Broder On Politics
With David S. Broder
Washington Post Columnist/Reporter
Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2002; Noon ET
Control of Congress teeters by the slimmest of margins in the 2002 elections -- six seats in the House and one in the Senate. Yet the war on terror, the possibility of U.S. involvement in Iraq and voting mistakes and mishaps may draw voters' valuable attention from the polls. How are the races looking? Is turnout expected to improve or maintain its usual dismal state? Where will the House and Senate eventually end up?
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and columnist David S. Broder was online to talk about the midterm elections and the political landscape in the midst of crisis on Wednesday, Sept. 18.
Broder has written extensively about primaries, elections, special interests and the business of politics. His books include "Democracy Derailed: The Initiative Movement & the Power of Money," "Behind the Front Page: A Candid Look at How the News Is Made" and "The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point."
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Indianapolis, Ind.: I'm interested in your opinion about Scott Ritter and his activities. I've been reading what's available online, transcripts of interviews, etc. I've generally thought highly of him, as did many Republican congressmen. Do you know anyone in the Congress who has really taken the time to sit down and talk to Ritter?
David S. Broder: I do not know which if any members of Congress may have talked with Mr. Ritter, and I do not know him at all, so I'd be reluctant to judge his credibility.
Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: The Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, has been held in undisguised contempt by a Federal Judge. Not attending to business apparently, and lying about the underlying mismanagement. Please remind us yet again why it's important for citizens to care about the political process when it's clearly obvious that government officials are unapologetically apathetic and, in Norton's case, also a common well-heeled scofflaw with a law degree. Thanks much.
David S. Broder: Thanks for your good question. I think the whole story of the Interior Department's abuse of its Indian trusts, which began before the current administration, is a telling example of what can happen when the press and public fail to subject officials to careful scrutiny. There is, as our Founders understood, a natural tendency for those in power to abuse power; that's why we're fortunate to have checks and balances and especially an independent judiciary. But our system of government ultimately rests on an informed and engaged public -- which exercises its ultimate power at the ballot box. A president -- any president -- should be held accountable for the people he appoints, and accountability is enforced at the ballot box.
Washington, D.C.: Mr. Broder --
It appears to me that there is some level of political irony arising from the success, to date, in the war on terror. As everyone knows, President Bush's popularity soared after Sept. 11. While this was unquestionably due to his handling of the matter, it is equally certain that any president's job rating would have increased somewhat following such an attack on the country. Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that another attack would result in another bump in the president's (and perhaps, by extension, the Republican Party's) favorable ratings. Yet the president gets no immediate political benefit from preventing attacks, as the longer we go without another terror attack, the more other issues (corporate responsibility anyone?) rise to the top. Is is possible the president is suffering political damage as a result of the so-far-successful war that he is orchestrating?
David S. Broder: Another excellent question. Your analysis makes sense to me, but when we have arrests of suspected terrorists, as in the last few days, I think people take some comfort that the authorities, including Bush, are doing their jobs.
San Francisco, Calif.: Your column today included questions asked by Sen. Hegel. He asked about a war against Iraq: "What is the objective?"
The objective is to stop Iraq from developing nuclear weapons and using those weapons against the U.S. Considering the importance of that objective, how many allies will join us and who governs Iraq after Saddam are very minor questions. It is true that now that we removed the Taliban from power, the U.S. is not giving enough financial support to the government of Afghanistan, but this can and should be corrected. What are your comments?
washingtonpost.com: The Hagel Doctrine (Post, Sept. 18, 2002)
David S. Broder: I think the objective is exactly what you say, but as you know, there is now debate in the United Nations whether that objective can be achieved by inspection or requires military action. The other questions Sen. Hagel raises are not minor, in my opinion. Everything we know about attitudes toward the U.S. in Europe, Asia and especially the Middle East strongly suggest that a preemptive strike in which we moved alone would cost us heavily in terms of the overall war on terrorism and other important foreign policy objectives. And given the strategic importance of Iraq regionally and on the world stage, we damn well need to have thought through what a successor regime would look like and what kind of people would be in charge.
Harrisburg, Pa.: How fairly do you believe Sen. Torricelli was handled in the recent investigations? Although he was exonerated, his career is in trouble, although perhaps not fatally. What does the Torricelli affair say about the current state of politics?
David S. Broder: I have heard no serious complaints from the senator or his supporters about the investigation by the Senate ethics committee; some people have argued that the committee judgment on him was not severe enough. I think his case tells us what we already knew, that politicians who let the drive for money and personal perks become controlling lose their sense of obligation to their constituents and impair their credibility.
Flint, Mich.: I watched a show on C-SPAN about the federal budget. A man named William Hoagland said the the level of contempt the White House has for Congress's roll in the budget process is the worst he's seen in some time and that those feelings of disdain were being returned by Democrats AND Republicans in congress. As a political junkie, his comments were no surprise to me. What did surprise me was his candor because he's a Republican staff member (can't recall his title)
At one point during this show Mr. Hoagland mentioned Phil Gramm's resisting legislation designed to impose "pay as you go" rules because such rules would limit the ability to propose additional tax cuts.
The question of why -- at a time of "war" -- anyone in Congress still seek tax cuts was not addressed.
Do you know who William Hoagland is? If so, what's his title? Are you seeing what Hoagland is seeing?
David S. Broder: William Hoagland has been for many years the chief Republican staff person on the Senate Budget Committee. He has an enviable reputation for telling people, including his bosses, what he thinks they need to know, and doing it in unvarnished fashion. I regard his judgments as very serious and follow them closely.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Mr. Broder,
I'm a Democrat. Considering that talk of an attack on Iraq has dominated the news, I'm really upset that Democrats have done little to try and neutralize the Republicans on national security issues. Is there anyway they can do that? Are there any prominent Democratic politicians who could give the their party credibility on foreign policy or national security? Our party should not be at the mercy of the news media by hoping that domestic issues lead the news.
David S. Broder: I think there are such Democrats. Three come quickly to mind: Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; Joe Biden of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; and Lee Hamilton, the former Indiana congressman and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who now heads the Woodrow Wilson Center here. There are also all the former State Department and National Security Council officials from the Clinton years.
Madison, Wis.: During the Vietnam War, antiwar forces were vocally represented by Sens. Morse, Gruening, Fulbright, McCarthy, McGovern, Robert Kennedy, etc. But we do not hear antiwar voices in the Senate today -- as you point out, Hagel and his colleagues are hardly doves. And the Democrats are even less likely to voice critical views than the Republicans. It is much easier to find opponents of attacking Iraq among the public than among their representatives in Washington. Whatever the merits, the restriction of the legitimate boundaries of debate does not seem to be in the interests of our democracy. What's going on?
David S. Broder: Another good question. Several things are going on, I think. Saddam has few friends in Congress, and 'most everyone would like to see him gone. Second, there is a strong feeling that he has been thumbing his nose at the UN. Third, an alternative strategy that would reduce the threat of his gaining nuclear weapons is not obvious or apparent. Fourth, the president, as commander in chief of the war on terrorism, has a standing that makes almost every politician wary of challenging him directly. So the Democrats find themselves mostly counseling caution, rather than voicing direct opposition. I should add that those who were serving 11 years ago also remember that the fears many of them then expressed about a confrontation with Iraq turned out to be excessive.
Counting The Days: Please give me some hope that the Democrats are going to take over the House and keep the Senate. I feel as if I'm living in "1984."
David S. Broder: It is possible, but by no means certain. Try finding a more cheerful novel to read. Jim Lehrer has a new book out.
Falls Church, Va.: What will come of the grumblings at the Congressional Black Caucus meetings about how the Jews ousted the Black incumbents? In both instances, the African-American incumbents weren't elected in the primary, but those who were are also African American.
David S. Broder: I was not at the CBC dinner this year, so I can't gauge how serious those rumblings are. The role that "Jewish money" played in financing the winners of the Alabama and Georgia primaries, where the two CBC incumbents lost, is a matter of record. But members like John Lewis have been eloquent in arguing that the historic alliance between Jews and African Americans on issues of civil rights and social justice must not be abandoned.
Washington, D.C.: Mr. Broder,
One of your colleagues, Robert Kaiser, did one of these chats the other day. He said that President Bush doesn't read books -- period. He also criticized President Bush for not traveling much abroad as a young man, and insisted that future presidential candidates need to be better traveled. In your learned view, were Mr. Kaiser's statements accurate?
washingtonpost.com: For reference, Robert G. Kaiser's discussion (washingtonpost.com, Sept. 11, 2002)
David S. Broder: Bob's observations about President Bush's foreign travels are fully supported by the record. Bush aides dispute his supposed aversion to book-reading. Given the travel habits of many young people these days, I doubt we'll have many future presidential candidates who have not explored the wider world.
Washington, D.C.: So is Gore really going to run? What can anyone do to stop him? What about Hillary?
David S. Broder: Personally, I think Gore may be ambivalent about running, so I await word from him about his intentions. If you want to stop him, find another candidate and support that candidate. Hillary Clinton has made it pretty clear she does not intend to run for president in 04, so I would not count on her.
Counting The Days: Possible is better than no way. So that is good news. Why do you think it's possible?
David S. Broder: It is possible because the margins in House and Senate are so narrow and because Democrats will be financially competitive in the few dozen races where the majority will probably be decided. By the way, I distinguish between what is possible and what is likely.
Arlington, Va.: David, do you think the Bush administration made a blunder with that UN speech? For weeks the president and his men have been talking about a policy of "regime change." Then in his speech at the UN, President Bush outlines all the ways he thinks Saddam Hussein is dangerous -- but builds up the expulsion of the weapons inspectors. Didn't he just leave a door open for Hussein? Of course he would say OK, here's access; Hussein would know that the international pressure would fade when he did that.
David S. Broder: A good question. Those in the administration who opposed going to the UN certainly predicted that this would be Saddam's reaction. I think it is too soon to tell how this will play out. If the UN insists on unfettered access, and Saddam balks, as he likely will, then broad support for military action may follow. I think President Bush made it clear he would not simply wait for events to unfold, that he wants a definitive resolution -- and soon -- and is prepared to act if others shilly-shally.
Washington, D.C.: Do you think it would be a political disaster for President Bush to "go it alone" with regards to Iraq?
David S. Broder: I don't know if you mean a domestic political disaster or an international disaster. For reasons I've mentioned in an earlier exchange, I do think broad international support is very important to the ultimate goal of establishing a better situation in Iraq. At home, the president can expect strong support for any action he takes, in the initial days and weeks, but history suggests that the longer a military conflict lasts, the more criticism he can expect at home.
Terre Haute, Ind.: Which do you think will matter most this election: the war or the economy? My community is really, really hurting so I'm thinking the economy but I wanted your national perspective. Thanks.
David S. Broder: I'm not sure, but we have a round of voter interviewing, face to face conversations, starting this weekend, and I hope we will get some useful clues to that question.
Clarksville, Tenn. -- just outside Ft. Campbell, Ky.: I'm worried the Iraq debate is getting much too political. Almost to the point that any vote in the Congress will be viewed as politics as usual and therefore meaningless. Am I being too naive to think that this vote won't hurt or help any congressmen because of this environment? It seems strange for the president to say Congress shouldn't play politics while he campaigns. I couldn't get off to see him but I would have liked to.
David S. Broder: Any large event, or issue, that comes up 50 days before an election is bound to have political implications. It is naive, or disingenuous, for anyone, including the president, to say otherwise.
Harrisburg, Pa.: I find it inarguable that the Bush administration is politicizing the terrorist threat as well as using the current sabre-rattling as a device to distract from their domestic foibles (lousy economy, corporate thievery, failure of campaign finance and election reforms).
This should open the door for Democrats to criticize the administration's lack of awareness of the terrorist threat, despite warnings from the outgoing administration as will as our national security organizations.
My question is, why isn't that happening more? The administration seems extremely vulnerable to charges of being asleep at the switch.
David S. Broder: The report from the joint committee investigation of 9/11 warnings is being released today, but I have not had time to read the summary of its findings. I'd suspend judgment on the administration's performance in the meantime.
Burke, Va.: When did it become OK in U.S. policy to attack another country on the basis they might become a threat someday. I can't believe what's happening and I feel almost as if I'm living somewhere else. As someone living in the D.C. area, I worry that if we do anything against Iraq that I'll be far more endangered than if we patiently keep on catching members of al Qaeda.
David S. Broder: The preemption doctrine is a new development in American foreign policy, and the president so defined it in his West Point speech. The fact that it is new does not make it right or wrong. There is a compelling logic, I believe, in the view that a hostile power gathering the means to inflict great damage should be arrested before it uses that power against us or our friends. But the case for doing that must be a powerful one--powerful enough at least to persuade other leaders and nations that we are right. I do not think the Bush administration has made that case persuasively up to this point.
Cambridge, Mass.: Can you assess John Kerry's prospects in 2004? It seems as if he, more than any other oft-mentioned Democratic contender, can critique Bush without fear of patriotic backlash. Has he, in your opinion, stepped up to the plate recently in arguing against Bush's Iraq approach? And what weakness does Kerry have to overcome to be a viable presidential contender?
David S. Broder: I honestly don't think you can define the Democratic race until we know whether Gore is in or out. The race really begins the day he makes his intentions clear. Kerry has positioned himself well, as have several others. The feedback on his early travels is mostly positive, and the current Senate campaign is boosting his ID in New Hampshire, through Boston TV. But I repeat, this race race doesn't really begin until Gore steps in or steps out.
Washington, D.C.: I'm told that the administration may focus on international themes to avoid facing the current domestic problems. Are voters really that naive to ignore the homefront just because the potential war is covering the headlines?
David S. Broder: No. I have never found Amercian voters to be naive. They are very shrewd in sorting through all the political rhetoric and deciding what is important to them.
Arlington, Va.: Some time ago I read a column where the author espoused that no matter what the outcome of the elections this November, Bush can still be the winner. If the Republicans lose the House and the Senate, then next presidential election George Bush stands to win because the populace will seek to create a balance. To me, it is more imperative that the Democrats stop playing into the president's hands and bring the focus of the country to the real issues that is plaguing our country. Any thoughts?
David S. Broder: It is certainly true that President Clinton, rather than being damaged by the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, found ways to play off Congress that helped him defeat Sen. Dole in 1996. That is certainly a possible scenario for Bush if the Democrats were to win this November I think the Democrats ought to be espousing their own values and priorities--challenging the future parts of the Bush tax cut, for example--and not ducking or postponing issues for short-term political advantage.
Carmel, Ind.: My congressman (Dan Burton) does not represent my views in any way shape or form, but due to the way the district has been designed, he is again a lock for re-election. This problem of course, cuts across party lines -- there are very few competitive races in the entire nation. I think this is bad for our democracy and our representative form of government. It also stifles voting turnout. It seems that congress is increasingly more "extreme" and out of touch with the moderate middle on many issues. What if anything can be done about this?
David S. Broder: I agree with you entirely that the present pattern of redistricting stifles competition and is unhealthy for our system of representative government. The answer can be found in Iowa and a few other states which have nonpartisan redistricting commissions--and enjoy real competition. I hope you and your friends will push for this change.
Chicago, Ill.: Dear Mr. Broder,
You know that Bush has tried very hard to defeat Democratic senators. If those senators survive his relentless onslaught, do you think they will seek some sort of revenges in the future? Essentially, Bush is trying to take away their livelihood and keep them from doing what they think they can do best. How can there be any goodwill left between Mr. Bush and Mr. Johnson of South Dakota if he survives Bush’s meddling of the election? If I were Johnson, I could decide not to seek reelection and vote against everything Bush proposes in the future. Even if Bush is to be reelected, he cannot outlast Johnson. Do you think there will be a backlash against Bush if the Senate remains Democratic? Why the press does not be more willing to call Bush what he is? Nothing but a manipulating political animal who finds time to go around the country to raise money for republicans but fail to find jobs for ordinary citizens?
By the way, why did you think the Massachusetts lady faces an uphill battle against Romney? Isn’t Massachusetts the most Democratic state outside of D.C. and Hawaii? Would not women transfer their sympathy toward Swift to the new Dem nominee?
David S. Broder: This will have to be my last exchange for the day. I thank all of you for your good questions.
I don't think many senators will be offended by the president's intervention in their races. They expect that, and accept it as part of the process. And I do not fault Bush or Clinton or others who have worked for their party. It goes with the territory.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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