accurate and thorough understanding of the bill? So Jon warns that it's hazardous to extrapolate too much from these polls.

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Evanston, Illinois: Did you know the oil rig was blown up by eco terrorists? Me neither.

Ben Pershing: Is that you, Rush Limbaugh? Glad to know you're a fan of my chats.

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Winnipeg, Canada: Pardon me for being picky, but shouldn't you have opened by saying "we have the arrest of -a- suspected Times Square bomber"?

Ben Pershing: True, there could well have been other people involved.

Here's a question for you guys: Why did this bombing suspect wait 48 hours before trying to leave the country? If he had gotten on the first plane out Sunday he would have been long gone by now, right? Not that I'm complaining, just marveling at the seeming mistake by this guy (one of many, apparently).

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Florissant Valley, MO: Do you think today's primaries will tell us anything about public reaction to the AZ kerfuffle? Will the harsh new law drive up sympathy for immigrants, or simply confirm the tea-partiers' prejudices? Or will be able to tell anything at all about the current mood of the electorate? Thanks

Ben Pershing: I don't see the Ariz. law having much of an impact one way or the other in the primaries today. It doesn't seem like immigration has been a huge issue in many of these races and if it has been, it's been centered on local circumstances rather than Arizona's law. But the primaries will be a good test of anti-incumbent and anti-establishment sentiment. If incumbents like Dan Burton or Mark Souder lose (unlikely) or at least get really strong challenges, and if Dan Coats gets a close race, then we'll know that the anger and energy we've all been reporting on for months will actually have a big impact at the ballot box.

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Dunn Loring, VA: So I understand, you believe that readers shouldn't put too much weight into a poll conducted by a respected polling organization (Arizona immigration) but the results of a non-scientific online poll is conclusive proof that Obama's joke about drone attacks isn't offensive? Is there any doubt about your political leanings?

Ben Pershing: Is there any doubt that you completely misread both of my answers? I made a point of saying that our online poll was completely unscientific precisely because I don't think you should put much stock in it. My point was that I simply don't know whether the majority of Americans would or wouldn't find Obama's joke particularly offensive.

As for the immigration polls, my point about asking questions on a complicated piece of legislation would hold true regardless of whether it was on immigration or some other topic, and regardless of whether the polls showed people in favor or opposed. It's just a general note of caution about polling these kinds of topics.

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Arlington, VA: I've already heard complaints on talk radio that the attempted car bombing in Times Square is yet another example of how weak Obama is on terrorism. They argued that nothing like this happeneded during Bush's presidency and that Obama just doesn't take terrorism seriously. Does this incident have the potential to hurt Democrats in the fall?

Ben Pershing: Who's argued that nothing like this happened during the Bush presidency? Remember Richard Reid? I thought the Bush administration actually took pride in having foiled multiple potential terrorist attacks. And I imagine the Obama administration will do the same, even though luck seems to have played a role in both cases. What if the Times Square bomb had actually gone off? What if Richard Reid was actually able to ignite his shoe? Same with the attempted Christmas Day airplane bomber. We have been very fortunate in many of these cases.

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Brooklyn, NY: I'm starting to see a lot of chatter about how this is going to be Obama's Katrina, and a lot of people giving the impression that the only reason that people were upset with Bush over Katrina was that it happened on his watch.

Do people forget that there were actual legitimate reasons to be upset with Bush's handling of Katrina? Namely his appointment of an unqualified horse association president to be in charge of FEMA, which bungled the whole disaster response.

I guess I shouldn't expect more with all the death panels, birth certificates, and other made-up "news".

Ben Pershing: I think most of the "chatter" about this being Obama's Katrina is coming from conservative commentators. I will be curious to see whether that theme creeps more into the mainstream coverage as the days go on. With Katrina, there was "helluva job Brownie" plus some legitimate complaints about the speed and size of the federal response. As I said earlier, it may turn out that there are also legitimate criticisms to make about Obama's response in this case. We just don't know yet.

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Bloomberg utterance: Ben,

He was only echoing what those super-responsible denizens of DailyKOS and HuffPo have been saying. Even NPR yesterday said that authorities were looking for a 'white' man, when it turns out it was a Pakistani-American.

Ben Pershing: I think the initial reports that authorities were looking for a white man were based on those surveillance videos, right? And it could have been a "home-grown terrorist," it just wasn't (so far as we know at this point). But suggesting it might have had something to do with the health-care bill is where it really took a turn for the bizarre.

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Waiting to Fly: As a police friend would say: if criminals weren't stupid, we wouldn't catch anybody.

Ben Pershing: Right, and I am thankful for that.

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wait 48 hours before trying to leave : Wanted a super low air fare.

You're welcome.. Priceline.com

Ask us about our cheap trip to a rendition site. Accomodations and meals included!

Ben Pershing: That's a good point. Maybe he got a better fare flying on a Monday night. And double miles.

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Downtown DC: What ISN"T going on today? Well, as far as I can tell from the Post, move than twenty people in Middle Tennessee have not died because of unprecedented rains and flooding. A bomb that didn't go off and a oil slick that hasn't hit yet? That, I can find out plenty about.

Ben Pershing: Sorry, I certainly didn't mean to be dismissive about the terrible flooding in Tennessee. It's just that story hasn't really entered the political debate at this point. Neither conservatives nor liberals have accused the other of causing/overhyping/downplaying/exacerbating that tragedy. Not yet, anyway. We do have this story about the flooding on our site, if you're looking for an update: http://bit.ly/dCwtj8

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Berwyn, Ill.: Hey there Ben, Will there be any legal repercussions from fish markets in Louisiana that are losing money to the loss of ecolife from the oil spillage?

Ben Pershing: I've read some stories this morning about the liability BP will face because of the spill. Fishermen and others who have lost their livelihood will certainly file a lot of lawsuits, and there's some debate now on whether there's a cap on the financial liability BP faces. If there is a cap, some members of Congress are already discussing legislation to lift it.

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Can't have it both ways: We reserve a certain amount of respect and decorum for the office of the Presidency. In turn, the President should treat it as something to be honored and with appropriate gravitas. When Bush made fun of failing to find WMDs in the White House, we were all pretty much disgusted; innocent people died as a result of his errors. The same is true for Obama and the drone attacks; this is serious business- again, innocent people have died b/c of US policy. This would be like if Rick Perry said something about coyotes and electric chairs (for all I know, there's probably a clip on YouTube). But once again, Obama gets a pass in the media.

Ben Pershing: I see your point. But did Obama really get a "pass" in the media? WaPo reported on it online yesterday. I've seen it discussed/debated by several outlets in the last two days.

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Washington, DC: This may surprise some folks, but actually when you're looking at a population the size of the US, a polling sample of about 800-1200 is the sweet spot. There's a long explanation of why, but long story short, when your sample gets too much larger than that, your data starts getting skewed.

That said, I still don't put too much faith into the Rasmussen poll everyone's quoting, because the wording of the question was so broad and poorly done.

Ben Pershing: In general I avoid using Rasmussen's numbers, mainly because they use autodialing instead of having live people make the calls and ask the questions. I was referring to immigration polls by Gallup and NYT/CBS.

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Spare me.: Tom Tancredo "jokes" about Obama going back to Kenya, and nobody says boo (your colleague Howard Kurtz didn't even hear about it until yesterday when a chatter pointed it out). But a dad makes a joke about not wanting his daughters to date boys, and all of a sudden I'm supposed to be offended? Please.

Ben Pershing: I see your point too. Though the president is always going to be held to a higher standard -- particularly when speaking on national television -- than a former Congressman will be.

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Baltimore, Md.: The attempted car bombing and Obama being weak on terrorism: It's an absurd argument for talk radio clowns to even make, unless you presume to think the NSA should be able to track, for example, everyone who is purchasing a 17 year old vehicle on Craigs List and paying cash for it. The fact is, if anything, this proves that the putative terrorist never watched an episode of Law & Order, or he would have known there are VINs stamped in multiple places on a vehicle, not just on the dashboard.

Oh yeah, it also proves that first rate police work is the key to tracking these lunatics down.

Ben Pershing: You know I've watched a gazillion Law & Order episodes and I don't think I knew the VIN number was stamped on the engine. You learn something every day.

For the record, I don't know that I've actually heard anyone -- even conservative talk show hosts -- make the case that the Times Square incident suggests Obama is "weak on terrorism." Maybe someone did and I missed it. Or maybe we're just trained to expect the party out of power to criticize the president any time something like this happens (an attempted terrorist attack, an oil spill).

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you have the right to remain silent unless John McCain has a tough primary: Ugh. Can we start publicly calling out politicians who are this crass and venal? Go Hayworth go!

Ben Pershing: Per my last answer, I think it was predictable that some critics would complain about the Times Square suspect getting Mirandized. Democrats and liberal blogs have already pointed out -- as they did after the Christmas Day incident -- that the Bush administration Mirandized lots of terrorism suspects, including Richard Reid.

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Answer to your question: We are talking about someone who tried to blow up propane tanks that were still sealed...

Ben Pershing: Yes. Clearly this guy made several mistakes.

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"Bloomberg utterance" and assumptions: The Bloomberg utterance exchange was revealing. First, the questioner made it sound like being white and Pakistani-American were mutually exclusive. I'm hardly an expert on skin color classification, but I have a hard time with that one. Second, you say the arrest shows the terrorist may not have been "home grown." But what is a naturalized citizen if not a citizen? Aren't all citizens "homegrown" or are some more homegrown than others?

This all just goes to show that as a nation of immigrants, we sure do have a hard time bringing them into the fold.

Ben Pershing: I think "homegrown" implies someone who was born and raised in the U.S. Shahzad was originally from Pakistan and only became a U.S. citizen later.

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70% of AZ Residents Support the Immigration Law: Isn't this exactly why we have a Constitution? Protection from the Tyranny of the Majority? 100% of AZ Residents could support the law, that doesn't matter when the Law clearly violates the 4th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.

Ben Pershing: Also a good point. The fate of this law will likely be decided by the courts, not by a poll (or a citizen referendum).

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Richmond, VA: There appears to be a cap on what an oil company would have to pay for damages from a spill. Why? Do we know which congressmen put that cap in there? It may have been done many years ago and seemed like a big number back then but is there anyone who revisits those numbers? Congress may try and increase that cap but I don't think they could make that increase apply to the current spill. The oil is out of the well already.

Ben Pershing: According to the AP, "A law passed in response to the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska makes BP responsible for cleanup costs. But the law sets a $75 million limit on other kinds of damages." However, if BP is found to have been negligent, or to have violated any federal laws, then the cap would be lifted.

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Arizona Immigration Law: Seems to me that Arizona would be able to accomplish more by enacting a dranconian law regarding employing illegal immigrants. We always seem to try to stem the supply of things (labor, drugs) rather than the demand of them. Sort of like we really don't understand the underlying dynamics of our economy!

Ben Pershing: The "comprehensive immigration reform" framework that a handful of Senate Democrats unveiled last week includes a big emphasis on going after employers, and would require all workers to have Social Security cards linked to their fingerprints. The main problems with that approach are that the business community will argue that the new system is burdensome and expensive, and some civil libertarians won't like the idea of all Americans having to carry around national ID cards and participate in a national fingerprint database. It's a tricky subject.

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Indianapolis Indiana: I think Bush and Rove were genius at using terror for political ends. If they had caught the Times Sq. guy it would have been Bush who did the catching. Obama doesn't seem to be able to leverage terror the way Bush did.

Ben Pershing: You mean it would have been Bush himself at JFK airport throwing the cuffs on the guy? That would have been excellent. Kind of like in "Independence Day" when the president hopped in an F-16 and led the aerial attack on the aliens.

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High school contest winner -- Kalamazoo: President Obama just chose the winning high school in the competition for where he will give a commencement address. There were six finalists. I voted on them but my favorite didn't win. Then they narrowed it to three, based on the public voting, and he picked one. The other five finalists get cabinet secretaries.

Don't contests like this (much like Race to the Top) make the winner insanely happy and all the other finalists really mad? I never know why this is a winning strategy politically, no matter who you pick. All six school videos were amazingly impressive.

washingtonpost.com: Mich. high school wins Obama commencement speech

Ben Pershing: It's true that the losers won't be happy, but all of these high schools are getting great exposure and PR, right? (Didn't you say you watched all six videos?)

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Ben Pershing: So my time is up. See you back here in a couple of weeks, and enjoy the remainder of your Tuesday.

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