MS. IFILL: Taxes, health care, jobs, a special politics roundtable on the issues that will define the 2012 election tonight, on “Washington Week.”
Joining the fight over health care.
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R): Well, the Supreme Court has a final word and their final word is that ObamaCare is a tax. I agreed with the dissent. I would have taken a different course, but the dissent wasn’t a majority.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The Supreme Court has spoken. The law we passed is here to stay. I make no apologies for it. It was the right thing to do and we’re going to keep moving forward.
MS. IFILL: And joining the fight over the struggling economy.
MR. ROMNEY: We have seen the jobs report this morning and it is another kick in the gut to middle class families.
PRES. OBAMA: Business has created 84,000 new jobs last month. That’s a step in the right direction. (Applause.) But we can’t be satisfied because our goal was never to just keep on working to get back to where we were back in 2007.
MS. IFILL: Americans may be on vacation if they can afford it, but the presidential campaign is coming into sharp focus.
MR. ROMNEY: The president’s policies have not gotten America working again and the president’s going to have to stand up and take responsibility for it.
PRES. OBAMA: I believe what’s stopping us is not our capacity to meet our challenges. What’s stopping us is our politics.
MS. IFILL: We peer through the lens with a special holiday week political roundtable. Charles Babington of the Associated Press, Dan Balz of the Washington Post, Jan Crawford of CBS News, and Amy Walter 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. This 4th of July holiday week was a hot one here in more ways than one. It was a week for political fallout from today’s anemic jobs numbers, from frantic fundraising in both camps, and from last week’s pivotal Supreme Court health care ruling. The questions: how did the court reach its conclusion that the health care mandate should be treated as a tax? And what do the candidates think about that? Jan Crawford made waves reporting on both questions this week. Here’s what Romney told her.
MR. ROMNEY: I said that I agreed with the dissent and the dissent made it very clear that they felt it was unconstitutional, but the dissent lost. It’s in the minority. And so now the Supreme Court has spoken. They concluded it was a tax. That’s what it is and the American people know that President Obama has broken the pledge he made. He said he wouldn’t raise taxes on middle income Americans.
MS. IFILL: And here is what Barack Obama said to supporters in Ohio today.
PRES. OBAMA: When you hear all these folks saying, oh, no, no, this is a tax. This is a burden on middle class families, let me tell you. We know because the guy I’m running against tried this in Massachusetts and it’s working just fine, even though now he denies. Basically what we say is, you know what, if you have health insurance you’re all good. If you don’t have health insurance, we'll help you get it.
MS. IFILL: Both candidates seemed to want to keep moving away from health care but for different reasons. That didn’t happen this week. Jan, why did Romney weigh in on this issue this week, especially since he seemed to be contradicting his senior advisor who had said exactly the opposite of what he told you?
MS. CRAWFORD: Well, I mean, I think he had no choice and let’s think back to what the Supreme Court actually did last Thursday, which seems about a year ago. It is right now. That was a big legal victory for the president, Supreme Court upholding what was his signature achievement, but the reasoning of that decision gave Republicans some hope. They thought there was maybe a silver lining to this legal loss that the Republicans had suffered because the Supreme Court said that Congress, as we all know, could pass that individual mandate requiring all Americans to have health insurance under its power to tax, that the individual mandate actually was a tax.
So that was something the Republicans jumped all over. Aha, you know, it was the president, you know, secretly raising taxes on the American people. And everyone across, I mean, the spectrum, every Republican, and even those House and Senate candidates, that was going to be a big issue for the fall. And then of course, we saw Eric Fehrnstrom, his senior advisor come out on Monday and say, well, actually, you know, Governor Romney stands alone among Republicans. He didn’t say that, but that was a position. He stands alone. That’s not a tax. It’s just a penalty. So that caused an enormous uproar and quite a lot of criticism started raining down on Governor Romney. And he had to really get himself back in alignment with the Republican Party because they believe that this is an issue, certainly some of those House and Senate races in November that they’ll be able to echo the drumbeat. President Obama is out there secretly raising your taxes.
MS. IFILL: So they have you on speed dial, Jan. They just called you and said come out to the House –
MS. CRAWFORD: You know, Gwen, you want to talk about a fortuitous timing because we’ve been talking about this interview and actually started – had been in the works since May. So we were going to have kind of this interview with Governor and Ms. Romney, have been putting a request for that for a while. So it was one of these situations where the timing worked out, where you get to sit down with the governor and actually be able to ask him the questions that everybody wants to know. Are you going to keep saying that this is a penalty? And of course, he’s treading a very fine line here. I mean, as the clip that you showed, he’s saying, well, personally, I really do think it’s a penalty because, you know, he has a similar penalty in Massachusetts.
MS. IFILL: What I did in Massachusetts was about what states do, right?
MS. CRAWFORD: But the court says it’s a tax, so I accept it.
MS. WALTER: Well, he didn’t say it was a tax in Massachusetts, right. It was a penalty in Massachusetts. He will still stand by that, right?
MS. CRAWFORD: Absolutely. Because he doesn’t want to be – I mean, part of his mantra is that as governor of Massachusetts he didn’t raise taxes. So you know, these are these technical definitions. Of course, the bottom line is whatever you call it – a tax or a penalty – it’s still – people are going to pay if they don’t have insurance.
MR. BALZ: But the sort of astonishing thing was that Eric Fehrnstrom, who is as close to Governor Romney as any of his advisors and has been with him a long time, would have gone out there and freelance that. I mean, that – you know – it doesn’t seem as though that is the way Eric would do it. So either he did make a big mistake or he was on the right page and then they realized they couldn’t – that was an untenable position to hold.
MS. IFILL: But what they ended up doing, Chuck, it seems confusing themselves more. So that the conservatives they’re trying to appease got even more angry at the look of the thing.
MR. BABINGTON: Right. Well, really, Romney can’t really square the circle because the problem that he was trying to address as governor of Massachusetts is the same problem that President Obama was trying to address, and that’s the problem of free riders, people who don’t get health insurance and therefore, if they want to, they can get very sick, and then, at the last minute, get health insurance. As long as you allow that, then it’s impossible to go to the insurance companies and say you can’t deny someone because of preexisting conditions. So both of them were trying to deal with these free riders and they dealt with it really in the same way.
Everybody has to have skin in the game or money into the system one way or another. If you refuse to buy the policy, then we’ll charge you. You can call it a fee, you can call it a tax, you can call it whatever you want. But it’s the same thing for the same reason. And that’s why, no matter how many ways the governor – Governor Romney tries to dance around this – and for that matter, President Obama – you know, his lawyers in court said it’s a tax – so they’re all talking about the same thing –
MS. IFILL: Which is one of the reason you could think they just want to move on.
MS. WALTER: Well, and voters clearly have moved on. I mean, that’s what’s interesting about this. We’ve had this whole discussion now for these last few minutes about the semantics, about penalty tax. There was a poll that came out right after the Supreme Court decision that showed that 60 percent of people think that if you get a penalty that equals a tax – they see this as a tax. But more important, how voters feel about the health care law today is absolutely no different than how they felt about it when it was passed in 2010. So nothing has changed since the Supreme Court decision, which I think is important.
The other piece, and going to Jan’s point about House and Senate races, I still think that Mitt Romney benefits from the fact that these House and Senate candidates, they’re going to run on this ObamaCare tax from here till November. And if you’re sitting in a swing state, you’re a viewer, you’re just watching television, and you’re going to hear ad after ad talking about ObamaCare tax, ObamaCare tax, you don’t know where it’s coming from. Doesn’t have to come from Mitt Romney, but it’s going to be out there in the ether and those voters are going to pick it up.
MR. BALZ: The interesting thing – I was out with President Obama on the bus tour in Ohio and Pennsylvania this week, and he is talking about it. And I think there’re a lot of people who thought once he got that decision, he really would move on rhetorically.
MS. IFILL: You’re saying it was the right thing to do.
MR. BALZ: The right thing to do, as the clip showed, is not going with the law I passed is not going away. And he’s also, I think, trying for the first time in a long time to actually sell people on the act, which they’ve failed to do from the time they passed it on. And he seems to be now making the case, it’s going to be here. If there’re some problems, we can fix it, but it’s not going away. And here are the good things that are there and to try to remind people of it.
MS. IFILL: Here’s another complicated part of this whole thing. And Jan played a role in this, too, with your reporting about what Chief Justice Roberts did when he decided to change his mind, as your sources tell you, and vote with the liberal wing. That has also caused great consternation about people who are supporting Mitt Romney, especially among a lot of conservatives.
MS. CRAWFORD: Well, this was just such a huge shock and disappointment. I mean, who would have thought, when George W. Bush nominated John Roberts to the Supreme Court, back in 2005, that he would provide the key fifth vote with the court’s four liberals to uphold President Obama’s massive signature achievement, the Health Care Reform Act. So when the decision came down, people were outraged. But then, when it became clear that John Roberts, the chief justice originally sided with the conservatives to strike down the part of the law, the individual mandate, then I think the outrage became much, much more pronounced.
MS. IFILL: I think Bill Galston, who – did you interview him for a story that you wrote this week because I think it was your story I read in which he said, “winners celebrate and losers mobilize.” What happens – what happens when that’s not clear who lost and who won?
MR. BABINGTON: They’re all mobilizing. And really, probably the base of both parties, so the liberals for the Democrats and the conservatives for the Republicans, can find plenty to get fired up. Clearly the conservatives hate ObamaCare and they’ll say, we really have – we have to – what Romney says, if you want to get rid of ObamaCare, then you’ve got to vote out Barack Obama. And of course, the liberals – it really would have been very bad for President Obama if this thing had been struck down, because then they could say you just kind of wasted your first term. So they’ve got at least something to be fired up and fight for. You know, Amy makes some good points about the general public wanting to move on, but I was really interested in what Dan was saying – you know, all of us at this table covered parts of the 2008 campaign, and the biggest applause line for every Obama speech was, you know, we’re going to change the health care system –
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. BABINGTON: – because people really were unhappy with and somehow –
MS. IFILL: That and withdraw from Iraq.
MS. WALTER: But that never – what’s interesting is when you look, again, over the course of this health care polling, you’ll see that Democrats have never been as happy about it as Republicans have been upset about it. And so what we saw after the Supreme Court decision was Democratic intensity did go up, it bounced back up, but not to the place where Republicans are. And to Dan’s point, I mean I think that’s where the president realized he is right now. Part of it, I don’t know that he can sell it anymore. I mean, I think, again, independents have basically – they’ve made their decision about this health care law and they don’t really like it. But what he recognizes is you’re going to a campaign where it’s really about mobilizing the base and we have a polarized climate here. And we got to show our guys that there’s a reason to get out and get excited.
MS. IFILL: But one of the big problems for both of them is that they really don’t want to talk about health care. They really want to pivot to talking about the economy. A day like today, the first Friday in the month in which it turns out that the economy is just as stalled as it’s been, that pivot, you could see them both kind of trying to do it and it didn’t quite take.
MR. BALZ: Well, the president does not want to talk about monthly job numbers. I mean, in Poland, Ohio, this morning, he made a passing reference to this. I mean, every – the whole press corps was kind of there waiting to see –
MR. BABINGTON: Thirteen minutes into the speech –
MR. BALZ: Right. To see what he was going to do. And basically said today’s numbers are a reminder that it’s still tough out there and then pretty much moved on from there. Their view is one monthly number is a monthly number. Most people aren’t going to follow that closely. There’re other indicators that they think people care about more. But he is very uncomfortable drawing any attention to it or trying to talk about the things he’s able to do.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s listen to what both candidates had to say this week trying to make this pivot because they struggled to right themselves with messages designed to rally the troops.
MR. ROMNEY: The president’s policies have not gotten America working again. And the president’s going to have to stand up and take responsibility for it. I know he has been planning on going across the country and celebrating what he calls “forward.” Well, forward doesn’t look a lot like forward to the millions and millions of families that are struggling today in this great country. It doesn’t have to be this way.
PRES. OBAMA: From now until November, the other side is going to spend more money than we’ve ever seen before, and they will be raining ads down on your head. They’ll tell you it’s all my fault. I can’t fix it because I think government’s the answer to everything, or because I haven’t made a lot of money in the private sector – I think everything is going just fine. That’s what all the scary voices in the ads will tell you. That’s what Mitt Romney will say. That’s what Republicans in Congress will say.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about the scary voices in the ads. Who are these – who are these two candidates really targeting their messages at?
MS. WALTER: Well, you know, I had the pleasure of sitting in and listening to a focus group in Denver, Colorado. And these were swing voters, like real swing voters in real battleground states. Many of them had voted for Barack Obama in 2008. A lot of them now were really hesitant about voting for him again. And the moderator asked them to think about the economy in terms of the weather, right, the meteorological reference. So he said, you know, it was really cold in 2009. I was wearing a big parka and a hat and gloves.
In 2010, maybe a little bit better, but maybe – but then, they said, now, I have a light jacket on. One guys said, you know, I’m wearing shorts, but I still have the sweatshirt on. So he said, well, okay. They’re very – very serious in these focus groups about you ask me to do something, I will tell you exactly how I feel. So the moderator said, okay, well, given that – I mean, you voted for Obama in 2008. You said you don’t know if you’re going to vote for him again. You were wearing a parka a couple of years ago. Now, you’re in a sweatshirt and shorts. What’s the problem? He said, well, based on his – based on his campaign in 2008, I should be in a bathing suit right now. And that’s where –
MS. IFILL: This sounds like the global warming argument.
MS. WALTER: Well, maybe that’s what it was. (Laughter.) But I think that it really goes to the heart of it, which is you have voters who recognize this is a president who inherited a mess – we hear that from voters a lot – and they didn’t think he was going to have a magical wand and fix I all in a minute, but that it was going to be better than this. And then, there’s another group of voters – those same voters actually are saying, but we just don’t know a thing about Mitt Romney. He’s a businessman. We don’t know if that’s good or bad.
MS. CRAWFORD: Amy, that’s what we’re seeing now. I mean, the Obama campaign is well aware that there’re a lot of people out there who just don’t know about Mitt Romney. So you’re seeing both sides trying to define who is Mitt Romney. And we’ve seen a lot of the attack ads from –
MR. BABINGTON: And you’ve got some conservative activists who feel that Romney is not being aggressive enough and assertive enough in spelling out – they feel – some of them feel he’s playing it too safe and just kind of sitting back and hoping that Obama will slide –
MS. IFILL: It’s July. Why do we have to be having this conversation now?
MS. CRAWFORD: But I think that what we saw – and picking up on Amy’s point – one of the things that Governor Romney said in our interview this week, which was striking, because I don’t hear him talk like this as forcefully, he just – he looked to me and he said, if I keep talking about the economy, I’m going to win.
MS. IFILL: He did.
MS. CRAWFORD: Just like that. And that is what you have seen – the campaign believes this election – they believe is going to be about the economy and they believe that people don’t think their lives are as good now as there were four years ago and they’re not going to be any better four years from now.
MS. IFILL: Except we know one thing about this campaign. It’s that they can never stay on the topic that they want to stay on. That something else always comes on along and distracts them, whether it’s the president or Mitt Romney.
MS. CRAWFORD: Sure – right and this was not a great week with the health care stumble, but look what happened today. Mitt Romney on his family vacation comes out and what’s he talking about? Back on the economy.
MR. BALZ: There will be – I mean there will be distractions and we’ve talked about that, that issues kind of come and go. But you know, every first Friday of the month between now and November, we’re going to get another jobs report and it puts back into perspective all of the other issues because it does remind everybody of what kind of what the basic issue is. You talk about what the audience is for these messages. I was struck both by watching the president this week and then listening to Governor Romney today, this focus on middle class economics. The president has worked up a whole riff about the middle class and his connection to the middle class through his own life and his own family. And Governor Romney, who, as we know –
MS. IFILL: I look at you and I see me, he said, something like that. I look at your children and –
MR. BALZ: I look at your children and I see mine. I look at your parents, I see mine. And Governor Romney, knowing that the questions about his own personal wealth and the business background that he has, leave him some distance from that middle class, trying to make the point that he in fact would do more for them than Obama has been able to do.
MS. IFILL: Well, how much do those attacks stick, Amy? These attacks that the Obama campaign had been making about outsourcing, whether he outsourced jobs, about his stewardship at Bain Capital, has that been sticking to people, look at Romney and go, oh, he’s the guy we saw on the jet ski on vacation.
MS. WALTER: Right. There are plenty of people who think that the poll –recent poll numbers suggest that they are working, especially when you look at some of these battleground states, like Ohio and Pennsylvania, where the president’s numbers have jumped up a bit. And again, in another focus group, people just off the top of their head said, well, I don’t know. I’ve been seeing these ads, where Mitt Romney, he closed a factory or something. So it’s clear that they’re picking something up in the ether.
But what they want to do right now, which is why I think the polls really aren’t going to change much between now and the time we get through conventions and the debates is they really want to get a measure of who Mitt Romney is and they really want to figure out who this guy is and what he stands for. And the ads certainly, I think, are helping the president define him, as Jan said. But they, I think, want to see him in his own words and see him matched up just one on one with the president.
MS. IFILL: Let me ask you all about this because I wonder as we listen to these candidates try to sort this out in the summer before they run out of time and define each other before they get defined, whether they’ve figured it out, whether the insularity that Romney is accused of, the Romney campaign, or that the Obama campaign has occasionally been accused of, makes it impossible for them to come up with a message that sticks. What are you hearing, Charles?
MR. BABINGTON: Well, certainly both of these campaigns have a lot of money, so they definitely afford polling and focus groups and we can be sure that they do it. At the same time, they do think they’ll still be sort of feeling their way and so that – and again, you know, I am struck by how Romney does seem to be playing somewhat a safe or cautious game to be sure. You know, he told Jan that if I keep talking about the economy, I’ll win. But what he didn’t say is I have to have dramatic new proposals. What he seems to be saying, the economy is not going well. Everybody knows it. And I just have to be the alternative to Barack Obama.
MS. IFILL: A hundred million dollars that they raised in the last month won’t hurt.
MS. CRAWFORD: Well, the thing about that is – picking up on what Chuck was saying earlier – you’re seeing a lot of conservatives, the “Washington Journal” editorial page coming out expressing a lot of frustration that the governor is not having a more forceful message, like you were saying, is not doing enough to kind of get out what he would do differently, needs a bolder vision, is squandering –
MS. IFILL: Squandering historic opportunity, right.
MS. CRAWFORD: That’s right and as we see this kind of discontent starting to grow, then there is the fundraising numbers, $100 million.
MR. BALZ: These campaigns, though, know – I mean, the Obama campaign has been through exactly what the Romney campaign is going through. They refer to it as being put in the stupid barrel. (Laughter.) Which is to say, the world at large or all the smart people think we’re stupid because we’re blowing this campaign. And so they recognize it right now. The Romney campaign has been put in the stupid barrel. And they recognize that at some point they’ll be put back into it.
The real issue is both of these are pretty tightly run campaigns with a relatively small inner circle that’s very well trusted by the candidate. That helps in a difficult moment to kind of weather it, but the other question is are they so insular that they’re unable to adjust when they really should adjust? And I think that’s one of the questions that Republicans have about Mitt Romney right now. Should there be some adjustment? What should it be? Are they capable of doing it?
MS. WALTER: And at the same time, voters, though, don’t have any appetite for big, bold plans because they don’t believe them. I mean if you – when you’re out there and you’re talking to real voters now, they’ve been sold – they feel like they’ve been sold a bill of goods election after election. Right, they had a change election, 2006, 2008, 2010. And nothing has changed. So I think both of these candidates – we keep saying this time and time again, but they keep putting these small plans forward, which we say, shouldn’t it be bolder. This is such a big election with some big issues.
MS. IFILL: That’s what we want.
MS. WALTER: We want to see that, but voters don’t believe it’s going to happen. And I talked to a Democratic ad maker who’s doing stuff for Senate candidates, he said, if I – I tell my candidate do not go out and say I have a plan to fix this thing because nobody’s going to believe you.
MS. CRAWFORD: But look at – I mean, it goes back to your earlier point, what started off our whole conversation, which was the health care law.
MS. WALTER: Right.
MS. CRAWFORD: In our polls leading up to the Supreme Court’s decision, 68 percent of the American people said they wanted the Supreme Court to at least drag down the heart of that law, the requirement that everyone have insurance or pay a penalty it’s always been unpopular and it’s one of those massive laws that people say they want, but then, when it passes, they don’t.
MR. BABINGTON: But one thing you have to remember is how it passed. It was such a bitterly partisan process.
MS. IFILL: It stayed that one.
MR. BABINGTON: Yes and that really, you know, hurts – hurt it a lot. So one problem with big, bold plans in a divided Congress, which we’re destined to have for a long, long time, they’re very hard to pass.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, thank you all very much. It’s been a fascinating conversation. And the broadcast, unfortunately, has to end now, but our conversation won’t. It continues online on the “Washington Week” Webcast Extra, where, among other things, we’ll talk about Ann Romney’s role in the campaign. And it also continues next week, on the third of our special online “Washington Week” Town Halls, focusing on battleground voters. Keep up with daily developments every night with me on the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you right here again next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.