transcript

Nov
04
2011

MS. IFILL: Anatomy of a scandal – why the Herman Cain story won’t go away and what it means for the GOP. Plus, economic uproar here and abroad. We take you behind the scenes tonight, on “Washington Week.”

HERMAN CAIN [GOP Presidential Candidate]: I told you this bull’s-eye on my back has gotten bigger. We have no idea the source of this witch hunt.

MS. IFILL: Before the week was over, Cain was blaming the press, other candidates, and even his accusers as the sexual harassment scandal grew.

MR. CAIN: Excuse me. Excuse me.

MS. IFILL: Other candidates kept their distance.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY (R-TX) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: This race is really about the mess that Washington is in.

FORMER GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R-MA) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: It took 43 presidents over 200 years to accumulate $6.3 trillion in debt. President Obama is on track to do that in just one term.

MS. IFILL: Meanwhile, new jobless numbers out today show the economy at home remains in a stall while world leaders try to head off a full-fledged global crisis.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The most important aspect of our task over the next two days is to resolve the financial crisis here in Europe.

MS. IFILL: Everywhere you look, clash points. Covering the week: John Harris of Politico, Charles Babington of the Associated Press, Jim Tankersley of National Journal, and Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics.

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.”

(Station announcements.)

ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL: Good evening. Last week we told you about why Herman Cain’s star was on the rise. This week we tell you about the worst week of his campaign. It all started with the story broken by Politico, which reported that two former employees accused him of sexual harassment in the late 1990s. His responses to the charges have been, to put it charitably, all over the place.

JUDY WOODRUFF [“Newshour” Reporter]: Was there any behavior on your part that you think might have been inappropriate?

MR. CAIN: In my opinion, no. But, as you would imagine, it’s in the eye of the person who thinks that maybe I crossed the line. I was aware that an agreement was reached. The word “settlement” versus the word “agreement” – I’m not sure what they called it.

MR. CAIN: The first phase is they ignore you; second phase, they ridicule you; the third phase, they try to destroy you. Well, got a little of that this week.

WOMAN [Narrator]: Now we’re getting the high-tech lynching of a beautiful man, Herman Cain.

RUSH LIMBAUGH [Conservative Radio Show Host]: What is known as the mainstream media goes for the ugliest racial stereotypes they can to attack a black conservative.

MR. CAIN: People inside the beltway, they’re ready to criticize it and say, well, but you can’t do that. I said, what do you mean I can’t do that? I’m going to be president. We can do that. (Applause.)

MS. IFILL: Well, I guess we could start by asking whether he’s actually going to be president, but we don’t know. So I’ll start, John Harris, by asking you about how this story unfolded, particularly at Politico.

MR. HARRIS: This story began with a tip to one of our reporters, Jonathan Martin, in mid-October, two, three weeks ago. We reported it for several days, acquired enough information that we felt we had legitimate cause to go to the campaign, the Cain campaign, and ask them about it. We did that on October 20th. We first had no response. Then we had a series of somewhat confusing responses.

Just as we were set to publish, I made the decision that we needed to do more than just rely on Cain spokesmen and advisers. We needed to talk to the candidate himself. And so 10 days after making the inquiry, we talked to him as he was leaving the CBS studio in Washington on M Street and asked him about this, got his response and published the story.

It was thoroughly reported by about a group of four to five reporters and then went through an extensive editing process as we tried to make judgments, is this fair? Is it accurate? Is it relevant? We decided that it was and we published and we’ve seen the rest of the events play out in a very tumultuous fashion over the past week.

MS. IFILL: But even as we sit here tonight, we don’t know who these accusers are. We don’t know who these women are. We have had people speaking on their behalf saying things happened, but we don’t know precisely what happened. At what point or how vigorously I guess did the campaign ever try to push back on the details of this?

MR. HARRIS: They really didn’t. I think that was what was surprising. If somebody asks you about two specific cases, and typically I would expect from a person running for president they’d have a response to that, we never really did get a satisfying response, even with 10 days preparation it did not seem to me that they were fully prepared. We’ve seen that and it’s reflected in the reel you showed, Gwen, of the kind of multiple, serial explanations, each one adding, modifying the other.

I would say importantly, even though there’s been criticism from Herman Cain of the press, he in the past several days has been the main person confirming the Politico story, Associated Press reporting, other reporting. The central facts alleged were that there were two women who made sexual harassment claims. He’s acknowledged there were sexual harassment complaints, although I think only one that he’s acknowledged and that there were financial payouts. He’s acknowledged that. So he is now the main confirmer of these stories.

MS. IFILL: Except he says that at the heart of it there was no sexual harassment which, there’s no way to vet that without somebody else giving us more information.

Chuck, usually when this sort of thing happens, especially when the candidate is leading in the polls, there’s a pile on. Everybody says, okay, everybody in the pool, let’s take him out. Instead, there’s been really kind of an eerie silence on the part of the other candidates.

MR. BABINGTON: That’s right, Gwen. I think there is a feeling that this thing has not played out yet. And for those opponents of Herman Cain, there’s a sense that we don’t need to pile on – let’s see how he fares. As you know, Cain was never seen by the establishment as someone who is a probable nominee. His rise to the polls was very surprising. I think the vast majority or almost all the Republican insiders that I talked to believed both before and I think now that he will come down as did Michele Bachmann, as did Rick Perry, and Mitt Romney just seems to kind of stay floating where he does. And so they’re still waiting for that to happen. I think they’ll be shocked –

MS. IFILL: Except there’s a new poll out today that shows 70 percent say, you know, this makes no difference to me.

MR. BABINGTON: That’s right. And, you know, maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised by that. First of all, these are polls of Republicans, conservatives, many of whom, for whatever reasons, like to be opposed to what they see as a liberal press so they have sort of a natural reaction to that. Also, we’re still in the early phase of this primary election. And Republican voters are still sort of shopping around and flirting. And I think that’s why you see Michele Bachmann go up and down and you see Rick Perry go up and down. And there might be some element of that. I’m not saying they’re not giving serious answers, but they probably have not locked in yet to, yes, when I go into the voting booth, this is the person I will vote for.

MS. SIMENDINGER: You know, one of the things we heard right away from candidate Cain himself was to point the fingers elsewhere, so he had some unkind things to say about the culpability of the Perry campaign or the Romney campaign or the media. So what is that about? Why did he decide to go that direction? How did he handle this?

MR. BABINGTON: He did seem to be flailing about a bit actually because, Alexis, rather quickly they backed away from that allegation about Rick Perry. And Rick Perry, of course, said, we had nothing whatsoever to do with it.

MS. IFILL: But that’s what’s been so interesting about this. It’s kind of been all over the place. One day they say, well, it’s the Perry guy. Well, he used to work for me and he knew. The next day they say another thing. It’s just – I don’t even know how you guys have been keeping up with this, John, because it seems like every single day there’s a whole new front in this story.

MR. HARRIS: Gwen, it’s been hard to sort of keep our wits about ourselves in this crossfire, but we’ve tried to do it by focusing on what’s important. The question of motives of sources – and I think it was transparently obvious that in the Cain campaign’s statements about this that they had no idea who sources were. They didn’t present any evidence. They made charges, withdrew them, back and forth. That’s not the central question.

The central question are the facts in the case. Some of those facts have now been confirmed. Others are still unknown. We still do not have a complete picture of precisely what was alleged. Sexual harassment is bad. I think people would say it’s on a spectrum. And so there is – between something that would be inappropriate and something that would be just blatantly disqualifying. We don’t yet have the full answers to those questions, certainly not reported in such a way that we could put them in the public domain.

But more and more information is coming out. Just today, the lawyer for one of the accusers made available a statement from her. Gwen, there’s not much that’s funny in this story, although there was one, just a little sideline that I found kind of amusing: that case was settled on September 9th, 1999 – nine, nine, nine, nine. But the Restaurant Association did reach a financial settlement, a pretty sizeable one of close to $50,000 with one of the women. So I don’t think a case that’s seen as a complete nuisance you would probably have a settlement that large. This was a serious matter. It was widely discussed within the NRA. Excuse me, not widely discussed – many people didn’t know, but it was discussed intensely at high levels.

MR. TANKERSLEY: Chuck, can we talk about what this means for the Republican field? Yes, they’re still in a flirting position, the voters are. But we’re – what – two months out now from the first primary. So is this a good thing for Mitt Romney? Is this a good thing for Newt Gingrich? Who benefits here?

MR. BABINGTON: Yes, that question is going around a lot. It seems to, if nothing else, have kind of frozen the campaign in place for one week. Now, a week may not be a terribly long time, but as you said, we are getting closer. There is – one sense is that that’s a good thing for Romney because most of the insiders feel that his real concern has to be Rick Perry because Perry has the money and the experience to mount possibly a serious run against Romney. The feeling is it will be very hard for Herman Cain to do that.

On the other hand, some people feel that if Cain were to fall fast, and maybe that’s not going to happen, that wouldn’t be a good thing for Romney. Romney went to a big event, a conservative event in Washington today, laid out a rather complex plan about spending and Medicare, got rather tepid applause. Herman Cain comes out there, mocks the teleprompters that Romney used, gets a tremendous ovation. So it’s hard to know what to make of all this. Probably Mitt Romney wishes he’d gotten more attention for his plan.

MR. HARRIS: I do think there’s a phenomenon we’ve seen in some of these previous instances of scandal that reminds me of the old Roadrunner cartoons where Wiley Coyote will go off the cliff and stay stationary, but then drops. And I think I’d be surprised, frankly, if something like that didn’t happen in Herman Cain’s case. There’s sympathy, especially among conservatives who are skeptical of the press in the first place. But Republicans are looking for competence in this election. And even if they don’t get to the bottom of what happened in the sexual harassment cases, what we saw – there’s no reason to mince words. What we saw in the response to this crisis was incompetence.

MS. IFILL: You know, there’s something also interesting in this what’s going on. And we saw some of that in the clips. The outside group that said this was a high-tech lynching. They used Rush Limbaugh’s voice to say, this is how they go after black conservatives. There’s this kind of imposed racial overlay. I’m not quite certain why it’s considered to be a stereotype of black manhood to be a sexual harasser. I don’t think there is any evidence to support that, but it’s being imposed on this by people who normally say race doesn’t matter.

MR. HARRIS: Look, there’s a ritualistic element to many of these controversies. Everybody assumes their assigned role. And conservatives are going to say, well, they’re still living events of 20 years ago. Here we go with another Clarence Thomas, almost a kneejerk reaction. I don’t think race had anything to do with this story. And the people saying that simply don’t know the facts. It’s premature to say that it did. We don’t know anything about the motives of the people who originally made these claims. But I’ve seen no evidence from the reporting to date that it had any racial component to it in terms of the motivation. And I just reject the idea that the press interest in this has a racial dimension. Anybody, a presidential candidate who’s got these kind of accusations against him, that’s a story. That’s a story.

MR. BABINGTON: Let me just throw out some names to you: Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Anthony Weiner. You know, there’s been plenty of sex scandals, all of different types and not necessarily involving sexual harassment, but different types of scandals. These all involve white men. There’s been – just you’ve recently had two congressmen from New York state, one a Democrat, one Republican forced out of office because of sexual impropriety. So I think there is some selective accusations going on.

MS. IFILL: And just a little bit of cynicism. Thank you all. We’re going to move on because while we remain consumed with the twists and the turns of the Cain controversy, the president is abroad on a much larger stage, coping with what you could call a much more consequential problem. Speaking at the G-20 meeting in Cannes today, President Obama linked the global crisis that threatens to topple the Greek government to the one he is grappling with here at home.

PRES. OBAMA: I know it isn’t easy, but what is absolutely critical, and what the world looks for in moments such as this is action. That’s how we confronted our financial crisis in the United States. We did what was necessary to address the crisis, put ourselves on a stronger footing, and to help rescue the global economy.

MS. IFILL: But did it work? New unemployment numbers out today seem to show we still don’t know. Isn’t that right, Alexis?

MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes, there was an economist today who said that this is the recovery of turtles. This is a kind of a holding pattern that we’re dealing with on unemployment. The October numbers came out today. Instead of 9.1 percent unemployment, we’ve got 9 percent unemployment.

MS. IFILL: But it was at 9.2.

MS. SIMENDINGER: Absolutely. And that is exactly what – you know, 80,000 new jobs. The president today decided that he would seize the tiny little pinpoint of light and talk about how the voters need to think about the trend lines, that the trend lines are positive, and he’s got 20 months of growth behind him, and that he stood in France today and talked about how when he came to office, contraction was at 9 percent; a year later, growth was at 4 percent and that the trend was positive.

So he was in this awkward position of standing in Europe as almost like a sideshow to what was happening among the group of nations that share the Euro together, the Euro zone is what it’s called. And the United States and his leadership is considered weak enough on the world stage that today’s report did no good to bolster him or his leadership. But he’s trying to argue to the voters with the best possible data that he can come up with, which is very slight, that the trend is improving. And he can’t point to unemployment necessarily as that trend line, but growth is what he’s trying to say is getting better.

MS. IFILL: I’m not sure what else there is for him to say at this point. But so, Jim, is there a connection that the president is standing on this global stage – is there really a connection between what we see happening, this continuing, never-ending uproar in Europe and in Greece especially with what we are seeing happening here at home?

MR. TANKERSLEY: Absolutely. I mean, the president and economists of all stripes have talked for a long time about headwinds to the U.S. recovery, which we’ve seen for a long time and which, to be very frank, the president’s advisers underestimated for quite some time when they thought the recovery was self-sustaining this spring. What we’ve seen is supply chain disruptions in Japan, which are going away now; higher oil prices from the Arab spring, which are going away; and the third thing which is not going away, the headwind for the U.S. recovery is this European debt crisis.

Here’s why it’s a problem. Europe – it all starts in Greece which has basically more debt that it can bear and is not going to be able to pay its lenders back very soon when some payments are due. So the Europeans are trying to help bail out Greece, get some of its bills reduced by its creditors.

MS. IFILL: And thought they had a deal.

MR. TANKERSLEY: Yes. And if they can’t do that, they’re trying to what’s called firewall Greece off, so that even if it goes completely up in flames economically, the Euro zone won’t be affected because otherwise it could spread – bad debts spread through European banks, it imperils Spain, it imperils Italy, it spreads through the entire German and the French banking systems and that could very easily hop the pond and hit American banks and that could take the little bit of steam that we have in the American recovery entirely out.

MR. BABINGTON: It’s hard really for Americans to – we know Greece is a fairly small country. It’s not a big economy. It does seem counterintuitive that economic problems in Greece could really threaten this country, our big country. But, you know, it does. And I think you’ve helped explain the sort of domino effect that might happen. If it does hop the pond, as you say, what tools do we have to deal with it?

MR. TANKERSLEY: Well, it’s funny because the president has been telling the Europeans, learn from us, learn from us, learn from us. What he wants them to learn is what we did in the 2008 financial crisis. Here’s what we did: we bailed out the banks and we did an enormous economic stimulus package in Congress. Hardly anyone thinks that either of those things would happen again should we get another crisis. So the tools we’re faced with deploying are, A, not what we’re telling the Europeans to do; and B, probably very limited. And so Congress is not even making contingency plans right now for what could happen if Europe goes bad. And we are left essentially with the Federal Reserve lending money to keep banks solvent and then trying to pump up the monetary system, easing even further to try to boost growth.

MR. HARRIS: What are the markers that we should be watching? When are we going to know? Are there deadlines coming up when we learn whether this headwind in fact because more than a headwind but an actual tidal wave?

MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, for one thing, there’s discussion of course now in Greece. There was a confidence vote that went through this evening. So that means that there will be elections later, but that means that they’re embracing the European bailout plan, which was what they were walking away from with this discussion of a referendum.

So their need now is they will get an infusion of loans and cash. So there’s time. They bought some time. But in this case, too, they’re talking about this idea that Europe has to be ready to support Europe. And that was the message that the president was trying to bring. The International Monetary Fund will be ready and willing to do that. So there’s some time here, but there’s also great concern, as Jim was mentioning, about Italy. Italy has asked -- voluntarily asked for the IMF to supervise its recovery from its debt burdens hoping to try to keep some confidence building in Europe.

Also we heard this week the European Central Bank said that there is a very good chance of a mild recession appearing in Europe by the end of this year. The United States looks like it’s averted a double dip, but that’s not good news since Europe is our largest trading partner.

MS. IFILL: And since the debate is on both sides of the pond all about austerity – we’re talking about cutting back, talking about –

MS. SIMENDINGER: And growth.

MS. IFILL: And growth. But we’re also talking about cutting back on public sector employment, which seems to be the drag on our recovery in some respects. Is there a middle ground here through this or is this argument also – this political argument that we’re having about austerity, is it also slowing us down?

MR. TANKERSLEY: Certainly in the United States it is very polarizing. It’s hard to see any kind of a middle ground. I mean, the president has put forth this jobs bill which is sort of the anti-austerity idea that we may be in a lot of debt, which we are, but we’re going to keep borrowing to try to prop up demand, which is -- the flagging demand is a huge drain on our recovery right now.

Well, that got blocked in the Senate again, even this infrastructure component which the president’s advisers had thought at first would be something maybe they could get Republican support on – totally blocked in the Senate this week. It’s hard to see how Republicans would call for anything but more budget cuts in the event of a European meltdown.

MS. SIMENDINGER: And, ironically, the president is in France lecturing about, look at our lessons, and austerity is very much needed and growth policies. But he’s about to head into his own version of the buzz saw with Congress over austerity, right, which is the Supercommittee discussion about what to do about deficit reductions. So the idea of him standing there trying to encourage the Europeans to listen to our lessons fell a little flat among the Europeans.

MR. HARRIS: What’s been the European commentary? Do they roll their eyes at this? Do they resent it? Do they think that there’s a valuable lesson in the United States experience?

MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, President Sarkozy in France was very solicitous of President Obama, but there is a rolling of the eyes in terms of the United States as the largest economy coming and trying to give them tips on how to do this. And, at one point, the president even said today that they had kidded him that he had in fact been the student learning a little bit about European politics.

MS. IFILL: And yet, this axis of Angela Merkel and Sarkozy and President Obama seems to be the key to any kind of success.

MR. TANKERSLEY: He’s clearly been talking to them a lot. The White House –

MS. SIMENDINGER: More than Congress.

MR. TANKERSLEY: Yes. Yes. Exactly. He’s probably talking to Merkel and Sarkozy more than he’s talking to Boehner and McConnell and Reid.

MR. BABINGTON (?): And he might get more response from them.

MR. TANKERSLEY: Exactly. But the difficult thing for the president is he and his advisers really believe the Europeans need to do this themselves, that the United States is not going to bail out Europe. China is not going to step in and bail out Europe. The Europeans have the means. There are richer countries in Europe that can afford to bail out the poorer ones and the White House has been very insistent with the Europeans. And they’re getting some pushback on this -- you must fund your own bailout.

MS. IFILL: So are we going to be patient or do we push for change? And it seems to me that’s the forever debate on these economic as well as these political issues.

MS. SIMENDINGER: Absolutely. Yes. Unresolved.

MS. IFILL: Okay. Unresolved. Oh, gee, thanks.

MS. SIMENDINGER: Sorry. That’s another show, Gwen.

MS. IFILL: That’s another show.

MR. BABINGTON: Maybe we should come back next Friday, right?

MS. IFILL: No. It means we stick around for our webcast in which we try to resolve it. I’m not letting you go home until we figure it out. Thank you everyone. We do have to go now, but our conversation will continue online in that “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” You can check it out later tonight at pbs.org.

As we wait for the rest of the shoes to drop here in Washington, you can keep up with daily developments online and on the air at the PBS “NewsHour.” And then we’ll wrap it up for you, as always, again next week on “Washington Week.” Goodnight.