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What Are Democrats Afraid Of?

Every weekday at 11 AM, members of the Washington Post political team take your questions. Today's installment featured Peter Baker, who took questions on the president's latest approval ratings, Obama's chances for catching Clinton and--why not?--what kind of a premier Vladimir Putin might make.

Seattle: Interesting poll results that were released yesterday. Will they actually change any GOP senators' minds enough to vote against Bush?

Peter Baker: In a word, no. Or at least we don't see any indications of that. The president's approval rating once again tied its lowest in our Washington Post-ABC News polling, 33 percent, but it's been hovering there for quite some time without prompting Republicans on the Hill to abandon him on the war. There's certainly a wellspring of resentment and impatience among congressional Republicans toward the president, but many of them believe the report by Gen. David Petraeus and the decision to withdraw the "surge" troops by next summer gave them some breathing room.

Arlington, Va.: So, what are the Democrats so afraid of? The Post-ABC poll seems to agree with all of the other polls that have come out recently that say people are dissatisfied that the Dems haven't gone far enough in opposing Bush and that people really disapprove of congressional Republicans and Bush. What more evidence do the Democrats need to get some backbone and go on the offensive? It's really frustrating to watch them do nothing so timidly.

Peter Baker: Well, I think they would say they have been aggressive; they have had dozens of votes related to the war and they have sent the president legislation establishing firm timeline for withdrawal. What they don't have is enough Republican support to beat a filibuster in the Senate, much less override a presidential veto. It's clear at this point that they can't get two-thirds support for anything concrete to change war policy. That may be less about aggressiveness than effectiveness, or it may be more about Republican intransigence, depending on your point of view. Since it's clear Congress can't pass anything over Bush's objection at this point, the one option the Democrats haven't tried is to simply cut off funding altogether. That's obviously what a lot of war critics want them to do, but that's something they've been reluctant to consider. It's not something Congress has done all that often in history; even during Vietnam, Congress only cut off funding that didn't matter. As President Nixon withdrew U.S. forces, Congress cut off funding in 1973 for "offensive" operations, in effect ratifying what by then was the president's stated course. A 1974 vote cut aid to South Vietnamese forces by 50 percent after U.S. forces were already gone.

San Francisco: Hello, Peter, thanks for chatting today. Drawing on your experience in Russia, what do you make of Putin's bid to be premier? Will it be possible for him to transfer the powers of the presidency to that new office?

Peter Baker: A little off topic here, but I can't resist a good Putin question. Thanks for asking. Putin's decision yesterday to head the United Russia slate for parliament in December and to open the door to becoming prime minister after stepping down as president next spring was shocking, in a way, but not really surprising. Under the Russian constitution, Putin is supposed to step down as president after two terms, but few in Moscow really expected him to simply give up power. Not a lot of precedent for that in Russian history. So people for years have been imagining what sort of creative scenario he would come up with to retain power while ostensibly living up to his vow to respect the constitutional term limit. Becoming prime minister was one of the most obvious schemes and now it seems that's the one he's chosen. Under the Russian system, the president holds the real power, but it's easy to imagine how that could be changed, either formally or de facto, with Putin in the prime minister's chair. A lot of countries have presidents that are simply ceremonial while the real power is vested in the prime minister (Britain, Germany, Israel, etc.). All of that, of course, is just changing the organization chart. The "vertical power," as Putin once described his leadership ideology, would still lead to him.

Crestwood, N.Y.: Pete, to me McCain is like a baseball team that gives up twelve runs in the first inning and then starts to chip away, until you look up and its the eighth, and they're only down by two. There's my topical baseball reference for the day. But isn't it true that the longer this guy just sticks around, given the enormous dissatisfaction with his opponents and the failure of Thompson to live up to the hype, the better he looks? Besides, everyone loves the maverick story, and the come-from-behind story, so to that degree the skids are greased, so to speak. And if there's a quick and clean bombing of Iran without repercussions, sort of like the Grenada attack in the '80s, the militarism of McCain will look that much better to the GOP hardcore. He can sell himself as a real soldier, the real deal as far as fighting "islamofascism," and can sell Giuliani as a fake. In this way, widening the war to Iran helps McCain more than any other candidate. You agree?

Peter Baker: Well, I don't know how military action in Iran might affect the race -- too many variables -- but I think you're right that the Republican race is fluid enough that it would be silly to count Senator McCain out. None of the other three main candidates, Mayor Giuliani, Governor Romney or Senator Thompson, seems to be running away with it and each of the three has significant weaknesses. If Giuliani were to implode for some reason, you can imagine a scenario where McCain is there to pick up the pieces. And you're right, America loves an underdog. Having said that, America doesn't always nominate or elect the underdog. So it's still reasonable to say that the challenge for McCain is formidable.

Washington: How do you rate Obama's chances of catching Clinton now that she is getting major African American endorsements such as Ron Dellums in Oakland, Anthony Brown in Maryland and former Congressman and head of the United Negro College Fund William Gray, and has both the lead in the polls and has outraised Obama for the first time in a quarter? What does he need to do?

Peter Baker: Senator Obama is facing a rough road ahead. He's been stuck more or less in the same position in the polls since Day One and hasn't managed to turn his fundraising prowess into a stronger showing. And Senator Clinton surpassing him this quarter will be spun as her solidifying her commanding position in the race. Having said that, if you were Obama's campaign manager, you wouldn't want him to peak too early anyway. So the question is can he turn his mammoth bank account into a powerful media blitz late this year in the early primary states to topple Clinton? And he's got enough money that you have to assume that's possible. Remember at this point four years ago, Howard Dean was the Democratic frontrunner, although to be sure he wasn't nearly as strong as Clinton looks now.

Richmond, Va.: Is Bill Clinton too out there for Hillary by criticizing Obama (also applies to Elizabeth Edwards for her John)? In other words, is there a perception that we will have another four to eight years of Bill Clinton?

Peter Baker: There's certainly a risk of people deciding they don't want the presidency to rotate back and forth between two families for up to 28 years. If Senator Clinton were to win and serve two terms, most Americans by the end of her presidency will have never known a president whose name was not Bush or Clinton. For the moment, that doesn't seem to be causing her campaign much problem, but you can imagine a scenario where it becomes more of an issue. And you can imagine there are political consultants out there in both parties right now who plan to remind voters of all the things they didn't particularly like about the Bill Clinton years and ask if they really want another eight years of that. Senator Clinton's campaign almost certainly is preparing to confront such a situation.

By Washington Post editors  |  October 2, 2007; 1:29 PM ET
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Hillary Clinton is one of the most inspirational candidates I have seen in years. Her success inspires me to bang my head against the wall until I fall unconscious and forget how easily the American people are manipulated. I will lose all hope if Hillary wins the nomination.

Posted by: ndkintzel | October 3, 2007 7:52 PM | Report abuse

i'm a lifelong democrat who voted for bill clinton but i won't cast my vote for hillary even if she is the nominee; i'll write in my choice instead...and i know i am not alone

Posted by: mtaylor383 | October 3, 2007 3:30 PM | Report abuse

Too bad - if Hillary wins the nomination, I vote Republican or Bloomberg. She will never have my support.

An informal straw poll shows I am not alone.

Posted by: dc_attorney | October 2, 2007 6:42 PM | Report abuse

Nice Q&A session. I do agree, Hillary has become an incredibly strong candidate, and now is tops in quarterly fund raising. We know whe will be the nominee. Now, if only she will select Evan Bayh as her running mate. Unstoppable! Go Hill!

Posted by: aboyzboi | October 2, 2007 6:25 PM | Report abuse

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