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Shields, Ponnuru on ‘False Dawns’ for U.S. Economy, Santorum’s Standing in GOP

April 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and the National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru, sitting in for David Brooks, discuss the week's top news including a weaker-than expected March jobs report, American economic attitudes, Mitt Romney's polling problems, Rick Santorum's standing in the GOP and presidential pressure on the Supreme Court.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Ponnuru. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru, who is sitting in for David Brooks this week.

And it’s good to you have with us.

RAMESH PONNURU, senior editor, The National Review: Thanks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Both of you.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So let’s start out talking about the jobs report, 120-some-thousand — 120,000 jobs created this past month, Mark, but fewer than what economists were expecting. The Republicans have already jumped all over it. We heard Mitt Romney saying earlier another example of the president’s failed policy.

'Social Darwinism' is not a term that goes easily on a bumper sticker.Mark Shields, on President Obama's language

Does this affect the presidential race?

MARK SHIELDS: Not the one month.

I mean, there have been 25 months of private sector job growth, and an increase of 4.1 million jobs in that period of time. And, you know, it’s been good. The problem is one of expectations. They were not met. This is disappointing news.

And as far as politically is concerned, Judy, basically you need a quarter, that is three consecutive months, before economic attitudes begin to change. That’s what happened to George Herbert Walker Bush, the first President Bush, when he was seeking reelection in 1992. The economy had improved. And it was better.

But the perception had not changed, because there hadn’t been three months pass. And I think that is where it is right now. There still is a sense that it’s fragile, but it’s moving in the right direction. What he can’t really use is a couple more months of news of this nature.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, still early, Ramesh, to make a difference?

RAMESH PONNURU: I think that’s right.

You know, and I think that part of what is going on with the public is there have been so many sort of false dawns in this economy that people I think are going to take a little bit longer to trust that there is a real economic recovery that they can feel.

If there are some more months like this, where you have disappointing jobs numbers, I think that is very bad news for President Obama. If it picks up, on the other hand, then this is just going to be a memory.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We also saw the president and Gov. Romney get into a sparring contest, if you will, when the president took on the Republican budget plan in the House, Mark, used some very strong language, called it a “Trojan horse.” He said it is so far right, it makes the Contract With America look like the New Deal.

Smart for the president to be doing this, and smart for Gov. Romney to be so closely allied with this budget?

MARK SHIELDS: I would say it’s tactically smart for the president.

Mitt Romney comes through this on the cusp of the nomination now by consensus more damaged than any presidential nominee in the history of modern polling. His unfavorable numbers are higher than anybody who has ever been nominated — about to be nominated.

Only less popular than Romney is the Republican Party. And only less popular than the Republican Party are Republicans in Congress. So what the move by President Obama was to make Romney the candidate of the Republican Party, the candidate of the Republicans in Congress.

That was the smart part tactically. What the president convincing or persuasive? No. “Social Darwinism” is not a term that goes easily on a bumper sticker.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is one of. . .

MARK SHIELDS: One of the lines that he uses.

Let’s go to the ramparts, take on these social Darwinists.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You don’t think that’s. . .

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think it rings very evocatively.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Ramesh, Gov. Romney had used the word marvelous, which the president mocked in his speech to the newspaper editors. Is it smart for him to be so closely allying himself with the Ryan budget?

RAMESH PONNURU: You know, I’m in the really sure that Gov. Romney has a choice.

If he had been away from — tried to keep his distance from the Ryan budget, I think it would have created a very damaging rift between the congressional and the presidential wings of the party, and you just can’t go into a big election that way.

You know what? I think in a way what President Obama has done is immensely clarifying. This is a serious disagreement between the parties. It a very important set of issues and we need a political debate on these questions. I think the problem with Obama’s strategy right now is he’s got the negative part, the critique of the Republicans’ plan.

What he doesn’t have is his own administration’s plan for dealing with our long-term debt problem. Tim Geithner, treasury secretary, said so on Capitol Hill. And until he fills that in, I think that there is a hole in his strategy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You see it that way?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I think that the president wants this to be about — he would love to it be about budgets and deficits and tax cuts. What you don’t want is the economy with bad economic news to be the centerpiece.

I think Gov. Romney is paying a price for the bitterness of the fight to win this nomination. He has taken positions, for example, on immigration. He got to the right of both Rick Perry, who was a formidable threat, and Newt Gingrich, who emerged as a threat, by taking a more right-leaning position, more stridently anti-immigrant. Romney promised to veto the DREAM Act.

He did the same thing with Rick Santorum on the Planned Parenthood. He got to the right of him on contraception. He embraced the Ryan plan, you will recall, a year ago. Why? Because Newt Gingrich branded it right-wing social engineering. So it was a tactical move. And now he’s married to that move.

I don’t think being closely aligned with Republicans in Congress or President Obama being aligned with Democrats in Congress is particularly helpful going into a campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Ramesh, we should point out, full disclosure, you have endorsed Gov. Romney.

RAMESH PONNURU: That’s correct. I made the case that he was the strongest of the Republican candidates.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so do you see it as Mark does, that this is a risky strategy?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, absolutely. Taking on entitlement reform is risky. Everybody knows that.

I think, though, that it’s sort of fundamentally something that a lot of Republicans, and I think Gov. Romney is one of them, view as a responsibility. If the Republican Party actually wants to keep taxes down over the long run, there is no way to do that without a kind of Medicare and Social Security reform.

And in the case of Medicare reform, I think he has come up with a pretty intelligent one that has Democratic advocates, like Sen. Ron Wyden.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, one story that did come out today about Gov. Romney was about how he — Mark, how he has decided to keep, I guess, from disclosing a large chunk of his wealth. I mean, a lot of it is in many different investments. And there is — it’s legal. He’s apparently using a law that is available.

But it means that he will not have to disclose a good bit of it. Is that. . .

MARK SHIELDS: He’s got to get it out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that going to — can he hang on that. . .

MARK SHIELDS: They’ve been through this.

I mean, it’s painful if you are in the campaign, because the candidate obviously doesn’t want his privacy violated for all kinds of reasons. But Mitt Romney’s problem is that he’s not seen as connecting with ordinary people. He’s got to get all discussion of estates and taxes and everything else, get that out, I mean, just get it all out now, and don’t let it drip, because it’s going drip out.

And it’s opening up. There’s a hundred journalists working on it right now to find out what exactly Bain’s money was and how many jobs overseas it created.

RAMESH PONNURU: Now, you can see this playing out the way the debate over whether Romney would release his tax returns played out, which is the candidate resists disclosure, there is a steady drumbeat from reporters and from Democrats and from Republican ravels that he has to disclose.

Eventually, some Republican backers of him will say, you know, look, this is not going to be sustainable, and he will cave in. But having resisted that long will just make it a bigger story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Okay.

Meanwhile, we have been talking about Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, Rick Santorum still is in the race. He says he’s going to compete for his home state, Mark, of Pennsylvania. He says — he is talking about Texas in the month of May. What is his path?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Judy, the toughest thing is not even deciding to run. The toughest thing is withdrawing from a race, and especially after he has tasted some glorious moments.

I mean, Rick Santorum looks at a state like Louisiana, where neither candidate, neither nor Mitt Romney, spent any real money. And he won 2-1. Every place else he has lost, he has been outspent 4-1 or 5-1. So he is saying, if I could just hang in there.

I thought Richard Land, the Southern Baptist leader who has been a supporter and admirer, urged him to withdraw before Pennsylvania, that he had had a remarkable run, that he had altered the debate, that he improved his own standing in the party, but he can’t leave having lost his own state, especially after the defeat at Bobby Casey’s hands.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Ramesh. Excuse me, Mark.

Is there any sign that he would drop out before Pennsylvania?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, he keeps saying that he is absolutely committed to the race and he’s not going to drop out. But, of course, that is something that politicians will say until the minute that they decide to say, well, actually I’m dropping out.

And I think that Mark is right, that if he were to lose Pennsylvania, that would erase all of the gains he’s made. He’s made a real comeback since his humiliating defeat in 2006. And that would all be wiped away.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, one other thing we see when you compare Rick Santorum’s approval rating compared to the president, there is a big gap among women. There’s also a gap, not as large, with Gov. Romney, but it’s still significant.

Mark, there was a poll out this week that showed an 18 point so-called gender gap in support for the president ahead of Gov. Romney. Is this a problem? I mean, Republicans traditionally have done a little worse among women, but is it worse this year, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Republicans have traditionally done better among men and worse among women. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s right.

MARK SHIELDS: … particularly women who are employed outside the home and especially true among women who are either sole supporter of their household or on their own, whether in fact there is a — they want a government that’s activist and interventionist, some sense of social and economic justice.

But there is no question that there has been an inclination there. This is bad. These numbers are unsustainable for Romney. He has to turn Ann Romney loose. She is his best ambassador and a far better salesman than he is of Mitt Romney.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that the way he helps himself with women voters?

RAMESH PONNURU: You know, I’m sure that the Romney strategists are very worried about this.

It’s certainly — I mean, I think most Republicans understand you can lose the women’s vote and still win an election. George W. Bush did it in 2004. Women went narrowly for John Kerry. But the kinds of numbers that we’ve seen in this week’s polls, that can’t sustained if you are going to win a national election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, as Mark said — we want to point this out, that Gov. Romney is doing better among men in some polls. It’s. . .

MARK SHIELDS: No, right, the — the women — and obviously the White House, quite by coincidence, had a conference today on American. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: By complete coincidence.

MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely, totally divorced from the campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One last thing, and that is what the president had to say in two different speeches or sets of remarks this week about the Supreme Court, in effect challenging the members of the court not to overturn the Affordable Care Act, health care reform.

Is this — how smart is this on the part of the president to be going there?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, I think that the president’s initial comments were sort of surprisingly clumsy for a former lecturer in constitutional law. And then he kind of had to walk them back, because he seemed, as you know, to be suggesting that there was something wrong with the idea of a court striking down a law that had been passed by what he called a strong majority of Congress, which, of course, wasn’t even the case with Obamacare.

But he walked it back. He’s made his argument. And I don’t think the Supreme Court is going to pay much more attention to what he is saying than to what the solicitor general said and to their own views about the Constitution.

MARK SHIELDS: I thought it was unhelpful for the president, especially the phrase, unsolicitious phrase, calling them “unelected” justices.

That’s sort of the rhetorical territory of traditional anti-court people coming from the right spectrum attacking the court for expanding the civil liberties or individual rights. And I thought he walked back the next day. But I don’t think it’s where he wants this campaign to be going into the fall.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And at one point referring to health care reform getting a big majority.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, big majority.

There were 75 Democratic seats in the House when we voted on health care. And it passed by nine. And it passed by one vote on a reconciliation procedure in the Senate. It wasn’t — when Social Security passed, four out of five House Republicans voted for it. Three out of four Senate Republicans voted for it.

Now, you could say the Republicans weren’t available, but it was not a substantial majority.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we are delighted to have the two of you with us.

Ramesh Ponnuru, thank you. Mark Shields. . .

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you very much, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

RAMESH PONNURU: Thank you.