MS. IFILL: Mitt Romney and Barack Obama square off. The primaries may not be over, but the general election has begun. We examine the battle lines tonight, on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The Republicans running Congress right now have doubled down and proposed a budget so far to the right; it makes the Contract with America look like the New Deal.
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R): What exactly does President Obama intend to do differently once he’s no longer accountable to the voters?
MS. IFILL: Fighting words as the leading candidates for president visibly shift tactics. Mitt Romney is no longer running against Republicans.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): Mitt Romney has already pivoted to the general election campaign. Whether Rick Santorum stays on or not is now basically irrelevant.
MS. IFILL: And President Obama, like all incumbents, is defending his own policies.
NARRATOR: Under President Obama, domestic oil production’s at an eight-year high. So why is Big Oil attacking him? Because he’s fighting to end their tax breaks.
MS. IFILL: The economy, the voters, the Supreme Court, the candidates, all caught up in one big political stew.
Covering the week: Jackie Calmes of the New York Times, John Dickerson of Slate Magazine and CBS News, Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post, and David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, from our nation’s capital this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill, produced in association with National Journal.
ANNOUNCER: Once again, from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. We had a severe case of political overlap this week as the president took on the Supreme Court, Mitt Romney took on the president, Rick Santorum took on Mitt Romney, and all the while the economy continued its slow recovery. We’ll tackle it all on a special roundtable tonight, beginning with a sudden jumpstart for the general election.
From now on, almost everything that happens in policy and politics will have to be viewed through that lens. But don’t tell Rick Santorum. He says the fat lady has not yet sung.
FORMER SENATOR RICK SANTORUM (R-PA): We’ve got a strong base of support here and we’re going to work very, very hard. And then we’re going to get into May and May looks very, very good. There’s a move in Texas to make Texas a winner-take-all state. You throw those 154 delegates on our ballot and all of a sudden this race becomes a very different race.
MS. IFILL: Perhaps, but Romney has already moved on to other things, hasn’t he, John?
MR. DICKERSON: I’m sorry. Who’s Rick Santorum?
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MS. IFILL: That’s so with the Romney campaign’s view of things, although it’s interesting. I mean, Mitt Romney has a kind of a two-front war he’s fighting. Publicly he’s not paying attention to Rick Santorum. Why is that? He’s ahead by hundreds more delegate. He’s also gotten a lot of endorsements or sort of quasi-endorsements from different parts of the party, from Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who said Romney would be a fine nominee, although he didn’t exactly endorse him; Marco Rubio, senator from Florida. He’s gotten sort of everybody running behind him saying let’s unify as a party, let’s take on Barack Obama.
So it looks like it’s over, but on the other hand you talk privately to Romney aides and they are angry that Santorum is still in the race. They say, look what kind of a future does he want to have in the Republican Party if he’s going to keep beating up on the nominee for two more months, drawing this out, and ruining our chance to take on Barack Obama. So privately they’re a little bit more angry about that, and even a little bit towards Newt Gingrich, who really isn’t much of a factor at all.
So Romney kind of has to still manage that while moving on to deal with Barack Obama. And if you look at the numbers, his numbers in the general election with key swing groups are in really bad shape. He wants to begin that repair job.
MS. IFILL: Karen, one of the things that Romney is trying to do is accuse – and he did it pretty nakedly – both of them had pretty nakedly political speeches in front of newspapers editors this week – was to accuse President Obama running a hide-and-seek campaign. What does that mean?
MS. TUMULTY: Basically what he – he went back to this moment a month ago, where the president was caught on a hot – what they call a hot microphone. He didn’t know his microphone –
MS. IFILL: Yes, one of these is a hot microphone, yes.
MS. TUMULTY: Right. And told the Russian president that he’d have more flexibility after the election. So Romney used this as a jumping-off point. And what else isn’t he telling us? But I thought those two speeches, they were a day apart in front of the exact same audience, a bunch of newspaper editors and reporters, were really interesting because they really kind of framed the contrast that these two candidates are going to make this fall.
Obama’s message was a very populist message accusing the Republicans of being extremists, using words like “social Darwinism” to describe the House Republican budget that the president – that Mitt Romney has now endorsed. The next day, you have Mitt Romney come back as a direct rebuttal to that speech and say, basically, not only accusing the president of running a hide-and-seek campaign, but basically saying that the Democrats are these kind of hapless believers in big government who really don’t have either the expertise or the vision to deal with the economy.
MS. IFILL: David, today we saw new job numbers, the jobless numbers, I suppose. And two things happened. One is the unemployment rate went down by a tenth of a percent to 8.3 percent, 8.2 percent –
MR. WESSEL: Eight point two, yes.
MS. IFILL: And at the same time, the expected job creation level was not what it was expected. It fell short.
MR. WESSEL: Right. Well, there’re basically two different surveys. One talks to employers and one talks to households. So they often don’t match up. The unemployment rate fell not because more people said they were working, because more people dropped out of the labor force. And if you’re not in the labor force, you’re not looking for work; you’re not counted as unemployed. So that’s why the unemployment rate fell.
But the big surprise was all the other signals in the economy lately have been very positive. Car sales are up. The retailers, Macy’s, Gap, and others, reported strong sales. The warm weather seemed to be making for a little bit more activity in construction, and so there was this big hope that this would be the fourth month in a row that employers added more than 200,000 jobs. And those hopes were dashed this morning, and so it’s got people scratching their heads worrying that maybe the economic recovery isn’t quite as strong as they hoped.
MS. IFILL: I’m very curious in a week like this to watch all the different pieces fall into place. And one of them – and Jackie, you were at the White House, covering this week – was this interesting and almost out of left field fight with the Supreme Court, which I wasn’t sure if the administration meant to pick or not. Let’s listen to a little bit of what the president had to say about the Supreme Court.
PRES. OBAMA: Ultimately I’m confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.
MS. IFILL: So Jackie, let’s parse that because the very next day he had to come out and say, well, what I had meant to say was this. And the word “unprecedented” was the one that got people’s hackles up.
MS. CALMES: Right. There were actually two things about what he said that got people’s hackles up and justifiably. I mean, we all know President Obama is a former constitutional law instructor at the University of Chicago, so it’s really befuddling to a lot of people, including some of his aides, that he would have this self-inflicted wound at the beginning of the week, and he was just trying to convey the idea that the court is going to uphold – to show optimism about the court upholding his signal significant domestic achievement, the health care law and also to make the case as to why they should, so that if it does go down, he’s sort of planted in people’s minds the idea that the court is wrong if it strikes it down.
But by saying that it’s unprecedented, every school kid who’s been taught Marbury v. Madison, 1803, knows that that case established that the court can strike down a law and is the ultimate arbiter of constitutionality. And he said it was passed – the law was passed by a strong congressional majority, when it wasn’t. In both houses, it was a close vote and without a single Republican vote.
So you know, that just has persisted to today. The Republicans have jumped on that. And so like you said, he cleaned it up the next day.
MS. IFILL: But I wonder how much of this – the reaction or the overreaction, depending on how you look at this – has to do with the nature of the argument, whether it’s about health care, which crosses all of these different issues we’re talking about. It certainly speaks to the economy.
MS. CALMES: Right.
MR. WESSEL: Well, sure. I mean, I think it’s obvious, as Jackie said, that he said more than he intended to say, and that’s always difficult. It’s just like the open mike. When you have to explain “what I meant was,” you’re never in good shape. But it is one of the hot button issues. I mean, the president is very frustrated that he got health care reform through and it has a lot of elements that people say they want, but as a whole, the package is not very popular. And he is stuck with health care reform. I think the White House bets that it’ll be hard to make it an issue in a general election if the opponent is Mitt Romney, who basically did something very similar in Massachusetts, but it goes to the – it goes to all these issues about economic security, about taxes, about whether we’re going to have more jobs – that the Republicans paint this as a job killer. It’s going to be very difficult for the president to fight back.
MS. TUMULTY: I’m also not sure how wise it is to be running against the Supreme Court. We in Washington, I think, probably think of it as a very, you know – there’s a hard right and a hard left to it. But for most people in the country, I think they look at the Supreme Court, and they really do see it as the arbiters of what the Constitution is supposed to say. I mean, the fact is most people in the country probably couldn’t name very many members of the Supreme Court.
MS. IFILL: I can’t tell you how many campaigns I’ve covered where I’ve seen mostly Democrats make the case vote for my guy because the court matters. And that’s not really how people end up voting.
MR. DICKERSON: It depends. It matters to the bases, who pay very close attention to the court. And that’s true on both the left and the right because they care about the hot button issues that the court adjudicates. But I think Karen’s point is interesting for the swing voters in the middle who aren’t – who don’t care about those hot button issues that the court rules on, but who might see the court as a kind of seal of approval one way or the other. And if the court doesn’t go the president’s way, then they sort of see, okay, maybe there was something wrong with the law.
And now the president, a person who came to office talking about changing politics, removing the negativity, not fighting, is suddenly picking a fight with another branch of government. That is counter to the Barack Obama of 2008, in a way that’s different than – he’s had to different than the 2008 candidate because he’s in a fight with Republicans. But now, he would be a guy who’s picking a fight with new opponents. And that just seems very counter to the Barack Obama of old.
MS. CALMES: But you know, it is interesting that the court has become less popular in both parties and it remained – it’s got a lower favorability rating right now with Republicans than with Democrats, but that’s because it’s Barack Obama who’s president. They’ve seen the news. He’s named two Supreme Court justices. Throughout the Bush years, it was Democrats who had a lower favorability rating. There was a 32-point spread between Republicans and Democrats in 2006, which was – happened to be right after George Bush had named his second conservative justice to the court. But there is a – the polls show a growing sense that the court is more partisan. And I think that’s what Democrats are picking up on as going to their base, trying to rally them in the way the Republicans often have.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk about the base and the swing voters that we’ve been talking about, because the one other little fight that’s really blown up this week has been over women voters and over women’s votes and over gender gaps. There’s a remarkable new poll showing the president leading Mitt Romney in a head to head with 19 points or something like that –
MR. WESSEL: Among women.
MS. IFILL: Among women. And as a result now, we see everybody trying to figure out how to fight back or get into this. Earlier this week, we heard Ann Romney, Mitt Romney’s wife, speaking to women voters.
ANN ROMNEY: Women are talking about jobs. Women are talking about deficit spending. Thank you, women. We need you. We all need you in November, too. We have to remember why we’re upset and what we’ve got to do to fix things.
MS. IFILL: And earlier today, we saw Barack Obama in the Rose Garden at the White House – or not in the Rose Garden, but at the White House, talking to a women’s economic conference and obviously trying to make that same appeal in a different way.
PRES. OBAMA: There’s been a lot of talk about women and women’s issue lately, as there should be. But I do think that the conversation has been oversimplified. Women are not some monolithic bloc. Women are not an interest group. You shouldn’t be treated that way. (Applause.)
MS. IFILL: They liked that – that they are not an interest group, but I wonder who got invited to –
MS. TUMULTY: Right. (Laughter.) It is interesting. The Republicans have long suffered from a – what is known as the gender gap. They get much stronger support from men than they do from women. But what we have seen in the polling is that the size of that gap has opened dramatically and especially it is opened in what appears to be a big shift of independent women who were at the end of the year favoring Mitt Romney slightly, and now, as you said, the president is 14 points ahead in this latest Gallup-USA Today poll.
And those are really the women, I think, who both parties realize they have to do well with. So we’ve seen – you know – part of it could be because the economy is getting better. Part of it could be because they’re suddenly hearing all this talk about contraception. And then it took – really jumped the shark, I think, in a lot of people’s minds this week when suddenly the two parties were arguing over – they weren’t arguing, but there was a lot of talk about whether women should be admitted to Augusta Country Club, where the Masters is played, where the Republican chairman said that talking about a war on women is like talking about a war on caterpillars.
MS. IFILL: It was an interesting comparison.
MS. TUMULTY: But I think –
MR. WESSEL: You can’t make the stuff up.
MS. TUMULTY: But back to Ann Romney’s point, women are, in fact, most concerned – all the polling shows it – about what is going on in the economy.
MS. IFILL: And not so much about whether they get to golf at Augusta. It should be said that Mitt Romney and Barack Obama and even Newt Gingrich said they don’t see any problem – they don’t have any problem with that.
MR. DICKERSON: They should be allowed in the club, yes. The Republican – what’s interesting here is trying to figure out where this problem is because Barack Obama has done – with independent men, he’s also done well. He made up about 12 points. So the question may be – contraception may be part of what’s certainly offending certain groups of women, but it may also be that for a while the Republican Party’s been eating itself up in its primary process. And people look at this, independent voters in particular, and they look at the process and they say this has nothing to do with my life. Even contraception, as important as it is, it’s not – people care about the economy, their jobs, their college loans, and those kinds of issues. And if they see one party obsessed about that, that’s – so the question then is once that ends, once that process is over for Mitt Romney – another reason he wants it to be over immediately – what’s the baseline? What’s the new level that will go back to, without Romney having to do a real programmatic effort to try and get women’s votes?
MS. IFILL: Well, David, I’m interested, is it true, as these – both of these candidates try to compete for women’s votes that women care mostly about the economy? Can women be almost ghettoized wise and said we’ll just talk about women’s issues over here? Or is it the same common –
MR. WESSEL: I don’t think they’re – I think that the people care about the economy and for good reason, because the economy’s moving like a tortoise, very slowly in the right direction. And you know, if you’re husband’s laid off, your life suffers whether you have a job or not. So I think that that’s – the notion that men or women care more about the economy, I don’t see that in the polls and it doesn’t make any sense. It is true, though, that men fared much worse in the recession than women and in the recovery, the opposite is true. So the unemployment rate for men has fallen more than a full percentage point. The unemployment rate for women has fallen only half a percentage point. So to that extent, women may be feeling for their individual situation that they haven’t felt any of this recovery that we keep writing about.
MS. IFILL: Are both parties at this stage still – even though, I started this by saying we’re in the general election pivot – are they both still trying to unite their base? It’s interesting to see the president at the White House with an interest group, as it were, or at least women who are interested in him being reelected, and listening to Mitt Romney try to unite the conservatives who are still off secretly meeting with Rick Santorum.
MR. DICKERSON: Well, I think what President Obama is doing is locking in gains. I mean, he – there was this contraception battle, which first started out being bad for the president. Then it switched and the politics started working well for him. There’s been an attention on a series of fronts of the White House to say, hey, remember, we’re on your side at this flashpoint moment. It may be harder to kind of remind everybody of this, two months from now. So locking those gains is slightly different than what Romney has to do, which is unite his party. He’s still working on that. Fortunately, he’s got the president helping him in that regard. And there’re a lot of ways in which Barack Obama helps unite the Republican Party, both with the hot mike comment, which has Republicans riled up, and this Supreme Court thing.
MS. CALMES: Bui we all talk about that like 5 to 10-percent margin of independent or swing voters that are – that decide an election. But any election that’s decided goes to the person, the party that gets more of their own voters out than the other. In 2010, Republicans took the House back and made Senate gains and state houses all over the country because conservatives turned out; 2008, more Democrats and Democrat leaners turned out.
MS. IFILL: How does the debate we’ve had this week – because it’s been lost and part of the president’s big speech at the newspaper editors was about the Paul Ryan budget, Republican budget that passed the House. How much of that speaks to all – crosses all of these lines? Does it?
MR. WESSEL: It ought to. I mean, frankly, there is a choice. Paul Ryan’s budget is a much smaller government than Barack Obama’s budget. Barack Obama’s budget has higher taxes than Paul Ryan’s. And the president, I think, has done a good job at draping Mitt Romney in the Paul Ryan budget. I think that Romney might have been trying – it might have been in Romney’s interest to put a little distance between him and Paul Ryan, but the president made it very difficult for him to do that. So to the extent that there’s a choice here, it’s not about who said what about the Supreme Court, though that matters to a lot of people, but there’s a very different vision for how we shrink the deficit when both parties agree that that’s going to be high on the agenda after the election.
MS. IFILL: Do you agree that the president successfully tangled Mitt Romney up in the Paul Ryan budget?
MR. DICKERSON: We’ll see. I mean, yes. You know, as a candidate, you want to be vague. You want to say, I’m for lower taxes and for a smaller federal government, but you want to stop at that. But the problem, the reason the president wants to staple Ryan and Romney together is to make – put Romney on the hook for every piece of specificity in a quite specific Ryan budget so that he can say, answer for this and that. And the other thing, the biggest thing, of course, being the changes in Medicare.
MS. CALMES: Well, and Barack Obama’s side – Romney got caught up with embraced Ryan so fulsomely because it was – it shows that he can’t quite get into the general election because the Wisconsin primary this week was what he was in. And Paul Ryan’s from Wisconsin. He needed Paul Ryan’s endorsement. And so they were, you know, joined at the hip. So it just shows the extent to which Mitt Romney continues to be in a primary battle even though everybody thinks he’s going to be the nominee.
MS. IFILL: How successful can the Republican – whoever it is – nominee be in targeting the president’s – the fear of an Obama second term? How much is that central to what a part of all these arguments are about?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, the argument that Mitt Romney made in front of the newspaper editors was that the president, in his first two years, did a lot of really aggressive things. He spent a lot. He passed big programs that he sort of trimmed his sails going into this election and sort of moved a little bit toward the center. What Mitt Romney – the doubt he is trying to plant in voters’ minds is once this election is over with, which Barack Obama would show up?
MS. IFILL: And where’s the party establishment on both sides in all of these arguments? We know where they are with Romney, for instance.
MR. DICKERSON: Well, the establishment on the Republican side is basically let’s get this fight going. On the Democratic side, the establishment’s pretty much behind the president. They’ve had plenty of gripes and grumbles, but as we were talking about earlier, it’s a choice. And so the Democratic establishment recognizes what kind of a choice it is and sees that this would be quite a different world with a Republican president.
One thing that’s interesting about the point Karen makes is that if this is a choice between who is the more authentic candidate, Mitt Romney making a case about the president not telling you the truth about his true core beliefs is a little rich, the Democrats would say, because Mitt Romney has that problem. But if it’s a referendum, what Mitt Romney – which is what Mitt Romney is hoping it is, then it’s a comparison of Barack Obama today to Barack Obama of 2008. And that’s more favorable for Mitt Romney because he hopes there’s not going to be talk about his authenticity, but about this presidency.
MS. CALMES: I think John’s right that the – what Mitt Romney’s trying to do is blur this idea that he, Mitt Romney, is the one who no one knows what he would actually do or which direction he would tack if he were elected president. I think it’s a little bit difficult to sell that argument about Barack Obama when he’s a president who’s already served three years. He’s in his fourth year –
MS. IFILL: For better or worse, he’s running on –
MS. CALMES: Right. You either you like it or you don’t. And the fact is that much of his second term would be given over to just implementing the big things he’s done in this term. Yes, he would go on to try to do more on maybe an overhauled immigration law, more on energy, but he’s going to have his hands full just implementing health care law if it’s sustained or finding an alternative if it’s not and the programs he’s put in place.
MS. IFILL: Is it true that the White House does not have a plan B on the health care law?
MS. CALMES: I think that’s probably largely true. It’s hard to know what it would be and it would take a lot – they have enough – there’s only so many things you can do, right, David? I mean, but if you don’t have an individual mandate, it’s just hard to see how you can have these other things sustained.
MS. IFILL: And is there a plan B if the economy keeps moving as slowly as it is?
MR. WESSEL: I don’t think there is. I think that a lot of the election’s going to turn on two economic numbers: unemployment and gas prices. If unemployment falls and gas prices fall, that’s good for the president. If they go up, that’s good for Mitt Romney and everything else is detail.
MS. IFILL: And any plan Bs over in the political side? For instance, if Santorum does stay in all the way through Texas.
MR. DICKERSON: Well, it’s just to try and marginalize him and keep – I mean, Romney’s benefit is he can take on the president and that’s good for him in the primaries and good in the general. But it does create some static and they would rather that static get out of the way because they got to move on.
MS. TUMULTY: And I did talk to someone who talked to Santorum this week, who also said he’s very fearful of losing his own home state.
MS. IFILL: Okay. That will be Pennsylvania, April 24. Thank you everyone. We have to go for now, but the conversation continues online, where we’ll pick up where we left off in the “Washington Week Webcast Extra,” where we may or may not talk about the vice presidential sweepstakes. You can find us and find links to everything else our panelists are writing at pbs.org/washingtonweek. And then we’ll see you next week on Washington Week. Have a blessed Passover and a Happy Easter. Goodnight.