MS. IFILL: End of the year maneuverings on the campaign trail, where Mitt Romney fends off the Gingrich threat, and on Capitol Hill, where they’re staring each other down, plus the end of the Iraq war, tonight on “Washington Week.”
Mostly polite on stage –
NEWT GINGRICH [GOP Presidential Candidate]: I’m not in the business of blaming Governor Romney. I’m in the business to try and understand what we can do as a policy.
NEIL CAVUTO [Fox News Anchor]: Governor Romney, do you want to respond to that compliment?
FORMER GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R-MA) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: Yes. Thank you.
REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL (R-TX) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: Fortunately for the Republican Party this year, probably anybody up here could probably beat Obama.
MS. IFILL: Mostly polite.
REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN (R-MN) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: Well, is the fact that we know that he cashed paychecks from Freddie Mac, over $1.6 million.
MS. IFILL: But things are heating up on the trail.
FMR. GOV. ROMNEY: Zany is great in a campaign. It’s great on talk radio. But in terms of a president, we need a leader.
MR. GINGRICH: If Governor Romney would like to give back all the money he’s earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain, then I would be glad to then listen to him.
MS. IFILL: Countdown to Iowa. And yet, another showdown on Capitol Hill over taxes, spending, deadlines.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH) [Speaker of the House]: I think everyone just needs to step back and take a deep breath.
REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): And as we come to the end of the 112th Congress, it can clearly be labeled the Republican do-nothing Congress.
MS. IFILL: Happy holiday to you, too. And the official end of the war in Iraq.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So as your commander-in-chief and on behalf of a grateful nation, welcome home. (Applause, cheers.) Welcome home.
MS. IFILL: But can the nation and the president really claim victory?
Covering the week: Dan Balz of the Washington Post, Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times, Jeanne Cummings of Bloomberg News, and Laura Meckler of the Wall Street 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. This week gave us the state of the presidential campaign in a nutshell. The Republicans are taking aim at frontrunner Newt Gingrich. Gingrich is doing his best to prove he is a man of big ideas who won’t lose his cool. And everyone is looking over his or her shoulder at Ron Paul. It was all on display Thursday in the last debate of the year. Paul preached hands-off government.
REP. PAUL: I would be a different kind of president. I wouldn’t be looking for more power. Everybody wants to be a powerful executive and run things. I, as a president, wouldn’t want to run the world. I don’t want to police individual activities and their lifestyle and I don’t want to run the economy.
MS. IFILL: Gingrich wanted everyone to know he is prepared to lead.
MR. GINGRICH: I think on the conservative thing, it’s sort of laughable to suggest that somebody who campaigned with Ronald Reagan and with Jack Kemp and has had a 30-year record or conservatism is somehow not a conservative.
MS. IFILL: And Romney on the campaign trail, if not on the debate stage, boasts of having a steadier hand than Gingrich. Jeff Zeleny asked Romney if he thinks Gingrich is too Zany to be president.
FMR. GOV. ROMNEY: Zany is not what we need in a president. Zany is great in a campaign. It’s great on talk radio. It’s great in the print. It beats – it makes for fun reading. But in terms of a president, we need a leader.
MS. IFILL: So let’s start with last night, Dan. What was everyone trying to prove on that stage?
MR. BALZ: Well, I mean, you have to think of last night a closing arguments. It is the last debate before the caucuses in Iowa, which are on January 3rd. And I think for Gingrich it was an effort to try to tell people, yes, there may have been chaos while I was speaker of the House, but remember what I was able to accomplish. If you don’t think I can lead, look at what we did while I was speaker. So it was an effort to push away from the criticism he’s gotten and focus on what he’s done.
Governor Romney was interesting. He decided to stay totally positive. He spent the week in interviews with a number of news organizations.
MS. IFILL: The both of you.
MR. BALZ: The both of us – going after Gingrich. But in the debate he decided not to. And I think it was his effort largely to bring the issue back to the fact that he has the unique capability that nobody else on that stage has in his estimation and that is, I can defeat President Obama.
MS. IFILL: I had a split-screen experience watching the debate last night because on one screen I was getting all these e-mails from the Romney campaign saying very harsh things about Newt Gingrich, but on the debate screen, there was Mitt Romney not landing a glove on him. And I thought that was part of the strategy.
MR. ZELENY: It is. And the Iowa voters have a similar experience because they’ve been watching these very tough commercials and they’ve been getting really sharp and pointed mailers in their mail boxes almost every day from the Romney campaign or his allies. But Dan’s absolutely right – the Romney campaign made a decision to really over the last like 10 days or so just to throw everything but the kitchen sink and even almost the kitchen sink at Speaker Gingrich. But he wanted to close it sort of on a high note.
He knows that Iowa conservatives, Iowa Republicans don’t love him all that much. He knows that he wanted to sort of leave this – a sweet taste in their mouth as opposed to sour taste in their mouth and that he is the guy who can beat President Obama. He was pushing the long-range goal, not the short-term hit.
MS. CUMMINGS: Jeff and Dan, Ron Paul has been coming on strong. There are some people who think he might pull an upset in Iowa. I wonder if you all think that could actually happen. And then, also, his foreign policy remarks last night, where he said he would withdraw all troops and withdraw really from the world, could that be a disqualifying position for him to take with Republican voters?
MR. BALZ: There are a lot of people in Iowa who think he has the best organization on the ground. Now, you never know that until the night of the caucus. You know, in 2003, a lot of people thought Howard Dean had the best organization. Jeff was actually one of the few people who started to poke some holes in it well before, but most everybody thought he had a great organization. It turned out he didn’t. But we think that Ron Paul has been pretty diligent on the organizational front. He clearly has a ceiling in Iowa. It’s probably somewhere in the low 20s. If it’s a very crowded finish, he could be second. Maybe he could slip into first. The lowest anybody’s won Iowa with is 26 percent by Bill Duddet (ph) in 1996. But he’s a real force and a real factor out there.
MS. IFILL: So, Jeff, if you poked holes in it before, poke holes in it again. What are you doing?
MR. ZELENY: Well, that was Howard Dean saying he was going to do a meet-up in all 99 counties in Iowa and it just rang a little false to us. I was at the Chicago Tribune at the time so we sent a few reporters around the state to find out if he was doing this. Some of these meetings weren’t even happening. So it’s a little bit harder on Ron Paul. You know that he has some real followers. He has the most committed people, but you talk to some Republicans who like a lot of his ideas on the fiscal side of things, kind of cringe when he starts talking about foreign policy. And now is time to be serious and to pick someone who can beat President Obama, not just satisfy an interest right now. So it’s just hard to know.
But so many of the campaigns are not well organized this year. I mean, we go to events out there and we just don’t see as many volunteers sort of signing people up. There haven’t been as many events as there have been in recent years. So he probably does have the strongest organization, but he probably – it’s an open question because he has a heavy lift here to sort of persuade people across the board.
MR. BALZ: I went into the offices of most of the candidates the week before last, early in the evening when you would expect to see activity. And they were all virtually empty. I mean, we’ve just never seen anything quite like this is in a campaign.
MS. MECKLER: So, as we all know, the winner of the Iowa caucuses is not always the winner of the nomination. Far from it. How long do you think this nomination fight could go among the Republicans? And are any candidates – how many of the candidates are really prepared for a long fight?
MR. ZELENY: I think that’s a good question because the Republican Party has changed its rules this year. It’s much more like the Democratic Party in the past. It’s not winner take all. So coming in second place is almost as good as coming in first place as the states go along the line through the end of March.
So it’s very possible that this – if things are competitive and there’s a split decision between Iowa and New Hampshire, then maybe South Carolina and Florida also have a split decision, it could go on for several months because the candidates need to get delegates to win. If you ask Mitt Romney what is his path to winning the nomination, he will not say Iowa or New Hampshire. He’ll say 1,150, and that’s almost the number of delegates that he needs to win. So he’s prepared to go the distance. The others are not quite as prepared at this point, but it’s still possible that they could sign up people and sort of go the distance.
MS. IFILL: One more question before we turn to the Democratic side of the equation, which is about Gingrich. One more Gingrich question. You know, what Mitt Romney is trying to do is paint him as unstable without using the word “unstable.” The word they use is “unreliable.” Do we know whether that’s having any impact?
MR. BALZ: Well, I don’t think simply Governor Romney saying it, but you have this kind of weight of a lot of people in the Republican Party, particularly kind of the elite, the elected officials who remember what it was like when he was speaker and the fact that he was – it was a chaotic period and ultimately there was a coup attempt again him which failed but ultimately he stepped down after they had disappointing results in 1998. And not only Governor Romney, but all these other Republicans are saying this. It is, I think, going to take some kind of a toll.
And he has adopted a posture at this point of saying, I’m going to try to stay above this. I’m not going to respond. I’m going to stay positive. But there’s a lot coming after him. And, as Jeff said, I mean, the advertisements in Iowa are constant. And the super PAC, the Romney super PAC, which does throw the kitchen sink at him is on all the time.
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, aren’t some of the polls showing a little bit of decline or a tightening of the race or has Gingrich sort of leapt ahead and then it looks like it tightened back up. I don’t know if these are polls that we should all be relying on or –
MR. ZELENY: I’m not sure that these polls are as credible as some of the others. We’re all sort of like the Des Moines Register poll, the final one of the year. But I think anecdotally, and this sort of the sense you have, you can see that all this information is being absorbed by voters.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about the Democrats. They’re watching this, presumably not unhappily. Do they have a path to victory? Do they have a map that they’ve shared with anybody of how they plan to do this?
MR. BALZ: They have a half a dozen maps. (Laughter.) But, I mean, they had a briefing last week in Washington which Jeff and I were both at with the senior staff from the campaign. And they put up a slide of six different paths to the magic 270 electoral votes. Partly what they were trying to emphasize is that they have a lot of different routes to get there, that they’re not going to be confined to having to win Ohio or win Florida in order to win a second term. And, you know, in many ways, they’re pretty credible about that because it’s the same thing they did four years ago. But, you know, the economy is different. The lack of enthusiasm for him is notable in a lot of places. So they try to put a very good gloss on it.
MR. ZELENY: And the bottom line is they’re going to need all these options because the unemployment numbers are state by state. Some of them aren’t going to look as good. So that’s why they have all these options.
MS. MECKLER: And the Republicans responded to that – to those different paths to victory by saying, yes, but his poll numbers are down in this place and they’re down in that place. And is it really a different path in each place? In other words, is there a different way to win North Carolina and Virginia than it is to win the Rocky Mountain West?
MR. BALZ: Well, their assumption all along is that there is kind of an Obama coalition which is unique to American politics and that in some states, like Ohio, that coalition doesn’t exist as much as it does in some states like Virginia or North Carolina, which is to say a lot of younger voters, minorities, well educated folks. That tends to be more concentrated in some of these growth states which he was able to win. So they look at Ohio as a tough sled. A lot of people look at North Carolina and say, how is he going to win that again? They claim they feel as good about North Carolina as they do about Ohio.
MS. IFILL: Can the Obama folks out-populist the populists in the Republican Party?
MR. ZELENY: They’re sure going to try. And the president gave his big speech in Kansas last week and sort of like sent this message. And the Obama people are very sensitive to the subject of saying, this is the first populist speech he’s ever given. They have pointed out in transcripts and like he’s given them all the way back to 2005 when he was in the U.S. Senate. So we’re going to have a big competition between who can be the most populist.
MS. IFILL: Well, and some of that fight is happening on Capitol Hill. Here we are, another year’s end, another stare-them-down standoff up on the Hill. Will the payroll tax holiday be extended? Will Congress force the president to approve a Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline? And, once again, will the government shut down? Now, we know the answer to that last one. It turns out not – yet. But the other two remain up in the air. So where does all the brinksmanship stand tonight, Jeanne?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, once again –
MS. IFILL: Don’t roll your eyes at me. (Laughter.)
MS. CUMMINGS: One game they’re really good at is kick the can down the road and it appears that’s where we are tonight – that an agreement was reached on Capitol Hill early this evening to extend the payroll tax, unemployment benefits for two months. And so they’ll be back at it in February. And attached to that is some language that would force the White House to provide an earlier decision on the trans-Canada Keystone pipeline that’s going to cut across the country if it’s approved. We have not seen that language.
Senator Conrad early or late this afternoon told a Bloomberg reporter that that language was not problematic – that where they got stuck was from trying to find the cuts to pay for the full extension of the payroll tax and the unemployment benefits. That leads me to believe that we really want to take a look at that language to find out, is it fuzzy and just how fuzzy is it, how much wiggle room might there be for the president inside of that particular plan.
MS. IFILL: How much bipartisanship is evident in these negotiations at this late date – at this latest date?
MS. CUMMINGS: Today, starting from the morning there was a sense that they were – there was a deal within their grasp. And there was real work being done. You had leadership – McConnell, Reid – coming out and they weren’t slamming one another. And even at the end the rhetoric was not as we have seen it before where they come out and sort of blame one another.
So, again, we got – we have to see what they’ve done, but it raises the specter that what – they just couldn’t get it done now and that they’re going to take the two months to try to figure out – they were very close. It’s $119 billion that they needed to find and they got $100 billion of it pretty easy. It was the last $19 billion that were there. And the House version of the bill did things like freezing federal employees’ salaries and playing with their retirement, increasing Medicare costs for wealthy people. And the Senate was moving in a very different direction. And there on the table for them were Pell grants and a little of foreign aid and a little bit of EPA, really spreading around where they were taking the money. And so those are a lot of pieces of the puzzle you have to put together.
MR. BALZ: Jeanne, how did the Keystone pipeline become so central to the final stages of these?
MS. CUMMINGS: It’s a natural. I think payroll tax, I think pipeline. Come on. (Laughter.) Basically, you know, it was a bargaining chip. And Senator McCulski had a great line today where she said, this is like negotiating a treaty and we’re trying to figure out what we can give up for peace. And the Republicans, early in December, about three weeks ago realized they didn’t have a chip on the table. Every fight was over give the tax cut and help the unemployed or protect millionaires. And the Republicans were always over there protecting the millionaires. They needed a new dynamic.
MS. IFILL: That was a pipe they needed. Yes.
MS. CUMMINGS: Right. So enter the pipeline. And they justified it by saying, and this is a legitimate argument, that this is a very big project, $7 billion, cutting all the way across the United States from Canada to the Gulf and there will be a lot of jobs in there. And so that’s how they put that one on the table.
MS. MECKLER: So what overall do you think this is going to do to the American perceptions of Congress, which are at rock bottom lows? Do you think that this deal is going to convince people that they did avert a government shutdown so to their credit.
MS. CUMMINGS: That seems all –
MS. MECKLER: I mean, is it just as bad as – does it make it worse?
MS. CUMMINGS: I don’t think it would make it worse. I’m guessing here, but I don’t see how they help themselves. Seventy-six percent is the latest number in the polls who believe that members should not be reelected. There’s very much a “throw the bums out” attitude out there. You look at public opinion polls and they don’t – we had one – and this was several months ago – in Bloomberg where we asked them, have you just given up on Washington? At that point, 54 percent were still hanging in. I don’t know where they are today.
MR. ZELENY: So what exactly does this mean for the early months of next year, since they kicked this can down the road, when do they pick it up and what happens?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, it does – they pick it up in February. So it’s on top of them pretty quickly, which is why you wonder if they don’t have the next step kind of in play. Then they also are in the process this weekend of passing legislation that will fund the government, so we did avoid that shutdown. That was run separately through Congress. And that goes until September, raising the notion that very close to the election we could have yet another crisis.
MS. IFILL: They can only hope we’re all paying attention to the election and not to them. No chance. So the Obama White House was eager this week to take credit for a promise kept: the final withdrawal of the U.S. troops, of all U.S. troops from Iraq. The president marked the moment with a visit to the Fort Bragg Army Base in North Carolina.
PRES. OBAMA: As your commander-in-chief and on behalf of a grateful nation, I’m proud to finally say these two words, and I know your families agree: welcome home.
MS. IFILL: Earlier in the week, there was a ceremonial visit from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But there are still quite a few loose ends out there, aren’t there, Laura?
MS. MECKLER: There really are, I mean, more in Iraq frankly than there are here in the United States where the withdrawal from Iraq was extremely popular – still is extremely popular. But there in Iraq we still don’t know whether – there’s still violence there. Will that violence abate with the U.S. withdrawal or will it spike back up? They have major questions to answer about how they’re going to divide oil revenues, about how their judiciary is going to be set up. And then there’s big geopolitical questions – how big of an influence is Iran going to have in Iraq’s affairs? That’s something that a lot of people in this country are worried about.
And then there are political implications back here. Republicans have been very critical of the fact that even though this withdrawal is happening on the pace that was set under President Bush, a lot of Republicans think that the U.S. should have tried harder to stay, at least a small force to remain in Iraq to create and maintain some of the stability that’s been there.
Americans are absolutely there. And, in fact, there are 4,000 or 5,000 contractors who are security contractors with guns. So it’s not like there are no Americans there. But we don’t have any bases there. We don’t have soldiers there. It’s a changing relationship and one that President Obama has been eager to portray as a relationship between two independent nations rather than one that’s invaded the other.
MR. ZELENY: Speaking of President Obama, what are the politics of this for him? I mean, he’s someone who largely was elected because of his opposition to the war and then he expanded the war. Politically, does this help him at all or is this just a sign of the times, a passage of a moment in history?
MS. MECKLER: Well, it’s really remarkable because this war was so divisive in this country. I mean, it’s almost hard to remember how stark the differences were over whether we should have gone into Iraq, and then once we were there, how to fix the mess.
And, indeed, Obama probably wouldn’t be president today were it not for his early opposition to the war. And you think that that him ending the war might give him a little bit of a political bump along with other national security achievements as well. You know, taking out Osama bin Laden, a whole string of al Qaeda leaders.
But, you know, it’s just not doing anything for him. The economy, as you know, is the number one issue. And I think his aides, even though they’re doing everything they can to get the word out about these achievements, they know that this probably in the end isn’t going to mean much. The one thing it may mean for him is that sort of takes an attack away from Republicans on an issue that Democrats are usually vulnerable on.
MR. BALZ: Are there any circumstances that you can foresee under which U.S. troops would go back into Iraq?
MS. MECKLER: That’s one of the unanswered questions here, too, is that there is some talk about that. For instance, we’re selling F-16 fighter jets to Iraq and we’re going to have to train the pilots how to use them. So where is that going to happen? Will that happen inside the country? Will it happen outside the country? And there may be calls later down the road and the administration has said, if Iraq asks us to come back, we’ll consider that.
MS. IFILL: If Iran’s threat is up to a serious threat is up, maybe that provides a pretext.
MS. MECKLER: Yes. And all of these things are things that the White House has been very eager not to talk about. The last thing they want stepping on their story about the end of the war in Iraq is any conversation about new military involvement. So it certainly isn’t going to be anything like we’ve seen lately, but, you know, there is always – there is an outstanding question about that.
MS. CUMMINGS: Laura, I felt like the White House really rolled out the red carpet and they had a number of really high-profile events with the president of Iraq, Maliki. How is that relationship?
MS. MECKLER: You know, it’s interesting because I don’t think the two of them are particularly close, but they both had their own domestic political concerns which lined up. I mean, Maliki needs American troops out of Iraq as much as Obama needs to get out of Iraq. And so, essentially, that put them on the same path. And because of that, they’re sort of partners in arms. They spent a lot of time one-on-one together in the Oval Office really discussing some very sensitive issues and then had what was I think a fairly symbolic and dramatic moment where they went to Arlington and where they laid that wreath.
MS. IFILL: Yes. Laid that wreath. Laura, thank you and welcome to “Washington Week.”
MS. MECKLER: Thank you.
MS. IFILL: Thanks everybody else as well. We have to leave it there for now, but the conversation will continue online. We’ll keep chatting away on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra.”
Next week we take a look back at the year just past and ahead at the year to come. Join in by sending your questions to us on Facebook, Twitter, or our Washington Week homepage at pbs.org. We’ll answer the best of them next week on our yearend webcast.
In the meantime, keep up with daily developments on the PBS NewsHour and we’ll see you here next week on Washington Week. Goodnight.