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Marcus and Gerson on GOP Candidates’ Language, Presidential Vacations

August 19, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Washington Post columnists Ruth Marcus and Michael Gerson, sitting in for NewsHour regulars David Brooks and Mark Shields, weigh in on the week's top political news, including Rick Perry's first week on the presidential campaign trail, President Obama's Midwestern bus tour and where and when presidents should take vacations.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Marcus and Gerson, Washington Post columnists Ruth Marcus and Michael Gerson. Mark Shields and David Brooks are both away tonight.

Michael, the Republican president nomination race, Rick Perry came into it this week. How would you characterize his entrance?

MICHAEL GERSON: I think he had a good week.

He is a tremendous retail politician, which matters in Iowa. He went into Michele Bachmann’s hometown in a joint appearance and essentially cleaned her clock. I think that’s the right term for it. He also proved that he can make errors, gaffes. And he showed that he doesn’t really know how to back off of an error or a gaffe.

JIM LEHRER: You’re talking specifically of?

MICHAEL GERSON: About the Federal Reserve chairman, intemperate language about the Federal Reserve chairman.

And that’s a useful political skill, to be able to back off of a mistake. He doesn’t seem to have it. There are plenty of Republicans right now, however, that are discontented with the whole field. People like Jeb Bush and Mitch Daniels were encouraging other Republicans to get in. They look at Romney, they look at Perry, and they’re not happy. So it’s a very fluid field right now.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Ruth, that the gaffes are there, but the gaffes do not prevent him from having made a terrific entrance in this race?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, I would not have called it a good week. I would actually call it a surprisingly rocky week from somebody who is an experienced politician.

And as President Obama said, it’s a different — you’re in a different league when you start running for president, and every single word that you say is scrutinized.

I thought these were just unforced errors. What he said about Bernanke, using the word treasonous, was really — in my view, crossed the line. When he — when he was asked whether President Obama loves his country, he said, you will have to ask him.

He had some questions about evolution vs. creationism. He had some issues with global warming. I think all of that is pretty rattling. It might be good for sort of energizing a certain base in the party, but it would — if I were looking towards a general election, if I were a Republican consultant or activist, I would be pretty nervous.

JIM LEHRER: Well, explain, Michael, why those gaffes wouldn’t disturb the Republican electorate, for a candidate to use the word treasonous in the same — in a context of talking about Ben Bernanke?

MICHAEL GERSON: I think the unfortunate context here is that that’s the importation of language that’s used on the Internet, used on talk radio, used in book titles. We have titles like “Treason.”

We have — you know, so I think those — that type of language has been imported in the Republican primary process. I agree that it’s a long-term problem. I don’t think that it’s necessarily a short-term political problem in Iowa and other places.

I do think that most Republicans view Perry as having a much longer future in this race than Michele Bachmann, having more skills, more ties to business, ability to raise money. And these are mistakes that I think do hurt him in the general election, but don’t necessarily hurt him in this early primary process.

JIM LEHRER: Rich Lowry, editor at “National Review,” was on this program Friday. He said it’s — what remains to be seen — and we’re looking at it a week later — whether or not Rick Perry goes the route of Donald Trump, that he has all this big hoopla and does well in the polls, and then he does a — says a few things, and then, boom, he’s gone.

RUTH MARCUS: Or Fred — or Fred Thompson from four years ago.

JIM LEHRER: Or Fred Thompson, yes.

RUTH MARCUS: I think it remains to be seen.

He clearly is — and this is the sort of upside of the week — a very good retail politician, really knows how to get in there and work the crowd. That’s important, especially in those early states. Whether he can learn from these mistakes and be more careful — I hate to say guarded, because we don’t like guarded politicians — a little bit more controlled in the future — one of the things that’s been remarkable, actually, watching Michele Bachmann, who has been known to say in the past somewhat disturbing things, is how disciplined she has been.

He needs — and she has not gotten herself into trouble in this latest round. He needs to take a little bit of a page out of that Bachmann new playbook.

JIM LEHRER: You think he can do that?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, he’s a politician that’s never lost an election in 27 years of politics. He’s a skilled guy.

And I do think Bachmann hurt herself a little bit with a reputation for being a prima donna. In Iowa, that doesn’t play very well, if you look at some of the coverage, the local coverage.

But I do think, more broadly, Republicans are — still feel like this race is open. They don’t feel like this is a complete field. Now, it may be. That may be what we end up with, but a lot of Republicans are not happy where we are right now.

JIM LEHRER: And is that really centered on Mitt Romney, the kind of presumed front-runner?

MICHAEL GERSON: Yes, I think a lack of enthusiasm with Romney and a lack of comfort with Perry, I think that that’s the dynamic you’re seeing now.

And so you have people that are pushing for Paul Ryan or Chris Christie. Or even Giuliani is talking, which I don’t think is likely. But there are other people that might be in this field. So that’s the dynamic here. I don’t think people are all that happy.

JIM LEHRER: Why — there’s been a lot of complaints from Ron Paul and his folks that he’s been — he came in within 100 — within 200 votes of Bachmann in the straw poll, and he was just brushed aside.

Is he not considered a serious contender for the Republican nomination?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think he’s not a serious contender for the Republican nomination.

He has a floor of very committed supporters and a ceiling that’s not too much higher than the floor, because he has very radical views, which came out in the debates. He seemed very much excusing of Iranian behavior. He’s a libertarian on even the hardest — legalization of the hardest drugs.

You know, he has views that are definitely not mainstream views, in my view and in the view of most Republicans. So, I do think that he is a force, but I think that he has a very committed core that’s not likely to expand beyond that group.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see the total group right now, the total race?

RUTH MARCUS: I think that Michael put it very well, that it’s kind of dissatisfaction with Romney and unease about — about Rick Perry, and then sort of a question about how much of a race Bachmann can make it with Perry, and the degree to which that inures to Gov. Romney’s benefit or not, because I think Rick Perry, it’s like, you might want to just let them play and fight it out and you could stay, Gov. Romney, sort of playing possum beneath the surface.

And that might work well, or else one of them, probably Rick Perry, could really take off, and you would find the sort of wildfire, to mix all my metaphors…

JIM LEHRER: Oh, boy.

RUTH MARCUS: … really out of control. Sorry about that.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: Smoke him — smoke him out and all that.

RUTH MARCUS: Smoke — yes.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, all right. OK.

RUTH MARCUS: All right, enough.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Now let’s move to President Obama. He is — he was in Iowa on a bus tour, not political, they said, but he went through the heartland of America, and not just Iowa, and with two other states as well in the Midwest.

What do you make of that bus trip?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think people will remember the vineyard vacation more than the heartland tour in this case.

I think the president’s policy on his tour was pretty weak, some of it minor, some of it unlikely to pass when it comes to jobs. And, in fact, the White House essentially admitted that this week by saying, oh, we’re going to have new policy in September, which is an admission that the old policy wasn’t really cutting it.

So, I think the president’s problem here is not just the vacation, which is easy to focus on, but it’s the fact that he’s coming up with a big jobs plan 28 months after unemployment went over the nine percent figure, which most people seem — see as quite late. He’s playing catchup on the most important issue in American politics.

JIM LEHRER: Ruth?

RUTH MARCUS: I wish I could say I disagree.

The — I thought the tour was very odd, because it was: I’m on a tour. I’m going to come up with a policy. Wait until September.

And that was problem one with it. Problem two, I thought, was when he started to sort of ramp up this argument against Congress, you know: I need your help to get this Congress to get off its — and get something done.

Well, when President Truman ran against the do-nothing Congress, he had not promised the voters earlier that he was going to be able to make the Congress do something and that he was the guy who was going to be able to come to town and change all of this.

So, for the president now to be ramping up against a do-nothing Congress, I feel his frustration, but he did tell us he was the one who was going to be able on fix this broken political system that still turns out to be broken.

JIM LEHRER: How do you — in the discussion that Ray ran a moment ago, it was mentioned, oh, the president went out to — went off to Martha’s Vineyard.

I mean, it’s now kind of a line that is used to disparage the president. How do you feel about that?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, I — in my human hat, the guy needs a vacation. All presidents deserve a little bit of time off. They never really are off. They’re always getting briefed. You saw the pictures with John Brennan, the counterterrorism adviser. Give him a break, right.

JIM LEHRER: Today — it was released by the White House today.

RUTH MARCUS: Yes. Isn’t that funny?

JIM LEHRER: Isn’t that funny? Yes.

RUTH MARCUS: I don’t think we’re going to see him windsurfing.

In my pundit hat, of course he shouldn’t be doing this. No political adviser is going to tell him to go on vacation with the economy in this shape, and particularly — if they were going to pick some place for him to go on vacation, I do not think Martha’s Vineyard would be the top choice.

MICHAEL GERSON: Yes.

RUTH MARCUS: But there you have it.

MICHAEL GERSON: It should be the Jersey Shore, I think. It would be the more appropriate — yes.

RUTH MARCUS: Down the shore, as we say in Jersey.

JIM LEHRER: Well, you worked for George W. Bush, Michael. I mean, what is the — how do you fit this whole thing — it always comes up.

No matter who the president is, whenever he goes on vacation, they take a hit. Why?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think it’s an easy political hit.

And I completely agree. I have seen presidents close up. They need vacation. And they don’t really get a vacation. It doesn’t matter, because they’re constantly dealing with security briefings and other things. So it’s an illusion anyway.

So, I don’t begrudge the president that. But, I mean, the political advice here is just bad. This is a — it’s a beautiful place. It’s a wonderful place. But it’s a playground for the rich and famous on vacation. And we have an economic crisis, as the president acknowledged during his own tour. And I think the symbolism here, I just — no political adviser would want this to be the symbolism.

JIM LEHRER: Of course, the Congress is on vacation as well.

So, you could — could you read this, if you wanted to — wanted to read — if you were a pundit, say, and wrote columns in newspapers, would you say that, you know, we have this big financial and economic crisis, and yet the government is all on vacation?

RUTH MARCUS: That’s not a vacation. That’s a district work period.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, I see. I…

(LAUGHTER)

RUTH MARCUS: Look, the worst thing that could possibly happen to the economy would be for Congress to come racing back. To do what? Bicker some more? Disagree about policy?

I think the best thing that can happen, from Congress — from the country’s point of view, is to have Congress go back to their districts, actually hear from people, hear what people are asking for from them.

We’re seeing some interesting reports about some people giving members of Congress an earful about, hey, maybe we need to think about raising some taxes. It’s anecdotal, but members of Congress should hear from their voters. Being here and getting nothing done would have been a very bad idea.

JIM LEHRER: You agree with that?

MICHAEL GERSON: Yes, I do.

I think it was probably not a good strategy to bring the Congress in, create a sense of urgency and national emergency, when you don’t know what the outcome’s going to be. That’s — I think that would have been a bad political approach.

But the president has to take seriously — there was a poll number this week that said 71 percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of the economy.

JIM LEHRER: Seventy-one percent?

MICHAEL GERSON: That’s a dismal figure. It’s a serious threat to his re-election. He needs to take that quite seriously.

I think they’re saying “We will” when it comes to September. They’re not giving too many signs right now that they understand the gravity of what’s going on.

JIM LEHRER: Michael, Ruth, thank you both very much.