MS. IFILL: We’ve gotten four dozen polls in one week and they all tell roughly the same story – who’s ahead, who’s stumbling, and why – tonight, on “Washington Week.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I don’t believe we can get very far with leaders who write off half the nation as a bunch of victims. I don’t see a lot of victims in this crowd today.
MS. IFILL: The president, happy to pile on as Mitt Romney ends another tough week.
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R): There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon the government, who believe that they are victims.
MS. IFILL: The candidates swing wildly from foreign policy last week back to domestic policy this week.
MR. ROMNEY: The question of this campaign is not who cares about the poor and the middle class. I do. He does. The question is who can help the poor and the middle class. I can. He can’t. He’s proven it in four years.
PRES. OBAMA: We’ve always said the change takes more than one term or even one president. And it certainly takes more than one party.
MS. IFILL: While poll after poll documents a distinct change in the presidential contest and as Romney releases another year of tax returns, voters begin to focus.
Covering the week Gloria Borger of CNN, John Dickerson of Slate Magazine and CBS News, John Harwood of CNBC and the New York Times, 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. It’s hard to know where to begin in a week shaped by secret videotapes, frantic recalibration, oh, and taxes. One thing we know for sure, the charges and the countercharges are just beginning and neither candidate shows any sign of backing down. Here is one example. The president told interviewers at a Univision town hall that Washington can’t be fixed from the inside. Mitt Romney saw an opening.
MR. ROMNEY: The president today threw in the white flag of surrender again. He said he can’t change Washington from inside. He can only change it from outside. Well, we’re going to give him that chance in November. He’s going outside. (Applause.) I can change Washington. I will change Washington. We’ll get the job done from the inside.
PRES. OBAMA: For some reason my opponent got really excited. He rewrote his speech real quick. He stood up in a rally, proudly declared, I’ll get the job done from the inside. What kind of inside job is he talking about?
MS. IFILL: Get ready for a rough six weeks. And just this week, the debate ranged from Israel, to gun running, to campaign infighting, to Medicare. And then today, after a week dominated by a debate over who pays what to the government, the Romneys released their 2011 taxes. We love Fridays because that’s when news sneaks out. It turns out they earned nearly $14 million in investment income last year, paid nearly $2 million in taxes, and gave just under a third of their income to charity. The president may have seen it coming. This is what he told the crowd in Cincinnati earlier this week.
PRES. OBAMA: I want to reform the tax code so it’s simple and is fair. I’ve actually done my own taxes. I don’t know about some of these other folks, but I’ve done them, you know. So –
MS. IFILL: So why are we getting this information now and what do these returns tell us about the Romneys, John?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, first of all, it does tell us the tax code is complicated because the return that Mitt Romney released today is 379 pages.
MS. IFILL: Wow.
MR. HARWOOD: It showed us that he was very rich, but we knew that already. It told us that he made a little bit less money than he had disclosed earlier in the year. He’d said – he released an estimate of his taxes that had higher income, a little bit higher tax rate. We know that he kept his tax rate down by only claiming part of his charitable deductions in order to not violate what he told an interviewer over the summer, which was that he never paid less than 13 percent in taxes. And just put that in context, the tax rate for the average household in the country is 11 percent, for the average million dollar income is 25 percent. So he’s doing very well because of the fact that all of his income, or virtually all of his income is in capital gains. And he also put out a statement that was an assertion basically by an accounting firm saying that over 20 years, he’d paid an average tax rate of 20 percent, never had a year where he paid no income tax whatsoever, which –
MS. IFILL: Brings us to the Harry Reid –
MR. HARWOOD: – and in – he was trying to respond to Harry Reid who had asserted that he had not paid any taxes.
MS. IFILL: Which, of course, turns out not to be true. I mean, it’s just not true. So does any of that matter? Is this just getting it out the way because it’s a conversation which has gotten awkward?
MS. BORGER: I think this was the least worst moment for him to do this. The window was closing. He promised that he was going to release his taxes. You have the debate coming up, October 3rd. You’re getting way into the fall. So you might as well get it out of the way. What Harry Reid – and it’s not going to change the debate about how rich Mitt Romney is or whether he feels your pain or understands the problems of ordinary Americans. Those things are kind of set. Harry Reid will still complain that we only have Price Waterhouse Coopers’ summary of 20 years of Mitt Romney’s tax returns, and so that debate will continue. But at the heart of it is the real problem for Mitt Romney, and that is this notion that he doesn’t understand the problems of ordinary Americans –
MS. IFILL: Which is what the 47 percent problem was.
MS. BORGER: Exactly. And President Obama beats him on he understands my problems three to one. That’s an unsustainable number if you want to get elected. They have to try and turn that around.
MR. DICKERSON: You can do one or two things when you’re trying to court voters. You can say something where you reach out to them. You go to where they live and you touch them in their lives or they can feel something in you that they connect to. The problem for Mitt Romney is that the essential Mitt Romney for the final group of voters he needs is hidden. It’s hidden either in his tax returns. It’s hidden in his behavior.
And then what the Democrats have been playing on is this idea that boy, what’s hidden is really scary. And that’s why when this video came out this week, this surreptitiously filmed video in which he spoke quite frankly and openly about the 47 percent who support Barack Obama, said they were essentially moochers, all of them. I talked to a Republican strategist who’s worked in previous campaigns in the White House and said that felt like it was the first time I was seeing Mitt Romney. That’s a problem. If your most authentic moment is your most damaging moment, that’s a problem.
MS. IFILL: But that’s what I found interesting watching that entire tape. He was very fluently talking in technical terms. He sounded like a political strategist more than a candidate. Is that – you’ve spent as much time, Sam, on the road on this campaign trail with Mitt Romney as any of us. Is that what we ever see, what we saw in that tape?
MR. YOUNGMAN: Well, I think you see a lot of it in off the record moments and on the plane sometimes, but you certainly don’t see a candidate for the highest office in the land and in the world talking that candidly to especially high donors behind closed doors. I don’t know if you remember, earlier in the summer there was an incident where two reporters were outside a fundraiser in Florida and they overheard – you know, a whole different set of remarks than we were hearing on the stump. Well, for a lot of us, that sort of put the bug in our ear. Is he telling two different sets of remarks? And that clearly is the case.
MS. BORGER: Well, and that also plays into the other narrative about Mitt Romney, which is so problematic for him, which is what does he believe? Is he a flip-flopper? Is he saying one thing to his high donors and another thing to the rest of the American public?
MS. IFILL: Isn’t that (why ?) he comes out the day after these what people like to call in most overused term of the campaign, gaffes, he comes out after these controversial comments and he always stands by what he said. Isn’t that part of why?
MS. BORGER: Yes.
MR. HARWOOD: Yes, but I think Gloria’s really touching on something important. One of the lines of Democrats have jumped on the substance of what he said. Republicans, in trying to defend him or criticize him both say, well, he’s just pretending to believe that when he’s talking to donors. Mitt Romney’s problem is that not enough people believe they know who he is and believe that he believes what he’s saying. Authenticity is a real problem for Mitt Romney. And when you go to a fundraiser and whether you mean it or not, and express the view, which is not true, that nearly half the country is dependent, they’re irresponsible –
MS. BORGER: Victims.
MR. HARWOOD: They’re victims. They don’t care for their own lives. He’s talking about a lot of elderly people. He’s talking about a lot of working class voters who, the reason they don’t pay taxes is because of tax credits that Congress – members of both parties passed because they thought it was right and –
MS. BORGER: Ronald Reagan.
MR. HARWOOD: Exactly. And that’s a – I haven’t quite heard a candidate for president speak so derisively of such a large group of Americans.
MS. IFILL: And derided of.
MR. DICKERSON: Here’s why this matters really. Politically, there are some Republicans who heard that and said, darn it, that’s exactly right. And so – in some sense this hasn’t hurt him tremendously with his base, except for the columnists who came out – Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard and clubbed him.
MR. HARWOOD: Mike Gerson.
MR. DICKERSON: Mike Gerson.
MS. IFILL: David Brooks –
MR. DICKERSON: Yes, so he’s lost the columnists. But within that same video, he talked about the independents, the people who were disappointed with Barack Obama, the swing voters who were looking for a new place to go. Well, those are the voters who like to see candidates who care about the other side, even work with the other side, not write off the other side, and who are the ones who have had trouble making this connection. And now, they’re seeing – if they’ve seen this at all – a person with whom is going to be hard to connect.
MS. IFILL: Is that what we’re seeing in these polls, because as we look at these polls, we see, especially in battleground states, that the gap is increasing in places like Virginia and Iowa, where this was supposed to be a real fight to the finish. And now watching where he says he’s going to go, they all go back to Ohio, but a lot of these states that he thought – Wisconsin, all of a sudden, a problem.
MR. YOUNGMAN: I think so. I think it’s a combination of things. It’s one – it’s that one question in the poll, so and so understands problems somebody like me is facing. Well, he’s polling terrible on that number. It’s also a combination of not being on the air, not being on the trail. He’s spending most of his time in fundraisers not at campaign rallies. While Democrats have gotten in Charlotte, I was with Governor Romney. We were in Vermont of all places, not something you consider –
MS. IFILL: Great debate prep –
MR. YOUNGMAN: Debate prep, yes. Not a swing state, Vermont.
MS. BORGER: Here’s the other problem I think Mitt Romney has and it’s not his fault. And that is that Americans are feeling more optimistic about their economic futures. They’re still not above the 50 percent mark when you say –
MS. IFILL: They still think it’s wrong track –
MS. BORGER: Right, when you say you’re going to be better off a year from now, it’s still in the 40 percent range, but that’s twice as good as it was a year ago. So if Americans are feeling more optimistic, they may be feeling they don’t need to fire the guy who’s in office and maybe Bill Clinton convinced them, to a certain degree, that they ought to be a little bit more patient.
MS. IFILL: And you know, there was more. It was a long week. Paul Ryan got booed at the AARP gathering in New Orleans today.
REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI): The first step to a stronger Medicare is to repeal ObamaCare because it represents the worst of both worlds. I had a feeling there’d be mixed reactions.
MS. IFILL: Now, of course, this is AARP, which supported ObamaCare, but in addition to writing off that 47 percent of the electorate we talked about, Romney also dismissed chances for a two-state solution to the Middle East peace process.
Then the president – he had his bad week, too – in a video unearth from 1998, appeared to endorse income redistribution, plus, he took fire for failing to implement immigration reform during his first term in office.
JORGE RAMOS: You promised that and a promise is a promise. And with all due respect, you didn’t keep that promise.
PRES. OBAMA: Well, I am happy to take responsibility for the fact that we didn’t get it done, but I did not make a promise that I would get everything done, 100 percent, when I was elected as president.
MS. IFILL: Forty six days away, is this a new form of debate prep?
MR. YOUNGMAN: It’s remarkable. It’s like a fixed Vegas fight gone awry, when both boxers think they’re supposed to lose. It’s – the only thing – you know, you look at the missteps that Mitt Romney’s had this week. And you look at what it’s cost him in terms of opportunity. All these little errors that the president has made, where Mitt Romney could have been making inroads. Instead, he’s having to constantly try and define himself. As you just said, we’re 46 days out, which, you know, are we still talking about who’s the real Mitt Romney?
MR. DICKERSON: Here where we see the opening in the Romney campaign. They’ve been doing a lot of, you know, furious spinning this week, so it’s hard to light on one – they’ve been kind of shooting everywhere hoping they can get one thing. They point to the Gallup poll, which has the –
MS. IFILL: Tied, tied.
MR. DICKERSON: – too tied. With 47 days to go in the election, it was tied 47-47, which shows that Gallup has a sense of humor, given how much we’ve been talking about the number 47. If you look at that poll where Obama wins on who connects with voters by three to one. Inside that poll, if you ask, who do you think can do a better job with jobs, Romney wins 44-27. There is still – it’s still – that ember is still in there that he can do it on jobs. But in other polls we’ve seen the president now come to parity with Romney –
MS. BORGER: On the economy.
MR. DICKERSON: – on the economy.
MS. BORGER: And that’s a big deal.
MR. DICKERSON: If that breaks loose – if that –
MR. HARWOOD: Well, consider the swing states. We had – NBC-Wall Street Journal-Marist had three polls this week, as we had three last week. Last week, they showed Florida, Ohio, Virginia. President Obama had a clear lead outside the margin of error. Same thing was true this week in Wisconsin, Paul Ryan’s home state; in Colorado, also in Iowa. Iowa, we showed an 8 point lead. In all of those states, President Obama was at parity or better with Mitt Romney on the economy. And remember, these swing states where most of the advertising is being done. In the nine battlegrounds that the two campaigns are contesting most aggressively, Mitt Romney is only ahead in one of them. That’s North Carolina. He’s got to take the whole collection of electoral votes –
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. HARWOOD: – away from Barack Obama to win the presidency.
MS. BORGER: And that may be because of the optimism that I was talking about before that people feel in these battleground states. Some of these battleground states have unemployment rates that are lower than the rest of the country also.
MR. HARWOOD: John Boehner said today that the reason that Barack Obama is doing well in Ohio was that Governor John Kasich had done such a good job reviving the economy.
MS. IFILL: Actually John Kasich says that too. (Laughter.) So this bounce we were all watching for after the conventions, are they – did it happen? Did it go away? Did it drive these numbers that we’re seeing now?
MS. BORGER: Well, if you talk to the Romney people that spin also – and John’s nodding his head knowingly here because what they will tell you and what they say is that President Obama’s bounce has dissipated, that he had dropped 6 points and that it was – had gone away and –
MS. IFILL: Perhaps in the head to head, but what about these battleground states?
MS. BORGER: But then you turn to the battleground states, which is where this election is really being fought and it’s hard to say, okay, then why is President Obama up now 5 points in the state of Florida?
MS. IFILL: When it settled, it settled higher than his turnaround.
MR. DICKERSON: And there’s also another thing in addition to the convention that happened is that in the ads the Obama team has on the air, the Romney team went down during their convention or the Democratic convention, saying basically why put ads up on the air when the Democratic convention is going on. There are some Republicans who believe mistake – they ceded the ground to Obama. So Obama got a little bounce from the convention, got a little bounce from his ads, and now he’s getting a bounce from the Libya intervention, when Mitt Romney came out forcefully last week. Polls have shown only 26 percent of the people in one poll thought that was a good idea. That hurt –
MS. IFILL: It’s a leadership question –
MR. DICKERSON: – then the 47 hurt. It’s like a game of bumper cars. You know, he just keeps getting knocked around.
MS. IFILL: Well, you’re taking on an incumbent president. That’s always a tough thing. He’s already got the title commander-in-chief and you’re trying to prove that you can take it from him. So does he get to set the argument? Does he get to set the table for the argument going forward? Is that where we are now where the Obama people are just kicking their heels?
MR. YOUNGMAN: Well, it’s remarkable to me that they’ve really conceded the idea that the election was going to be a referendum on the president. David Axelrod has been saying since last summer, well before the primary started, that if this is – if they make this a choice election between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, then they’re going win.
MS. IFILL: They changed their minds on that the day they picked Paul Ryan.
MR. YOUNGMAN: Really, it’s been surprising to me how willingly they’ve engaged in a choice election with a candidate that they will even – that they admit the country doesn’t know.
MS. IFILL: Is it because they thought that Paul Ryan was – would enhance the possibility of the choice?
MR. YOUNGMAN: I think they wanted sort of the projection of his boldness without all the details that come with it.
MS. IFILL: Yes, details are a problem.
MR. YOUNGMAN: Right, right.
MS. BORGER: And they thought he could help in the state of Wisconsin, which is one of their kind of wildcard states, but it looks now like that’s not working and you saw, as you played this clip of Paul Ryan getting booed at the AARP.
MS. IFILL: I think they don’t mind that so much actually.
MS. BORGER: Right, but it’s – well, I think that senior citizens’ vote, when you talk of the 47 – when you talk of the 47 percent, mistake, senior citizens or Social Security.
MR. HARWOOD: And in those swing states polls that we came out with this week, President Obama was either even or just slightly behind Mitt Romney among seniors. Remember, Barack Obama’s base is minority voters, young people, and women. He gets very good numbers among young people. He lost senior citizens to John McCain. If he can neutralize that or reduce his margin, he’s in much better shape.
MS. IFILL: Even though the enthusiasm on young people was not what it was certainly four years ago.
MR. DICKERSON: One other thing, you ran that clip of Governor Romney talking about throwing in the towel. This was a comment the president said it’s better to work from the outside than the inside. This is a cliché in politics. The Tea Party movement works from the outside on the inside. The whole notion is it’s a little silly. But why did he jump on it? Well, he’s kind of jumping on everything, as Jonathan Martin, “Politico,” said, he’s kind of living off the land. But why did he jump on it? What they see in their focus groups is Obama voters from 2008, disappointed in the president who think he’s just kind of stuck – not that he’s making things worse, but he can’t make things better. And so that feeling is out there and now, they’re trying to take this quote and say, you see –
MS. IFILL: Well, was – go ahead.
MR. DICKERSON: – he thinks he’s stuck.
MS. IFILL: Well, wasn’t that the potential for the danger in the immigration question at the Univision Forum as well. You promised that you were going to do this and you didn’t do it. It’s part of that same disappointment idea, right? So that’s – that’s a risky place for the president.
MR. DICKERSON: And Hispanics who – more than 70 percent of Hispanics in Colorado support the president. He’s winning by vast margins, but that is one issue where with them, he didn’t deliver.
MS. BORGER: I could tell you nationally, Barack Obama is up 40 points with Hispanic voters.
MS. IFILL: And I think that also Romney never imagined he’d beat him among Hispanics, but he’s hoping he’d do at least as well as John McCain did and he’s not because –
MS. BORGER: He’s not.
MR. HARWOOD: By the way, it’s an example of the power of internet search and the YouTube era that within hours of when Mitt Romney seized on the president’s comments, Democrats found clips of Mitt Romney in 2008, saying, you know what, you can’t change Washington from the inside. You need to change it from the outside.
MS. IFILL: We have seen the internal divisions among the Republicans on big display, the columnists all jumping off the boat, but are there internal divisions that just exist among Democrats as well, but we just don’t hear about them because they don’t seem to be losing?
MR. YOUNGMAN: My whole career has been marked with internal dissent among Democrats. (Laughter.) It’s kind of refreshing to see Republicans going through the same kind of party identity crisis. You know, I think there are. I think there’re different factions within the Democratic Party. They’ve just had the last, you know, three and a half, four years to get it out of their system. They’ve been intensely critical of the president. I don’t know if you remember, Robert Gibbs, giving them a name, the professional left in an interview with me, what seems like 100 years ago.
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MR. YOUNGMAN: So you know, that dissention has certainly been there. They just closed ranks, I think, similar to the way Republicans did in 2004, sort of we must protect this house.
MR. HARWOOD: I will say, Gwen, though, I think the divisions within the Democratic Party are less than they’ve ever been in my lifetime. And what the Republicans are experiencing is because the conservative base in the country’s bigger than liberals.
They’re more intense in their views and they have created a dynamic within the Republican Party that makes it very difficult for the party to reach beyond the bounds of the party to get all the votes.
MS. BORGER: And what makes it particular difficult for Mitt Romney is that this was supposed to be the year of the anti-establishment candidate. This was the Tea Party year. Mitt Romney was everybody’s second choice for a really long time during the primaries. And I felt this at the convention as well. You didn’t see that huge enthusiasm –
MS. IFILL: Well, you know, the word “tea party” never got mentioned from that podium at the convention.
MS. BORGER: Well, because they were trying to appeal to independent voters –
MS. IFILL: I know, but I’m just saying –
MS. BORGER: – to get back to the 47 percent problem.
MS. IFILL: That was energy base that was there.
MS. BORGER: Right, and so what you –
MR. HARWOOD: I think they might have been gone after women. I don’t know. I heard a few things about women that –
MS. BORGER: I heard a lot about women role models. I’m happy to say. I like that. But you know, so Mitt Romney wasn’t sort of the natural person that you thought they were going to select this time. As a result, he’s had to twist himself in a pretzel to kind of appeal to the tea party base, while reaching out for the independent voters. Having been more conservative during the primaries, now turning around –
MS. IFILL: It’s tough.
MS. BORGER: – it’s – it’s hard.
MR. DICKERSON: And this is why this week, he had a lot of us reporting about insiders in the Republican Party jumping ship, not the columnists, but the folks who are the strategists. In 1996, when Bob Dole was having a tough time, you’d get the same kind of chatter, but people would say, boy, Bob Dole, we just love him, war hero. We will run up the hill for him. You don’t hear that connectivity with Romney, which means Romney’s in danger of – it hasn’t broken totally out in the open yet, but people starting to see their own ambitions not connected to his future.
MS. IFILL: Including –
MR. DICKERSON: And when that happens –
MS. IFILL: Including a lot of down-ballot races, where it could actually affect the outcome.
So we have two big things coming. One of them seems to me is early voting, which starts tomorrow in a lot of places, half of American is eligible to vote starting tomorrow. And the other is, of course, the debates.
So how many eggs are in each respective basket for these campaigns?
MR. YOUNGMAN: Well, I think they both have high expectations. President Obama, just because he’s known as a skilled debater. He’s won the presidency before. Mitt Romney, you know, he lived and died by the debates during the Republican primaries and he always looked like the stable guy surrounded by the rest of the field. And you know, he’s got to – he’s going to have to hit harder and with more – with better aim in these debates. Plus, he’s – you know, he’s been practicing a lot. I think the expectation –
MS. IFILL: Yes, that’s a weird thing to be talking about that actually that you’re practicing this hard this far in advance.
MR. DICKERSON: I would say, Gwen, both of them are good debaters. I don’t expect either one of them to do a poor job. I will say on the organizational stuff, there was an interesting statistic in the Wall Street Journal today. In the state of Iowa, Democrats have requested 100,000 absentee ballots, Republicans 16,000. And the former director of the Iowa Republican Party was saying, I’m getting a little nervous about that.
So there’s energy somewhere. Okay. Well, we’ll be watching all of it. Thank you everyone. If it seems like time flew by, that’s because it did. And that’s why we’ll continue our conversation online on the “Washington Week” Webcast Extra, where we’ll tell you how David Letterman and Kelly Ripa also made news this week in politics.
Next week, we’re hitting the road again to the heartland, St. Louis, Missouri, for a live audience show. Join us then and keep up with daily developments with me on the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you right here again next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.