MS. IFILL: Newt Gingrich coming on strong. The 2012 candidates and foreign policy, the Supreme Court tackles health care, and the Super Committee lurches toward next week’s deadline, tonight on “Washington Week.”
FORMER REPRESENTATIVE NEWT GINGRICH [GOP Presidential Candidate]: We’re here tonight talking to the American people about why every single of us is better than Barack Obama.
MS. IFILL: Newt Gingrich is soaring in the polls. You know what that means – new scrutiny.
MAN [Reporter]: Is the 1.6 million-figure correct?
MR. GINGRICH: I don’t know. We’re going back to check.
MS. IFILL: Plus what effect might the election have on U.S. foreign policy?
FORMER GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R-MA) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: One thing you can know and that is if we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if we elect Mitt Romney, they will not have a nuclear weapon.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I am making it clear that the United States is stepping up its commitment to the entire Asia-Pacific.
MS. IFILL: Those choices get more clear as in Congress the Supreme Committee’s choice has become less clear.
REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): I’m still optimistic but I don’t hear anything – I’m realistic as well.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH) [Speaker of the House]: They’re well aware of what we’re willing to do, but you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.
MS. IFILL: And the Supreme Court agrees to an election year review of the national health care law. Covering the week: Jeanne Cummings of Bloomberg News, Major Garrett of National Journal, Lori Montgomery of the Washington Post, and Joan Biskupic of USA Today.
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 frontrunner: this time it’s former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has used the debate stage to catapult himself into the lead in national polls, and we hear today even in New Hampshire where he is neck in neck with Mitt Romney.
MR. GINGRICH: You know, things can change very rapidly. In my case, a lot of the news media said I was dead in June and July. And yesterday afternoon in Jefferson, Iowa, somebody introduced me as the frontrunner. So it’s just – you can’t tell what’s going to happen.
MS. IFILL: As Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry have learned before him, the spotlight also brings scrutiny. But first, how did Newt Gingrich get to here now, Jeanne?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, in large measure, he was waiting for the debates. Gingrich back in the summer was saying, wait for the debates, because he’s very good in them. And he can – he’s knowledgeable, he’s quick, and he has very clear messages. And so he was waiting for them to elevate his position and his intellect for the voters. And he did that and then he had to wait for the other guys to all fall when they had their moment. And so he waited out Cain. And then, as we see, the pendulum swings again and he was standing there ready to capture the light.
MS. IFILL: So he captured the light not because he had a lot of money, not because he had a lot of – I mean, he lost virtually his whole campaign staff last June, not because he – but this momentum, this free-floating group of disgruntled conservatives who seem to find a different candidate every month, every week.
MS. CUMMINGS: This is the anti-Romney group. And it’s actually right now still a majority of the Republicans, particularly in Iowa but also nationwide. It’s one of the reasons Romney just seems to hover in that 25 to 30, at best, kind of area. So it’s this pack that keeps moving from one candidate to the next. They check them out. They look at them.
What’s interesting to me is that the media coverage, while we try to do our due diligence with the – for the next person who steps up into that status, I don’t know how much we really influence what happens because it seems like the candidates themselves have made mistakes. Perry with, you don’t have a heart if you don’t agree with me on immigration. Poof, you’re gone. And then, Cain now this week was hurt by the scandal over sexual harassment, but his problems with trying to talk about Libya and that sort of thing will probably do a lot more damage to him.
MS. BISKUPIC: But, you know, Jeanne, the media played a role in terms of fleshing out some of the questionable assertions that Newt Gingrich was making in terms of his connections, what he did for Freddie Mac, some of the financial questions. And it seems like with this sudden burst of popularity in the polls, he’s necessarily going to get more scrutiny. And think of how much has developed over the past couple of days in terms of the reality of some of his connections that he’s taken advantage of from his time as House speaker.
MS. IFILL: Well, explain what she’s talking about. She’s alluding to millions of dollars he’s received.
MS. BISKUPIC: Right. Right. Is he ready for that kind of scrutiny too?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, we’ll see if he can take it. Gingrich, as we – those of us who’ve covered him for a long time know, he can be thin-skinned and can react in ways that don’t go over well in public. And we’ll see if he can hold it together.
MS. IFILL: He’s actually – he actually kind of acknowledged it this week, it all depends on how I react.
MS. CUMMINGS: Yes. That’s very good self-awareness because it’s true. (Laughter.) But he did – he’s on the wrong side of certain issues and there he was on the right side of his paying clients, but when you look at where the Republican Party is right now, for instance, working for Freddie Mac, trying to develop relationships and messages for Freddie Mac that would be compelling to conservatives, well, the only message conservatives want to hear today about Freddie Mac is shut it down, you know, hang them high. And so he’s had to completely change his perspective on that.
He also in the past has talked in a positive way about what are called the death panels. And so he’s had to move on that. And, in that case, he had a paying client that also was advocating for clients in the throes of their final months that they do make plans for how they want to be treated in the hospital at the time of death.
MR. GARRETT: This seems to bring up what may be the most difficult thing for Speaker Gingrich as I see it, because if you look at Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, they all rose, but one of the reasons they rose, one of the reasons they lit a fire among these non-Romney voters was that they were not establishment Republicans; they were not part of the Washington Republican class for a long time – Bachmann very recently, Perry not at all, Cain not at all. But there’s really no way credibly that Newt Gingrich can say he is not part of the long-running Washington Republican infrastructure.
MS. CUMMINGS: Yes. And one of his logos was he was going to be an agent of change. So he’s got a real message problem right now because he is now clearly the ultimate insider. And all of this evidence points to that. And now what you hear him say on the campaign trail is, well, because I was an insider, I know how to fix it, which is a very different message than we were hearing not too long ago.
MS. MONTGOMERY: Well, even as he’s making this sudden rise in the polls, are there any signs that these things are starting to hurt him?
MS. CUMMINGS: Yes. Well, no, not signs that they’re hurting him yet, but there are caution signs in the polls. For instance, in Iowa and New Hampshire, the number of voters who say knowing that a candidate previously supported a mandate on health insurance, everybody think Romney will now think Gingrich too. The numbers on that, in Iowa 60 percent say deal breaker; in New Hampshire, 46 percent deal breaker. So there are numbers in these polls that could be caution signs for him.
MS. IFILL: Well, Newt Gingrich is not the only one who’s being scrutinized this week. How the 2012 candidates would fair as commander-in-chief is also out there. Would they bomb Iran? Would they challenge China? Would they intervene in Syria? These and other questions are playing themselves out as challengers try to set themselves apart from the president and as the president tours the world. Major was one of the questioners at last week’s foreign policy debate. What jumped out at you?
MR. GARRETT: Well, I can’t summarize all 90 minutes rightly, but a few things really –
MS. BISKUPIC: Do try. Do try.
MR. GARRETT: But I will try – struck me. First of all, as we saw in the opening, Mitt Romney said something that, if he becomes president, it’s going to be a dominant part of whatever his presidency does or does not do to confront Iran. He said if President Obama is reelected, they’re going to get the bomb and if I’m elected, they won’t.
Well, you talk to anyone in the foreign policy community who thinks and works on this issue, or the Pentagon, they’re like, look, that kind of declarative statement may work wonders on the campaign trail, but it boxes you in and it creates a very difficult environment as you try to deal with this issue as an actual president because what are you going to do with sanctions with Iran? Are you really going to use military action and what kind? So he was much more bellicose I think and surprisingly so.
MS. IFILL: What are those same people in the foreign policy community saying about Herman Cain, who seems not to have a focused – how do we put this – a clearly thought out position on Libya, for instance? He kind of flubbed that this week, and then, today, he came out and said, well, the Taliban is in Libya, and the he has raised – he said, he doesn’t need to know this stuff because it’s the president’s job to lead not read.
MR. GARRETT: That I think is taking a very significant toll on Herman Cain, the fascinating figure in the Republican Party nominating process. I think Saturday’s debate – and we worked very hard on structuring our questions for all the candidates to avoid the temptation to recite their answers, but to actually think about their answers.
And I’m not going to characterize what I thought Herman Cain did or didn’t do as a matter of answering it, but when you constantly refer in every answer, as he nearly always did, to my advisors will tell me and I’ll seek the best people, you convey to the American public, curious about your worldview, that you actually don’t have one. And that is usually and customarily and properly so a basic qualification for someone nominated to lead a major party in this country.
MS. BISKUPIC: What about some of the other candidates when you think of some of the answers that could have been perceived as being pretty extreme, for example, on waterboarding, which was Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann too?
MR. GARRETT: And Rick Perry. Rick Perry said he would defend waterboarding until the day he died, which is not only a return to the Bush policy, but with an enthusiasm that seems a bit out of touch with where the country is and certainly where the previous Republican nominee, John McCain, who actually was subjected to torture in a North Vietnamese prison, the president of the United States and other members of the Republican Party. It’s now the law that it’s illegal. You can’t do it.
MS. BISKUPIC: So does this – those kinds of responses further marginalize people who at one point looked like they had more prospects?
MR. GARRETT: Well, it certainly indicates that this is a lively topic for debate in the Republican Party. Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul said no. These are – this undermines our values, totally opposed to it. But Romney was more or less silent on it. You couldn’t really get a sense that he thought that was a terrible thing that waterboarding. So he might be nominally in support of it.
The other thing is all the candidates there, except for Huntsman and Ron Paul, said we need to stay in Afghanistan longer. Well, that is something that’s not consistent with the polling data in this country and imposes enormous costs.
And when we asked Rick Perry, could you just summarize what the ground combat situation in Afghanistan is right now, he couldn’t do that. That was another one of those think questions. Tell us what you know about what’s actually happening on the ground. And when we approached those kinds of questions, I sometimes found the answers to be less knowledge-based than I was expecting.
MS. CUMMINGS: Major, the president was also off on a big foreign trip. How does that fit in, not fit into the debate that we saw?
MR. GARRETT: Well, there’s a tremendous amount of criticism of the president. He’s all wrong on foreign policy. But when you look at the application of the Obama foreign policy, it’s not consistent in every way with the previous Bush administration policies, but there are notable consistencies. And this week he was in Asia saying something he said a year ago. I happened to be on that trip when I was still covering the White House. And back a year ago he said the United States is and will always be a Pacific power. Well, it felt a little bit forced a year ago because he had not wound down the war in Iraq and he had not set a date certain for Afghanistan. What he was saying in Asia now is, look, those wars are ending. You in China don’t think I’m going to be bogged down with this military cost and military application of power in Afghanistan and Iraq. I’m going to turn my attention to Asia.
MS. IFILL: So his standing – he was standing in Australia, or you’re standing in other places, but each message was toward China?
MR. GARRETT: Was to China, yes. It was a Pacific message. In Australia, we’re going to move some Marines down there, a company at first, but over five years, deployment of about 2,500 Marines. That’s not a huge contingent, but it sends a signal to China the United States is aware of what is doing in the South China Sea, how it’s rattling the Vietnamese, the Philippines, and other of our allies there. And we’re not going to sit idly by. That’s the kind of thing you might think Republicans would say, yes, that’s a good idea. But it’s impossible right now to detect any sort of grace giving to this president on the Republican presidential campaign.
MS. IFILL: One thing we know for sure, when you’re running to be commander-in-chief, it helps to already be commander-in-chief because you climb up there on that platform quite easily.
Now we turn to Capitol Hill, where the once secretive Super Committee created to come with a bipartisan deficit cutting agreement is now beginning to negotiate in public. At issue – taxes, spending, and a looming deadline that could result in painful across the board cuts, or not.
Lori knows as much about this as anyone, what’s real and what’s not. What’s happening tonight, Lori?
MS. MONTGOMERY: There is nothing happening tonight. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Oh, good. Big story.
MS. MONTGOMERY: Dave Camp left his office at something like 6:00 p.m. I don’t know what time Harry Reid and McConnell left. But the place was deserted when I left to come here.
MS. IFILL: So much for deadlines.
MS. MONTGOMERY: Tomorrow’s first meeting of the Super Committee meeting is a conference call. So these guys aren’t even – the sense of urgency that we saw around the debt limit debate this summer, when there was actually a consequence to failure, is utterly absent.
MS. IFILL: But what does this across-the-aboard cut? That’s not a consequence to failure?
MS. MONTGOMERY: It’s a year away. They have a year to figure this out and that’s why nothing is happening because this – after we dealt with the federal government shutdown in April and rushed to get an agreement on the budget, and after we dealt with the threat of like the first default on our debt in August and rushed to get an agreement, they set up this Super Committee to solve the problem, but they specifically said, we’re not going to have some kind of cataclysmic backstop to this thing. We want to give you time to work this out. And they put the punishment for failure in January 2013. So, yes, we have these very draconian cuts coming.
MS. CUMMINGS: But, Lori, they have other – there are other things that the committee was supposed to deal with that are not related to the deficit – the payroll tax, some unemployment benefits. And, in fact, the payroll tax expansion and extension is really important to the White House in terms of economic recovery. What happens to those issues?
MS. MONTGOMERY: And arguably very important to the actual economy, as is unemployment benefits. And, at this point, I don’t think they know because there’s a sort of sense that they were going to be able to do something. They were talking about maybe they could get some of this stuff onto the Super Committee. This was the strategy, to sort of get all of the big stuff off the table before the election. And now that it’s kind of falling apart, they’re going to have to work it out.
MS. BISKUPIC: So how will they work it out? What will happen between next week when this huge deadline, that turns out to be really tiny, happens and 2013? What will be the pressure for the committee and who will even be – what will happen in terms of actual hard work?
MS. MONTGOMERY: Well, there are two issues. One is solving this immediate problem about what do you do about the –
MS. CUMMINGS: Can they put it in separate legislation?
MS. MONTGOMERY: Well, that’s what they’re going to have to do. I mean, the payroll tax holiday expires in January, even many Republicans are loathe to raise people’s taxes in an election year. And unemployment benefits, obviously, there are six million people receiving benefits. You can’t just cut them off. So that expires in January as well.
MS. IFILL: But the larger question is about taxes and spending and deficit reduction –
MS. MONTGOMERY: Later. So the theory now is we’re going to fight about this throughout 2012. Probably very little will happen, unless there is some – you know, who knows. Anything could happen, I guess. But at this point, the thinking is, especially among Democrats, that we get through the election, we throw this whole thing into the lame duck after Obama theoretically is safely elected, and then he has a huge hammer. Not only are those very tough spending cuts about to hit in January 2013 that nobody wants to see, but the Bush tax cuts expire. And if he’s reelected, let them expire. And then send up a bill that says, you know, I don’t want the tax cuts for the rich. And Congress has no – I mean, he’s got the lever.
MR. GARRETT: One of the premises for the Super Committee was that if you get these 12 people and you have immediate access to the House floor, no amendments, no filibuster in the Senate, the procedural strength that you build around this could solve some of the underlying political problems. What have we learned about that premise going in?
MS. MONTGOMERY: Well, I mean, it was a golden opportunity for them to do something if they really wanted to do it. I mean, this 50 votes in the Senate – you don’t get to do anything with 50 votes in the Senate anymore. But, clearly, the will just wasn’t there to compromise.
MS. IFILL: But yet this week I thought I kept hearing – maybe I was over listening – I kept hearing sounds that sounded like compromise. Harry Reid kept saying, are we – he kept winking. Jeb Hensarling, the Republican leader of the committee felt like he was winking. Patty Murray, not much of a winker.
MS. MONTGOMERY: Not much of a winker. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: But it felt like somebody was talking about movement. And was I hearing that wrong?
MS. MONTGOMERY: There was a period last weekend where it looked like something might happen. Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Dave Camp, the chairman of the House, Ways, and Means Committee were meeting and they were talking about – I mean, if sources are accurate, they were talking about as much as $650 billion in taxes. Now, the Republicans have up front offered $300 billion in new taxes, which is huge for them. That’s like a break with the anti-tax orthodoxy that has governed the party for decades. If they were really willing to go to 600 and Democrats were really willing to offer some things on Medicare and Social Security, you could have seen the beginnings of a very serious, credible deficit reduction bill.
MS. IFILL: Except it’s not.
MS. MONTGOMERY: But it all fell apart and each side blamed the other side and who knows where the truth was at this point.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, thank you, Lori. So much for that knowing everything that was going on behind the scenes. Thanks a lot.
Well, on to the Supreme Court. They may not have meant to do it, but the court also stepped squarely into the middle of the 2012 election this week. In agreeing to hear challenges to the nation’s health care law, they set up a legal battle that will most certainly have broad political implications. The question is why. Joan.
MS. BISKUPIC: Well, think of how much is riding on this. First of all, the court doesn’t just pick and choose. Oh, we’ll look at this, we’ll look at this dilemma. You know, cases come up. And this case has been percolating up essentially since March 23rd, 2010, when President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, as it’s known. And there’s so much at stake.
First of all, it was the signature domestic agenda piece for President Obama -- devoted his whole first year to it. For Congress, it really goes to the core of federal power and congressional power beyond this piece of legislation. For the court, this is a real defining moment for the Roberts court. And then, most importantly, for all sorts of people out in America who need health care. What is this all going to be about? And also for the employers and small business people who might have to pay for it and have greater responsibility there.
MS. IFILL: The court has already scheduled five and a half hours of oral arguments on this. That’s a lot, a lot, which is a signal as good as any that this is going to be a pivotal, pivotal case.
MS. BISKUPIC: Yes, not in any of our – not in the modern era have they devoted five and a half hours to a particular case, likely hear it over two days in March. I hope we’ll have a lunch break. (Laughter.) We’re all kind of gearing up for this. You know, the justices themselves are not spring chickens. They’re kind of old. They don’t like to sit for a long time and neither do we. But this is going to be great because it’s going to be argued by, first of all, the cream of the crop of the appellate bar is going to be arguing this case.
And we’ve got several issues, Gwen. That’s why it’s so many hours. You’ve got the basic question of what is Congress’ interstate commerce power? And did it exceed it in passing the Affordable Care Act? Then there are questions about if that part of the sweeping legislation fails, does it bring down the whole bill that was more than 1,000 pages.
MS. CUMMINGS: Joan.
MS. BISKUPIC: Yes.
MS. CUMMINGS: Joan, I’ve kind of lost track in terms of the win-loss record of the law – in the lower courts. I mean, we know now it’s finally there, but –
MS. BISKUPIC: Yes. We had a handful of the lowest rung trial judges handle it but then we had four courts of appeals, which is the second tier of our federal judicial system. And two upheld it right here in Washington, D.C. The D.C. Circuit upheld it, and as did the Cincinnati-based Sixth Circuit. They both rejected the challenges. The 11th Circuit case, which is the one before the justices from the Florida challenges and other states, that’s where it was rule unconstitutional where that appellate panel said that Congress indeed overstepped its authority on that key issue. And then, finally, we had the Richmond-based Fourth Circuit say, this is premature. This cannot come up yet to the federal courts until someone actually has to buy health insurance. That’s – to remind our viewers that’s the key thing at issue here -- the idea that most Americans would have to purchase insurance by 2014 or face a tax penalty.
MS. IFILL: They’re saying nothing can be challenged until 2014.
MS. BISKUPIC: Or even after that, after you seek the refund for the tax penalty you would pay.
MS. MONTGOMERY: Well, the primary constitutional question is whether or not Congress can compel me to buy health insurance. I have health insurance.
MS. BISKUPIC: It wasn’t personal.
MS. MONTGOMERY: But it’s also the expansion of Medicaid, right?
MS. BISKUPIC: That’s another key question. Yes.
MS. MONTGOMERY: Why is that a constitutional issue?
MS. BISKUPIC: Well, the issue again is – okay. Medicaid is the federal-state program that provides care for poor people, most – overwhelmingly funded by the federal government and states voluntarily go part of it. But the health care law expanded Medicaid eligibility, and the states said, that’s going to put more of a burden on us. The federal government said, well, you know, look, you don’t have to be part of this. You don’t have to sign up for this. And, indeed, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which struck down the part of the mandatory insurance provision said, no. The Medicaid expansion is perfectly constitutional. That’s fine. So it’s interesting that the Supreme Court will now weigh in on that. And that is really dicey.
MR. GARRETT: Let me ask you a question that just has two words in it: legacy and recusal. How do those fit into what the court may or may not do? Legacy for the court itself, for Justice Roberts, and does anyone have to be –
MS. BISKUPIC: Yes. Yes. Big legacy, no recusals.
MR. GARRETT: Okay. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: I didn’t mean that short. (Laughter.)
MS. BISKUPIC: No. What he’s referring to is the fact that there’s been challenges to Elena Kagan, who was a top Obama administration lawyer, solicitor general, whether she should have to recuse because she was part of the administration. She said she did not get involved herself in any of the litigation strategy so she should not.
MS. IFILL: Oh, okay. See, that was good.
MS. BISKUPIC: Yes. You gave me a few more words and I was able to give you a little more.
MR. GARRETT: I do so appreciate it.
MS. IFILL: Thank you all very much. That’s all the time we have, but I assure you that the conversation that you’re listening to here will continue online. Be sure to check out our “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” And while you’re online, read my blog where I take on a few of the more provocative questions I’ve gotten from you lately on my travels. Keep up with daily developments every night on the PBS “NewsHour.” Then catch up with us again next week on “Washington Week.” And have a happy and a blessed Thanksgiving. Good night.