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Shields, Gerson on the Politics of Immigration, Campaign Finance and Watergate

June 15, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson discuss the week's top political news with Judy Woodruff, including "the worst day of Mitt Romney's life," President Obama's new immigration policy, Super PACs and the 40th anniversary of Watergate.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Gerson. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, filling in tonight for David Brooks.

Gentlemen, it’s good to see you both.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s great to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So let’s start with our lead story, and that is President Obama’s announcement today that he’s going to give a break to young illegal immigrants, give them a chance to work in the country for at least two years.

Mark, we just heard the White House — Cecilia Munoz at the White House tell Jeff no politics involved here.

MARK SHIELDS: There’s politics, Judy. It’s an election year.

But, very bluntly, this is the worst day of Mitt Romney’s life, as the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party. Being president means that you are at a negative end when there’s bad job numbers. But being president when you can take an affirmative action that makes your opponent squirm, even though it is an action that is totally consistent with where you have been in a policy sense — and this for Mitt Romney is a character issue, because in 2008, 2012, he ran to the hard right of John McCain, of Rudy Giuliani, of Mike Huckabee there 2008, and of Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry in 2012 on the immigration.

He embraced the Arizona — controversial Arizona state law. He said he would veto the DREAM Act. And they’re looking at the fastest growing constituency in the country. And he really is scrambling now to get back.

What does Mitt Romney do? Does he reject the president’s action? Does he promise to repeal it? Does he promise to honor it? Does he support legal challenges against it? He — I thought he was terribly slow off the mark today. His answer was equivocal.

It reminded you of the 3:00 in the morning phone call. What does a president do? Is he going to have to poll his consultants when that happens? I just think this is really dangerous, dangerous territory. And the White House effectively changed the entire terms of the debate and the narrative, where they have been on the defensive and losing, and put Romney I think squarely on the defensive, where he is squirming.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael, Romney on the defensive, worst day of the campaign for him so far?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I largely agree with that. I’m a strong supporter of the DREAM Act.

I think that there is an intuitive and moral case to be made that you don’t punish children for the sins of their parents. And this is — Romney’s promise to veto the DREAM Act I think is a serious vulnerability from this campaign.

The president drove a truck through that vulnerability today. He preempted Marco Rubio’s legislation that he is proposing on this topic. The president has a prospect. The problem with the Hispanic vote is often turnout. It doesn’t turn out in the same way, even though the numbers for — the percentages for Democrats are high.

This could help with turnout. There are two risks. One of them is seeming too nakedly political. It smacks a little bit of the Chicago way to promise some benefit to a major target group in key states five months before an election. And I think that that is, you know, a risk.

There’s also a procedural risk, which the Congress is going to be concerned about. We are a nation of law, but we’re a government of procedures. The president went around the normal procedure here. I think a lot of members of Congress, even if they are sympathetic on this, will be opposed.

But it is primarily a vindication of the power of incumbency to change the dialogue, because the dialogue was very bad for the president for the rest of this week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So does this — does this complicate — I mean, does it continue to complicate this for Mitt Romney? I mean, do you see a way around it for him?

MARK SHIELDS: I just think — I think it’s a character question.

I mean, Romney has never really been held accountable for his — you know, his position — creative changing of his positions. And this is one where he is on the record. Now, what does he do at this point? I mean, he — they did it at a perfect time. He’s making his first non-FOX News news appearance this weekend on Bob Schieffer’s “Face the Nation.”

You know that that is — on CBS — he is going to be asked about it. So, it’s going to be kept alive all weekend. And it’s going to be well, Gov. Romney, you said this. You didn’t say that. Where do you stand?

MICHAEL GERSON: I think Gov. Romney would respond that the number one issue for Hispanics in America when you talk about this is the economy, not necessarily immigration.

But the DREAM Act has become a symbol of whether you are inclusive or you’re not inclusive.

MARK SHIELDS: Very much so.

MICHAEL GERSON: And I think it’s a pretty effective one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But they are saying — and we heard Gov. Romney, we have heard other Republicans say this is temporary. I guess we heard Marco Rubio say today, well, this may help some people, but it’s not a permanent solution.

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, the president is saying that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right. So. . .

MICHAEL GERSON: And so I — you know, that could make it even look transparently political, though, in a certain way, because this is of temporary political benefit five months before an election.

MARK SHIELDS: I would say this. It’s not a change of position. I mean, this has been the administration’s position.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On the part of the president.

MARK SHIELDS: The president. So they have been supportive of the DREAM Act. The president has long been.

It’s a change in procedure, and how he’s doing it, rather — acting through the executive branch, rather than legislatively. I think any time when you are reduced to arguing process, which is what the Republicans basically did today, you are on the losing side of the argument. They don’t want to argue substance here.

And Mitt Romney has to decide who is his new best friend? Is it Jan Brewer, the governor of Arizona, or is it Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida? He’s really — I think he’s in a bind and it’s not going to go away.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You don’t see a way he can finesse this in the short term?

MICHAEL GERSON: No, not in the short term.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, yesterday, the topic — we were going to be talking about the economy tonight until this announcement came up.

Yesterday, the two of them were out on the campaign trail, Michael, the president and Romney both in Ohio giving their competing visions. Did either one of them get the better of that argument? What did we learn from this yesterday?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, you had a major speech and then a prebuttal, essentially a response that Romney did.

The major speech though was more — very a rehash than a restart. It was taking the greatest hits from a bunch of other speeches, putting them all in one place. That is probably useful for his supporters. I don’t consider that a game changer.

If I were a voter coming in and concerned about my job or have lost my job and looked at these two speeches, I would have seen the president blame his predecessor and the challenger blame the incumbent. And I’m not sure I would have felt very hopeful about my own prospects in the short term here.

You know, this — and that tie, that dismal tie I think goes to the challenger in this debate, because Mitt Romney just has to make a critique. Barack Obama has to explain why 3.5 years have not been sufficient to turn this economy around. And that — he has explanations for that. But they’re mainly lowering expectations, saying, this was really hard.

It might take 10 years, he said, to fully recover from something like that. And I’m not sure I would want that kind of campaign message for a presidential campaign of lowered expectations. That’s not really a rallying cry.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the edge goes to Romney on this, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I didn’t — I thought the tie went to the tie.

I mean, I really — I mean, I thought Romney got a tactical political advantage by scheduling his remarks before the president. He did it without a teleprompter and without notes, and it was banal. There was nothing in it of any substance.

The president gave three pretty good 15-minute speeches that totaled up to one really mediocre 54-minute speech.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, there were several good minutes, but one bad hour, I thought. I mean. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re not giving either one of them. . .

MARK SHIELDS: No, I really didn’t. I know — I was in Chicago on Tuesday at the — interviewing at the Obama headquarters. And they were quite confident that it was going to be a major speech and change the narrative. The narrative has been changed, I think, by what the president did on Friday, but not what he said on Thursday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, there was another narrative this weekend. This is something we have talked about before, and that’s money in the campaign.

We learned this week a day or so ago that the Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, Michael, is going to — is giving $10 million to one of those super PACs supporting Gov. Romney.

What does that say? We already know there’s a lot of money sloshing around. What does this one say?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, it’s such a mixed bag, these super PACs.

You have a situation where it certainly increases the power of billionaires whose hobby is politics, OK? That doesn’t sound very democratic. At the same time, though, sometimes these PACs come in and empower challengers, as they did in Nebraska with Deb Fischer, for example, against establishment candidates and incumbents.

That does seem kind of democratic. These PACs bedeviled Romney during the primary. All Gingrich had to do was please one donor in order to continue his campaign. But now they probably hurt Obama because they are largely negative, and early negatives would — I think could have some damaging effect.

MARK SHIELDS: They are an abomination. I really — from 1976 to 2008, we had a level playing field in this country, where money didn’t dominate, where the presidents were not chosen on the basis of who had the deepest pockets or the richest friends.

I mean, we limited what individuals could give to a candidate, and what that candidate could spend. And in exchange for that, they accepted those limits and they accepted public funding. That was changed in 2008. President Obama — Democrats don’t like to acknowledge this — broke from that precedent because his campaign could outraise John McCain’s 2-1.

But then came the Citizens United decision from the Supreme Court.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Supreme Court.

MARK SHIELDS: Supreme Court. And now we have anonymous. We have unlimited. We have corporations are people. We have 32 billionaires now who have already contributed to Barack Obama’s campaign. The president has had 164 fund-raisers already. If people. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thirty-two billionaires. . .

MARK SHIELDS: Thirty-two billionaires have already contributed, starting with Mr. Adelson, who did impact. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: You said to the president.

MARK SHIELDS: I’m sorry, to Mr. Romney’s campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney, Okay.

MARK SHIELDS: The president has had 164 fund-raisers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: This is not the way that campaigns should be run.

I mean, you are spending time with the presidents being on an auction block is what it comes down to, to me. And the voice, the voices of people are drowned out in this sea of money. And I’m telling you, it is anonymous giving. It’s negative giving — it’s negative attack. We don’t know where it comes from. We don’t know who is giving it.

And it’s just lousy. And I just wish one of these Supreme Court justices had ever run for sheriff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, ironically. . .

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: I really do. I wish they had been through a campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which was very similar, very similar — in fact, the same comment John McCain made yesterday when I talked to him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, ironically, or coincidentally, this weekend is the 40th anniversary of Watergate, was partly about money, but break-in at the Watergate. What lesson for our country? Was it money. Was it something different, Michael?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, Peter King this week compared the leak scandal, saying it was worse than Watergate. And you often that in — on the left and the right, worse than Watergate.

But it’s really hard to get worse than Watergate. You listen to those Watergate tapes, and they are some of the saddest, sickest moments in American political history, president of the United States considering blackmail and sabotage, and it’s obstruction of justice.

This is a president who really soiled everything he touched. The good news is — and often there’s good news at the end of American scandals — is that the system worked, that the Congress investigated, the Supreme Court acted, and the president resigned. So that’s the good news that we remember 40 years from — on.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

I mean, I think it’s important to remember that money was at the center of it, I mean, the $2 million from the dairy interest, and they resulted immediately in price supports for dairy going up, overruling the Agriculture Department, I mean, that $400,000 was given by ITT to the Republican Convention. And an antitrust suit was dropped.

I agree with Michael that it did work in the final analysis. But the consequence of it was, we changed the way we finance our campaigns and it lasted for 32 years, and it was good for 32 years. I will pray we will return to something similar.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And as you just said, we’re back to talking about money again.

MARK SHIELDS: We are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Here we are.

Mark Shields, Michael Gerson, we thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And on our website, you can watch video of the NewsHour’s Jim Lehrer and Robin MacNeil introducing their gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Watergate hearings on PBS back in 1973.