MS. IFILL: We are back from the conventions and, boy, do we have a lot to catch up on, and we will, tonight, on “Washington Week.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now you have a choice. You can choose that future. You have a choice. This is the choice we now face.
MS. IFILL: Forget the ads, the distractions, even the balloons and confetti and celebrities, with 60 days until Election Day, the real Mitt Romney-Barack Obama faceoff has begun.
GOVERNOR TED STRICKLAND (D-OH): If Mitt was Santa Claus, he would fire the reindeer and outsource the elves.
MS. IFILL: This week, it was the Democrats’ turn to stir up the troops.
MICHELLE OBAMA: I have seen firsthand that being president doesn’t change who you are. No, it reveals who you are.
GOVERNOR DEVAL PATRICK (D-MA): It’s time for Democrats to grow a backbone and stand up for what we believe.
MS. IFILL: And as the economy coughed out another disappointing jobs report, the Republicans are ready to strike back.
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R) [GOP Presidential Nominee]: There’s almost nothing the president’s done in the last three and a half, four years, that gives the American people confidence he knows what he’s doing when it comes to jobs and economy.
MS. IFILL: The stage is set for the big fall fight. We’re back from Charlotte with Peter Baker of the “New York Times,” Dan Balz of the “Washington Post,” Jeanne Cummings of Bloomberg News, and Michael Duffy of “Time” Magazine.
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. Just for you, we all stayed up a little too late last night and every night for the last two weeks. And just for you we’ll spend the next half hour explaining why, explaining Bill Clinton’s role in the Democratic Party.
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: If you want a winner-take-all, you’re on your own society, you should support the Republican ticket. But if you want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibility, a we’re-all-in-this-together society, you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
MS. IFILL: Deconstructing how the party’s rising stars are being used to attack the Republican ticket.
MAYOR JULIAN CASTRO: We know that in our free market economy some will prosper more than others. What we don’t accept is the idea that some folks won’t even get a chance. And the thing is Mitt Romney and the Republican Party are perfectly comfortable with that America.
MS. IFILL: And ultimately, assessing the Democratic nominee, who came to Charlotte to sell himself as well as to take a piece out of his Republican opponent.
PRES. OBAMA: They want your vote, but they don’t want you to know their plan. And that’s because all they have to offer is the same prescriptions they’ve had for the last 30 years – have a surplus? Try a tax cut. Deficit too high? Try another. Feel the cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning.
MS. IFILL: Today, he turned that into not falling in love, tax cut, he just – he’s loving that rip. But Dan, four years later, did the president accomplish what he set out to do. He actually said, you know, four years ago was a much different man. And so now, he’s the president.
MR. BALZ: Well, he’s a much different man. The country is in a much different place. And he’s in a much different race than he was four years ago. And this race could still go either way. I think they got a lot done at the convention. The early nights were very strong. There was – Michelle Obama’s speech was a very powerful speech and went down well not only in the hall, but seemingly outside. President Clinton, as the clip showed, played his role. President Obama was not quite the President Obama that many people thought he might be. The rhetoric was not soaring, but in many ways the speech was similar to what he did in 2008. It talked about what he wants to do in the future, but mostly it was, I want to frame this choice in a way that is most helpful to me and most damaging to Governor Romney. And I think that while the speech didn’t get great reviews, the people I talked to today about it think that he did what he needed to do in terms of reaching specific audiences with specific messages.
MS. IFILL: I went to the speech, while he was delivering it last night, Peter, and counted, I think, 19 times he used that formulation, choice or choose. He likes that, doesn’t he?
MR. BAKER: Right. Now, has become the mantra for this year, in fact. An issue to look at this speech versus the one four years ago when he used the word “promise” 32 times. And so that was the year of promise. This is the year of choice. And because it’s not a referendum on him and his view, he would like it to be a choice between two different, as he says, very radically different philosophies. And the more he – and that’s what I think, of course, as Dan is saying, he set out to do here. He doesn’t want it to be about have we succeeded. It’s going to be, it’d be worse if the other guy takes over.
MS. IFILL: The interesting thing – and we were all at both conventions, Jeanne, Romney, even though he’s embracing the notion that this is a choice, not a referendum anymore, he only used that formulation a handful of times. It seemed like both – either party had different goals they were trying to accomplish.
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, the Democrats, of course, had the advantage of going second. And so they could find soft spots in the Republican message, and they tried to exploit them.
MS. IFILL: Like not supporting the troops or making some sort of –
MS. CUMMINGS: Not supporting the troops, not focusing on jobs.
MS. IFILL: Yes, yes.
MS. CUMMINGS: I mean if you – if you look at the Republican convention messaging, a lot of it was what’s wrong with Barack Obama and not much prescription for what they would do. And they talked about jobs, but it was in terms of the failure of the administration more than anything else. When you get to the Democratic convention, it’s a very specific response. And that was one of the things that was really striking about President Clinton’s address, in particular, where he counted up the number of jobs under Democratic administrations versus Republican administrations, when he compared the auto jobs saved, versus the failure of the Republican Congress to pass the jobs bill, very specific response on the issue the voters care about most, and that was the advantage of being second.
MS. IFILL: Obama campaign people told me and probably told all of you as well that their goal for every night of the convention was different. First night, they needed someone to attest to his character. Then, they needed Bill Clinton to attest to his competence. And then, in the end that Barack Obama was to talk about the future.
Let’s take it apart. Michelle Obama was clearly the chief person to testify and Joe Biden ultimately about his character.
MR. DUFFY: Very personal kind of commentary, even from Michelle Biden – Michelle Obama who –
MS. IFILL: It’s been a long week. (Laughter.)
MR. DUFFY: The first of many here tonight –
MS. CUMMINGS: Dr. Biden was very good, too. (Laughter.)
MR. DUFFY: I should just stop now. This is a person who always gives good speeches, but I really heard her one giving one that was deft – these speeches always have some passion. This had a kind of authentic emotion that we normally don’t see and a power that from a first lady I don’t ever recall. That really made that night.
MS. IFILL: Not needing to mention Mitt Romney by name.
MR. DUFFY: She – you know, it’s so funny. She was very deft. And some had – these speeches are well rehearsed, practiced dozens and dozens of times. But she made it look – seem utterly spontaneous. So astonishing first night. We haven’t seen one like that in a very long time.
MS. IFILL: I – go ahead.
MS. CUMMINGS: When it came to Michelle Obama’s speech, I was talking with one of the Democratic planners and strategists for all this, and they had a subtle message in that, that was a little too subtle for me when I first heard it, but the part of – I was struck by the – how often she said I still love my husband, I still love – like, why did she have to reinforce that, you know, were there trouble times that she needed to tell us about? And what they were trying to do was trying to remind the viewers and the base the guy you fell in love with four years ago is still the same guy today.
MR. BAKER: Tom Perriello was a congressman from Virginia who lost in 2010, after voting for health care. He used an interesting phrase about liberals and their disappointment with Obama. And he says, you know, in any relationship there’s passion and great heat at first, and then it kind of settles into more of a relationship of trust and dependence and we’re moving into that with President Obama in his view. That’s obviously maybe wishful thinking, but that’s where the Democrats would like to be.
MR. BALZ: Gwen, the other thing I was struck by on the first night was the energy in the hall, compared to what we had seen in Tampa the first night. I remember being on the floor in Florida the first night and the aisles were basically wide open. They were pretty empty. People were talking through the early evening speakers, and you just did not have a sense – and it surprised me because we know that there’s great energy within the Republican Party to defeat President Obama, but it didn’t seem evident in Tampa. The first night in Charlotte, it was totally different. I mean, that hall was alive. They had all the signs for every speaker and the audience was very much engaged with the speaker.
MS. IFILL: Part of that was stagecraft. It was a smaller arena, which was – I think it’s the smallest basketball arena in the league. And the way it was set up was lengthwise, instead of – this doesn’t matter, but it just felt tighter and smaller and more intimate as a result.
I was in the hall that first night early on and I heard people rehearsing, fired up, ready to go, it wasn’t going anywhere. (Laughter.) Funny, but this is not good. But the time the red light clicked on, they clicked on.
MS. CUMMINGS: I think part of that might stem from the hunker down sense that you got in Tampa because of the storm and not that they didn’t want to look jubilant while somebody else was getting slammed by a hurricane, although that’s part of it. I think also, in Tampa, the first couple of days those of us who were there didn’t know what was going to happen.
MS. IFILL: It’s true.
MS. CUMMINGS: And so I think that might have had a – not to be funny here, but damping some of that enthusiasm in those first couple of days.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about the testimony to President Obama’s competence. One of the recurring themes at the Republican convention was he’s a nice guy, but he’s over his head. He really isn’t capable of this. And we heard, among other people, Joe Biden talking about his spine of steel and talking about the things he did, but also we heard John Kerry, who was the party’s 2004 nominee, come out and testify to President Obama’s foreign policy, national security bona fides. And among other things, he had this to say.
SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA): Ask Osama bin Laden if he is better off now than he was four years ago.
MS. IFILL: Now, that was part of an entire riff, and we didn’t hear – we heard Osama bin Laden’s name a lot, but it meant something coming from John Kerry.
MR. DUFFY: Again, the level of oratory, even by good convention standards, was higher than a lot of people expected. And tied in with the Kerry foreign policy, because another thing I didn’t expect related in this area, at this convention – typically, Democrats have had a hard time through the ’70s and ’80s, even the 1990s, talking, not just about foreign policy, but particularly about the military. And in this convention, night after night, hour after hour, it would have been easy to assume that this – the Democratic Party had long been the party of military families, veterans, and active duty personnel.
MS. IFILL: Lots of chants of “USA, USA” on the floor.
MR. BAKER: I would have loved to have seen the script, though, a week earlier. How much of that was put in at the last minute as a reaction to the Republicans, as a reaction to Mitt Romney –
MS. IFILL: They say they did not change what they planned to do as a reaction.
MR. BAKER: Yes, but I have to say is something when President Obama and his people criticize Mitt Romney for not talking very much about the wars. He doesn’t talk very much about the wars. The truth is he throws it in from time to time and he does the appropriate trips to bases and so forth, but has never been animating part of his public conversation. He does the speeches he has to do, but you wouldn’t know by listening to him on the campaign trail that we’re at war with 80,000 people – soldiers.
MR. BALZ: There’s another thing he doesn’t do and I – it’s not that I expected that he would do it Thursday night, but – and that is acknowledge in some way or another that many people think that the things he has done haven’t worked. He says my road is hard. Things will – it will take time, but he never kind of addresses the question that a lot of people have, which is what do you really think went wrong. Why did the policies you put in place not quite work fast enough?
MS. IFILL: And when the jobs numbers come out today showing bad news, not good news, anyway, that question still remains unanswered, doesn’t it?
MR. DUFFY: And when he does talk about the shortcomings, he talks about them in the context only of himself. I’m driven to my knees. You know, I’m aware of my error. But it’s a conversation he has with himself, not with the voters.
MR. BAKER: But his error, as he sees it, or at least as he presents it, is a matter of communication. He doesn’t explain it well enough, which of course ironic for the great communicator we all took him to be, but also the first refuge of any politician in trouble. If only you understood what I was doing better, you would of course approve all that, or maybe actually, sometimes, it’s a facts-on-the-ground problem.
MS. IFILL: And the interesting part of this convention is he had to make that case first and foremost to his own people. This was a very base convention. It’s been a lot of time, especially in the early parts of the night, talking only to their people. It was a big piece of business for Democrats in Charlotte, reminding each other why they got so excited four years ago.
Listen to these convention speakers, a former governor and a member of Congress.
FORMER GOVERNOR JENNIFER GRANHOLM (D-MI): President Obama with the auto rescue, you know, he saved more than one million American jobs in Pennsylvania, 34,000 jobs; in Florida, 35,000 jobs; in Ohio, 150,000 jobs; and in the great state of Michigan, 211,000 good paying American jobs. All across America, autos are back. Manufacturing is rebounding.
REPRESENTATIVE EMANUEL CLEAVER (D-MO): Yes, Mr. President, hope on, continue to hope, Mr. President. No matter what, Mr. President, you keep on hoping. When everything is gone, you continue to hope. As long as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob sits on the throne of grace, Mr. President, hope on. Hope on. Hope on.
MS. IFILL: There’s a lot of excitement in the hall after those speeches, but it’s one thing to whip up the crowd in the hall. It’s another thing to reach beyond. Any evidence that that kind of excitement left the hall?
MS. CUMMINGS: I think where we saw the greatest outreach, once again, was Clinton. And if you go back to the beginning of his speech, he has this whole riff about how bipartisan his life was, has become, and then would struck me, as we had love on the first night, and we get hate on the next night. They hate us. We don’t hate them. He’s talking about the dominant faction in the Republican Party, all of that aimed at independents. And then you had a lot of messaging towards women. But can I just say one quick thing on Jennifer Granholm? I have watched that thing five times on YouTube. It never ceases to amaze me. It was such an amazing performance.
MS. IFILL: I’ve interviewed Jennifer Granholm. We probably all have and I’ve never seen that side of her.
MR. DUFFY: You put your finger on – this love-hate thing was an interesting theme through all the evenings, when Bill Clinton, conducting his master class – and that’s what it was on Wednesday night – talked about the politics of constant conflict. That was – and he was basically saying – the other side wants to hate and wants to stop and hate. We want to build and – and love was the first line of Clinton – of Obama’s speech. I love you, Michelle.
MR. BAKER: What’s really, though –
MR. DUFFY: I was just going to say one more thing, which is, again, they are betting here and this is beyond the hall that a certain group of voters simply is tired of the partisan works.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. BAKER: But what’s striking here, and all of us has covered Clinton, is to listen to Bill Clinton – only he could get away with giving a speech that is a relentless and brutal pounding, partisan pounding of the other party, and come out looking like he’s bipartisan. And he –
MS. IFILL: He threw in a couple of Arkansas lines and it seems like great folks.
MR. BAKER: And you would think, listening to him, that the 1990s was this – (inaudible) – era of cooperation.
MS. IFILL: Well, and you would think – and watching the reaction to him –
MR. BALZ: I don’t remember it quite that way, right –
MS. IFILL: And you would think, listening to the reactions, that these Democrats, these Obama Democrats have always loved Bill Clinton, which is also not so.
MR. DUFFY: Bill Clinton had more nice things to say about George W. Bush in his one-hour in Charlotte than all of the Republicans had to say in a week in Tampa.
MR. BALZ: But there is – there is a part of the electorate, it’s people who call themselves independents and are genuinely independent, who don’t like the warfare in Washington. And if you can reach to them with that message, and then you talk to a different audience with the rest of what Bill Clinton was doing –
MR. BAKER: No, it’s a gift to be partisan, but to look like you’re bipartisan.
MR. BALZ: Right.
MS. IFILL: Yes, it is a gift. You know, I want to get back to Jeanne’s point about gender because one of the things that also struck me that – they’re – and both parties were kind of nakedly playing to the women’s vote, but it’s so clear that the Democrats are trying to get married women, because every woman from Nancy Pelosi to Michelle Obama introduced herself as a mom. I’m the mom-in-chief. I never – and Nancy Pelosi never said I was the first woman House speaker. She said, I’m a grandmother and a mother.
Who are they –
MR. BAKER: Michelle Obama never said she’s a Harvard law graduate who had a career –
MS. IFILL: Well, she never has in four years. So yes.
MR. DUFFY: Well, they’ve got the single women.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MS. CUMMINGS: And if you look at exit polls, married moms moved. In 2008, Barack Obama won moms – married moms with children. And in 2010, they lost them badly to the Republican. So it’s definitely viewed as a subset that is in swing. And when we have dug through the exit polls, they are, in fact, slightly different than suburban independents because, at first, I thought, well, that’s all part and parcel, but they aren’t. They’re different. And they – and they also are very different than say the moms of the year of mom – Year of the Woman, 1992. They’re more educated. They make more money. They’ve had very different lives, living outside, working outside of the home. So these married moms are a pretty unique subset.
MS. IFILL: And then, of course, both parties seemed to be making a big pitch for the Latino vote, even though the polls seem to show that Democrats have a huge edge.
MR. DUFFY: I was struck by how fully – fully this Democratic Party, as opposed to previous years, had embraced diversity – Hispanics, women, gays. At the same time, the politics of identity are still very strong in this party, which is – also limits to some extent their ability to move forward on a lot of the issue, haw to cut, what to go without – that they’re going to face if he wins second term.
MS. IFILL: And if it was one big stumble this week, it was over the politics of identity, when it came to that platform position on Jerusalem. That is – I was in the hall when that happened, and Antonio Villaraigosa, the chairman of the convention, had to take the vote three times because the nos were winning.
MR. BAKER: Right.
MS. CUMMINGS: And they went out three times, didn’t they?
MR. BAKER: And they went out three times.
MS. IFILL: They did win. They declared it other way.
MR. BALZ: But it was astonishing that that slipped through the platform and – you know – for a convention that was in all other ways very well scripted, that piece of it – I mean, those are things that you – those were things that just should never have happened.
MR. BAKER: Because it was in the 2008 platform. And – why would you look next to each other in 2008-2012 platforms, see what’s changed, and make sure you’re not setting up an obvious thing.
MS. IFILL: Let’s go – go ahead.
MS. CUMMINGS: The speakers we haven’t talked about, speaking of identity, going after particular groups, was the keynoter.
MS. IFILL: Well, I was just going to ask you about that. The optics, especially, of the keynote. Compare Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, to Chris Christie, the keynoter in Tampa, the governor of New Jersey, couldn’t have been more different.
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, they had very different roles. They were still – each of them, though, had a target audience. And Chris Christie with the white middle class, working class voters, and of course the San Antonio mayor was Latino minority voters.
MS. IFILL: Young.
MS. CUMMINGS: Yes and young voters. And so they both were shooting for a target. In Christie’s case, his speech read better than it was delivered. And in the case of the San Antonio mayor, wow, that was sort of like, you know, an Obama 2004 moment. He really knocked that thing out of the party. It was a very good speech.
MR. BALZ: Sorry. There was another important difference in those two speeches also, I think, and that was that Christie did not prosecute the case against the president.
MS. IFILL: No.
MR. BALZ: And Mayor Castro prosecuted very hard the case against Mitt Romney. And in that sense, that’s partly the traditional role of the keynoter. It’s obviously to lay out some themes, as Christie did. Christie tried to say this is a big election. We have to have big choices. But he did not sort of consistently or regularly go after either President Obama’s record or his leadership style.
MS. CUMMINGS: And he barely mentioned Romney.
MR. BALZ: And he barely mentioned Romney, yes.
MS. IFILL: Go ahead.
MR. DUFFY: I was just going to say – you know – one other thing that was striking about, I thought to me, that you could easily imagine from this convention that there aren’t 50 states, that there’re only seven and three of them are Ohio. (Laughter.) A number of times, we saw someone, a married mom from Ohio, take the stage or a married mom was in the military, I mean, it was a very – the precision targeting of their symbolism was – could not have been planned in the last week. It was simply – it was simply too precise and so again –
MS. IFILL: If only –
MR. DUFFY: – big themes, but very clear targeting on voters they need.
MS. IFILL: Well, actually, we’re going to have to finish this up in the webcast because if only – I mean, we’ve just started because now we have to see what happens when they leave these conventions and how they follow through on that kind of precision if that’s what it indeed was.
Thank you, everybody. We are going to catch up for a little lost sleep, but only after we finish our conversation online in the “Washington Week” Webcast Extra. Be sure to check out what else everybody has to say. We’ll be keeping track of the candidates all fall and you can, too, with “Washington Week” Essential Reads. Find links to our panelists’ work at pbs.org/Washingtonweek.
And before we go, we have to acknowledge a milestone. The great Dan Balz here published his 1,500th page-one story in the Washington Post today. It’s a record that all of us are too tired to consider duplicating – (laughter) – but congratulations, Dan. (Laughter.) Also, happy birthday to Mr. Duffy. What better way to spend it than with us.
Keep up with daily developments on the PBS “NewsHour” and then we’ll sum it all up again, right here, next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.