Broder On Politics
With David S. Broder
Washington Post Columnist/Reporter
Thursday, Oct. 10, 2002; 1 p.m. ET
President Bush continues making his case for military action in Iraq, working the political angle and winning over Democrats including House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), and laying out for the American public the practical reasons why he thinks action is necessary. Meanwhile, a variety of other problems occupy voters' minds -- the war on terrorism, homeland security, the stock market and the general health of the economy, health care, etc. Will these issues get voters to the polls? Or will the politics-as-usual bickering over what voters see as inconsequential turn them away?
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and columnist David S. Broder was online to talk about Iraq, the midterm elections and the political landscape in the midst of crisis on Thursday, Oct. 10.
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.
Alexandria, Va.: David,
Thank you for sharing your thoughtful opinions on this chat; you are truly one of a kind.
The topic of what voters will be thinking about as they step into the booths Nov. 5 is occupying much of the journalism/political world right now. But my question is whether you think the media will give greater play to the issues (like world hunger and becoming more energy self-sufficient) that voters have shown they care about (at least in polls), but aren't part of the current political debate?
Thanks again for taking the time?
David S. Broder: Thank you for your comment and question. I am skeptical that the press (or media) can do much to set the agenda for an election. The voters themselves and candidates and major elected officials, particularly the president, properly have more to say about what topics become centers of debate. At this point, what I'm hearing from voters is Iraq, terrorism, the economy, schools and health care. I doubt that many other issues will fight their way onto the agenda.
Waynesboro, Pa.: How much credibility do you give to opinion polls?
David S. Broder: There are polls -- and then there are polls. When polls ask people about something they likely have been thinking about already -- such as the shape of the economy -- they can be trusted. When they ask about things on which most people have no opinion -- for example, an election that is a year or more away -- they are of little use, I think.
Clarksville, Tenn.: Do you think the attention that if focused on the Senate vote on Iraq is taking attention away from the terrorist attack on Marines and the latest video from al Qaeda?
David S. Broder: I would guess that is the case. The prospect of war with Iraq was the thing most people I have been interviewing the last few weeks wanted to talk about first.
New Hampton, Iowa: Are the Democrats planning to take the offensive on economic and health care issues? If so, how? Both my own anecdotal evidence and national polls indicate these are the issues voters care about, yet the media and politicians focus only on Iraq, even though any U.S. attack would still be months away. With this disconnect between what voters care about and what the media and politicians talk about, I think turnout will be very low.
David S. Broder: Sadly, I agree with you about the likelihood of a dismal turnout in the coming election. I agree with you also that people are very concerned about the economy, jobs, health care and other down-home issues. But most of the people I've interviewed have about given up on Washington doing much about any of those things. And they are worried about Iraq and following the developments on that front very closely. I've written a column for the Sunday papers about the economic issues, but I don't see the Democrats having much impact on that front at this point.
washingtonpost.com: Sen. Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, gave a speech the other night talking about the amendment he's offering in opposition to the White House's measure authorizing "war powers" for the president. He said he realizes that while his amendment might not pass, he felt it was his duty to spur debate over the issue. Do you feel there has been enough debate over giving the president power to send in troops in a relatively unilateral way?
David S. Broder: I think we are having a good and important debate on the Iraq situation, but it is taking place in a pre-election environment where few elected officials are eager to challenge the president's judgment. It is certainly better to have the debate than not, even though the result is foreordained.
Montgomery County, Md.: I finally decided who to vote for in the 8th Congressional District. I have supported Connie Morella for years, although I am a Democrat. She charted her own course, and I usually agreed with her votes (except for Speaker of the House). But now, she has accepted support from Bush, the First Lady, and Republican leadership. It seems to me she has sold her soul. What is the Republican Party going to expect in return? Won't she be indebted to them? My vote will go to Van Hollen.
David S. Broder: I am certainly not going to advise you how to vote in the Maryland election. I leave that to the folks on the editorial page of the Post. In a long and misspent life as a political reporter, I have managed never to say or hint who I thought anyone should support. And I won't break the habit now.
Bethesda, Md.: How much influence does the oil industry have in the Bush administration?
David S. Broder: I have no idea how to measure the influence of the oil industry on the Bush administration. We know that several senior officials, including the president, were part of the industry and certainly any Texas politician comes to know the people and the problems of that industry very well. The energy plan the administration put forward included some strong incentives for oil and gas producers, and clearly candidates of both parties have been able to tap that industry for campaign checks.
Washington, D.C.: What are you hearing about Spanish-language campaign advertising nationally this cycle?
David S. Broder: I haven't examined that question in any systematic way, but I am aware of stories about Spanish-language ads being run in several states with large Latino populations. California, Texas, Florida, New York, etc.
Arlington, Va.: I keep reading and seeing in the press that 70 percent of Americans support Bush's zealous glee, oops -- I mean plan, to go to war with Iraq. Similar numbers are shown for Bush's overall support among Americans. My question is: Who are they polling? No one, and I mean no one, that I know supports Bush's plans for Iraq nor approves of his autocratic approach to government. This includes my staunch Republican friends who are now defecting the party on the sole basis of Bush.
So, who are these pollsters polling and why don't they ever ask me what I think?
David S. Broder: Our polling director, Rich Morin, says that it takes more than one question to gauge public attitudes toward a possible war with Iraq. That is why he has been asking -- and reporting -- the percentage of overall support, and the smaller percentage who would support a war without allies or without UN sanction. Similarly, on presidential approval, he uses the overall support number, along with more specific measures -- usually lower -- for Bush on the economy, education, jobs, etc. Polling is a valid, but limited, reportorial tool, in my view. But you should not be surprised not to have been polled. A sample of 1200 or so in a country our size leaves millions of people unpolled.
Washington, D.C.: Do the political ramifications essentially drive most decisions these days? It seems the Iraq issue has been more or less choreographed to coincide with the elections and keep other, more Democrat-friendly issues off the table. If there has truly been no decision made about attacking Iraq, why not delay this debate and discuss some other topics. The benefit of having this discussion now seems overtly political, which definitely rubs me the wrong way. BTW -- this is from one who believes that Iraq poses a real and severe threat, but having he debate manipulated in this manner just drags the issue into the political mire.
David S. Broder: Reporters make very bad mind-readers, and I am reluctant to guess the motives of any politician. I can think of any number of non-political reasons why Iraq has come to the fore at this time. It had to wait until the active fighting in Afghanistan was over. Intelligence may well have highlighted a growing threat from Saddam. But I cannot rule out the possibility that there could be political timing as well. I think we have to deal with the Iraq issue on its merits -- weighing the limited information that the public has -- and decide on that basis, rather than try to ascribe motives to the administration.
Summerville, S.C.: Interested in your thoughts/observations concerning the three-ring circus that high-profile judicial confirmations have become in the U.S. Senate.
David S. Broder: Thanks for your question. I was just down in Dorchester County doing some reporting last week. Your description of the judicial confirmation mess is an apt one. What I have written is that as long as both parties are trying to settle scores for injuries they believe they have suffered in the past -- Republicans talking about Bork, Democrats about the Clinton nominees who were blocked -- there is no way out of this trap. At some point, the grownups -- the Senate leaders and the president--have to agree to wipe the slate clean and start dealing with these appointees on their merits. My own view is that judicial nominations should not be killed in committee. There should be real scrutiny and hard questioning in the Judiciary Committee and then a vote to send them to the full Senate with a favorable or unfavorable nomination. But the final responsibility should rest on the full Senate, not one of its committees. That might not solve the problem, but I believe it would be a more equitable way of dealing with these disputes.
Austin, Tex.: David,
My wife and I recently moved to Austin from D.C. and love it. One of the things we really do miss though is our daily print version of the Post. We were delighted to see that your column is syndicated in the American-Statesmen. Your pithy and insightful thoughts offer us a bit of weekly political sustenance.
My question is, what do you think about the chances of Tony Sanchez in the gubernatorial race and of Ron Kirk in his run for senate? And do you think if they win their respective races that that this would be a real thorn in the side of our Texan president?
David S. Broder: I have not been in Texas this cycle; my colleague, Dan Balz, is down there right now, reporting on the races. What I do know is that the White House is very interested in both those contests. The president does not want to see a Democratic comeback in his home state.
Seattle, Wash.: Mr. Broder, could you comment on the implications of the Bush administration's current widespread use of diplomatic and military power to gain access to foreign oil reserves together with the absence of a domestic effort to reduce oil consumption by the American people? What could that indicate about the Bush administration's goals insofar as oil and foreign policy are concerned?
David S. Broder: I am not certain exactly what you have in mind, but if the implication is that Iraq is about oil, I would disagree. It would be naive to say that access to Persian Gulf oil is not of vital strategic importance to the U.S., but I do not think that is why we are contemplating war with Saddam. The administration has convinced itself -- and others -- that he is a threat to our security. The basence of an effective energy conservation program is a terrible indictment of our governmental system, over a period of some 25 years. And our SUV economy is properly subject to criticism around the world.
Nelson, New Zealand: If your leadership wants to go to war to rid the world of an anti-democratic tyrant who threatens neighbors with weapons of mass destruction, why isn't your leadership threatening Pakistan?
Might it have anything to do with the fact that Pakistan has no oil?
David S. Broder: As I've just said, I do not believe oil is driving U.S. policy toward Iraq. And you know as well as I do why we are not threatening Pakistan -- it gave us vital help in the effort to rid Afghanistan of Taliban and al Qaeda.
Alexandria, Va.: Do you really think this debate over Iraq is so good? Recalling the quality of the debate in the early 1990s, I find the contemporary discussion poor by comparison. Clearly, the absence of a serious challenge has not forced the administration to resolve its war cabinet's collective incoherence vis-a-vis a post-Saddam Iraq. We have no assurance that they learned from earlier administrations' failure to deal with Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew. And their botching of post-Taliban Afghanistan threatens to lose the peace there again. Decimating Iraq without a plan will likely sow even more anti-American homicidal mania among Islamic fundamentalist fanatics. Yet no serious Congressional challenge is forcing the administration to respond to this objection.
David S. Broder: Well, debate is in the eye of the beholder. I have heard almost all the points in your letter being raised by senators in the hearings of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. They also have been raised and discussed in the press. And, as I said earlier this hour, I think the debate is being closely followed by many voters.
Alexandria, Va.: Is there any sign of a backlash from New Jersey voters over the replacement of Torricelli with Lautenberg?
David S. Broder: I have not been in New Jersey since the switcheroo. But Dale Russakoff, a very good Post reporter, said in a recent story that she has found no backlash, and the early polls indicate Lautenberg has taken the lead in the race.
Los Angeles, Calif.: Al Gore said he was returning to Tennessee after the election to mend some real and figurative fences. Any sense on how he's doing there? My sense is that the conservative trends in the South are ebbing, ever so slightly, and his 2004 success will be dependent on converting some of those "red states" to "blue."
David S. Broder: The Democrats are mounting a serious challenge to the governorship in Tennessee and there are interesting races in several other southern states, including Florida, where Jeb Bush is on the ballot. I think the outcome of those governorships -- Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, etc. -- will give us a good clue as to whether the Democrats can become competitive again in the South. They cannot afford to be shut out of its electoral votes, as they were in 2000, and have a realistic hope of winning back the White House.
Oxford, Maine: There is continuing debate over using military power and reforming the U.S. federal bureaucracy to fight the war against terrorism. People are adjusting to additional security measures at airports and border entry points. Yet INS, Border Control and Customs are inadequately prepared and staffed to effectively protect against terrorists. Law enforcement lacks in some cases the authority to investigate and collect information concerning persons in the U.S. It seems to be that eventually the great debate has to focus on the extent to which citizens and their elected officials allow government intrusion into the hereto "private affairs" in order to protect the country against terrorism. When, if ever do you think, this debate will unfold?
David S. Broder: I think it has begun to unfold already. The Patriot Act gave government much broader authority to wiretap, investigate, etc., and the court cases that are being heard on detentions, secret trials, etc., are writing new chapters in law. That debate will certainly continue and it is damned important to the future of this country and the freedoms we have enjoyed.
Washington, D.C.: Having followed politics more closely and for a longer period of time than I have, do you think politicians, particularly those in Washington, really have become less responsive than they used to be to the needs and interests of the public? Or does it only seem that way to me because of my lack of hindsight? It just feels as though the politicians rarely do anything anymore that isn't a direct payback to a friend or political supporter, regardless of what the long-term ramifications might be for the country. Whatever happened to doing things for the greater good? Did that ever really exist?
David S. Broder: A great many of the people I meet in my reporting feel exactly the same way you do. I am not sure that politicians are more selfish -- or less public-spirited -- than in the past. But when the party balance is as close as it is in this country right now, when the shift of a few votes in Florida could alter the outcome of the presidential race, or one seat change can switch control of the Senate, it is very difficult for either party to ask on any issue: Is this going to help us or help them? It has been over a century since we had such deadlock in our politics; at some point, it will break and we will once again have a majority party, responding to a genuine public mandate, and at that point, I would hope you would see that party begin to fulfill the hopes of its supporters and the needs of the country.
Chicago, Ill.: Shouldn't Ralph Nader be given some credit for his accurate diagnosis during the 2000 campaign of the shortcomings of the corporate sector and do you anticipate that the Green Party will gain additional support in 2004 because of his enhanced credibility on this and other issues?
David S. Broder: Nader certainly was one of the original corporate whistle-blowers. I wonder, however, if most of his own supporters agree with his contention that it makes little difference whether Democrats or Republicans are in the White House? The sharpening of issues between the big parties may make it harder for the Greens to come back for a second round.
Sarasota, Fla.: Why is the debate on Iraq so polarized along party lines? It would seem that thinking persons of either party could reach similar conclusions re: the war, i.e., for or against independent of party. A decision re: war should not be a party line one. Also, why does the opinion on the economic effect of a war also break so much on party lines?
David S. Broder: I am not sure I agree with your premise. Many of the most searching questions about administration policy have come from Republicans such as Sens. Lugar and Hagel and Rep. Armey. Many notable Democrats, including Sen. Lieberman and Rep. Gephardt, have been supporting the president. I don't think this has been a particularly partisan battle.
I'm afraid this has to wind it up for me today. Thanks to all of you who joined. We will do it again soon.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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