MS. IFILL: With the Republican ticket in place, the 2012 campaign shifts from a referendum to a choice and hand to hand political combat ensues, tonight on “Washington Week.”
The week began with a jolt of energy.
REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN (R-WI): I am deeply honored and excited to join you as your running mate. (Applause.)
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R) [Presumptive GOP Presidential Nominee]: People ask me why I chose Paul Ryan. The answer is I wanted someone who is a leader.
MS. IFILL: But the campaign veered quickly into charge and countercharge, some of it rooted in policy.
NARRATOR: You paid into Medicare for years. Every paycheck. Now when you need it, Obama has cut $716 billion from Medicare.
NARRATOR: Now, Mitt Romney’s attacking the president on Medicare?
MS. IFILL: And some of the charges, personal.
MR. ROMNEY: This is what an angry and desperate presidency looks like. President Obama knows better.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: He’s going to let the big banks once again write their own rules. Unchain Wall Street. They’re going to put you all back in chains.
MS. IFILL: A new phase, old arguments, as the campaigns go toe to toe.
Covering the week, Jackie Calmes of the New York Times, John Harris of Politico, and Alexis Simendinger of Real Clear Politics.
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. Paul Ryan’s elevation to the national Republican ticket represented a shift in strategy as profound as we have seen all election year. There is a referendum do American voters want to give President Obama a second term? And there is the choice, whose vision is the most in synch with where Americans want to go next? This is how President Obama described the new landscape earlier this week.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’ve gotten to know Congressman Ryan is a good man. He’s a family man. He’s a very articulate spokesperson for Governor Romney’s vision. The problem is it’s the wrong vision for America. It’s a vision that I fundamentally disagree with. (Applause.)
MS. IFILL: And this was Paul Ryan campaigning today in Virginia.
REP. RYAN: You get to choose which path you want. Do you want the opportunity society with the safety net; the land of the free, of opportunity, and upward mobility? Or do you want more of the same? A debt crisis, a welfare state, a nation in debt, doubt, and despair? Really clear.
MS. IFILL: I think that Paul Ryan might be right about that, Alexis. It seems like the distinction really is clear.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Distinction became clear, definitely. I was on the bus tour with President Obama through Iowa this week and one of the things we heard a lot were some of the contrast, the choices that the president’s been talking about a lot: taxes or the Romney and Ryan ticket’s difference with him on maybe the auto bailout, but we started to hear more about the role of government and about the idea of what the Romney-Ryan ticket would do on entitlements. And so the shift – the Obama campaign felt that it very much shifted into their direction. And some people thought in the Romney-Ryan world that it shifted in the direction that Romney has enjoyed very much in that it made it a bigger argument about the role of government and that the two of them created a dynamic sort of combination that will make their ticket more saleable perhaps.
MS. IFILL: Jackie, let’s talk about Paul Ryan. We’ve heard a lot about him this week that – many sweeping generalizations about who he is, that he’s a tea party darling, that he’s a budget deficit hawk, that he’s small time boy from Janesville, Wisconsin. Who is he in the context of this campaign?
MS. CALMES: Well, in this campaign, it’s interesting. He – there’s not a lot of space between him and Mitt Romney when it comes to what they are running on or stand for. But he has made this – I mean, whereas Mitt Romney has changed positions over time, Paul Ryan’s been very consistent for the most part and he has put details on these – on his beliefs that Governor Romney up until now was sort of avoiding. So he’s made this choice really interesting to me that, you know, they seem to be running a cautious campaign.
They’ve explicitly said, I think in an interview with Politico, that – one of the advisers said that we don’t want to put on a lot of detail there. That’s not how you win elections. And with the choice of Paul Ryan they have – he’s been running on this small government platform. It’s not so much an anti-deficit or balanced budget’s platform, because you see his budget would not have a surplus until the year 2040. It’s cutting government and cutting taxes that come in to the government to force further cuts in government.
So it’s really perhaps the most dramatic figure representing the most dramatic change in American government in a century.
MS. IFILL: You know, John, it’s interesting because Paul Ryan was embraced, no question about it, by Republicans in the party. In fact, there seemed to be – if you listened carefully – kind of a sigh of relief that Mitt Romney made a bold choice is the way it was described. Was it?
MR. HARRISON: Well, there’s no question it was bold and I think there’s no question that somebody like Mitt Romney who is a cautious, calculating, careful politician throughout his career, made a bold choice. I think it is the best signal yet into their appraisal of where they stood in the race, which was this might be a close race, but consistently polls showed Mitt Romney behind and they had to make a judgment that on the current trajectory, they were on a trajectory to lose the race. So you do something bold when you feel you need to shake things up and have the electorate look at the ticket in a whole new way. That’s what they did.
I’m not sure I agree –while I agree with you that many Republicans are out there saying, right on, this is exactly what we need –
MS. IFILL: That some are worried.
MR. HARRISON: Certainly privately the operative class in Washington. That’s distinct from the activist class, but the people who work in politics for a living here in Washington were uniformly, I would say, ranging from anxious to skeptical –
MS. IFILL: Because the Democrats –
MR. HARRISON: – and to outright hostile.
MS. IFILL: Because the Democrats were so happy about it.
MR. HARRISON: Well, precisely what you and Alexis were talking about. This is now – makes it a clear contrast and these people felt that it was better if you could just keep the focus on President Obama.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And I think that’s part of the reason why this week we saw Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan start to try to come back together to not allow Democrats to try to divide them on Medicare. So they’re trying to unite in a more of a force field about Medicare and go back after the Democratic ticket on this question, because it will reassure, I think, the base of their party and those who were nervous in some of these delicate House races or the tight Senate races, in some ways, that they are going to have a strategy to push back, as opposed to being vulnerable, to being divided.
MS. IFILL: Well, explain for a moment – you allude to – to coming back together on Medicare. Explain what the distinction is because it’s easy to be confused between what the Obama administration has said it would take from Medicare, about $700 billion, and what the Paul Ryan plan would take from Medicare, which is about $700 billion –
MS. CALMES: Identical.
MS. IFILL: – spent differently or offset differently. But what’s to be believed because right now they’re going head to head saying black is white.
MS. CALMES: I have to say that I remained flummoxed as to why the Romney campaign is using this issue of the cutting $716 billion from Medicare to the extent they are – I mean, superficially, sure, I see it. They feel like they’re under fire about what the Republicans will do to Medicare, so they’re throwing it back up at the Democrats and creating doubt among seniors who happen to be a very tough group for the president, his toughest group, not a lot of support there for President Obama. So they’re solidifying their own base among older voters. But the facts are – and that’s why I’m flummoxed – is the facts are so clear that the $716 billion in reductions from Medicare spending over 10 years, which, not to confuse people further, but they used to hear Republicans say $500 billion, it was – the difference is you’ve moved the 10-year period. So now we’re in a different 10-year period that’s more current. It means more in reductions.
The reductions are from insurers and other providers of health care. Not a penny is it from beneficiaries and the same amount of reductions were in Paul Ryan’s budgets for each of the past two years. And –
MS. IFILL: But Romney says, I will have my own plan. The Ryan plan is fine, as far as it went, but I – we haven’t heard what it is, but he has basically said that was all well and good, but I’m not going to embrace the more complicated parts of it.
MS. CALMES: That’s another thing I’m confused about because I can’t help but think he wasn’t – he said that he’s going to restore those $716 billion in reductions, which means that these providers and insurance companies will get higher payments than they otherwise do under ObamaCare and I use that phrase because both –
MS. IFILL: The president is –
MS. CALMES: And it’s – by doing that, you are increasing Medicare’s costs and you are taking away – it means that the solvency of the Medicare trust fund will, is shorter. Instead of – the Medicare trustees have said that, like it or not, ObamaCare extended the life of Medicare for eight years to 2024. This brings it back to about 2016, which would be the last year of a Romney administration.
MS. IFILL: But they don’t want to have this fight about this. This is where they lose voters, right?
MS. CALMES: Right.
MR. HARRISON: I mean, Gwen, I think you’re exactly right and Romney knows this. There’s no way in the current public opinion climate that Mitt Romney can win a narrow policy debate about Medicare. Public opinion is overwhelmingly fixed on this. Almost 70 percent of people in a Pew poll said that they would oppose Medicare cuts even for something they support, which is deficit reduction. So you’re not going to win a narrow debate about Medicare.
The debate that Mitt Romney thinks he can win with this pick is the boldness debate, the leadership debate. We’re willing to think big because the country’s in – this country’s facing big problems. And so that they can create a sort of larger atmosphere around the campaigns. We are problem solvers and President Obama is AWOL from the really big debates the country’s facing.
MS. IFILL: But I wonder – but I wonder if the Obama campaign isn’t thinking to themselves, we can kill them on the details. The wonkery is not a good thing for this debate. For instance, what Paul Ryan would plan for Medicaid, which is the federally plan program that’s administered through the states that would help the poor, the elderly, the disabled, that that might be even more drastic than what’s happening with Medicare.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Absolutely. And one of the things about Medicaid that we will probably hear more about later is there are more people who benefit from it. We’re talking about elderly people, obviously poor people, young people, children, families, and also the president’s health care bill, ObamaCare, was supposed to enlarge Medicaid and give huge inducements to the states in terms of money to get them to do it to cover more people above the poverty line. So we’re going to have – as much as the Republicans are talking about Medicare, they’re also talking about repealing health care, and there is this opportunity for the Obama ticket to come back and talk about what would happen state by state, these very cash-strapped states, whether they would want to buy into this idea that Romney and Ryan apparently endorse of getting rid of all of that, not just through Ryan’s plan, but also the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. So I think that – the leverage in the states is a debate to come.
MS. IFILL: I also wonder whether this debate – and you wrote about this this week, John, which is the decision that you make for a running mate is a decision about how you want to run. So do you want to run on the mechanics? You sample these voters here or this demographic here and you get to 270. Or do you want to run on something that’s far more emotional, the chemistry between the candidates?
MR. HARRISON: Right. And I do think Mitt Romney, who we all thought of as kind of running a very mechanical campaign, to sort of push this button to move this voter bloc, has decided he needed to fundamentally alter the chemistry, alter the way that the electorate looked at him and his leadership –
MS. IFILL: Which was successful in the short term, this week.
MR. HARRISON: That’s right. And vice presidential picks are usually successfully in the short term, but I think we don’t really know until we see this play out for – at the conventions and really most of all at the first debate.
But a mechanical campaign says, hmm, Rob Portman might help us win Ohio, so let’s do that. Making a decision more about chemistry says like, people fundamentally don’t know Mitt Romney and don’t have an understanding or trust his leadership values and we’re going to make a big statement about these leadership values with Paul Ryan. That’s what they did, but it was very, very risky. These people can disdain anonymous sources. They can disdain, you know, professional politicians, but the reason is that professionals, they know this stuff pretty well. The fact that there’s such overwhelming skepticism and anxiety about this pick among the Republican operative class I think does tell you why.
MS. IFILL: I tell you, one of the interesting things also is that the first day or so we were talking about Paul Ryan’s plan and the policy and the chemistry, and then almost overnight, it went right – the challenges went in the toilet, if I may just say – because each one was accusing the other of running a campaign based on hatred and divisiveness. Each accused the other of coming unhinged. It was no one’s best week. The president took digs at the Republican nominee.
PRES. OBAMA: Governor Romney even explained his energy policy this way. I’m quoting here. “You can’t drive a car with a windmill on it.” I don’t know if he’s actually tried that. I know he’s had other things on his car.
MS. IFILL: I was surprised to hear the president talk about the dog on the roof of the car story, which Gail Collins of the New York Times has written about so many times. And I thought, well, maybe that was just an offend comment. No, Alexis?
MS. SIMENDINGER: No. Being in Iowa gives you a chance to be very close to President Obama when he’s campaigning. And in this particular case, it was a day of three events and in all three events he used some version of what we just heard. And I happened to be standing next to one of his top advisers from the White House, waiting to talk to him, at the moment when this part of the speech came out. And David Plouffe stopped what he was doing because he knew what was coming and he interrupted somebody he was talking to, so that he could stop and then gave a look to the president’s speechwriter and they waited. They waited for the line and it went over with an appreciative supporting audience clapping and a woman burst out, oh, that was a good one. (Laughter.) And we heard the president do it again. And then later that evening, I watched the president using a teleprompter and I was watching for a story. I was doing – watching it scroll through and watching him give the speech. And he did the same thing again, obviously repeating a version of it. It was not specifically in the text that way, but he definitely repeated what we had heard earlier.
MS. IFILL: It is interesting to see sometimes the things that are on script and things that are off script. Today, I heard Paul Ryan’s people were yelling out to him, no teleprompter, which he was not using. And he says, I keep hearing that everywhere I go. They should probably tell them. Mitt Romney uses a teleprompter these days. But that’s beside the point because the other thing that Mitt Romney was trying to do was take charge, as we mentioned, at the Medicare issue. And so he set out to answer questions about his Medicare plan, but ended up – this is yesterday – reviving the debate over how much he’s paid in income taxes.
MR. ROMNEY: The fascination with taxes I paid I find to be very small minded compared to the broad issues that we face. But I did go back and look at my taxes and over the past 10 years, I never paid less than 13 percent. I think the most recent year is 13.6 or something like that. So I’ve paid taxes every single year. Harry Reid’s charge is totally false.
MS. IFILL: This raises a couple of different questions. One is that Paul Ryan put out his tax returns from the last two years late tonight, and he paid more than Mitt Romney paid in taxes, just to be – for the record – makes a lot less money also. But why would he still be responding, the Republican nominee, to what Harry Reid said about him two weeks ago?
MS. CALMES: Well, this just shows how dicey this tax issues is for Mitt Romney that he feels like he has to address it. At the same time, the campaign has clearly – or he personally has clearly made a decision that there is something in those tax returns so politically embarrassing or dangerous that they don’t want to release them. I mean, he – to bring them up begs the question it’s – Harry Reid has been justifiably criticized for what he said and without having any proof or identifying this person, but at the same time, each time Mitt Romney complains about what Harry Reid has said and tells him to put up –
MS. IFILL: He kind of betrays his own –
MS. CALMES: – well, he could put up his tax returns.
MS. IFILL: – sensitivity.
By the way, I just want to clear it up. I said that Paul Ryan paid more. He actually paid a higher rate than Mitt Romney paid – obviously paid more in taxes. So what do you do about that because we also heard Joe Biden come out this week and make that comment that we heard in the open about, you know, putting people in chains, which was roundly denounced by Republicans as being racial coding. What are all these campaigns trying to do with all this stuff they’re hurling at the wall?
MR. HARRISON: They’re trying – they’re reckoning with the reality that there are very few undecided voters left. That this election is primarily about motivating the base on each side. And they’re dealing with the reality that except for about a 24-hour period there, this is not an election about joining great issues. It’s about disqualifying the other person at the personal level, making the other person an unacceptable alternative because the feeling is like our politics are so polarized right now and there’s such broad dissatisfaction in the country with politicians of all sorts that the way to win an election is to say, I’m not saying I’m that great, but that guy’s worse.
MS. IFILL: Is it about partisans driving this? I mean, this is an argument where people were looking for independents, were looking for undecided voters, but it seems like partisans are driving the fundamental argument here.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, one of the interesting things that students of political science are pointing out is that most voters are already pretty sure how they’re going to vote right now, today. They could vote today and they’d be happy with their vote. The range of voters who’re up for grabs in the states that we really care about that will make a difference in the electoral college is so shockingly small and the amount of money that both tickets are spending to influence in some way at the end some version of that small group, and as well as right now, as John is describing, this very base oriented election is really an interesting dynamic to watch.
One of the other things I was going to mention is what have we not been talking about this week or over the last two weeks. We haven’t been talking about the economy. So when you’re asking Jackie what is the strategy that Romney and Ryan are using if the argument was supposed to be look how badly President Obama has done with the economy, we haven’t been talking about that and President Obama has been thrilled.
MS. IFILL: Is it an assumption that we go to Tampa next week for this convention and that’s when they’re talking about all of this, the economy?
MS. CALMES: Absolutely. I’m sure in Tampa they’re not going to be talking about Mitt Romney’s tax returns. So, you know, it’s interesting the extent to which when you do have so many people that have made up their minds, it’s a matter of getting your base out to vote in November, the early voting weeks. And to the extent you can make people disgusted by the race generally, you’ll – apathy sets in and maybe they – the other guy won’t be able to get his people out. And it’s just – you know –what Mitt Romney has to do is make Barack Obama less likeable because Barack Obama – you know – like his policies or not or his record or not, he is – he is well-liked as a person and better liked than Mitt Romney.
MS. IFILL: Fairy dust, snake oil, you name it, we’re going to see it all in the next couple of weeks. Thank you, everybody. We have to leave you just a few minutes early this week so you can support your local PBS station, which in turn supports us. But we’ll be back with the full end program next week. What’s more, we’ll take you on the road with a special “Washington Week” town hall and webcast, previewing the Republican National Convention in Tampa before our live audience in St. Petersburg.
The following week, we’ll do the same thing from the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. And as the “NewsHour” prepares for our all-access convention coverage from both places, I’ll be online answering your questions next Thursday at 2:00 p.m. You can start sending them now to pbs.org/washingtonweek. And we’ll see you from Florida next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.