JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Gerson. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is off tonight.
Gentlemen, it's very good to have you with us.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.
MICHAEL GERSON: Good to be with you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, a word about the economy, Mark.
Good news seems to be coming in bits and pieces, the Dow industrials almost at 13,000, which would be, I guess, a record in four years, if it hits there some time soon. How does all this affect the presidential campaign going on out there?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, if in fact the pattern continues, Judy, four consecutive months of declining unemployment, and the lowest number of unemployment applications for unemployment insurance in four years, and the good news in the market that you described, and building consumer confidence, then it really hits the basic premise of Mitt Romney's campaign, the Republican campaign, which has been that Barack Obama has been a failed steward of the economy, that the economy has foundered under his leadership, or lack thereof, and that voters were understandably discouraged and pessimistic and sometimes hopeless about the future.
If all of that changes, then Romney's basic message that "I can improve the economy" loses saliency and traction, along with his argument about his electability, which has taken a body blow as well. So the Republicans almost have to redraw their campaign.
When the economy is bad, voters blame the party in power. When the economy is good, voters make their decisions on other issues of their choosing or what candidates offer.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Michael, an unmixed blessing for the president and his campaign?
MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think the direction of the economy, particularly on Election Day, the perception of that matters greatly.
Now, we don't know what that direction is going to be on Election Day.
MARK SHIELDS: That's right.
MICHAEL GERSON: If you remember, the administration had the summer of recovery in 2011. They declared that this was going to happen, and it didn't really work out the way they wanted. So that's a problem.
And we also do know, however, that this recovering economy remains a weak economy. We have now had three years above 8 percent unemployment. That is the first time that's happened since the Great Depression. We still have a housing market that's at depression-level reductions in values.
These things are something that, you know, even if the economy is improving, we still have serious economic problems that I think that the Republicans will be able to point to.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, separately, you had, Michael, on the Hill this week this rare show of bipartisanship.
The two parties were able to come together, pass this payroll tax cut extension, unemployment benefits. On the surface, it looks like the Republicans caved, the Democrats won. Is that what happened?
MICHAEL GERSON: Oh, I think the surface is pretty accurate there.
MICHAEL GERSON: I think John McCain said -- well, you know, Republicans lost this debate in December on middle-class tax cuts. They didn't want to repeat it again.
And John McCain, with typical bluntness, said today that, we're dumb, but we're not stupid. And, you know, I don't think this is a fight that Republicans wanted. But Republicans are happy to vote for tax cuts. Democrats are happy to vote for the extension of unemployment insurance.
The people that shouldn't be happy are people that are concerned about the deficit. This is really not offset. It doesn't deal with fundamental problems about the deficit. You know, we have with had four years of unprecedented deficits in this country, and the Congress still can't, you know, take that seriously.
And so I think that it's both, you know, a good sign that the people can agree on this, but I think it's a little bit in denial about our economic circumstance.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it's a reversal on the part of the Republicans.
MARK SHIELDS: It was. The Republicans took a big hit in December.
It's awfully tough to argue that we favor tax cuts for Goldman Sachs, but we oppose them for nurses and firefighters and teachers, which they would have been in that position. And the Republican sort of late mantra about they have to be paid for was a little hollow after the 2001, 2003 tax cuts, which remain unpaid for and still a drain and contributing to the deficit.
So, I think that Republicans really wanted to get it behind them. John Boehner understood that. There was greater resistance in the Senate. What it really means, more than anything else, Judy, legislatively this year is that -- I liken this to a narrow canyon in a Western movie, where the stagecoach goes through and it's most vulnerable to the attack of the bag guys, that they're going to be held hostage, that this is the last place where the administration has to go through that narrow canyon in this legislative year.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're saying the administration are the good guys and the . . .
MARK SHIELDS: Well, they're in the stagecoach, whether they're the good guys or not.
MARK SHIELDS: But it's the place where you want to stop the stagecoach and hold them hostage, as you could on the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011.
There's no more of those. On Dec. 31, 2012, the world ends. The world ends. That's when the Bush tax cuts expire. It's when the debt ceiling has to be raised, everything. But that's after the election. So, in other words, there are no more confrontations scheduled between now and then legislatively, that -- where the administration can be held hostage, as the Republicans did hold them hostage last summer, and the administration looked weak in the process.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So what does that mean for the rest of this year in the Congress?
MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I have asked that question up in Congress whether they're going to do anything the rest of this year.
I think you're correct that, now the last confrontation has ended, I'm not sure -- I think the leadership, the Democratic leadership is going to be fairly partisan the way they perceive issues. They're going to try to find vulnerabilities that highlight Romney's weaknesses.
The Republican Policy Committee, I was up there talking with some of those people. They're doing the same. They're trying to find, on the pipeline or the other things -- so we have entered, I think, a kind of strategic chess game in the Congress about what comes next.
No one thinks that we're going to resolve these issues, but everyone thinks that immediately after the election, in that lame-duck period, it's going to be very large issues taken on at that point.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Over that period of a month-and-a-half.
Michael mentioned Romney's weaknesses, and, Mark, which brings up what's going on right now with the primary. The next primary is coming up in about 10 days, Michigan, Arizona. Romney seems to be struggling right now since the three states Rick Santorum won, a week-and-a-half or so ago.
He's campaigning in a state, Michigan, I guess everybody thought was going to be a cakewalk for him, his former home state?
MARK SHIELDS: Yeah.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But he's struggling there. What's happened?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, the passage of time. His dad was governor there close to half-a-century ago, so the Romney name is not what it was.
But I think it's deeper than that, Judy, as far as Michigan is concerned, and as far as Mitt Romney is concerned. What's happened to Mitt Romney, in my humble judgment, from watching him, is that Rick Santorum has emerged. There's always been -- and Michael has addressed this -- there's always been a market for the non-Romney.
The other non-Romneys have been flawed models. Rick Perry was a flawed debater, failed debater, an inadequate platform performer. Rick Santorum is a good debater, good platform performer. Newt Gingrich had more baggage than Southwest Airlines carries.
MARK SHIELDS: And Rick Santorum doesn't have personal baggage.
Herman Cain appeared from nowhere and had no legislative or really governmental experience. Rick Santorum does. So he fits better. But the problem with Mitt Romney, timing is everything in politics. He's gone into Michigan, all right, at the time of General Motors having a 130-year record profit.
It's now three -- it's three shifts, three shifts. It's around-the-clock, General Motors. Workers are getting a $7,000 bonus. It's the number-one auto-maker in the world. Americans are not ideologues. We're pragmatists. The ideologue has an ideology and looks at it and says, what is right works. The pragmatist looks at it and says, what works is right.
And whatever Americans think, this auto bailout worked, okay? Whether they think the government should have been there or not, it worked. And Mitt Romney's re-litigating it all week and saying the banks should have done it. At that point, we were bailing out the banks. The banks weren't making any loans.
So he just looks silly and he looks sort of off-key and really rooting against Michigan's success and against Clint Eastwood, of all people.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Remembering the Super Bowl.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael, you did write about this today. I mean, how does Romney work his way through this?
MICHAEL GERSON: Well, it's a long-term problem.
He has a chronic condition. He has a political anemia. He has a hard time exciting people. He doesn't know how to touch the buttons for conservatives. And when he tries too hard, he looks inauthentic.
Santorum is not an ideal candidate in some ways either.
MARK SHIELDS: Not at all.
MICHAEL GERSON: He has an acute condition, I think, which is kind of a culture war fever.
He seems to enjoy those debates, culture war debates, a little too much. It scares people. People don't like aggressors in the culture war. It's hard, though, for Romney to exploit that. It's hard to come in and criticize his social conservative can views in the Republican primary.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean during this period.
MICHAEL GERSON: During this period, right.
He can do it through proxies. He can raise direct -- and questions about his electability in general. But, of course, Barack Obama won't have any problems attacking these views on contraception or women's rights issues or gay rights issues.
And so it creates a dynamic where I think, if I were Barack Obama, I would want to face Santorum. But it's hard for Romney to make those attacks about electability in . . .
MARK SHIELDS: One of the things about Santorum that has kind of gone unnoticed, Judy, is, this is a man who was 14 -- or 16 years in the Congress. He served during that -- his four terms -- four years in the House with 227 House Republicans. He served with 89 different Republican United States senators.
Up until today, not one of them had ever endorsed him for president. Now, that's a comment of sorts. I mean, it really is. I mean . . .
JUDY WOODRUFF: It was Mike DeWine, the former . . .
MARK SHIELDS: Mike DeWine did switch today, the former senator from Ohio.
But that does reflect a sense of, is he really the presidential candidate they want him to be? The other thing he's done is, he spent this week criticizing President Bush's policies. And I think that's an attempt to sort of explain his 18-point landslide defeat at the hands of Bob Casey in Pennsylvania in 2006.
JUDY WOODRUFF: That gets a little convoluted.
MARK SHIELDS: Blaming the Bush policies -- no, that the Bush policies caused him to lose.
How do you explain losing by 18 points in your third race for statewide office . . .
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Mitt Romney has pointed that out several times. We have heard . . .
MICHAEL GERSON: But I'm glad to hear you standing up for President Bush.
MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely.
MICHAEL GERSON: But I do -- I completely agree with your point, which is any president, Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, when you have a collapsing financial sector and the collapse of the economy in the Upper Midwest, is going to act.
George W. Bush acted on those things. Barack Obama acted. There was a great deal of continuity between the administrations. It seems disconnected from reality and ideological to come in and say, for completely ideological reasons, I would have done nothing.
I think that that -- it doesn't play very well in the general election, certainly.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what do we -- do we look for some movement in the next few weeks? Do they slog away until these primaries in just a few . . .
MARK SHIELDS: I think that Romney has to win Michigan. If he doesn't win, he has to lose it closely. If he loses Michigan lopsided, I think it's going to be a moment of grave self-doubt for the entire Republican Party establishment, as well as the Romney candidacy.
Maybe he wins -- loses Michigan and wins in Arizona and comes back. I think Ohio will be a real battleground on March 6, on Super Tuesday.
JUDY WOODRUFF: In a few words, do you agree with that? If Romney loses Michigan . . .
MICHAEL GERSON: I do. He can narrowly lose Michigan and win big in Arizona and still survive this near-death experience. Lots of campaigns have them.
If he loses big in Michigan, it reconfigures the race.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we are glad to have you both here to help us reconfigure our analysis.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Gerson, Mark Shields, thank you both.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.