MS. IFILL: Picking fights over who will raise your taxes, ship your jobs overseas or pay for your health care – that’s the campaign week in a nutshell, tonight on “Washington Week.”
Getting ready to rumble on the campaign trail.
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R) [Presumptive Republican Nominee for President]: If there’s an outsourcer-in-chief, it’s the president of the United States, not the guy who’s running to replace him.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If you say you want to bring down the deficit, but you’re not willing to let cuts lapse for the top 2 percent, it tells me you’re not serious about deficit reduction.
MS. IFILL: Throwing down gauntlets in Congress.
REPRESENTATIVE KEITH ELLISON (D-MN): We have to go repeal health care again for the 31st time. You would have thought the 17th time would be good.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH) [Speaker of the House]: The American people do not want to go down the path of Obamacare. That’s why we voted over 30 times to repeal it, defund it, and replace it.
MS. IFILL: Health care, taxes, Bain Capital, outsourcing jobs. Each candidate tries to beat the other to answer the question: who do you trust? Covering the week, Michael Duffy of Time Magazine, Lori Montgomery of the Washington Post, Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics, and Sam Youngman of Reuters.
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. If you doubted for even a moment that we are in the middle of a high-stakes political season, consider just this week. The president stepped up to pitch to the middle class with a call to extend tax cuts for anyone earning $250,000 or less. It won’t survive the House. The House passed another bill to repeal the health care law. It won’t survive the Senate. And each presidential candidate stepped up his effort to paint the other as untrustworthy, out of touch and bad for America. The fight spilled over into dueling television interviews today as Mitt Romney said the Obama campaign attacks on his history at Bain Capital are beneath the dignity of the presidency.
MR. ROMNEY: The president needs to take control of his people. The kinds of attacks that they’ve been making have now been checked time and time again by independent factor checkers. They’ve been found to be false and misleading, simply wrong. But they keep on doing everything they can to deflect attention from the fact that the American people want someone who can help create jobs in this country, get people working again.
MS. IFILL: Obama’s response? That Romney should be held to his record.
PRES. OBAMA: Mr. Romney attested to the SEC multiple times that he was the chairman, CEO and president of Bain Capital. And I think most Americans figure, if you’re the chairman, CEO and president of a company, that you are responsible for what that company does. Ultimately, Mr. Romney I think is going to have to answer those questions.
MS. IFILL: The heat wave broke in Washington this week, but not when it came to our politics. So to what do we owe this kind of stepped-up velocity, Michael?
MR. DUFFY: You could almost feel the intensity of the campaign just grow this week, surge, as both the White House and the Romney operation – it’s like they stepped on the gas. And I think if you had to reward points around, you’d probably give the slight edge to the White House because it started late last weekend, just take up its tempo. It went after Romney on Bain much harder. It picked a fight on taxes. They bought more ads. He’s clearly hitting the road more. And you can sense a kind of autumnal intensity in the way he is talking – not normal for July.
And it gets hard to tell where the defense for Obama ends and the offense begins. Obviously, with the economy not turning around, they have to do something to define Romney before his convention. And their definition, reduced to an almost cartoonish level is: heartless, mysterious, capitalist.
MS. IFILL: Let me ask you the same, because you’ve been out covering Mitt Romney a lot. He gave an interview to Fox News this week in which he said, if you’re responding, you’re losing. Well, he was the one who gave five interviews today to the networks to respond.
MR. YOUNGMAN: Right. He did that. He added two new Washington veterans to his communications team today. Look, go back to New Hampshire. Right after Iowa, when we still thought that Mitt Romney had won the Iowa Caucuses, Newt Gingrich laid out this blistering attack on Bain. And the pushback from within the party was so fierce that Newt stopped doing it.
Then fast forward to early in this – in the general. Bill Clinton, Cory Booker, all those folks, they undercut the argument. And I feel like in Boston it was either naïve or it was wishful thinking that, hey, we’ve weathered the Bain attacks. They’re done.
MS. IFILL: Just like they had weathered it in the primary season. They keep weathering it all over.
MR. YOUNGMAN: Exactly. And I think what we saw, especially today, is their eyes are wide open and they’re realizing fully and finally this is not going away – we’ve got to deal with it.
MS. IFILL: So, Alexis, today, the Republican nominee asked the president to apologize for all the bad things he said. Likely to happen?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Unlikely to occur, yes. And, in fact, President Obama has been in some ways unusual in this early stage, as Michael is saying, to make this so much his own campaign against Mitt Romney, to weigh in himself.
And some of the members of his own party have suggested that surrogates would be better to take Mitt Romney on directly, because he is president of the United States. And in some ways, Mitt Romney was baiting him over that very same question.
And then we saw this week the campaign has divided up the communication so that the White House has a travelling communications and the campaign now – we entered a week in which they’re trying to find a dividing line between the campaign and governing – very hard to see. And you can see that –
MS. IFILL: Impossible to see.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Impossible to see. And the president seems to be relishing it actually. Why? Why? Because they had very bad economic numbers, as you saw, and they’re scared. They were outraised. They’re head to head in the polls and they’re worried.
MS. IFILL: Let me ask you about this, Lori, because one of the interesting things that happened on Capitol Hill this week, in the wake of the president’s announcement that he was going to roll back the tax cuts extension for people who are middle class under $250,000 a year – you know, expansive idea of middle class, but still. Is that – you wonder how much this meant anything. You ran a story this week, for instance, about who actually is paying these taxes.
MS. MONTGOMERY: Yes. It was interesting. In the midst of this campaign where the narrative is supposed to be about how Obama is presenting us with job killing tax cuts, the CBO came out with a report that said that effective tax rates have fallen to a 30-year low under Obama, surprisingly. I mean, a lot of that was the economy and people losing income and falling into lower tax brackets. But people forget – the stimulus did in fact cut taxes.
And what you saw happen this week I think on the Bush tax cuts, it was really interesting because in 2010 they didn’t want to have this fight. They did not want to talk about raising taxes on the wealthy – even on the wealthy – before the 2010 election. They were nervous about it.
But this year, they seem to feel like they’ve got two-thirds of Americans say they want to see the middle-class tax cuts extended. People do not want to see tax cuts for the rich extended. And they have decided that they’ve got a winning message and they’re going to lean into it this time.
MS. IFILL: You know, there was another piece – I will stay with you on this, because this also happened on Capitol Hill, which is the health care piece of this in which the members of Congress came up and said, we’re going to vote for the 31st, 33rd – depending how you count – time to repeal all the parts of the health care law, knowing that it wasn’t going to go anywhere. Was that something that was considered realistic in any quarter of Capitol Hill?
MS. MONTGOMERY: Oh, no. I mean, it is Groundhog Day. We’re re-litigating all of these issues on the Hill. But what’s interesting is unlike 2010, when you had all of these town hall meetings, people screaming about the health care law, you had Democrats kind of nervous about where they were on taxes, this time it’s the Republicans who are a little uneasy. I mean, they voted unanimously, yes, in the House to repeal health care.
MS. IFILL: With five Democrats.
MS. MONTGOMERY: With five Democrats, but you heard a lot more about, well, but we really are going to replace it. And you had Nan Hayworth stand up with leadership and say, you know, I sort of agree with the goal that the Democrats have here that maybe we –
MS. IFILL: And she is –
MS. MONTGOMERY: She’s a Republican member of the House. And then, meanwhile, over in the Senate, you’re starting to hear some Republicans say, look, we are really scared of these defense cuts coming in in January and we’re starting to talk to Democrats about how we can maybe – not raise taxes, but maybe raise revenues, close some loopholes.
MS. IFILL: So how do these arguments, Michael, how do they work into the narrative which these campaigners are trying to put out there right now? I mean, obviously, there are arguments on Capitol Hill which are alien from what’s happening on the campaign trail, but certainly they are using them as cadgels.
MR. DUFFY: Right. Unable to really talk about improvements in the economy, the president is saying, as he said today in Virginia, this campaign isn’t about me. This isn’t a referendum on me. This is a referendum on you, on us, on what we can do together.
MS. IFILL: I thought “us” was the interesting part of that.
MR. DUFFY: Yes. He linked himself to the electorate and said, how you, we, the middle class are doing – he talks a lot now about his middle class, working class roots – how we fair in this environment with the changes I have made and the changes I want to make against a party that wants to undue those changes. That’s really the core fight of this campaign. It’s not about me or another guy. It’s about whether we move forward together in the great middle of the country or no. And so what’s happening on Capitol Hill gives him a bit of some background music. I wouldn’t say a lot, but some, and he plays on that – as I said, with greater intensity in the last week than we’d seen before.
MS. IFILL: So you watch Mitt Romney go to the NAACP convention and among the many things that he said – he didn’t talk about foreign policy. He didn’t really talk about taxes even that much. He talked about health care and knowing he was probably going to get booed by calling it Obamacare in a very Democratic crowd. Who was he speaking to, Sam?
MR. YOUNGMAN: I think he was speaking to –
MS. IFILL: No one in that room.
MR. YOUNGMAN: Nobody in that room. No. He was speaking to swing voters in the Philly suburbs, outside of Cleveland. He was speaking to moderate voters who need to see that he’s making the effort, going through – at least going through the motions of reaching out to a constituency that would not support him. The goal of going was to get applauded for going and I think that’s what he got for it.
MS. IFILL: Is that the same thing he gets for the incredible pushback today is that the goal of pushing back is to get credit for not being rolled over by the Obama train?
MR. YOUNGMAN: I don’t think so. I think a lot of Republicans who have been antsy are going to say, you know, finally, we’re responding to this. But at the same time, it looks like a panic move, arranging these five interviews as hastily as they did, especially for somebody who’s quite resistant to sitting down and doing interviews with anybody who’s not Fox News. I do think it smacks of second guessing – I don’t want to say panic because it’s July, but I do think there is some concern and we’re seeing it on full display.
MS. IFILL: Alexis, you said that they are trying very hard at the White House to now develop this bright line where every time Jay Carney, the press secretary, is asked a question, he says, oh, you need to talk to the campaign. Yes, maybe that works. But is there a grand strategy in the same way that Romney is trying to speak to moderates? And is Obama trying to speak to a particular group of people who are trying to hear this new aggressiveness from him that Michael talks about?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, I think there’s two things. I was on a bus trip with the president through Ohio and Pennsylvania. And one of the things that I noticed is – and Michael touched on this a little bit. It’s a “we” – we’re all together, I’m one of you, I’m telling you my story – we’ve had him as president for four years and he’s still telling us the story of his family and he’s trying to relate to people and bring them along.
But he’s also very much I think trying to blend the two things – the governance, I have a vision, we’re going in this direction, the leading – he talked this week about, gee, the problem I had was – as a colleague of ours said, too much perspiration and not enough inspiration – I want to inspire people more.
But he’s definitely trying to blend the two things – the governance, I have a vision, we’re going forward, we have work still to do, and also this very venomous kind of campaigning that he’s willing to do, negative advertising, taking Mitt Romney down on who he is.
MS. IFILL: Let’s take a look at some of that because if you’re lucky, or unlucky enough to live in one of the battleground states, you’re being inundated with campaign advertising, much of it negative.
MAN [Narrator]: The choice on taxes – Mitt Romney’s plan: a 25 percent tax cut for millionaires, tax breaks for oil companies and corporations that ship jobs overseas, but a tax hike for 18 million working families.
MAN [Narrator]: When a president doesn’t tell the truth, how can we trust him to lead? The Obama outsourcing attacks, misleading, unfair, and untrue. There was no evidence that Mitt Romney shipped jobs overseas. Candidate Obama lied about Hillary Clinton.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: So shame on you, Barack Obama.
MS. IFILL: It’s a nice little twist to use Hillary Clinton’s words from 2008 against her. Michael, how crazy is this ad campaign right now going on in places where maybe those of us who live in other than 10 states never see it?
MR. DUFFY: If you’re not watching PBS.
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MR. DUFFY: Just a couple of stats. If you live in Columbus, Ohio, or Richmond, Virginia, you’re probably seeing 10 times the number of ads now in July that you saw this time last year. You’re seeing the number of ads you would have seen in September, October of 2008.
The other thing that’s different about the ad campaigns is that they’re spending more money in fewer places than ever before. And something like half of President Obama’s – you’ll correct me – ad campaign spending so far is in just three states: Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. So it’s very intensive.
MS. SIMENDINGER: In Ohio, he has spent at least 16 million so far in advertising.
MS. IFILL: And is it having any effect? Is there any way looking at polling or anything else to measure whether it’s moving the needle, because there seems to be a lot of talk here – it’s unclear to me that anyone is pulling away.
MS. SIMENDINGER: So this is a very fascinating question and I’m going to kind of cop out of it because – here’s why, because really smart people that I know are debating this very energetically while we sit here. And there’s lots of ways to point at different kinds of polling connection to the advertising, focus grouping to the advertising, but then there’s also a lot of smart people that are saying that there’s just tons of money being spent and it’s very hard to see that the needle is really being moved. So I’m not an expert at this, but I can tell you we’re fascinated by it at RealClearPolitics and we’re watching it really closely.
MS. IFILL: Do you think that you see needles moving or does the campaign see needles moving, Sam?
MR. YOUNGMAN: I don’t see needles moving. I don’t – I don’t know if there’s any place for the needle to move. I think we’re talking about such a small amount of people that are basically going to serve as tie-breakers in this thing.
MS. SIMENDINGER: The president’s campaign talked about three million people.
MR. YOUNGMAN: Right. I mean, it’s –
MS. SIMENDINGER: Three million. That’s all.
MS. IFILL: What do you mean three million people?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Three million people will – they’re the ones who are supposedly persuadables, they can be moved – three million in the battlegrounds. That’s it.
MS. IFILL: Is there any trickledown, Lori, to congressional and Senate races? I know that there is a lot of apprehension on Capitol Hill watching this campaign in many ways because they don’t have any control over it and a lot of their lives are at stake as well.
MS. MONTGOMERY: Yes. I mean, absolutely. And as goes the president, I think probably goes the Senate and people are nervous about it. That said, I think – you know Democrats are feeling pretty good about the message that they’re walking into this thing with. I mean, they like where they’re at on taxes. They like sort of casting the Republicans as the bad guys in this big fight that’s coming at the end of the year. They like the fact that they won this big health care ruling in the Supreme Court and not as many people hate that as they used to. So they feel that things have shifted in their way a little bit.
MR. DUFFY: I was going to say one thing about the money that plays into the congressional races in a way that’s a little unusual than expected this year. One of the reasons President Obama is spending so much money is a lot of the money that he has raised is spendable now.
Most of the money that Mitt Romney is raising – and he’s going to outraise – they are going to outraise the Democrats about 10 percent probably overall. But a lot of their money is only spendable in the fall.
So, again, the White House is seizing this moment to spend the money when it can when Romney cannot. But at the end of the race, the Republicans are going to have more to spend as things now stand and so that will backload –
MS. SIMENDINGER: And that’s a theory of why we have seen Mitt Romney today book back-to-back interviews because – partially because of the money.
MS. IFILL: Because it’s free TV.
MS. SIMENDINGER: It’s free TV.
MS. IFILL: I want to go back to something you said a moment ago though, Lori. You said at the end of the year there’s going to be this collision. Explain that. That’s the fiscal cliff we’re talking about, right?
MS. MONTGOMERY: Right. Taxmageddon – it’s so – there’s a very real – not just hypothetical – governing question that needs to be addressed in the campaign and there’s some hope and belief that the fall will be focused at least a little bit on how these guys are going to deal with this situation, because enormous questions of fiscal policy are about to hit us.
And what’s going to happen is that the Bush-era tax cuts, which benefit all of us about to expire. It’s approximately a $2,200 tax increase next year for everybody. The payroll tax cut will expire. That’s a 2-percent cut that everybody’s receiving right now. And there’s a whole bunch of other tax stuff. But there’s also $110 billion in immediate spending cuts next year, half to the Pentagon, half to domestic programs.
So it all adds up – roll it all together, and if they don’t do anything, if the stalemate that has persisted over the budget for the last two years doesn’t get resolved, you get a $600 billion hit to the economy that many economists believe will plunge us back into recession.
MS. IFILL: I have to have a reality check here. Does what the president proposed this week do anything to push that cliff back?
MS. MONTGOMERY: No. And that is what was interesting about their decision to try to – well, it’s two things. One, they said, well, let’s do this now. We can agree on the middle-class tax cuts. That’s by far the biggest part. So let’s do that now and get it off the way. That will resolve part of the problem. But what they’re really doing was exactly the opposite. They were saying, look, we’re not going to be pushovers that we were in 2010 the last time the Bush tax cuts expired, when we agreed to extend them all rather than get in a stalemate with the Republicans that would raise everyone’s taxes. So they’re drawing a line now. They’re saying, when we get to December, we are not going to cave like we did two years ago.
MS. IFILL: I have another reality check question, this one for you, Sam, which is as all these questions are raised about Mitt Romney’s record at Bain and all these questions are raised about whether he outsourced or the president outsourced more jobs, what is true, and who is more – yes – and who is more stained by the argument?
MR. YOUNGMAN: Oh, well, the Romney campaign is hoping that the president will be stained by words coming from Washington Post fact checkers, words like false, mostly false, no –
MS. SIMENDINGER (?): Or just four Pinocchio’s.
MR. YOUNGMAN: Four Pinocchio’s we heard today. You know, look, as usually happens, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Mitt Romney left Bain in 1999. Documents show he was still listed as the owner and CEO. Was he still handling the day-to-day operations? Probably not. He says he wasn’t. You know, here’s why this matters: a week ago today, June jobs numbers came out showing the flat line in recovery continue.
MS. IFILL: And have we talked about it at all?
MR. YOUNGMAN: Have we talked about it once this week? No. We’ve talked about who’s the real outsourcer. We’ve talked about Bain.
MS. IFILL: So when Mitt Romney says, as he did in his interviews today, that the Obama campaign is trying to change the subject, that’s what they’re trying to do.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes. And Mitt Romney was also trying to change the subject.
MR. YOUNGMAN: Right.
MS. SIMENDINGER: So we’re going to be doing this –
MS. IFILL: Back and forth.
MS. SIMENDINGER: – back and forth.
MS. IFILL: Except that – another theme which seemed to come up this week was – you heard David Axelrod and others talk about the secrecy of the Obama campaign and that it was Nixonian. That seemed to be stirring up other issues.
MR. DUFFY: Yes. The extreme version of the Obama take on Romney is that he is a mysterious, heartless capitalist, and mysterious is part of it. He won’t release his tax returns. This continues to be an issue that the Romney campaign is not handling well since he had released them back to 1984 I think for John McCain.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. DUFFY: So how bad can they be?
MS. IFILL: He said today he’s only releasing two years and that’s it.
MR. DUFFY: He’s drawn that line in the sand again I think today about that. He didn’t make it easier. He made it harder, I think. So that’s a line that the White House is pushing because they want to advance the idea that he’s not merely just another businessman, that he’s something beyond that, something unknowably bad.
MS. MONTGOMERY: And there is that Swiss bank account.
MR. DUFFY: And there are the offshore accounts.
MS. IFILL: Well, in Bermuda. But let’s talk about what happens next because next week, the president goes on another string of domestic trips. In a week and a half, Mitt Romney goes to – on a foreign trip.
MR. DUFFY: Overseas.
MS. IFILL: And if you really want to change the subject, you nominate a vice president, right?
MR. DUFFY: As they tried to do today.
MR. YOUNGMAN: I mean, there you go. Last night, you know, we all checked the – (inaudible) – report like we do on everybody –
MS. IFILL: Speak for yourself, young man.
MR. YOUNGMAN: – like he checks every seven minutes. But, you know, we see this item that I think just about everybody of any credibility in this town laughed off, that Condi Rice was being – Condoleezza Rice was being considered –
MS. IFILL: But is there anything real going on about the vice presidential race timing-wise?
MR. YOUNGMAN: Well, I think so. I mean, that’s got to be a consideration I think. You know, if this continues to be the topic – the main topic of conversation for the coming days, then I think that they’ve got to do something to change the narrative. I’m just not sure they want to say, here’s our running mate and I’m leaving the country. You sort of want to be here to tour with him.
MR. DUFFY: I think the first week of August. If they haven’t done it by the 5th or the 6th or the 7th of August, I’ll be surprised.
MS. IFILL: Really? Just to have a little time leading up to the convention.
MR. DUFFY: Right when they come. Yes, that will give them time to use the vice president to raise money because after August, nobody can raise money. There’s just no time. So August is the last chance to go scrounging for dollars. And they both will be doing a lot of that too.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And to give the two teams time to meld probably. They need a little adjustment time before the convention.
MS. IFILL: But meanwhile, Joe Biden’s out there. He’s at the top of his game. I saw him jogging off the stage today at the NAACP convention and he seems to be perfectly fine.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, talk about storytelling. I would say the vice president is – he usually tells five stories in one speech and he’s very engaging when he tells those stories. He is the middle-class emblem that the Obama campaign is happy to send out there, the happy warrior attacking away. He’s – surprisingly for a guy who talks long, he also can boil it down into a short bumper sticker occasionally.
MS. IFILL: Well, I don’t know I’ve ever heard that. (Laughter.)
MS. SIMENDINGER: Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.
MS. IFILL: That’s true. That is his. That is true. Okay. Well, the battle lines have been drawn and I get the feeling we’re going to see some more by this time next week. Thank you all very much for keeping track of it all for us.
Sadly, we have to leave you now. But our conversation continues. Our conversation continues online this week in a different format: a “Washington Week” online town hall with voters at Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver and at Wisconsin Public Television in Madison. East Coasters can watch it streaming live at 9:00 p.m. For the rest of you, it will be posted online as soon as we can get it there.
You can find us at pbs.org/washingtonweek. Keep up with this crazy campaign year with me every night on the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you around the table right here next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.