MS. IFILL: Going behind the scenes in the Republican primary contest, reading inside the surprising new calls and taking apart the plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, tonight on “Washington Week.”
One candidate stumbles.
TEXAS GOVERNOR RICK PERRY (R): Mitt’s had six years to be working on a plan. I’ve been in this for about eight weeks.
MS. IFILL: Another one soars.
HERMAN CAIN: The 9-9-9 plan that I have proposed is simple, transparent, efficient, fair, and neutral. Can you name all 59 points in your 160 page plan?
MS. IFILL: And another hangs in there.
FMR. MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R): The simple answers are always very helpful but oftentimes inadequate.
MS. IFILL: While the man they want to be takes on Congress instead.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The Republicans haven’t given a good answer as to why they have not agreed to wanting to rebuild our roads, our bridges, and our schools.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): We’ve extended our hand and offered to work with the president, but the president has chose to campaign instead of govern.
MS. IFILL: And Iran is front and center in a mysterious new plot targeting the Saudi Arabian ambassador.
SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D-CA): You’ve got to think if they’re going after a Saudi ambassador here, what about a Saudi ambassador there or an Israeli ambassador there or an American ambassador?
MS. IFILL: Covering the week: Karen Tumulty of “The Washington Post,” Michael Duffy of “Time” Magazine, Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics.com, and James Kitfield of “National Journal.”
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill, produced in association with “National Journal.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Another week, another candidates’ debate, and another frontrunner in the Republican presidential primary campaign. This time, it’s Herman Cain, the former Pizza CEO and former chairman of the Kansas City Federal Reserve, who is turning the race upside down on the strength of his approach to tax reform, 9-9-9.
MR. CAIN: It starts with, unlike your proposals, throwing out the current tax code, continuing to pivot off the current tax code is not going to boost this economy.
MS. IFILL: Last month’s leader, Texas Governor Rick Perry appears to be fading.
GOV. PERRY: What Americans are interested in is not the best debate or not the slickest politician. They’re interested in a leader that looks them in the eye and says listen, here’s how to get this country working again.
MS. IFILL: And the immediate beneficiary from all of this, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
MR. ROMNEY: America’s in crisis. You want to have someone who’s smart, who has experience, who knows how the financial services sector works, who knows how to protect American jobs, and I do. I’ve done it.
MS. IFILL: So we’re beginning to see the outline of this campaign. Karen Tumulty was one of the questioners at this week’s Dartmouth debate. Who surprised you there, Karen?
MS. TUMULTY: I think personally the biggest surprise was Rick Perry because I think the stakes were very, very high and a lot of us, certainly the three of us who were sitting at the table as moderators, expected him to come in aggressively. The day before, he had released a really hard-edged video against Mitt Romney, talking about health care. We were expecting that the minute the subject turned to health care he was just going to take out after him. And you know, the opposite happened. It was – you said he’s faded. It was almost like he disappeared.
MS. IFILL: Yes, there were long periods of time – well, it was true of Jon Huntsman as well – but there were long periods of time when you expected this guy, who had come out of the gate so fast, to finally take charge, especially since everyone had said he hadn’t done well in debates before, but kind of didn’t happen.
MS. TUMULTY: And it wasn’t like he wasn’t given the opportunities. And then obviously Herman Cain was just reveling in his new stature in the race. And Mitt Romney, though, is – a Republican operative had said to me earlier this week, you know, it’s like this guy is going to win the Indy 500 at 35 miles an hour just by not running into the guard rails. And I think – I think that’s what he did.
It was also – one moment, though, that I thought was really interesting, though, was – the first question I asked them was about anger at Wall Street CEOs. And I asked the question, you know, does it seem right that three years after the financial meltdown, you know, none of these Wall Street executives has been prosecuted? And every single one of the candidates that I asked basically said this is Washington’s fault. And they were looking and this “Time” Magazine poll that came out a couple of days later. You know, they’re setting themselves against the opinion of 71 percent of the American people. In – you know sort of – on the one hand, the tea party movement is something that grew out of public anger, but it’s really interesting how reluctant these Republicans are to associate themselves with kind of this wave of populist anger.
MS. IFILL: That is interesting and in fact I was hoping Michael might tell us a little bit more about not only the “Time” Magazine poll, but there’re a lot of polls this week, which showed Herman Cain, in particular, taking advantage of whatever this discontent is that is out there for now and surging to the top of the polls.
MR. DUFFY: That’s right. No matter which poll you choose, they all reveal something kind of constant, which is that with just a few months to go before the voting starts, a good portion of the kind of traditional Republican primary electorate hasn’t really found someone they want to get married to. They’re still shopping around. And it’s kind of the same group of voters that has landed on Herman Cain at the moment that was – kind of took a look at Donald Trump, dated Michele Bachmann, you know, gave Rick Perry a bit of a turn earlier in the month, and now has said, well, let’s take a look at Herman Cain. And I think that will – they’ll stay there until he either stands up to the scrutiny or doesn’t.
I kind of felt the scrutiny started when Karen, who can throw a really good fast ball and really good curve ball, unpacked a change up to Cain in her first question and said tell me, Mr. Cain, who are your economic advisors. And he talked about he was transparent, but he named a guy who was from Cleveland in the first sentence – and from Cleveland, Texas – Cleveland, Ohio, then Cleveland, Texas –
MS. IFILL: His name is Rich Lowrie, which was even more confusing because that’s the name of a columnist –
MR. DUFFY: And he’s not really an economist, he’s really more like an accountant. And within the next – (inaudible) – that has become the question, which is who are your advisors? He’s not as transparent as he claims to be.
So this – the scrutiny that attended the previous folks who had kind of the hot hand is now coming to Herman Cain.
MS. SIMENDINGER: You know, though, if we – if we were looking at this discussion and trying to figure out why they’re not relating to the populism, there are – very much feeling that they have to come up with some sort of economic jobs ideas. What is the new Rick Perry –
MS. IFILL: Plan.
MS. SIMENDINGER: – plan. I guess –
MS. IFILL: Because he kept talking about energy.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes.
MS. TUMULTY: Yes and so Governor Perry did give a speech today in Pennsylvania where he unveiled what he said was going to be the first installment of his economic plan, but what it actually was was pretty much garden variety Republican, you know, drill more, deregulate. And basically he – he argues that he can very quickly create a million jobs just by issuing executive orders that would deregulate oil and open up more drilling.
MS. IFILL: They – go ahead.
MR. DUFFY: Well, I was going to say, well, I thought this day was different in other respect is important. And I was – I was kind of expecting him to just continue to criticize the president. And there was a lot of that in this debate. But as there’ve been four or five of these and they’ve gotten closer together and we get closer to the voting, they begin to engage with each other I think in a way we hadn’t seen, and criticize each other’s plans. When Newt Gingrich asked I think Romney why his various parts of his tax plan really don’t extend to the rich and that he isn’t providing some of the same benefits, I really saw a kind of level of conversation that we hadn’t seen before in these four, five, eight, nine, 10-person debates. And I think – the audiences are growing and they’re really beginning to drill down the way that they really hadn’t four or five weeks ago.
MR. KITFIELD: Drill down 9-9-9, how does that – does your poll suggests that people understand what it means? Obviously it seems very simple and it seems kind of pat, but I’m curious whether people actually understand what it means.
MS. IFILL: In fact, that’s what Herman Cain says the best thing about it is its simplicity.
MR. DUFFY: Right. It is simple and it’s, you know, the same tax rate for corporate taxes, personal income taxes, and a sales tax, which would have very different effects on income distribution. It would be higher tax for poor people, much, much lower tax for rich people now who have – are affluent. The middle class would kind of be a mess and it depends on what kinds of things you bought. Both conservative and liberal economists have criticized this as vastly insufficient to the problem, but it has the beauty of being civil to understand. And that was another great moment when he said – when someone said I have my experts in cancer. Well, we’ve seen what the experts can do to the economy, what’s wrong with something that comes from, you know, a simple place.
MS. IFILL: Herman Cain reminds me of a cross between a Ross Perot, Steve Forbes, the flat tax – remember that –
MS. TUMULTY: And for whose campaign I believe national –
MS. IFILL: An advisor, yes.
MS. TUMULTY: – chairman, yes.
MS. IFILL: And Alan Keyes, who was a very good speaker and really could capture crowds. Does he have more than that? Does he have money? Does he have structure?
MS. TUMULTY: It’ll be interesting to see going forward because at this point he doesn’t – he has virtually no campaign structure around him. In fact, he’s had a whole bunch of his advisors who were with him at the beginning, have since quit. His – he has relatively little money and he doesn’t do the kinds of things that you kind of have to do to get through the primary season; for instance, getting your name on the ballot in a bunch of state and that sort of thing. So it will be very interesting to see whether this – this candidate has the organizational wherewithal to really push forward.
MR. KITFIELD: Does moving up the calendar, as they’re talking about doing, help him or hurt him? Who does that sort of hurt or help in terms of, you know, where they stand at this point?
MS. TUMULTY: You know, I don’t really know, quite frankly, who that hurts or helps because so many of these people, like, you know, you look back at the great Howard Dean phenomenon, where he was just at the peak and then he – it’s always going to depend on what part of the trajectory they’re at. But certainly two candidates have the money to slog through a long campaign season. And those two candidates are Mitt Romney and Rick Perry.
MS. IFILL: I’m really – we have barely talked about Mitt Romney, which tells you something because he’s a – the putative frontrunner in some ways and people believe – and a lot of experts believe he was – he’s going to end up being the nominee, but he’s got really soft numbers. I mean, he’s never risen very high and he seems stuck there.
MS. TUMULTY: He’s – usually at this point there is a Republican frontrunner who has cracked 40 percent in the polls. And he’s still stuck in 20 percent. But I do think you saw a few things begin to kind of move his way. He still hasn’t won the hearts of the Republican base, but he’s starting to pick up the endorsements of the Republican establishment. A big one this week, the day before the debate, was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is, you know, a heartthrob to much of the party.
MR. DUFFY: I think the other big development for Romney this week was that the White House began to criticize him openly and in special. They had this conference call to actually spend 25 minutes telling reporters how he has had so many positions on so many different issues. That tells you that the White House, for its part, has decided two things: He’s likely to be the nominee and it’s worried that the other Republicans aren’t able to lay a glove on him. They thought they would be able to cut him up a little bit more by now. And so I think that they’re saying, maybe we have to step in and do some of that ourselves.
MS. IFILL: The White House also, in your poll, in the head-to-head matchups against each of these Republicans, the president still is narrowly ahead, even though we know this betting a dime, not even a dime will get you nothing. It’ll get you nothing. But the point is president still relatively compared to the people who might be running against is not completely out of this yet, even though his approval numbers are huge.
MR. DUFFY: Right, it’s about – his approval rating fell to 44 percent. That’s 4 points less than in June. He is 3 points ahead in our poll, which was in the margin of error against Romney, more like 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 against Perry and Cain. The key thing to watch there are two – well, I guess two really. Among independent voters, Romney actually does a little better in our poll, which is a worry spot for the White House. On the other hand, women are by dramatic margins on his side still, 49 to 41 –
MS. IFILL: On whose side?
MR. DUFFY: On president’s side. And if you compare the president with Perry or Herman Cain, that doubles. So that’s a key constituency and you will probably be seeing him talk to them more.
MS. IFILL: Okay, well, you know, one of the women who was really tough on him the other night was our Karen Tumulty. So I don’t know about that. We’ll see how that all sorts itself out.
We are proud of you. You’re great.
MS. TUMULTY: Thank you.
MS. IFILL: So while the Republicans were busy fighting over the campaign calendar and fighting each other, the president was jockeying for position with Congress. At stake, who gets bragging rights for at least trying to create jobs? For this week at least, nobody. The Senate, as expected, rejected the president’s jobs bill, but it seems as if the fight for the upper hand is just beginning. Is that right, Alexis?
MS. SIMENDINGER: It seems glacial, but yes, in a way it is beginning in a new sort of phase, and that is that the president is believing very strongly that you can win actually by losing. You can watch your legislation be blocked in the Senate and you can still argue effectively to the American public. And they’re seeing in some of this polling inching up some support, not necessarily for the Obama plan, but for ingredients within the plan. There’s absolutely widespread support for taxing millionaires. There is public support for elements of the jobs plan.
So the president believes if he was starting to lose with independent voters or lose with his base by trying to compromise, which interestingly, in your survey, overwhelmingly the public says they love the idea of compromise in Washington.
MS. IFILL: People always say that.
MS. SIMENDINGER: The love this, 89 percent.
MS. IFILL: And there’s no sign of it.
MS. SIMENDINGER: But in fact leadership sometimes looks like strained and you can win by confrontation. And so the president has tried something new for him, which is you in Congress, you go work it out. I have told you what I stand for. This is what I stand for and I’m going to go out and campaign for this, which he’s doing very actively. This week, he’ll be in Virginia, North Carolina. He’s going to all the bellwether states. At the end of the month, he’ll be on the West Coast, going back to major parts of the West, where he feels that he has support and needs support. So this idea of confrontation is also the White House is thinking that they see in the Republicans their eagerness in the House and the Senate to say, yes, we have a jobs plan. Oh, yes, we have a jobs plan. And to outline ingredients, very broad ingredients that they’re starting to sweat just a little bit.
MR. DUFFY: Alexis, do you think that when the end of the year arrives, there will be a jobs bill or a piece of one or pieces? The expectation seems to be that if anything could possibly go through, it might be the extension of unemployment benefits, perhaps something related to infrastructure, maybe, maybe. Speaker Boehner has suggested that yes –
MS. IFILL: They had a good conversation about it yesterday apparently.
MS. SIMENDINGER: No so great. (Laughter.) The speaker called the president of the United States – the president called the speaker to say thank you very much for passing the trade – the three trade bills. And the speaker used that as an opportunity to give him a piece of his mind and then broadcast to all of the media the piece of his mind that he had shared with the president, which was let me set the facts straight. We have a jobs plan. We will work with you on certain things, quit going out there saying that we’re not doing that.
So there are – I would say the extension perhaps of some payroll benefit – the tax holiday, the unemployment, and maybe something on the infrastructure – we might, might see. And if we don’t any of that, no one will be shocked.
MS. TUMULTY: But in the meantime, just in time for your holiday shopping, we’re running into the Supercommittee and its recommendations. How is – so how is all of this going? Is it – are these just completely separate events? Are they going to end up all tangled up? Where do we end?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, there are some – there is Republican thinking that we should just whiz right by this whole jobs discussion. Let’s go right into the Supercommittee, which is about deficit reduction and spending and tax reform. And there is some desire to do that. In the White House and among Democrats, they’re arguing that the president should keep these very separate. Stay above this fray. Stay out of the congressional arguments about this. Let them work this out because by November 23rd, as you point out, by Thanksgiving, there’s supposed to be a plan.
The president is supposed to react to this in some form or fashion and the two could be in a total mash up. But the Democrats are thinking the way the president will profit, especially among the public and especially among independent voters is just try to stay above that. It’s hard to imagine how they don’t get conflated in some form or fashion. And that argument, going back into deficit reduction, is just a nest of snakes in terms of the kinds of arguments they’re all going to be in again.
MR. KITFIELD: If that committee can’t reach its target and their sequestration is threatened, won’t the president have to get involved because that’s really going to force him to take some really draconian cuts on the Pentagon and across the board. I can’t believe he’s going to be sitting very comfortable with that.
MS. IFILL: Everybody seems agree that cutting the Pentagon -- it’s a bad idea. Democrats and Republicans are saying that.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well and certainly the secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, has been arguing very forcefully. In some ways, that is an artful effort to remind everybody what the poison is supposed to be. So concentrate your mind and kind of try to reach a deal. And that – that may actually happen. The other horrible alternative is that Congress could just come back and say let’s just ignore it all. Let’s ignore it.
MS. IFILL: And if they ignore it, then all these across the board cuts just go into effect.
MS. SIMENDINGER: No. Let’s ignore the fact that we have – (laughter) – this law.
MS. IFILL: Ignore it all.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes, yes, exactly.
MS. IFILL: Oh, joy, okay. Well, we move on. The Obama administration laid out the details of an extraordinary plot this week. It involved Iran’s elite Quds Force, a used car dealer in the United States, a Mexican drug cartel, and a plan to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States. It was a spectacular scheme and it has once again ratcheted up the already tense relations with Iran and raised more than a few questions here at home as well, not least of which, was this for real, James?
MR. KITFIELD: It certainly sounds like a Hollywood script.
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MR. KITFIELD: But –
MS. IFILL: In fact, I think that’s actually the FBI director used that term.
MS. TUMULTY: Peter Sellers maybe.
MS. IFILL: Exactly, maybe. (Laughter.)
MR. KITFIELD: And you got to believe there’s some fire beneath the smoke because of who’s actually blowing the smoke, it’s the president, it’s the secretary of state. It’s the FBI, head of the FBI. So I think there is something here. But it’s a very strange plot. It is not characteristic of past Quds Force plots. They elicited help from this Iranian-American, who basically, like you said, he was a used car dealer, pretty shady character, didn’t really have any sort of expertise in counterespionage or espionage. He then approaches what he thinks is a Mexican drug cartel. Turns out to be a DEA informant. So the whole thing has kind of a Keystone Cops feel to it, the –
MS. IFILL: But the Quds Force – their presence in this is what’s got everybody’s attention.
MR. KITFIELD: Exactly.
MS. IFILL: Who are they?
MR. KITFIELD: Well, the Quds Force is the paramilitary wing of the Revolutionary Guards in Iran that basically Iran – their support to terrorist groups, extremist groups all around the world. They have a very nasty history of doing very nasty things. They were behind the bombing of the Marine barracks in the early ’80s, the kidnappings of Americans in Lebanon that led to death in captivity of a CIA station chief. They were behind bombings in South America in ’94, the Khobar Towers bombing of the U.S. service members in Saudi Arabia in ’96. So they have a very nasty history with us. And more recently, they have been arming Shia militias in Iraq and even the Taliban, who were their sworn enemies, just so they could kill more American soldiers in Afghanistan. So they – they have been a problem for a long time, but this is kind of an escalation.
MR. DUFFY: An Iranian inspired or paid for attack on U.S. soil would be a significant increase in intensity and – you know – threat than we’ve seen from them before. Why would they want to kill the Saudi ambassador here?
MR. KITFIELD: There is an increasingly hot cold war going on between the Saudis and Iran, pretty much cooked off by the whole Arab Spring situation. It has destabilized the whole region. Anyone sitting on their throne in the Middle East now feels very threatened. The Saudis thought the Iranians were behind a lot of the Shia protests in Bahrain and didn’t appreciate that and sent their troops into Bahrain. The Iranians think that the Saudis have been too quick to call for the -- Assad to step aside in Syria, their chief ally. So they’re really in a proxy war and it’s becoming very, very serious. So that would be their motivation.
Again, as you said, actually doing it on American soil would be a significant escalation and it would cross a very serious red line that President Bush laid down. You know, if you support terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, it’s an act of war basically.
MS. TUMULTY: This is the kind of thing that would normally, I think, invite a military response, and you heard I don’t think anybody credible talking about that as an option this week. What exactly are the U.S.’s options in responding to this?
MR. KITFIELD: There aren’t very many and that’s the problem. I mean, no one wants to start a third war and a third front in the Middle East right now. That’s the last thing we basically need. However, we have – we have no economic relationship with Iran. We have slapped them with about as strong the sanctions as we’ve seen in the last 20 years, so it’s not – there’s not a lot of appetite in the international community to go further.
So there’s not a lot you can do unless you wanted to, you know, throw – shooting some cruise missiles like Clinton did after the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa, or after I think did when he – the plot to kill Bush 41 came apparent. They shot some cruise missiles. I don’t think this president has that mind. I think they want to use this as further synergy to sort of build an international coalition to isolate Iran.
MS. SIMENDINGER: James, you know, we heard as White House correspondents that the president first knew about this in June. Is there a story to tell about why now, why would this plot have been organized in this way and now?
MR. KITFIELD: Well, you know, and this gets to the Keystone aspect of it. There has been a power struggle going on inside Iran between the supreme leader, who is Ayatollah Khamenei, and the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – Ahmadinejad. I should get his name by now because he’s on his way out I think. But he’s losing that battle, but there’s a lot of palace intrigue going on in Iran right now. Could this be a rogue element that was trying to embarrass him in some way or embarrass the supreme leader? It’s the best explanation I’ve heard because again, this is – I mean, even the Iranians know this is a pretty serious red line they’re crossing. You can’t imagine – you know, on the other hand, anything that the Quds Force does this big usually has to be green lighted by the supreme leader. So that’s why the Obama administration is saying we think it went from the highest levels. So it’s hard to know, but there is a palace intrigue going on right now between those two.
MS. IFILL: And also palace intrigue about what we’re willing to do about it.
Thank you, James. Thank you, all very much. This was a very fast show, as always. We’re out of time here, but the conversation will continue online on our “Washington Week” Webcast Extra. We’ll post it at 11:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Keep up with daily developments with me on the PBS “NewsHour” all week, and we’ll see you here again, next week on “Washington Week.” Goodnight.