MS. IFILL: The president evolves on gay marriage. The tea party takes Indiana. And the foiled al-Qaida bomb plot, tonight on “Washington Week.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’ve just concluded that for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.
MS. IFILL: The president confirms what his friends and foes long suspected. But did the vice president force his hand? And does Mitt Romney want to change the subject?
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: I have the same view on marriage that I had when I was governor and that I’ve expressed many times. I believe marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman.
MS. IFILL: Celebration in some quarters, dismay in others. In Indiana, a venerable Republican senator falls.
SENATOR RICHARD LUGAR (R-IN): Serving the people of Indiana in the United States Senate has been the greatest honor of my public life.
MS. IFILL: Is the tea party back? And the mysterious double agent who foiled al-Qaida. What did we learn?
REPRESENTATIVE PETER KING (R-NY): I can tell you that we should never, ever let our guard down.
MS. IFILL: Covering the week: John Dickerson of Slate magazine and CBS News; Major Garrett of National Journal; Susan Davis of USA Today; and Pierre Thomas of ABC 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. Well, that was some week. And by the time it ended, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had been temporarily at least knocked off course. It started with Vice President Joe Biden on “Meet the Press.”
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled of the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly, I don’t see much of a distinction beyond that.
MS. IFILL: The vice president’s use of the term “marriage,” not say “civil unions,” excited two bases: liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. Three days later, the president announced a decision he had apparently already made, that he too supports same-sex marriage.
PRES. OBAMA: Malia and Sasha, they’ve got friends whose parents are same-sex couples. Malia and Sasha – it wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently. It doesn’t make sense to them. And, frankly, that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective.
MS. IFILL: But the president added states should still sort this out for themselves. So, in the end, which side came out ahead in a week in which neither was focusing on the economy, John?
MR. DICKERSON: I think probably you’d have to say the president – he had come to this decision before this week’s events, but it was definitely on the White House calendar – there was not a same-sex marriage firestorm listed down for this week.
Saturday he had launched his campaign. Monday, the campaign had started a $25 million ad campaign that was focused around the president, what he’d done for the economy, the bailout of the car industry, and then, the president launched a to-do list telling Congress what they needed to do to try and put Congress on them. That was all blown to the side.
This became the issue. They had to move up what the president was (noodling ?) about the right venue to announce his decision, how to do it. He wanted to show that it was a personal decision, not a policy decision – wouldn’t make a big formal speech, wouldn’t go to the briefing room. So he had to find the right venue. But that was quick. And because Joe Biden, by coming out beforehand, advisors felt like what he had done is basically he was leading. The president wasn’t. And there was a kind of a move by the campaign to try and fix that.
In the end though, the president – this helps him in two ways. It helps him with raising money among a lot of gay activists who are very interested in this decision. With young voters, it gives them a sense that this is the guy from 2008 that they remember. This is the guy who had things to say that were big and bold and moved things.
The other off-balance moment of the week was from Mitt Romney. A story came out in the “Washington Post” about his period in high school and in prep school where he was sort of the ring leader of a bullying event of a young kid, held him down, cut his hair. There’s really no upside to that story for Mitt Romney, of course, but the question is whether it really matters in an election about the economy.
MS. IFILL: That’s what I want to ask you about, Major. Who was more off topic I suppose this week: Mitt Romney, who’s still trying to introduce himself to America and we’re now hearing this theme, or Barack Obama who got his message – it was less than a week ago that he formally launched his campaign?
MR. GARRETT: I agree with everything John said. The White House and the campaign had a series of ideas and concepts that went forward. But there is nothing in the course of this week that tells me the White House lost anything by a focus on gay marriage for two reasons. Every day spent in the political discussion of this general election campaign on something other than the economy is a net plus for the Chicago-based reelection headquarters and Barack Obama and a negative for the Boston-based headquarters of Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney’s only pass at the White House is paved through the economy and a discussion thereof. Any other discussion is harmful. Look at Mitt Romney’s –
MS. IFILL: A discussion about how bad it is, not a discussion about progress.
MR. GARRETT: Look at Mitt Romney’s own – right. Look at Mitt Romney’s reaction to this. I don’t want to talk about gay marriage. What do I want to talk about? The economy, okay?
I used to play hockey as a kid even though I grew up in San Diego. There’s a phrase – a kick save and a beauty. It was either a kick save and a beauty for the White House or it was something that Joe Biden had a fairly deep sense of the president’s current position on and was comfortable talking about. And the most public venue of all in Washington, “Meet the Press.”
Look at that entire transcript. Previous to his comments on gay marriage, every single thing is on message. What you have to believe, if you believe that Joe Biden wondered off the reservation is, entirely consistent with the reelection message, and then suddenly, he goes bonkers and says something about gay marriage that the White House can’t live with. I fundamentally don’t believe that. I believe this was consistently helpful for the White House all this week.
MR. DICKERSON: That’s a good point is that whether it was planned or not, it was helpful.
MR. GARRETT: It worked to their net advantage.
MR. DICKERSON: It was helpful in the end, although we can see how the politics of this would play in the end, I think the argument for what happened with Biden was it as an untenable position to say out loud the president’s position on same-sex marriage was he had made all of these moves to give greater rights to same-sex couples in all kinds of different venues.
MS. IFILL: Stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act, rolled back “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He had done everything –
MR. GARRETT: Allow visitation in hospitals, every other thing significant.
MS. IFILL: Everything except that.
MR. DICKERSON: Right. Exactly. And so he’d done all of those things so then the question was why are you stopping here? And Biden, as it was explained to me in my reporting that he had had these experiences and he felt like he had to vault. He’d come further than the president, of course, because he voted for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He voted for the Defense of Marriage Act.
MS. IFILL: And it should be said, when I asked Joe Biden during the vice presidential debate three and a half years ago about this, he said, neither the president or I support same-sex marriage. So this has been a big evolution for them. Why don’t you guys jump in?
MS. DAVIS: So what – but how do you think it does play out in the election? If they’re trying to keep it about the economy, does gay marriage become an issue in November, or does this just disappear?
MR. GARRETT: The country has evolved so far from the very tortured politics of gay issues and their broader electorate from the 1990s. And one reason I believe Vice President Biden didn’t wonder away is because he has two people who are very important to his overall staff – Steve Ricchetti, a counselor, was the deputy chief of staff to Bill Clinton, and Bruce Reed who was the domestic policy advisor to Bill Clinton. They fundamentally remembered they lived through the difficult politics of gay American issues and the broader electorate, which led to the Defense of Marriage Act, which led to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” And most of what Bill Clinton does, has done – Barack Obama has done that’s going to be a legacy for him probably, is taking away the things that Bill Clinton put in place. These guys who work for Joe Biden know those politics very well.
MR. THOMAS: But in a broader sense, you have Mitt Romney supposedly with a base that’s not all that fired up. What does it do for his base?
MR. GARRETT: They were already there.
MR. DICKERSON: That’s right. His base didn’t like the fact that Barack Obama is the sitting president. And so they’re already pretty much there. We’ve had one piece of data on this so far – Gallup came out with a poll. Six in 10 people said this isn’t going to affect their decision at all. To the extent there’s any problem for the president –
MR. THOMAS: What about Evangelicals out there?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, Evangelicals are already very much – (inaudible) – with the president and the fact that he’s in the White House is a great turnout operation for the Republicans. But where’s a tiny little erosion, very tiny, is among independents – 23 percent in this Gallup poll said they would be less likely to vote for the president because of this decision; 11 percent said more likely, but that’s a very small amount. And we’re at the red hot moment here of this. The question is whether this continues on. If it’s going to continue to be an issue, Mitt Romney is going to have to push it. And there’s no indication that he wants to push it at all.
MS. IFILL: Well, and that was my question. Mitt Romney has not only not – doesn’t want to push it, but he also has gone even further to the right I guess on civil unions than his predecessors. I mean, George W. Bush at least –
MR. GARRETT: Did not endorse the federal constitutional amendment on this and Mitt Romney has.
MS. IFILL: This is exactly my point, which is George W. Bush was there and Dick Cheney was there, but Mitt Romney is not. Not only that, but he also was kind of fuzzy today about whether gays should be allowed to adopt children. So this is a problem for him.
MR. DICKERSON: He had two different positions it appears on the gay adoption thing or he said he was fine in one interview and in another he seemed to not have a position. Talking to Republicans both in Congressional races and in the presidential race, the view is this: basically, there are a variety of reasons why they don’t want to talk to this.
First of all, the base is already fine and they’re lined up. Two, the president didn’t articulate a position. There’s nothing to argue against. It’s just his personal preference that he articulated. And, finally, it’s about the economy. And any time the Democrats – as Major said, anytime the Democrats are talking about anything other than the economy, the Republicans would like to get it back to being about the economy. And so that’s what they want to constantly talk about.
MR. GARRETT: One last point. For the president and his reelection, this is not going to be a wave of enthusiasm election like 2008. This is going to be about knitting together core constituencies who believe and are highly energized. This week, within the gay community, the president made them highly energized, willing to donate, willing to go out all the way for him.
MS. IFILL: I read somewhere he raised $2 million in 24 hours after this announcement.
MR. GARRETT: Yes, and $15 million at the Hollywood fundraiser with George Clooney and Katzenberg, who are significant players in Hollywood in that community.
MS. IFILL: But, you know, an interesting point which, John, you just touched on a little bit, which is nobody can go out tomorrow and get married because of what the president said. In fact, what he did say was he said states should still continue to handle this. And we saw what happened in North Carolina with the 30th state to put this on the ballot which they said no, or they said, yes, let’s keep this law in place. So the question for me is how do we get to this pass where the Democratic president is endorsing states’ rights and the Republican challenger is saying, there should be federal intervention?
MR. DICKERSON: On the president’s side, he did two things, as Dahlia Lithwick writes about in Slate. I mean, what he said in his position on this and his evolution, he said basically to gays and lesbians in America, I heard you. What you said over the years convinced me, which is a sort of active empathy, public empathy in their views. The way advisors in the campaign and the White House talk about the president on this question of states’ rights, the argument is he took a long time to get here. He’s not suddenly going to say, oh, now that I’m here, I’m going to tell you what to do, you who are on your same journey. So that too is in a sense an act of empathy, which is saying to those states, you haven’t come along, I’m not going to force you to.
MR. GARRETT: And the last thing is the grand and elongated history of America on marriage has been it’s a states issue. And if the president were to try to circumvent that and say it’s not a states issue, then he would not only invite hostility on the question of gay marriage yes or no, but on states’ rights yes or no to doubling down of hostility on the right side of the spectrum, which he simply did not want to do.
MS. IFILL: And no one wants to pick this fight with him clearly because they believe they won the week, but if you believe, as many same-sex marriage advocates do that same-sex marriage and gay rights is the same as civil rights, you have to think back to what happened with civil rights which is states’ rights for –
MR. GARRETT: Which has been a complicated mix of the president. He’s often said, I’m not sure this is the same thing as the civil rights struggle of the ’60s.
MS. IFILL: That’s a completely different layer of the conversation and we’ll get to that inevitably at some point.
MR. GARRETT: Yes.
MS. IFILL: Thank you both. Another big political story was almost overshadowed: Richard Lugar’s decisive 20-point drubbing in Indiana’s Senate primary. I think he only won two counties in the entire state. The guy who beat him, state Treasurer Richard Murdoch.
RICHARD MURDOCH [Indiana GOP Senate Candidate]: This race is not about animosity. It’s about ideas. It is about the direction of the Republican Party. It is about the direction of our country.
MS. IFILL: With that, the Senate’s longest serving Republican met the wrath of the tea party and the decision by voters that he’d simply been in Washington too long. Which was the strongest force, Susan?
MS. DAVIS: I think Dick Lugar lost for two reasons. He lost because the conservative wing of the Republican Party targeted him both within the party and outside groups and they decided he was going to be their number one priority for defeat this cycle.
And he lost because of Dick Lugar. He ran a bad campaign. He ran a campaign that did not speak to Indiana voters. He did not focus on the issues that Indiana voters cared about. And he could never come up with good responses to the criticisms against this.
One I think that – a significant factor in losing this race is that – about how he had not owned a home in the state since 1977. He bumbled the response to that. It fed a storyline that he had been in Washington too long and it was time for someone else to come in. He also was hit by a fuselage of negative attack ads which defined that race. I think $4.5 million –
MS. IFILL: Paid for by –
MS. DAVIS: Groups – tea party aligned groups or other conservative groups, and almost entirely negative against Lugar. So he did not run the campaign he needed to run, but there was also a weariness within the state of his record. And for the thing that he’s most known for, for foreign policy, for being this sort of international statesman, he didn’t really a spend a lot of time paying attention to the bread and butter issues that Indiana voters care about. He didn’t have a very strong record on the economy, or at least speaking to those issues.
One of the examples people have used is during the height of the health care debate, when everyone was on the floor talking about that, he went to the floor to talk about his efforts on nuclear proliferation.
MS. IFILL: Not unimportant but not on point either.
MS. DAVIS: Not unimportant but not the tone that people are talking about right now particularly in an economic downturn. I think voters are less concerned about what’s happening abroad than what’s happening in their own homes.
MR. THOMAS: Does this mean the tea party is back and what does it mean for the general election in the fall?
MS. DAVIS: I don’t know if the tea party ever left.
MS. IFILL: I was going to say, where had they gone?
MS. DAVIS: I do think that there is this – the most hostile group probably of voters right now, they’re Republican primary voters. So it’s not just about Dick Lugar. I think anybody that has seniority in Washington, that has an R after their name, if they are not mindful of that base, they’re going to have trouble facing reelection.
MS. IFILL: Tea Party activists in Indiana this week described it to me as a purity purge. That tells you what you need to know.
MR. DICKERSON: If they’re purity purges, what then happens to the Senate, either take it out of their way – Murdoch comes and if he wins – or what does it mean to no longer have Dick Lugar in the Senate?
MS. DAVIS: It’s probably a little bit broader than Dick Lugar. We’ve seen it in the past couple of election cycles. I think there’s an element of senators that were considered centrist or moderates who have either opted to leave, who have retired – Olympia Snowe of Maine is one good example this cycle – who have decided that it was better to exit than to try to run the race they’re going to have to run to probably win.
On the Democratic side, Ben Nelson is a good example of another centrist who opted for the door versus staying. I think you’re seeing a lot of the centers eroding both by choice and by force so it does create an environment where the Senate is just defined by starker, brighter, more partisan lines.
MR. GARRETT: When Barack Obama ran in 2008, he often talked about his relationship with Senator Lugar. And he leveraged it to prove he was bipartisan and that was valuable for Democrats.
MS. IFILL: He won Indiana by 14,000 votes or something.
MR. GARRETT: Exactly. That cost Dick Lugar. What does that tell us about the transactional value or lack of value with bipartisanship?
MS. DAVIS: And it’s funny because Murdoch, who’s now the nominee, he said that he actually campaigned against bipartisanship. He said I think the problem with Washington is there’s too much bipartisanship, which is sort of funny if you spend time in Washington, you don’t really hear that complaint very often. And he also said his definition of bipartisanship is Democrats agreeing with Republicans. So he is sort of campaigning as a force of partisanship in Washington and saying he’s going to come here and be – hold to – trident to conservative beliefs.
MS. IFILL: Now, of course, he has to actually survive the general election before that happens. So he’s running against a Democrat, a three-term Congressman named Joe Donnelly. How is that shaping up? Is it going to be easier – is it going to be an easier shot for Democrats because they’re not running against Dick Lugar?
MS. DAVIS: Well, if Lugar was the nominee, I think the state would have stayed safely Republican. Murdoch does bring an element of competitiveness to the race. I think Democrats have equated him to the sort of a Sharron Angle or Christine O’Donnell trying to paint him –
MS. IFILL: He’s not quite.
MR. GARRETT: He’s not that.
MS. DAVIS: But he’s not that. It’s important to remember –
MR. GARRETT: He’s won statewide before.
MS. DAVIS: He’s won statewide twice before and in 2010 he was the highest vote getter in the state of Indiana, beating Dan Coats, who’s a Republican senator. He earned more votes than he did. So this is not some fringe candidate that’s going to be easy to beat.
To the Democrats’ benefit, they’re running a really good candidate. Joe Donnelly is a conservative Democrat who was known as what’s a Blue Dog Democrat, fiscally conservative. The problem is that he is voted for – he was one of the Democrats that voted for the president’s health care bill, which is going to be an issue in this race. So I think Republicans are very confident, but it’s probably going to force Democrats to – Republicans to spend money in that state to defend it.
MS. IFILL: Well, it’s going to be interesting to see who decides to spend it and whether the Democrats go, you know, this isn’t really worth our time. (We’d rather ?) go get a lower-hanging fruit. Thanks, Sue.
Finally this week, the story of the foiled al-Qaida plot – the plan was to bomb a plane, again, using explosives concealed in underwear, again, and to terrorize the United States, again. It didn’t happen, and therein lies a tale, but one that may not yet be over because of a man named Ibrahim al-Asiri. Pierre, who’s that?
MR. THOMAS: Well, he’s the master bomb maker based in Yemen, diabolical mind, chemist in training. And the big issue this week that sources were telling me is that not only has the United States government got to kill this guy – and they’re being pretty blunt – he needs to be taken off the map. He did something in the past year that has people in Washington extremely concerned. He trained a bunch of disciples. And what I mean by disciples, he trained other master bomb makers with the thought that if he’s taken off the battlefield, this threat would continue. And so now you have the prospect of a bunch of bomb makers who have gone across the planet to parts unknown developing their own plots.
MS. IFILL: So when you look at this – we only hear of double agents anymore in spy novels and movies. But describe whoever this person was who worked to expose this plot.
MR. THOMAS: Right. We have what we believe is a British person developed by the British intelligence who basically went into al-Qaida, infiltrated the organization and convinced them that he was a trodden true militant and they built a bomb for him to take and put on the plane. Well, the trick was that he came out of Yemen, made his way to Saudi Arabia, we think, and brought the bomb with him.
The big issue with the story is very fascinating. It goes back to the underwear bomber from December 2009. And what the intelligence community found out is, guess what, it’s not that hard to infiltrate al-Qaida. Abdulmutallab, who was the person who was engaged in that particular bombing, if you look at the Justice Department case on him, he simply went to Yemen, made a few phone calls and was able to meet Anwar al-Awlaki within a week or two and suddenly was a part of al-Qaida.
MS. IFILL: So they thought, maybe we can do that.
MR. THOMAS: Exactly. And so it was that simple.
MR. GARRETT: How sophisticated and different in kind and in the lack of detection was this underwear bomb? Is this something that the broader aspect of American security, airport or otherwise, is now either concerned about or terrified about it?
MR. THOMAS: Well, the big difference in this bomb is that the detonation system, they said, was more likely to work. If you remember the December 2009 plot, it was game, set and match. It got by all the security. It simply didn’t detonate when the bad guy wanted to detonate. So this time they put it in a number of measures that would make the thing almost certain to detonate. And right now, the FBI, this bomb is being housed at Quantico, a few miles from here actually, and the FBI is dissecting the thing and they’re going to run a test. They plan to make a replica and they will try to run it through the system to see if it could get through the body scanners that we have today.
MS. DAVIS: What is it about this particular strain of al-Qaida in Yemen and are they sort of the hotbed right now of al-Qaida activity?
MR. THOMAS: Right now, my sources are saying that Yemen is the most dangerous place on the planet for the West. And what they mean by that is that they are obsessed with killing Americans. They’re obsessed with bringing down a plane, and they’re very Western in the way that they’re going about doing things.
Anwar al-Awlaki, who we took off the map, killed him last fall, was basically saying to his people, get something done. Get on the score board. It doesn’t have to be 2,000 people. Get on the score board. You will get international coverage, whatever you do. So now that’s the concern is that this group is going to try something. In the span of two years – they tried in December 2009 underwear bomb plot. In the fall of 2010, they tried to put bombs on a parcel plane and the only way we found out about that is, again, a spy told us that that was about to happen, now this.
MR. DICKERSON: Given that we – it feels like a lot of important information has now been given to the bad guys in this case. Weren’t they kind of angry about that on the Hill that a double agent is now useless?
MR. THOMAS: Well, again, when you have an asset like that, you want to milk it for everything you can get out of it. And there were people telling me this week, look, maybe he could have dragged this out. He had the bomb. He left Yemen. He could have called back to Yemen and say, look, I’ve got some issues. I need to drag this out further. Are there anymore like me that can get this done sooner? So you had the possibility of getting more information.
MS. IFILL: And either way, the danger is not yet over. They’re not finished investigating this.
MR. THOMAS: Again, sadly, it’s not.
MS. IFILL: Yes. Well, thank you, Pierre. Thank you to everyone. For more on the stories our panelists have been reporting, check out their essential reads online at pbs.org/washingtonweek. Keep up with daily developments on the PBS “NewsHour” and we’ll see you here against right here next week on “Washington Week.” And to all you mammas, wannabe mammas, kind of mammas, and play mammas out there, Happy Mother’s Day. Goodnight.