MS. IFILL: Post-New Hampshire, pre-South Carolina. One candidate tries to seal the deal. The rest try to take him down. And the president jumps into the fray. Plus, the Supreme Court tackles free speech, tonight, on Washington Week.
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: Tonight we’re asking the good people of South Carolina to join the citizens of New Hampshire and make 2012 the year he runs out of time.
MS. IFILL: Mitt Romney at the top of the heap. Two contests under his belt, $19 million in the bank, and new endorsements rolling in every day. So now he has his very own circular firing squad.
NARRATOR [Political Advertisement]: For tens of thousands of Americans, the suffering began when Mitt Romney came to town.
FORMER SPEAKER NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: There is a profound fundamental difference between a Massachusetts moderate and a Reagan conservative.
FORMER SENATOR RICK SANTORUM (R-PA) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: The idea that he’s wrapped up the Republican nomination because he won by eight votes in Iowa and he won his home state is just silly.
TEXAS GOVERNOR RICK PERRY (R) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: Mitt Romney and Bain Capital were involved with what I call vulture capitalism.
REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL (R-TX) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: He certainly had a clear-cut victory, but we’re nibbling at his heels.
MS. IFILL: And no one is watching the Republican campaign more closely than the Democrats.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So if you’ve still got that energy, if you are still fired up, I promise you change will come.
MS. IFILL: Meanwhile, the Supreme Court dives into an eventful year, beginning with the decision about religious liberty and an argument over TV decency.
Covering the week: Jeanne Cummings of Bloomberg News, Beth Reinhard of National Journal, Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics, and Pete Williams of NBC News.
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. After New Hampshire and before South Carolina, the battle lines are now well drawn in the Republican primary race. The candidate who has won over the most voters, raised the most money, and earned the most focused attention from the White House is former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. He’s focusing his attention on the president as well.
MR. ROMNEY: I understand the president last night was speaking at a fund raiser in Chicago. And he said, I can promise you that change is coming. And he’s right. (Laughter.) And the name of that change is Mitt Romney.
MS. IFILL: But not so fast. Before Romney can take on the president directly, he has to win more than a single caucus and a single primary. And, lest we forget, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry are still in this thing.
Gingrich, who was within striking distance so far in the Palmetto state, appears to be the one running hardest, targeting Romney’s business background.
MR. GINGRICH: I’m all for people becoming successful. They’re out there creating jobs engaged in exactly the kind of competitive behavior we want. This is a question of Governor Romney’s character. It’s not capitalism that’s on trial.
MS. IFILL: Indeed. Gingrich and the others all hope voters put Romney on trial. How is that playing out so far, Beth?
MS. REINHARD: Well, it’s giving voters sort of a preview of the general election because the argument that the Republicans are making is very similar to the one that we’ve been hearing from the Democratic Party and other allies of Obama that Romney is not the kind of – not the job creator he makes himself out to be but actually this corporate raider who preys on working people and milks companies for profits at their expense.
MS. IFILL: But it’s not insignificant that they are making the same argument that the Democrats are making, and that was Romney’s point which is, hey, wait a second, you’re consorting with the enemy here.
MS. REINHARD: Right. And you’ve seen tremendous conservative backlash, folks that never showed much – that they didn’t care much for Romney are now leaping to his defense because they fear it really muddles the vision of the Republican Party. They want to be very clear the Republican Party is the party on the side of business, on the side of free enterprise. And so Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry are kind of muddying the waters with that.
MS. IFILL: But, Jeanne, Mitt Romney is well positioned to fight back, isn’t he?
MS. CUMMINGS: Oh, I should say.
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MS. CUMMINGS: He has raised more money than anyone. He’s running more ads. He basically is following Obama’s playbook from last cycle, although he’s not raising that kind of money, but he’s ahead. He’s raised $56 million in 2011. And the one closest to him is Ron Paul, having raised $25 million. And then you cut that in half and you get around where Newt Gingrich is because he had that surge in December and they had some good fundraising in that last month. So Romney is well prepared. You add his cash advantage with his outside committee -- friendly committee that’s run by his former aides, which also has a lot of money.
And they basically have a good cop/bad cop strategy in their advertising. In Florida, for instance, Romney is the first one up. He’s running $1 million worth of ads already in Florida, all positive – restore our future.
MS. IFILL: Yes. Right.
MS. CUMMINGS: This committee has $1 million in ads, all negative.
MS. IFILL: When I was in New Hampshire – and, Beth, you were there too – we both watched the TV on all the time. And there were not that many ads. There were – and the ones that were run by the Huntsman folks were by his outside friendly PAC –
MS. CUMMINGS: Right. Our Destiny. Yes.
MS. IFILL: Is that the name of the –
MS. CUMMINGS: The New Hampshire number – yes. The New Hampshire numbers are fascinating because I heard the same thing – where are the ads? Where are the ads? Well, I went and got the data. And everybody pulled their guns out. Only Mitt Romney was seriously running ads up in New Hampshire. Ron Paul had a pretty good flight. And then, Our Destiny, Jon Huntsman’s committee, dropped $2 million. So that’s one quick way to judge: was that his last stand? You bet it was because down in South Carolina, they aren’t even on air yet.
MS. IFILL: But, Beth, really different in South Carolina because they may not be on air yet, the Huntsman folks –
MS. CUMMINGS (?): The rest of them are.
MS. IFILL: – because they maybe don’t have a lot of money, but everything else is completely bought up. South Carolina stakes are higher.
MS. REINHARD: Right. I think the ad buys in South Carolina before the New Hampshire primary had even taken place were – exceeded what the New Hampshire voters had seen. So that’s really become the battleground – became the battleground even before New Hampshire. The voters went to the polls there because everyone kind of knew that Mitt Romney was going to win that. So Rick Perry already went to South Carolina before New Hampshire voters went to the polls. The race went on to South Carolina very quickly.
MR. WILLIAMS: We didn’t hear much about the tea party in New Hampshire. Will it be a bigger player in South Carolina? And if so, how?
MS. REINHARD: I would think so that the tea party would be a bigger player, but it is surprising and it’s one of the very interesting things about Mitt Romney’s candidacy is at a time when the tea party has been such a force in American politics, we have a candidate that they don’t much like and haven’t made a secret of that for a long time.
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, and, Beth, wouldn’t you say the tea partiers in South Carolina are having the same problem that the social conservatives had in Iowa? And that is –
MS. IFILL: Too many choices.
MS. CUMMINGS: – there are too many choices. They’re scattered among the three candidates on the outside. And then the voice of the tea party coalition in South Carolina, Nikki Haley, the governor, has endorsed Romney.
MS. IFILL: And Jim DeMint, the senator, isn’t endorsing anybody, but is saying friendly things about Romney.
MS. REINHARD: He came to Romney’s defense this week on the capitalism.
MS. SIMENDINGER: So, Jeanne, I was paying attention to what the Obama campaign was talking about this week. They raised $68 million at the end of 2011 and they started talking about, no, no, no, we’re not going to have $1 billion campaign. This is the wrong impression. And they also were pretty candid in the last two weeks about how concerned they are with Mitt Romney’s super PAC, the pro-Romney ability to gin up these very harsh ads and what that might do to President Obama looking forward. What do you make of this idea that, no, no, we’re not going to be able to raise or come close to $1 billion?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, they’re capable of raising $1 billion. What they’re afraid of is that people are not giving because they say, oh, my gosh, you’ve already got so much money. You really don’t need my $10 or my $200 or $2,000. And so they want to blunt that. And they want to gin up some fear against Romney and his machine. And they know they’re in for a hard fight. And Romney’s resources can give them a hard fight, especially when you add in what the Republican Party will bring to bear. And what’s interesting I think is that they are taking that money now. Clearly, they’re not running many ads. The DNC runs a few every once in a while. But Romney has in New Hampshire a bigger operation than any other Republican candidate.
MS. IFILL: I don’t think we can understate how much these super PACs, these friendly outside groups who don’t have any limits on what they can raise for a candidate and how that has changed. Pete, you covered the Citizens United case at the Supreme Court and how that changed everything. But I’m curious about how it’s perceived. Republicans and Democrats differ on the value of the super PACs that have sprung up this cycle.
A National Journal Political Insiders Poll shows 94 percent of Democrats saying that they disapprove on balance – that these nominally independent political groups are negative; 59 percent of Republican insiders say they are positive. Still, there is a healthy 41 percent who also say they’re negative. So, in either case, how are they changing the landscape?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, they are changing the balance of power between the two parties because the Democrats – one of the White House’s problems is that Democrats don’t want to give to these things. So that’s why they’re worried about Romney’s PAC.
MS. IFILL: It’s why they say it’s negative.
MS. CUMMINGS: Right. And so you have that imbalance. In addition, you look at a candidacy like former Speaker Gingrich’s. And he basically was on fumes at the end of December. And he went to one backer in Vegas and basically –
MS. IFILL: A casino mogul. I can’t say that word enough – mogul.
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, he didn’t go, but his friendly outside committee did.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MS. CUMMINGS: And $5 million was delivered and a campaign revived. However, I must say, I don’t know where that $5 million is. They said they were going to put $3.5 million on TV ads. They said they were going to run the 30-minute attack on Romney, that documentary. Well, no 30-minute ads have been bought.
MS. IFILL: And the documentary has now been largely discredited.
MS. CUMMINGS: It had many exaggerations in it. And if you look at their buying, because they want to put all their money in advertising, it’s just not there. So I don’t know where that $5 million is being stretched.
MS. IFILL: Beth, can I just ask you about this – the documentary is all about Romney’s business background and particular as head of this venture capital firm. Has that been gathering any kind of traction – that attack?
MS. REINHARD: It’s still a little early to tell. You saw the attack starting in New Hampshire, but then you saw Mitt Romney win by 39 percent. So they didn’t really seem to have an impact on him there. In South Carolina he’s also doing very well. So I don’t know that that’s an effective line of attack in a Republican primary. Now, in the general election, when he’s going to be trying to talk to Democrats and independents, I think that’s a different story.
MR. WILLIAMS: Speaking of super PACs, Stephen Colbert has, of course, been on attack against them. Now he says he wants to run in South Carolina, although I don’t think it’s possible to get on the ballot now. There are no write-in votes there, are there? I mean, what is the point of his satirical attacks on super PACs?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, Colbert has made it a point to try to illustrate how much the laws regarding campaign fundraising are a joke – have become a joke. So, you know, he talks about these committees are not supposed to coordinate with candidates. And so then the candidates just get behind a microphone and tell the committee what they wish they would do. And so they’re not coordinating. They’re just making an announcement at a press conference. Silly things like this, Colbert is trying to bring all of those things to light.
MS. IFILL: And can I ask you very quickly, Beth, about Ron Paul, because he has said that he is going to focus his campaign now on states where there is not winner-take-all delegates election, where he has a chance basically to win more delegates, caucus states. Is he actively campaigning in South Carolina or Florida?
MS. REINHARD: He hasn’t gotten to South Carolina yet. He seems to be taking a break, which he also did after Iowa. He’s pretty much – I wouldn’t say he’s ruled out Florida, but he has said he would spend limited money there because it is a winner-take-all state. So unless he can win, then he doesn’t get any delegates. So he wants to play in states where he knows he can come in second or third and walk away with a handful of delegates and just keep on going state to state and collect those delegates until the convention.
MS. IFILL: Well, so far, one third and one second and we can expect to see him at the very least giving a speech at the convention. Thank you both very much.
The president, of course, has not been taking any of this lightly. As he prepares for the fall campaign, he’s been raising big money as we talked about. He’s been announcing plans, as he did today, to shrink government, and replacing senior advisors. William Daley had been White House chief of staff for only a year before abruptly announcing this week that he is heading back to Chicago. What really happened there, Alexis?
MS. SIMENDINGER: You know, it’s an interesting story in that the president’s heading into his third chief of staff in one term, not unusual, but in this particular case, the president hired Bill Daley from the great, famous Daley political Democratic family in Chicago, to really serve him in a year in which he envisioned 2011 was going to be this crossover, centrist, I’m going to govern from the middle, let’s work with Republicans, let’s work together.
And, by the fall, we had a different president and we had lots of people disgruntled about Bill Daley’s tenure as chief of staff because the president had switched gears. The political operation inside the White House was calling the shots and Bill Daley was feeling less and less in the picture. In addition, on the Hill, Democrats in the House and the Senate were expressing a great deal of reservations after the debt ceiling fight in the middle of the summer about how Bill Daley had had been sort of chasing this mirage that there was going to be a Speaker Boehner who could bring votes to do a deal with President Obama on raising the debt ceiling, but also on deficit reduction. And that did not materialize.
MS. IFILL: Is this the White House getting its ducks in order and clearing the decks for an election year?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Absolutely. This is the beginning – it’s like what are my New Year’s resolutions? My New Year’s resolutions are I am now a populist. I am going to combat Congress. And I am also going to cajole voters into thinking that I am going to work with them. I want to expand government by doing stimulus spending and promoting my economic agenda at the same time that I want to cut and trim the deficit. And today we heard the president talking about this initiative that he’s put together, supposedly over the better part of the year, to shrink government. Which party is it that is most interested in this idea of shrinking government?
MS. IFILL: Not previously Democrats.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Correct.
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And so he’s arguing that if Congress would give him this super executive power to sort of mold government and reorganize it in his own way, and then he would give them a proposal how he’d like to do it and they would vote on it up or down, no amendment, sort of like the base closing idea. And he is arguing today and going into the New Year, you can hear the beginnings of the State of the Union address, the new February budget and the president’s political platform.
MR. WILLIAMS: Tell us a little bit about the new chief of staff and what sort of a message that sends.
MS. SIMENDINGER: The new chief of staff is a very old Washington hand. He’s not that old, old, but he’s been around a long time. His name is Jack Lew. And those of us who covered President Clinton remember him well because he served in the Clinton administration. He was – this is his second turn as budget director. He’s President Obama’s budget director. So he’s moving – knowing the government and the money and the bodies buried on the Hill program by program, dollar by dollar, moving over into a political year when management has a different definition than what it was that Bill Daley was asked to do. And he has served on the Hill beginning with the famous Tip O’Neill speaker. So he’s been around a long time.
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, Alexis, Jack Lew, this new chief of staff, clearly is the kind of guy who can keep the lights on while the president and the rest of the gang go off and run a presidential campaign. But I want to get back to the proposal. This seems – it seems like the president once again is going to put the Republicans in a tough place here because the Republicans after his recess appointments to the Labor Relations Board were saying, well, maybe we won’t even allow sessions to take place because we’re so angry about that. Well, they can’t not show up, so they will, and now he’s put this on the plate. Is he starting to –
MS. IFILL: This is part of the strategy to put him in the corner.
MS. SIMENDINGER: This is part of the strategy. It’s picking off ideas that really play on the GOP turf and then trying to persuade the American electorate that the president would have been doing all of these things if he had had cooperative partners. So what are Republicans – are they eager to see. They would like tax cuts and so the president proposed payroll tax cuts and then argued, why aren’t you with me on this? This would help the American worker. He is now saying, let’s shrink government. Let’s remodel it. Let’s condense six agencies and departments into one. So you’re absolutely right.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, we’re going to move on because we also have to fit in one more story: an interesting week at the Supreme Court involving two mostly unrelated cases: one, an argument over what constitutes unacceptable speech on broadcast television, like say here; the other, a unanimous decision on whether religious groups are exempt from anti-discrimination laws – not here. The two cases seem quite different, but at their root, they actually have something in common, don’t they, Pete?
MR. WILLIAMS: The First Amendment.
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MR. WILLIAMS: Freedom of religion and freedom of speech. And the religion case really was one of the most important ones in decades because, number one, surprisingly, it was unanimous. All nine justices said that anyone who works for a church or a school and furthers the religious message or mission cannot sue for discrimination of any kind on the job. And what the court said is that if – you can’t let the courts get involved. The government cannot get involved in a church or a religious institution, their own decisions about who’s going to carry the message and the mission. Chief Justice Roberts even said in the opinion that escaping that kind of government control is a founding principle of the country.
The other decision, going from the sacred to the profane, had to do with what are called fleeting expletives, naughty words that get blurted out on television in especially unscripted live shows, and also very brief glimpses of partial nudity in a scripted show, specifically “NYPD Blue.”
Most of what is on television in your house, most of the programs are not regulated by the government, but broadcast television still is, including the Public Broadcasting Service, including your public station. There the FCC can still regulate the content. And the government’s theory is that there’s something about broadcast television that is uniquely pervasive. It’s uniquely available in the home and it’s especially easily available to children.
But what the broadcasters told the Supreme Court this week is, well, that maybe have been true decades ago but not now when you have all this stuff coming into a pipe in your house. Most viewers as they punch through their remote, they don’t know if it’s broadcast, Internet, cable and there’s no point anymore – there’s no legal justification for making this distinction.
MS. SIMENDINGER: You know, I was thinking about the ministerial exception, right?
MR. WILLIAMS: Right.
MS. SIMENDINGER: How broad or how narrow is that if we’re trying to sort out who could actually be covered by that?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, that’s one of the mysteries of the decision. It’s clearly not just ministers, people who put on robes and stand in front of a congregation. And it’s clearly not people who go to religious school and teach math or who are janitors. So it’s somewhere in the middle. What the court seemed to say is if you have some training and you’re involved in imparting the message or carrying out the mission, then you’re probably covered, but the court also said, don’t ask us now exactly how broad this is. We’ll figure it out later.
MS. REINHARD: Is this expected to sort of follow along the predictable lines that the court usually follows along with liberals and one side conservatives?
MR. WILLIAMS: On the TV side?
MS. REINHARD: Yes.
MR. WILLIAMS: It’s tough to say. First of all –
MS. IFILL: I’m sorry. Because what was interesting about the ministerial exception is also the unanimous vote.
MR. WILLIAMS: Right. It was a unanimous vote.
MS. IFILL: Yes. It’s rare.
MR. WILLIAMS: On the television side, as a little bit of an asterisk here – we only have eight justices. Sonia Sotomayor sat this one out. She was involved in an earlier decision. So the TV folks won in the lower court. So if it’s a tie, then their decision stands.
I don’t think there’s enough votes on the court. It didn’t seem to do what the networks want, which is to eliminate FCC regulation, but there did seem to be some interest perhaps in getting more clarity from the FCC because the rules now admittedly are very vague.
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, what are the rules?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, the FCC says they’re content based. They’re contextual. And, for example, they fined ABC for showing brief nudity in “NYPD Blue,” but they did not fine the networks for showing “Saving Private Ryan” or “Schindler’s List” which include not only some nudity but also some fairly salty language, a fact which prompted Elena Kagan to say there’s obviously a Steven Spielberg exception in the agency rules. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: You know, one other thing on the church issue. I’m very curious about whether if you are a church worker and you are being sexually harassed, say, by someone, an employer, do you no longer have the right to sue?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, sexual harassment in the sort of traditional sex discrimination on the job, no. You probably don’t. You can’t go and say, they wouldn’t make me a priest because I’m a woman. You can’t sue for that, the Supreme Court said. Now, sexual abuse, something that’s criminal, that’s a different matter. And, as a matter of fact, the Obama administration, which had strongly urged the Supreme Court against this ruling, interestingly, said, you know, if you rule this way, you could make it impossible for someone to sue, for example, if they are the victim of a crime. We don’t know the answer to that.
MS. IFILL: And as for the nudity question, I mean, it means we’re never going to have cameras in the court because, you know, you’ve got those statues in there. (Laughter.) I’m just saying. It would be embarrassing.
MR. WILLIAMS: That was brought up during the argument. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Exactly. Thank you, Pete. Thanks everybody. We’re going to have to leave it there now, but the conversation will continue online on our Washington Week Webcast Extra. You can check it out at PBS.org.
Next week we’re going to hit the road again, this time for South Carolina, where we will provide you with the latest on the eve of the Palmetto State’s GOP primary. I believe shipping crates will be involved. Have a lovely weekend and be sure to take the time Monday to reflect and to honor Martin Luther King Jr. on his birthday holiday. And we’ll see you next week on Washington Week. Good night.