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Shields and Lowry on GOP Veep Choice Paul Ryan, Medicare Debate, Romney’s Taxes

August 17, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review editor Rich Lowry discuss the week's top political news, including how having Rep. Paul Ryan as the GOP vice presidential candidate has energized the Republican base, the debate of Medicare on the campaign trail and continuing calls to release Romney's tax returns.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Lowry. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review editor Rich Lowry, filling in for David Brooks. He also is a contributor to FOX News.

Gentlemen, thank you for being here.

RICH LOWRY: Thanks for having us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Good to see you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it has been almost a week now since Gov. Romney named Paul Ryan as his running mate.

Mark, how has that changed everything?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s changed a lot. I think it’s changed the perception of Mitt Romney, first of all. That was a bold decision.

It energized Mitt Romney in a way that I had not seen before. I mean, he almost seemed spontaneous and natural in Paul Ryan’s company. We first saw that, Judy, in Wisconsin during the Wisconsin primary. There was a natural rapport between the two of them. There was an ease which one doesn’t associate with Mitt Romney.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even before he chose him.

MARK SHIELDS: Before he did.

And I think the other thing he did that the choice has done, internally, every Republican was for whoever the nominee was because they were against Barack Obama. And they weren’t particularly passionate about Mitt Romney or intense.

But with Paul Ryan, there’s somebody they can be for, and especially led by the conservative intelligentsia, one of whom’s leading members is sitting on my right.

RICH LOWRY: Now, don’t insult me right off the bat.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: No, no, no, but you were a strong champion of his selection, and so you have got to feel pretty good about it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So it has energized the right?

RICH LOWRY: It has. I think it’s energized Republicans.

The Romney campaign didn’t have to be reckless, but it did have to have a pulse. And this pick has given it a pulse, and for the reason Mark talked about. Republicans were sort of negatively energized by the prospect of beating President Obama, but they needed something more.

And I just — before this program, I went down the highway a little bit to West Springfield High School, where Paul Ryan was having a rally, real shoe-leather reporting, Mark, here in Virginia.

And there were about 2,000 people jammed at the gym, overflow crowds, and a huge crowd in the cafeteria in the overflow room.

So, he has generated excitement. And I think Mark is right about the basic appeal to Mitt Romney. There is a connection there. A lot of people thought he was going to go with someone like Rob Portman, the senator from Ohio, because he values experience.

But I think what this picks tell us, above anything else, he values brains and kind of a wonkiness. And he connected with Paul Ryan on that level. And you can see Paul Ryan having been — being the sort of person that Mitt Romney would have hired when he was at Bain Capital.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, does this mean, Mark, that this improves Romney’s chances at winning? What does it mean in terms of the longer term?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think it does, Judy.

I think it makes the election a lot more a choice than simply a referendum on Barack Obama, which is what you ideally would like to have it, given the state of the economy, unemployment in the country and the doubts about the president’s job rating. You would want it to be a referendum on him.

I think because Paul Ryan comes with a definition, with a precise biography, with an established ideology and philosophy, something that Mitt Romney doesn’t have, it makes it a lot more of a choice election. And, quite bluntly, I think that if I were running the Republican campaign — and thank goodness, both for them and me, that I’m not — I would want it to be about the economy. I would want it to be about jobless, about 8 percent unemployment.

I don’t want it to be about Medicare.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about this idea, Rich, that instead of the focus on the economy, it’s now what it is?

RICH LOWRY: Well, I saw when he picked Ryan that the campaign would feel for a week-and-a-half, two weeks as though it was entirely about Paul Ryan. And we’re still in that phase.

I do think it will pass. We will eventually get on again to what is the most important issue on people’s mind, which is the economy. And Paul Ryan thinks of himself as not primarily an austerity guy, but as a growth guy. And he advocates his policies towards that ultimate end, on Medicare specifically.

Ordinarily, it would just be deadly associating yourself with Paul Ryan and with this reform, which Romney had endorsed before. But the saving grace for Republicans is the $700 billion in cuts that Democrats passed to fund Obamacare.

Democrats had kind of a Nixon-in-China moment with those cuts. I don’t think a Republican Congress would have been able to pass them. And the problem is, once you have gone to China yourself, it is a little harder to criticize the other guys for wanting to go as well. So we are going to hear that number over and over and over again, $700 billion.

MARK SHIELDS: Not to get in the weeds, but the $700 billion was in Paul Ryan’s own budget proposal and his own cuts. And it doesn’t in any way cut benefits to anybody. It cuts hospital reimbursement. It cuts doctors’ reimbursement.

But that aside, Judy, there are two kinds of issues politically. There’s position issues and there are valence issues. A position issue is same-sex marriage. You are either for same-sex marriage or you’re against it.

But other issues, like education, the environment, national defense, those are valence issues. One side is more believable or more identified with that issue.

If this campaign were about a national missile system, a new missile system for America for defense, I don’t care how strongly the Democrats emphasized it. Republicans come with a credibility and believability.

On Medicare, when you ask who is for preserving, protecting Medicare, who has been the long champion of it, voters and especially over 65 in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Iowa, which now are in play, I think more, you know, identify with the Democrats as being the champions of Medicare.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So he’s saying Democrats can get away with playing around with Medicare more than Republicans.

RICH LOWRY: Oh, that’s definitely true. Republicans have a credibility gap.

If they can just fight this to a draw, it will be a huge advantage for them. And not to go even further in the weeds than Mark already took us…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Oh, let’s get down in the weeds.

(LAUGHTER)

RICH LOWRY: … but the Ryan budget did accept those cuts mostly because, once they are in the CBO baseline and you’re writing a budget, it’s hard to get them out.

He didn’t take those cuts and spend them on anything else. He left them for Medicare. And if you are starting from scratch, he would prefer to repeal all Obamacare, including those cuts. And technically they don’t hit benefits, the cuts. But when are you hitting the providers, the physicians and the hospitals as hard as these cuts do year over year, they become totally unsustainable.

And if you read the Medicare actuary — now I’m really in the weeds.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You really…

RICH LOWRY: The reports are excoriating about what this will do to Medicare if these cuts actually happen. They are skeptical that they will.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, it sounds like this is still being fought out between the two camps.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. Any day that you are arguing about Medicare is not a good day for the Republicans. I mean, it just isn’t, Judy.

You want this election to be about the economy. You want it to be about jobs. And Mitt Romney is somewhat hampered. He was hampered by his own hand yesterday, as mentioned earlier, about the taxes, I mean, that he’s — all of a sudden we are into his own tax returns again.

And, you know, his strength as a candidate is, he has been a success in business. All people know about him is, he has been a success, he’s wealthy, he has been effective. How did he get there? And he opened it up again.

He showed himself not to be the sure-footed candidate that you want at a presidential level.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to ask you both about the Romney and the taxes issue, but we should point out there’s a news story. Just now within the last few minutes, the Romney-Ryan camp has released Paul Ryan’s tax returns for the last two years.

Turns out he paid just under 16 percent in 2010 and paid around 20 percent for 2011.

Is that a non-issue, an issue, Rich?

RICH LOWRY: I haven’t got a chance to look at them yet. I imagine they are much more complex than Mitt Romney, than the top of the ticket.

JUDY WOODRUFF: His income, shall we say, is significantly less. They said took between $2 million and $7.7 million in assets, but that’s not the same as…

RICH LOWRY: I think Romney should have released more returns from the beginning.

Now it’s much too late. He’s going to get it coming and going, because we already know about his complex affairs from the tax returns that have been released, so they will hit him on that. Then they will hit him for not releasing more.

And then you had this classic offer from the Obama campaign today, saying, if you give us what you want — what we want and more tax returns, we will not — we won’t attack you anymore for not giving you what we want, but we will attack you for what is in the returns.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, Mitt Romney is saying — in fact, his wife, Ann, said in this interview yesterday, on NBC, she said we’re not releasing any more tax returns.

For them, it sounds like it’s a closed issue.

MARK SHIELDS: Said his integrity is golden.

Judy, I think the question becomes this for Mitt Romney. I mean, he was governor of Massachusetts. In order to win the Republican nomination, he was in full flight from that experience.

He is a practicing and committed member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, been a bishop. He’s inhibited from talking about that.

And his business success is really his credential, you know, that he’s the man that can turn the economy around. How did he accumulate this? I mean, we know that — we know that he had Cayman Islands. We know that he had Swiss bank accounts.

I mean, how did he accumulate, you know, this mass fortune? He said he paid at 13 percent, Judy. The median income in the country right in the middle pays at 14.3 percent effective tax rate. I mean, that’s — you know, that’s it.

So, you know, it’s really a remarkable thing. And I think it’s going to become a character issue. And I think, if I were sitting in Boston in the Romney campaign yesterday, I would have been reaching for the vodka bottle when he started talking about the matter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He did say, Rich — he was quoted, told the reporters — he said it is small-minded to be interested in this, my taxes.

RICH LOWRY: Yes.

Well, they are going to say — and they have said this on a whole host of things — we want to talk about substance and about the future of the country. And I think Paul Ryan plays into that theme. And if you want to talk about my taxes, go ahead.

And I just think, in the scheme of things, there’s nothing in his tax returns that is going to be disqualifying or tell us anything about the merits of his policy — policies one way or the other. So, ultimately, I think it’s a bit of a distraction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, a lot of conversation this week about the tone of the race, Vice President Biden’s comment about chains.

MARK SHIELDS: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Republicans jumped on that and said that was taking it to a new low.

Are we seeing a different tone in this race, or is this just what we have always seen before, but maybe a little bit earlier?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s earlier and more intense.

And it was a misstep and bad statement by Joe Biden, who has been rather sure-footed, in spite of the — I think the stereotype or caricature of him as someone who is garrulous and long-winded. He’s really been a pretty effective advocate.

But it was — to me, it smacked of sort of almost “Amos ‘n Andy” minstrel show language talking to an audience that was partly African-American. I think the campaign itself has gotten — this is August. And when you have the candidates themselves making the charges, you have got — which is amazing.

I mean, you have got the president saying…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean as opposed to surrogates.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, as opposed to surrogates or campaign operatives, the president talking — accusing of dishonesty and accusing the president of a campaign of hate and viciousness by Mr. — by Gov. Romney.

I mean, so, yes, where do we go from here if this is August and we’re not even at Labor Day, before the conventions?

RICH LOWRY: Yes.

I don’t like looking at the past through rose-colored glasses. I have been doing some research on Abraham Lincoln. And you read about Illinois politics when he was coming up as a young man. And you hear about Stephen Douglas biting an editor’s thumb. And Lincoln almost fought a duel with someone with swords, of all things, because he wanted to take advantage of his longer arms.

(LAUGHTER)

RICH LOWRY: But our political culture is definitely coarser than it has been. And both sides partake of that.

But I do think a big part of the tone this time is President Obama’s reelection campaign cannot run a high-toned, 1984, gauzy, morning again in America campaign, because conditions won’t support it. So they have to destroy Mitt Romney and destroy him personally.

So you see an add accusing him of killing a woman. You see this Joe Biden comment which was just outrageous with the fake Southern or African-American — I don’t know what it was supposed to be — voice. And just the idea that a vice president of the United States is engaged in that kind of thing is extraordinary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, both sides hurt by this, just quickly, Mark, or is the president’s campaign hurt more because of what Rich was just saying?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I think both sides.

I mean, Judy, it is an election. We used to talk about, you get 40 percent, we got 40 percent. We’re fighting over 20 percent.

We’re fighting over 3 percent. There’s about 3 or 4 percent who are undecided. And there are undecided people in Massachusetts, in Texas, in North Dakota. There’s no campaign for California. There is no campaign.

The undecided people, there’s maybe a couple of million of them in the 11 states or 12 states that are being contested. So each side is interested in getting its own troops out and energized.

RICH LOWRY: I will give you a heartwarming moment, though, really quickly.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Quickly.

RICH LOWRY: In Springfield, I was introduced to a young gentleman, 4 or 5 years old, towheaded kid. I asked him, “Are you a Republican?”

He said: “No. I’m an American.”

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. On that note, we’re all American.

MARK SHIELDS: We’re all American.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rich Lowry, Mark Shields, thank you both.

RICH LOWRY: Thank you.