MS. IFILL: Ups and downs in Afghanistan, in the GOP race and the Obama reelection campaign we explore tonight on “Washington Week.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The tragic events of recent days are a reminder that this continues to be a very difficult mission.
MS. IFILL: An apparently rogue soldier goes on a rampage in an Afghan village. Sixteen civilians are killed. Condolences are expressed. And U.S. policy is on knife’s edge again.
HAMID KARZAI [President of Afghanistan]: It is by all means the end of the rope here.
MS. IFILL: On the campaign trail, Mitt Romney is ready to claim the nomination.
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: Some who are very conservative may not be yet in my camp, but they will be when I become the nominee, when I face Barack Obama.
MS. IFILL: But he has to shake off Rick Santorum first.
FORMER SENATOR RICK SANTORUM (R-PA) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: We did it again.
MS. IFILL: And as gas prices soar, the president begins to take aim at Republicans on energy policy.
PRES. OBAMA: If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail, they must have been founding members of the flat earth society. They would not have believed that the world was round.
MS. IFILL: Covering the week in policy and politics: Martha Raddatz of ABC News; Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post; 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.
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Koran burning, corpse desecration, random murder – in recent weeks, American forces stationed in Afghanistan have been implicated in each of these acts. The Army staff sergeant who has apparently confessed to the Sunday slayings is back in the U.S. tonight. But the questions about his actions remain largely unanswered. U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was in Afghanistan this week, said the incident will not affect the American timetable there.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: In the discussions that I just completed with President Karzai and also with the other Afghan leaders, we really did focus on the strategy for the future and what needs to be accomplished as we move towards the end of 2014 and then beyond 2014, the missions that we need to focus on to maintain an enduring presence.
MS. IFILL: It is not at all that clear that Karzai agrees. Martha is also back from a recent trip to Afghanistan. So does this feel like another pivot point? By the way, the name of the soldier released tonight is Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales.
MS. RADDATZ: Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales. They actually weren’t going to release his name until he was officially charged with 16 counts of murder, which will probably take place sometime on Saturday, but the name started leaking late tonight – 38 years old.
A pivot point? I think one of the things I learned from being in Afghanistan last week, early last week was that there are so many cases where you think, oh, this is going to change everything. This is going to be terrible. And things seem to keep going forward over there. They seem to be –
MS. IFILL: Plods along.
MS. RADDATZ: It plods along. There weren’t huge outbursts, huge protests about the massacre of the civilians and children. I think it will obviously be a huge domestic story with this soldier because I think you just have to say to yourself what happened.
And the more we learned about him tonight – there are some quotes on the web. I just want to read one. He was in a battle in 2007 in Iraq. And this soldier who’s charged with – or will be charged with the 16 murders is talking about helping people over in Iraq. He says, I’ve never been more proud of my unit. We ended up helping the people who were trying to kill us. That’s the real difference between being an American as opposed to being a bad guy. We help. We help people.
MS. IFILL: (Inaudible) – bad guy.
MS. RADDATZ: This is the same man who’s accused. So I think he really – what’s going to happen in the coming weeks is people are going to say, what happened? We know he had four deployments.
MS. IFILL: There were a lot of apologies. There were a lot of commiseration that went on all week, a lot of high-level conversations and yet we saw Hamid Karzai come out today with some pretty tough talk. What’s shifting?
MS. RADDATZ: I’m at the end of the rope – I think one of the things you have to remember about Hamid Karzai, like our own politicians here and leaders, you talk sometimes to a domestic audience and sometimes to an international audience. Now, he has said he wants American troops to go back to their bases by next year, back to their major bases and get out of the villages. Now, this place where the massacre occurred was a small base right by a village. Those are the kind of outposts he’s talking about. I think he has to say that domestically. I think in some ways the administration might be going, that’s okay. We’d like to pull back a little bit earlier.
MS. IFILL: Say what you need to say.
MS. RADDATZ: Say what you need to say. But at the same time, they sort of fudge this drawdown anyway. They say everybody out by 2014, but now they’ll say, well, you have to start getting out by next year anyway. So they say no sudden changes.
MS. TUMULTY: Of course, we had Defense Secretary Panetta going over there this week and his arrival is disrupted by an explosion which I couldn’t tell from the coverage – did this have anything to do with trying to disrupt his trip?
MS. RADDATZ: I think disruption is kind of a euphemism. This was incredible to me. I landed at the same base last week and I landed with General John Allen, who’s also a VIP. There’s security everywhere. The Pentagon tried to downplay this so much this week, it was extraordinary. We can’t prove that he was going after Panetta.
MS. IFILL: Well, explain what happened.
MS. RADDATZ: There is – Panetta’s plane is landing, and obviously there’s a lot of security. They don’t usually tell people that Panetta is coming. And there were a group of greeters, Marines, the most senior Marine there who was standing there to greet him. A truck had been hijacked by an Afghan interpreter. These are the most trusted people there are, the Afghans who work with the U.S. and British military over there. Hijacked the truck, went barreling towards the greeting party. And they had to jump out of the way. And then the truck ended up hitting a ditch and the guy either burst into flames because there was gasoline in his car and he planned on trying to hit Panetta’s plane, who knows. But the truth is we will never know. But all week, all during the week it was totally downplayed. I think it’s a really serious, serious –
MS. TUMULTY: Yes. Nothing to see here.
MS. RADDATZ: Yes. Nothing to see.
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MS. RADDATZ: There was quite a bit to see there. I mean, the trust with the Afghan – again, it goes back and forth and back and forth between the Americans doing something and the Afghans doing something.
MS. SIMENDINGER: You know, we were talking about Karzai obviously, and what this does for the strategy, whether it’s timetable or pace, but what about the Taliban, because they also weighed in here this week with some inflammatory discussions about walking away from the peace table, and, of course, that’s part of the strategy. So where do we go with that?
MS. RADDATZ: It’s just nothing but bad news this week.
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MS. RADDATZ: The Taliban – yes, exactly. That’s exactly right. They said they would suspend the peace talks that hadn’t really gotten started yet. This is a major goal of the administration. They have to have the Taliban involved in these peace talks in order to get an orderly drawdown and withdrawal in Afghanistan. Again, I think this is something that can probably get back on track. You might see – I mean, you see this all the time – we’re going to suspend, we’re going to come back. But there is a timetable here. There’s very little time to do this. And you can’t – even the White House said you have to have a political solution.
MS. IFILL: So is the general sense this week that the facts on the ground have changed or is there a general acceptance that there’s always going to be another setback, it’s just a question of what it’s going to be?
MS. RADDATZ: I think I can’t answer that question. I think – when I talk to people over there, and when I did – and I certainly was over there after the Koran burning and whether things have changed, they are staying on course. They say nothing has changed. But I think you have to stay tuned to this because I think all these events, while the Afghans may not have had huge protests domestically, people are going to get very, very tired of this, even more tired than they already are and say, what are we doing.
MS. IFILL: You’re completely right that domestic politics often rules the day, which provides me with the perfect segue to domestic politics here. The Republican primary campaign has turned into an exercise in collective wishful thinking. Mitt Romney wishes that Rick Santorum would just go away.
MR. ROMNEY: We’re not going to be successful in replacing an economic lightweight if we nominate an economic lightweight. And I’m an economic heavyweight. I know how this economy works. I’m going to get it working for the American people.
MS. IFILL: Rick Santorum would like to deny Romney the delegates he needs to clinch the nomination.
MR. SANTORUM: We’re a long, long way from over. You know what? I suspect if we keep winning state after state after state, he ain’t going to be the nominee.
MS. IFILL: And Newt Gingrich wishes someone would just do the math differently.
FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: The fact is in both states the conservative candidates got nearly 70 percent of the vote. And if you’re the frontrunner and you keep coming in third, you’re not much of a frontrunner.
MS. IFILL: I love these numbers. You can read them any way you want. They leave me completely confused. How much up in the air is this really?
MS. TUMULTY: You know, sometimes as a political reporter these days you feel like you should be carrying a pocket calculator and not a notebook.
MS. IFILL: I did that this week. I did.
MS. TUMULTY: The Republicans set up their primary process this time, their nominating process so that it would drag out. They would proportionately allocate their delegates slowly at the beginning so that the process would take a while. And I think we can say at this point they succeeded. (Laughter.)
We have now reached the point where it’s not about momentum. It really is about math. And it is this slog to the 1,144 delegates that it is going to take to secure the nomination. At this point – let me look at the latest estimates – and, again, people disagree over how many delegates have actually been awarded, but it looks like Mitt Romney is somewhere around 500, 481. That’s twice as many as Rick Santorum has, and Rick Santorum has about twice as many at Newt Gingrich has.
But at this point, all of them are well short of that magic 1,144. And at this point, by the way, it looks like only Mitt Romney has even a chance of getting to the convention with the number of delegates.
MS. IFILL: So the reasoning, aside from the very appealing idea of appealing to vision instead of numbers, which is what Rick Santorum is saying, his idea is to deprive Romney of enough delegates in enough of these upcoming races that everything is still an open bet going into the convention?
MS. TUMULTY: That’s right. That he would come into the convention with something under this 1,144. This, by the way, is not an unusual circumstance. It happened in 1980 to Jimmy Carter. It happened in 1976 to Gerald Ford, who, by the way, both of them ended up losing in the fall. That’s a little bit of a cautionary note there too for the Republicans when it comes to having this settled that late into the process.
MS. RADDATZ: And you talk about math, but wasn’t it math with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama?
MS. TUMULTY: And that is what the Republicans keep saying. They keep saying, look, this made Barack Obama stronger as a candidate, but it was very, very different because Barack Obama was taking on the biggest name brand in politics as he was eating – sort of slowly accumulating his delegates.
MS. IFILL: He was the underdog, not the frontrunner.
MS. TUMULTY: It’s a very different thing for the guy who was presumed to be coming into this with all the advantages to find himself in that situation.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Now, the frontrunner, Mitt Romney at this point by numbers, by the math, has twice as many delegates as Santorum. Santorum has twice as many as Newt Gingrich. So where do they go from here to actually move the pieces on the board? Who has to be weaker? Who helps the other? It’s like a soap opera. How does it work?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, Santorum would like to see Newt Gingrich get out because he feels that then he would be able to consolidate the conservative votes. But there was a Gallup poll that came out today that bolstered an argument that Newt Gingrich likes to make, which is that if I got out of the race, it might actually help Mitt Romney – that all of my voters wouldn’t necessarily go to Rick Santorum. So Newt Gingrich says, you need both of us in the race to keep sort of a blockade in front of Mitt Romney for this. But Newt Gingrich is not going to get out at least until people close to him tell me he might reassess after Louisiana, which is still a week away.
MS. IFILL: Now, you said there were some Republicans who think it’s a fine thing to let this thing fight out and can make the eventual nominee stronger. But aren’t there also a lot of mainstream Republicans who are saying, how do we get him out? How do we get Rick Perry to get Gingrich out? How do we get someone to speak to these people to get us to consolidate and unify?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, a lot of really establishment Republicans just want this whole thing over with because they really feel that Mitt Romney, who is the odds on favorite to be the nominee at this point, needs to be able to sort of consolidating his base and raising the kind of money and getting his message together to take on Barack Obama.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And stop being the severe conservative and move more to the center.
MS. TUMULTY: Right. And start pulling in some of those independents.
MS. IFILL: And not have so many of the issues be about the social compact instead of the economic compact which seems to be dominating these debates.
MS. TUMULTY: Because as long as this goes on, the candidates all find themselves in positions, for instance, in this big fight over contraception that really has the potential to alienate women voters, swing voters in the fall.
MS. IFILL: Do we know if that’s happened?
MS. TUMULTY: You know, the polling suggests – one thing is that just about every pollster you talk to says that it definitely has the potential, because the group of women that we’re talking about are the late deciding, swing voting women. Single women tend to vote for the Democrats, that we’re not talking about women in the Republican base. But, again, the sort of independent-minded women could be turned off by this not so much because of the issue itself but it’s like why are you taking your eye off the ball, which is the economy?
MS. IFILL: While all of this is going on, if you think that the Obama campaign is smugly sitting on the sidelines as the Republicans slug it out, you would be wrong. The president hop-scotched to five separate fundraisers in two states today, including in his hometown of Chicago.
PRES. OBAMA: Now, you might have noticed that we have some guests in Illinois this week. Apparently things haven’t quite wrapped up on the other side. My message to all the candidates is welcome to the land of Lincoln because I’m thinking maybe some Lincoln will rub off on them while they are here.
MS. IFILL: As we speak, the president is actually still partying with Cee Lo Green in Atlanta. The reelection campaign also launched a 17-minute video trumpeting the president’s accomplishments and dispatched Vice President Biden to take the Republicans on by name.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich – these guys have a fundamentally different economic philosophy than we do. You know, it’s kind of amazing. Gingrich and Romney and Santorum, they don’t let the facts get in their way.
MS. IFILL: I think it’s so interesting that Joe Biden doesn’t mind using the names, which you never hear Barack Obama call these folks by name, which I gather is by design. So have the Democrats decided they can’t sit on the sidelines anymore? They just can’t afford to?
MS. SIMENDINGER: You know, it’s interesting – the morning after Super Tuesday, the Chicago campaign was immediately talking about the things that were stressing them out the most, and there were two of them.
One is that this was now going on so long – even though they were still betting that Mitt Romney is going to eventually be the nominee – that this was too long for them to be just sort of standing and waiting for the nominee to show up, so they started to use the phrase right away, we can’t wait for this. We have to wade in here. And they started talking about dispatching Joe Biden to be the ambassador to the middle class. That wasn’t the phrase they used but that was sort of their idea. And the other thing that really –
MS. IFILL: Interesting that they would need an ambassador to the middle class – (inaudible).
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes. Yes, but Joe Biden from Scranton, Pennsylvania. And the other thing they were very concerned about is money. So what did we see this week? The president is spending the entire day – he will not be back in Washington until the morning after he has departed – two cities, five events, money, money, money. They’re concerned about this because of the Citizen United case and the independent spending, the PAC, Super PAC money.
And the other thing is that they are concerned about getting in there more on the offense because the Republican field is beating up against them pretty good. And they’re looking at the polls too. And we have a number of things that are coming up that look like significant challenges. Martha talked about Afghanistan. Obviously, the president knows where the public is on that. Gas prices have soared.
MS. RADDATZ: So he just isn’t going to mention that at all.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, he – he’s been talking about that plenty, Afghanistan and saying, let’s stay the course. And he was meeting this week with British prime minister.
MS. RADDATZ: Although my bet is you won’t hear it very much anymore.
MS. IFILL: Well, in today’s speech, one of the things he said is the first – one of the first promises he kept – and it’s in this video as well – was to get – end the war in Iraq. And he’s talked a lot in this video about Osama bin Laden. So his foreign policy – (inaudible). Yes.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, you’re asking a good question, which is what is the significant domestic policy initiative that the president has not talked a lot about and has started to talk about this week and will begin to talk about more this month: health care, a signature achievement that he did not embrace for many, many months. And Afghanistan was supposed to be the righteous war, right? This was his surge, his war. We were supposed to do this right. And he talks about responsibly ending it. So the question you’re asking is a good one. Can you afford to not talk about these?
MS. RADDATZ: But I also think, you know, in Afghanistan he’s talking about ending the war. You’re not going to hear him talking about the fact that there’s a still a war ongoing is my point I guess there.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes. Absolutely.
MS. RADDATZ: But also on the health care thing – and gas prices too – how does he deal with the gas prices? Every night we have it on our broadcast, the gas prices going up, up, up.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, the gas prices it’s tough because this is – his response is, I don’t control this. And he’s trying to argue more defensively than offensively in a lot of ways that Republicans are selling the public on the wrong policies and in effect a fiction, urban myths that a Newt Gingrich can bring down gas prices to $2.50 a gallon if he’s elected president. So the president’s agenda has been to talk about energy in the sense of, listen to me. There’s very little we can do to control this. This is a world marketplace.
And we’re going to see him in the next seven days going to Cushing, Oklahoma. Where is Cushing, Oklahoma? That happens to be the beginning of the second part of the Keystone pipeline, in which he’s going to be talking about drilling, drilling, drilling, and suddenly he’s become the president who is the drill, baby, drill president.
MS. RADDATZ: I’ve heard that word a lot. Yes.
MS. IFILL: He said something like we’re drilling everywhere, maybe not in Central Park or in your backyard, but we’re drilling everywhere.
MS. TUMULTY: But this infomercial that they put out this week narrated by Tom Hanks. The other thing that struck me – I mean, to what degree are they trying to remind people how close the economy was to the abyss? And it seems like they’re going back to the rationale for a lot of decisions that people have questioned.
MS. SIMENDINGER: The 17-minute – it’s really a commercial. It’s being used by the campaign. It was released this week. And it’s really to the base, to speak to the base. It’s to encourage them to get fired up and to donate and to volunteer. And it’s reminding them exactly what you’re saying. It’s called “The Road We’ve Travelled.” So it’s a reminder to look back. Let’s remember how dire things were. Things aren’t as dire as they were before. But it’s very much organized around change and achievements that the base of the Democratic Party is so rallied around.
MS. IFILL: They must be aware of how volatile this situation is because just you read a poll number from day to day to day and there was literally a 10-point swing at one point in his approval ratings in a couple of days. Are they on edge about that?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, you’re asking about whether they look at those snapshots. And they definitely look at the snapshots. But if you look at the rolling average, his job approval is pretty much – it’s like a set point in your weight. It’s like 46, 47, 48 percent. So if you just look at the rolling average, he stays right in that place. I would say they worry more about the unemployment because we could see unemployment go up and have that argument be its good news.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, thank you all very much. I appreciate that. And, by the way, congratulations to Martha here. Last night she was presented with the Leonard Zeidenberg First Amendment Award from the Radio, Television, Digital News Foundation. Congratulations.
MS. RADDATZ: Thank you.
MS. TUMULTY: That’s wonderful.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Good job.
MS. IFILL: Well deserved. We have to leave you a few minutes early tonight to give you the opportunity to support your local PBS station which in turn supports us. But the conversation continues online where we’ll pick up where we left off, including an assessment of this week’s state visit by British Prime Minister Cameron in the “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” You can find it this weekend at pbs.org/washingtonweek.
And keep up with daily developments on air and online at the PBS NewsHour. Then we’ll see you around the table again next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.