MS. IFILL: Politics, politics, politics from Sarah Palin to Mitt Romney to Medicare. While in the U.K., France and Poland, the president searches for common ground, tonight, on “Washington Week.”
FORMER GOV. TIM PAWLENTY (R-MN) [Presidential Candidate]: I’m Tim Pawlenty and I’m running for president of the United States.
MS. IFILL: But the Republican field shows no sign of settling down. As Mitch Daniels drops out, Sarah Palin drops hints. And a low profile special election catapults Medicare to the front burner.
REPRESENTATIVE-ELECT KATHY HOCHUL (D-NY): Thank you all so much.
MS. IFILL: Meanwhile, the Obamas take Europe. With a little Guinness, a little glamour and a lot of the nitty-gritty of international give and take.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: It would have been easy at the outset of the crackdown in Libya to say that none of this was our business.
MS. IFILL: Including some fence mending.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU [Prime Minister of Israel]: But Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by the Palestinian version of al Qaeda. That we will not do.
PRES. OBAMA: It is very difficult for Israelis to sit across the table and negotiate with a party that is denying your right to exist.
MS. IFILL: And the Supreme Court presses not one, but two hot buttons, on crime and immigration. Covering the week: Dan Balz of the Washington Post; Major Garrett of National Journal; Helene Cooper of the New York Times; and Joan Biskupic of USA Today.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, from our nation’s capital this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill,” produced in association with National Journal.
ANNOUNCER: Once again, from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Well, she’s back kind of, maybe, maybe not. Of course, we’re talking about the latest potential twist in the 2012 Republican presidential jockeying, and that’s the return of Sarah Palin. We don’t know if she’s running yet. She is launching an East Coast bus tour this weekend. But the possibility overshadows the certain candidates and worries those still on the sidelines. So what are people saying about this, all of this latest twist and turn, Dan?
MR. BALZ: They can’t stop talking about it, Gwen.
MS. IFILL: Yes, including us.
MR. BALZ: Sarah Palin has more or less been on the sideline through much of the spring, has not had a lot of public appearances. And suddenly on Thursday she announces that she’s about to embark on this one nation tour which at first we thought was going to be a one-week tour starting in Washington this weekend and going up the East Coast. Sometime she will hit New Hampshire as part of this. We don’t quite know when yet, but she’s going to be in New Hampshire.
But then we realized later in the day that this is a multi-week tour. She will go out for a number of weeks, not in succession, and she’s going to hit all parts of the country and she’s going to go to historical sites and she’s going to try to draw attention to herself as only she can. So there will be this enormous media frenzy which there already was yesterday on this that will follow her up the East Coast and continuing to ask the question, well, is this the beginning of a presidential campaign or just another example of Sarah Palin attracting attention.
MS. IFILL: If you’re Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty or – I could name five other names here, how concerned are you about this?
MR. BALZ: Well, at varying degrees you are concerned about it. I mean, if you’re Tim Pawlenty, this means if she were to get into the race –
MS. IFILL: Who after all announced this week.
MR. BALZ: Who announced last Monday formally and has spent the week making stops in key states. If you’re somebody like Tim Pawlenty, you know you’re going to be very overshadowed. I mean, until she did this, Tim Pawlenty was having a pretty good several weeks because a number of prominent candidates – Mitch Daniels being the most recent – announced that they were not going to run – Haley Barbour another one. And so, that gave Tim Pawlenty an opening. If Sarah Palin comes in, she will just take up so much space that it will be hard for him to get attention.
For Mitt Romney, it sets up the possibility if she is to become a candidate – and, again, there’s no clear evidence that this is a precursor to a campaign. We need to emphasize that. But this would set up in the nomination fight a classic battle between kind of the establishment frontrunner and the insurgent tea party candidate which would remind people of the divisions that we have seen in the party and highlight those in a way that almost no other candidate would be able to do.
MS. BISKUPIC: Well, you know, Dan, say it isn’t for real. Say that since we don’t know. And if it isn’t, it of course can’t help but remind us of Donald Trump and a little bit of how he drew so much attention without being a serious candidate but sucked a lot of air out of the news coverage as she is doing now. Could we see a new model of people who can use a bit of a toe in the water or a faux presidential run at this early stage to get other things -- more attention for books, TV shows, those kinds of things?
MR. BALZ: Yes, we may be able to say that about this. But I’ve always thought that Sarah Palin didn’t really need a lot of that to continue to have her brand. She can do a minimal amount of that and still have a presence. I mean, what’s interesting about the timing of this tour is it coincides with two other things: one, the reports that she and her husband have purchased a house in Scottsdale, Arizona. If she’s going to run for president, she needs to be based in the lower 48. It’s just physically and logistically difficult to run out of Alaska. So that would be a sign that maybe she’s thinking about it.
MS. BISKUPIC: Maybe it is for real.
MR. BALZ: Maybe it is for real. There is a new movie that’s about to come out that her team had encouraged – a conservative filmmaker has made a two-hour documentary. I talked to him this week and he said, you know, whether you like Sarah Palin or not, I’m convinced that when people see this, they will come away with a different impression of her. No one will be able to say, as he put it, that she isn’t tough and smart and dedicated. It’s all about what she did in Alaska and that kind of going against the establishment which fits into the narrative that we know she would like to use if she ran for president.
MS. COOPER: So, Dan, what does your gut tell you? It sounds like you think she’s going to run.
MR. BALZ: Well, I – Helene, I don’t know. And I have thought for a long time that she would keep the door open until there wasn’t any time left and then she wouldn’t be able to run, that she would never say no. And this is another example of being able to do that. She’s unique in that respect. Most of the Republicans that people – that we all talk to have thought for some time she would not run and I think most of them still believe that is the case if she operates this early.
MS. IFILL: I worry a little bit that we’re spending all of our time talking about Sarah Palin when we have candidates who actually are in the race who did announce this week, including Tim Pawlenty.
MR. GARRETT: Well, yes. And, Dan, what I’m curious about is, do you think it’s time – if you’re Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, or anyone else, to work your message or work your strategy around the assumption of Sarah Palin, or do you push forward, do you not even pretend – you know, just pretend this doesn’t exist? And can you afford to make that kind of strategic calculation?
MR. BALZ: Well, I think that for most of them they have to operate on the idea that she may be in or she may not. And you can’t build your campaign around the “what if.” I’ve spent some time up in Boston earlier this week talking to some of the Romney folks. And their view is, whoever is in is in and whoever is not in is not. We’ve got a campaign of the type we want to run and we’re going to run that campaign.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, and then, of course, Michele Bachmann is saying that her heart is telling her to get in. So she may be competing for the same – it continues to be fun.
MR. BALZ: Yes.
MS. IFILL: Well, there was also some substance that did sneak into our politics this week in the form of a special election that turned a red district blue apparently because of unhappiness about a Republican plan to revamp Medicare. That plan’s author, Congressman Paul Ryan, says the opposition is just an excuse to do nothing about a growing problem.
REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI): The irony of this is our plan actually preserves the benefit for current seniors. But trying to scare seniors, and turning these things into political weapons, what that ends up doing is just inflicting political paralysis. That means nothing gets done.
MS. IFILL: But it does provide a political framework at least for this conversation, this political conversation we’re having.
MR. GARRETT: Certainly it does. And the big question is, is that a framework that’s going to last for two weeks or 18 months? Democrats I’ve talked to believe this is going to be among the defining issues of the midterm election.
MS. IFILL: They hope.
MR. GARRETT: I mean, the coming 2012 election, just as Medicare in the president’s health care reform was part of the debate in the 2010 election. What you had was a special election where you had a decent Republican candidate, Jane Corwin, who was a member of the state assembly. In the last three special elections in New York, the county chairs in New York, Republican Party, have put up three assembly candidates. They’ve all lost. That gives you some idea of the throw weight of state assembly Republicans in New York. It’s pretty minimal.
The Democrat was Kathy Hochul who is Erie County clerk, meaning Erie County, the largest county in this district – had a bit more local attachment, a bit more political heft behind her. But Medicare was clearly the issue. Kathy Hochul identified it early, ran an ad on it first. Jane Corwin was looked at as someone who was late to the defense of that plan. And special elections turn a lot of things – turn out the third-party candidate –
MS. IFILL: Yes. It’s possible to over interpret.
MR. GARRETT: It’s very possible to over interpret this but Republicans and Democrats in the aftermath are looking at Medicare and saying, this was the lever. This was decisive. The polling for three consecutive weeks before this election was held showed Hochul ahead, four points, four points then six. And there was plenty of money engaged in this and the Medicare issue was her top issue. She wasn’t dislodged from it and she prevailed in a very red district. That means Republicans have to do one of two things: get off the Medicare plan entirely or defend it more aggressively and more effectively.
MS. COOPER: Which one are they going to do?
MR. GARRETT: They will stick with it. And they are now in the process of defending it, or trying to defend it more aggressively. I talked to Paul Ryan yesterday. He said to me, this is no time to go wobbly. This is a Churchillian moment for our party and for me. He said he talked to 100 House Republicans in the last 48 hours since the special election. He said all of them said, put me in, coach. We’re ready to defend this. We’re ready to go. Paul Ryan believes -- this is where we get to the 18 months period -- over that period of time, this debate will allow Republicans to talk more authoritatively, Ryan believes, about what this does, what this doesn’t do. Democrats believe the longer it goes, the better off they are.
MS. BISKUPIC: Major, you mentioned the money spent in the campaign. Was there much – was there a lot of national money that came in, because this could become – was such a symbolic race.
MR. GARRETT: There was money and much more on the Republican side. There was outside money from American Crossroads, $700,000; the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee put $400,000, so that’s more than $1 million.
MS. IFILL: There is a third-party candidate. Yes.
MR. GARRETT: Jane Corwin put in more than $2 million of her own. So, on the Republican ledger, you had more than $3 million. Kathy Hochul spent much less than that. A new independent group with some former White House officials as a part of it put in about $500,000 in this race. So there was money, internal and external, more on the Republican side and they thought that money would get more than it got them.
MS. IFILL: But there was a third-party candidate who also spent $1 million of his own money. So that wasn’t – (inaudible).
MR. GARRETT: Jack Davis. Right. Who had run twice before as a Democrat, ran on the tea party line, was a Republican before he was a Democrat. He was just sort of a Rorschach test up there. But he got 9 percent. And there are some Republicans who still continue to argue if you take his 9 percent and you put it with Corwin’s 43, you get 52. Well, yes. You can do that if you like but you still lose because that’s not how it works.
MR. BALZ: Major, it now looks as though the Republicans got themselves into this battle over Medicare without thinking through how to make the argument to get themselves off the defensive. I mean, almost from the minute this Ryan plan was put in place and certainly at the moment President Obama took up the challenge, they have been on the defensive and have not found a way to talk about. Do they have a plan now to move it in a different direction?
MR. GARRETT: Well, they have a plan to stick with it, but they stick with it only in a sort of rhetorical sense. The key thing in the House when you have a budget resolution is do any of the other committees responsible for actually writing that budget resolution of the law put together legislation to enact it? A bunch of resolutions is a blueprint. The president doesn’t sign it, it’s not a law. It’s just a blueprint. The Ways and Means Committee has decision power whether or not to turn this transformation of Medicare into a bill. They’re going to hold hearings. No commitment to write a bill. That means in rhetorical terms, Republicans will defend it but they’re not going to make members at anytime soon or I would say ever this year take another vote along these lines.
MS. IFILL: And Democrats are on this interesting position – President Clinton, in the conversation I had with him this week at the Pete Peterson Summit, was talking about how Democrats shouldn’t use this as a way not to fix Medicare, which Mitch McConnell has kind of embraced that approach.
MR. GARRETT: What we have seen in Washington since I’ve been here, 1990 to present, is – and this is a phrase that Paul Ryan used to me yesterday – the weaponization of entitlement politics. I’ve watched both parties use it with tremendous effect. Until there’s a ceasefire, it will be used to tremendous effect. And I get no sense whatsoever Democrats are prepared to sign on to that ceasefire.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, President Obama is winding up a week-long trip to Europe that featured large, warm crowds, etiquette stumbles and in the end some polite agreement.
PRES. OBAMA: It is good once again to see my friends and partner, Dmitry Medvedev.
I just want to very briefly say how glad I am to have an opportunity to discuss important issues with Prime Minister Kan (ph) once again.
MS. IFILL: They’re always happy to see each other. But as always occurs on trips like this, there was text and there was subtext. First, though, what was the overall goal of a trip like this, Helene?
MS. COOPER: Well, he went to find, rediscovered his Irish roots. Didn’t you see that?
MS. IFILL: Yes. Yes. That was it.
MS. COOPER: Then stopped in Moneygall – I mean, I haven’t seen Obama that happy. He downed a whole pint of Guinness and we all know he barely drinks beer.
MS. IFILL: So they say.
MS. COOPER: So they say. And I think the people in Moneygall are all tripping very gleefully at his missteps in London, saying at least their trip didn’t have that sort of thing. But the real intended goal for the White House in this overall European trip can be summed up in four words: the Middle East and North Africa. I mean, that was sort of the specter that hung over everything.
You saw at the G-8 today the world leaders pledged $20 billion towards Egypt and Tunisia on helping rebuild and development and job opportunity. And they’re hoping to send a message to these countries but also to Arab protesters around the Arab world that the West is behind them. So that’s part of it too, Libya and the NATO assault in Libya was a big part. But the underlying – if you ask the White House what do you most want to get out of the trip, the answer that I kept getting was, you know, this was an Arab-Israeli trip. And the reason why is a little bit complicated. There is this vote for Palestinian statehood that’s coming up in the United Nations in September. And President Obama was trying to get European countries – the U.S. will vote no, of course. But President Obama’s trying to get European countries to also agree not to vote for it because the Israelis are terribly, terribly worried that they’re going to lose a lot of the European countries on this one.
MS. IFILL: And was that overshadowed somewhat by what appeared to be a little dustup that continued into this week between Prime Minster Netanyahu and the president?
MS. COOPER: The dustup completely fed into this when President Obama, as you know, made his announcement last week pledging that he thought that an Arab-Israeli peace plan should be based on Israel’s 1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps. A White House official I was sitting with earlier this week told me in the view of the White House, this was their way to lure the Europeans against voting for this U.N. security – it’s such a complicated strategy. But by giving European countries like Britain, France, Italy and Germany, who have all been a little tougher on the Israelis than the Americans have, giving them a place to sort of park their grievances so they can feel that they’re pressuring the Israelis as well by getting behind this American plan and say, we’ve got something that we’re pushing them to do, they would then feel as if, okay, we’ve gotten it off our chest. We don’t have to vote for this U.N. Security Council resolution for Palestinian statehood.
Now, you see, you’re looking at me like this because I was looking the same way as they explained this to me but they really believe that this is one way to avert what could be a hugely embarrassing vote for Israel in September. Most of the rest of the world will surely sign on. You know, Latin America and Africa and Middle East, Asian countries are all expected to vote for this. The U.S., of course, will vote against it. But what the Israelis really don’t want is for Britain, France, Germany and the rest of the big European countries to also vote.
MS. BISKUPIC: Did you get any signals that that strategy was working from what you were observing?
MS. COOPER: A few parts are kind of working but I think the answer to that is yes and no. David Cameron, Prime Minister David Cameron said on Wednesday – it was on Thursday he said, we don’t think that the U.N. is a forum for this, but he would not commit to voting. He said it’s not time for me to say whether or not. While the administration thinks they’ve got the British on board.
The French say they’re not so sure. They think at the moment that they’re still going to vote in favor of the Palestinian statehood resolution. Germany, nobody knows. Angela Merkel and Benjamin Netanyahu have a worse relationship than Obama and Mr. Netanyahu does. So that’s up in the air.
MR. GARRETT: Two questions: one, is the idea of ’67 borders was mutually agreed upon, land swaps, sort of a short-term gain to deal with this resolution because the president knows there’s not going to be a peace agreement and this is the fight to have now, or this is the tactic to use now? And it’s sort of a double bank shot is what you’d call in diplomacy. But wasn’t there also components of that speech the president gave that were much more direct to the Palestinians, Hamas has to renounce violence? It has to be a demilitarized state. There were tougher things or if not tougher, certainly things that we were much more – as equally directed to the Palestinians and Hamas that don’t seem to have gotten as much attention?
MS. COOPER: Easily, in part because the Palestinian president wasn’t in Washington giving a speech to AIPAC and jumping up and down and say, oh, yes, forget the joint meeting of Congress where they were competing to see who could cheer more loudly for him. That’s absolutely true. Most people believe that the proposal that President Obama is outlining is, you know, one, it’s pretty moderate and one which everybody has sort of privately thought that we would go to anyway in peace negotiations. But the reality is it’s different once somebody actually says it.
MS. IFILL: Thanks, Helene. So, finally, as it draws close to adjournment, the Supreme Court is beginning to hand down a series of decisions, each one of them sure to anger someone. This week they touched on the limits of crime and punishment and on immigration law. Joan was at the court for both decisions. First to the question of the California prison overcrowding system – does this mean that we’re turning thousands of prisoners loose on the streets?
MS. BISKUPIC: No. But California does have to reduce its prison population by about 30,000 inmates. And it was quite dramatic in the courtroom where the justices, led by in this case Anthony Kennedy and the liberals, ruled that California’s prison system is so bad, particularly for people with serious medical conditions and mental health problems, that it violates the Constitution’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment, and the only way to fix it is to get rid of the chronic overcrowding there. And that means reduce the population by more than 30,000 inmates. This is a long-running problem in California, unique to California.
And what prison officials there say, well, we’re going to transfer some to local, to county control, we’re going to give some more good time credits. But that’s a lot of people to get rid of from a system. And it seems like it would be impossible not to free some people because their time has been actually served.
MR. GARRETT: Is this something that will visit other states? Will this case have an overshadowing effect elsewhere?
MS. BISKUPIC: It shouldn’t because the California situation was so unique. And what Justice Kennedy said in his opinion – there was really heavily criticized in the courtroom by Justice Scalia as getting involved in public policy issues, you know, public policy issues, prisons and other institutional litigation that should be the domain of legislatures. But Justice Kennedy, who wrote the opinion, said, we’re not about to start stepping into other venues. This is unique to California. They have had decades to try to fix this problem. The state has been under court order for a long time to try to reduce the population. And he did – Justice Kennedy did something very unusual in his opinion. He appended three pictures to it that showed these telephone booth-sized cages that inmates had been kept in.
MS. IFILL: Yes. We just showed it. Yes.
MS. BISKUPIC: Yes. It’s perfect to show how dramatic the crowding was. So, no, Major. Over many, many years California has had a problem and this was very unique to them.
MR. BALZ: Can you talk about the Arizona decision? What was at stake in that immigration decision and how does it project forward to the other Arizona law that’s much tougher and more controversial.
MS. BISKUPIC: Yes. In fact, that one was controlled by the conservatives on the court with Justice Kennedy with them there. The other one was obviously with the liberals. And what the conservative majority in an opinion by Chief Justice Robert said was Arizona has a law that the justices upheld. It said if you knowingly hire any kind of illegal immigrant, your business license can be taken away. And in this case, Arizona said, look, we know that usually the federal government has authority over immigration but we fall under an exemption for certain licensing requirements and the court agreed. This was specific to that kind of exemption for licensing deals that the state would have authority over. The law you just asked about is one that Governor Jen Brewer signed recently that allows for police to stop inmate – I’m sorry.
MS. IFILL: That’s all right.
MS. BISKUPIC: I’m so sorry that I almost said inmates again. I was going to tie it to the California system.
MS. IFILL: Yes, that’s okay.
MS. BISKUPIC: – allows police to stop anyone who might not be properly documented here in America and look for their papers. That’s a big deal. It had a lot of fanfare. It was immediately challenged by the Obama administration and other civil liberties groups saying, look, this violates people’s rights.
MS. IFILL: But that’s not at all what the – (inaudible).
MS. BISKUPIC: No. And, in fact, to answer your question, this does not shed light on that. And Chief Justice Roberts went out of his way to say this does not – he did not offer any signal or hint about how the court might rule in that case.
MS. COOPER: Joan, what I’m so fascinated by, again with this California case is there any evidence at all that shows that when you do release – do a widespread release of prisoners early like this crime goes up? I mean, is there any sort of empirical evidence?
MS. BISKUPIC: Well, the dissenter certainly pointed to that. In Philadelphia in the early ’90s there was a cap law that allowed people to be released before their sentences were served just because there was a limit on how many inmates could be in the system there. And Justice Alito in his dissent said, look at all the crime that occurred after that. There were something like 79 murders after that. There was lots of documented crime. Now, what California – California says, you know, we could have some problems like that but they’re going to monitor it in a way that wasn’t monitored in the early ’90s.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, thank you, Joan. This was a very confusing week, so much going on but we got it all in. Thank you everyone. The conversation has to end here but it continues online on our “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” While you’re there, check into the Washington Week Vault, where in 1994 we talked about another surprise special election that happened six months before Congress changed hands. Keep track of daily developments every night with me on the PBS “NewsHour” and then join us again around the table next week on “Washington Week.” Have a good holiday weekend. Good night.