GWEN IFILL: Another week, another debate. Did the vice presidential candidates do what they needed to do or is the best yet to come, tonight, on “Washington Week.”
REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN (R-WI) [GOP Vice Presidential Nominee]: (From tape.) I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way. (Laughter.)
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: (From tape.) But I always say what I mean.
MS. IFILL: Paul Ryan, Joe Biden, running mates with but a single goal: to paint the other one as unreliable.
REP. RYAN: (From tape.) They got caught with their hands in the cookie jar, turning Medicare into a piggy bank for Obamacare.
What we are witnessing as we turn on our television screen these days is the absolute unraveling of the Obama foreign policy.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: (From tape.) With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey. Folks, use your common sense. Who do you trust on this?
MS. IFILL: A lively debate for both sides.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: (From tape.) It’s not mathematically possible.
REP. RYAN: (From tape.) Is it mathematically possible. It’s been done before. It’s precisely what we’re proposing.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: (From tape.) It has never been done before.
REP. RYAN: (From tape.) It’s been done a couple of times actually.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: (From tape.) It has never been done before.
REP. RYAN: (From tape.) Jack Kennedy lowered tax rates and increased growth. Ronald Reagan –
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: (From tape.) Well, now you’re Jack Kennedy.
REP. RYAN: (From tape.) Ronald Reagan –
MS. IFILL: So what won: style or substance? Breaking it down for us tonight: Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times; Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics; Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post; and Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times.
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. So there’s this hole. Your candidate dug it, and it’s up to the number two guy to dig you both out. For the other candidate, the wind is finally at his back. The polls are tightening and it’s up to his number two to make sure it stays that way. That was the task facing Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan last night. They settled on basically the same approach, arguing the other ticket is not to be trusted. In this exchange, the two sparred about Medicare.
REP. RYAN: (From tape.) This is a plan that’s bipartisan. It’s a plan I put together with a prominent Democrat senator from Oregon.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: (From tape.) There’s not one Democrat who endorses it.
REP. RYAN: (From tape.) It’s a plan –
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: (From tape.) Not one Democrat who signed the plan.
REP. RYAN: (From tape.) Our partner is a Democrat from Oregon.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: (From tape.) And he said he does no longer support you for that.
REP. RYAN: (From tape.) We put it together with the former Clinton budget director.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: (From tape.) Who disavows it.
MS. IFILL: President Obama and Governor Romney continued that theme of untrustworthiness on the campaign trail this week with the president hammering Romney on promised tax cuts.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) After running for more than a year in which he called himself severely conservative, Mitt Romney is trying to convince you that he was severely kidding.
MS. IFILL: And Romney is raising questions about what the administration knew about the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
MITT ROMNEY [REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE]: (From tape.) There are more questions that came out of last night because the vice president directly contradicted the sworn testimony of State Department officials. He is doubling down on denial.
MS. IFILL: So, Karen, is this election coming down to a game of who do you trust?
KAREN TUMULTY: I think it is. And it’s also coming down to a game of how each one of them defines the other. And with Mitt Romney, I think we’ve seen something pretty extraordinary over the last week and a half, starting the day before the last debate, where he is once again sort of very visibly kind of trying to position himself at least in tone and in emphasis much more toward the middle.
MS. IFILL: Jeff, is this part of the overall strategy for both sides to do this - not to position to the middle, but to find some key way of driving in and making the point that the other guy is not working?
JEFF ZELENY: It is. And everything that’s happening right now is about leadership. We’re talking about Benghazi and we’re talking about the foreign policy, but really what Governor Romney and Congressman Paul Ryan are trying to do is have people – sort of throw everything in a basket – the economy, other things – and just overall urge voters to have a second look at the leadership that this administration has. Are they sort of in control? Are they in charge of things?
What Vice President Biden was trying to do, he was hectoring. He was interrupting, interjecting. He was trying to sort of like jolt voters, I think, saying, hold on. Do you really trust these guys? Democrats, and maybe independents who might have been swayed last week at least to push them over in the middle. There aren’t that many people who are these undecided voters. I spent several days in Ohio this week and it’s really hard to find someone who hasn’t made up their mind, at least attending the rallies and even like in coffee shops.
So I think it’s all right now about building up their bases. And meantime, the ground campaigns for both sides are trying to find these undecided voters and trying to reach out to them through TV ads and other things. But all about leadership I think at this point.
MS. IFILL: Well, all about leadership. So let’s take this apart one by one – taxes, Doyle. One of the things they will always argue about is who’s going to cut your taxes and who’s going to raise your taxes. How do we see this play out on the stage at the debate last night in a way that it mirrors what we’ve been seeing on the campaign trail?
DOYLE MCMANUS: Well, you had a furious debate over taxes. You know, one of the things – I think Jeff is absolutely right. That debate between the vice presidential candidates was about reaffirming the argument of each side’s partisan base. If the word bipartisan was spoken during that debate, I missed it.
MS. IFILL: No, no. It was spoken, but it was spoken by Paul Ryan making the case that that’s how they can solve problems.
MR. MCMANUS: Arguing that it could be bipartisan, but Paul Ryan was actually going back to the Republicans’ 2010 playbook where it was all about lower spending and tax cuts. Joe Biden was sticking to the attack line of the Obama campaign, which is that Mitt Romney’s tax cuts don’t work. He must be hiding some details. He’s trying to pull the wool over your eyes.
MS. IFILL: All these came back to one basic thing, which is you can’t trust the other guy. And the first part of the debate was devoted, Alexis, to a story you were covering this week on Capitol Hill as well as in last night’s debate, which was what happened at the consulate in Benghazi. And the administration has had some shifting explanations.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: You know, we’re a month away from the attacks on the anniversary of 9/11 and we still were hearing this week more questions than direct answers. And it has taken a long time for the administration to come around to suggesting two things: one was that their intelligence may have been flawed in not anticipating any kind of attack; and secondly, the intelligence was flawed maybe in interpreting what had happened during the attack.
And so the Hill in a partisan way was exploring what was happening both in security, the funding and the decision-making that went behind the security for the consulate, but it all came down to this idea of can you trust the administration to give us some straight information. Are they playing politics with something this serious, the death of four Americans?
And it was up to the vice president to try to counter that. And he got himself into a hole that the White House was digging him out of today, by suggesting he wasn’t trying to say that the entire government didn’t know about the security questions, whether there should be more or less security. He was trying to suggest that the president and he had not been directly advised of these requests for additional security assets in Benghazi.
MS. IFILL: And yet we’ve seen Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan continuing to talk about this every single day, which is interesting because we are told that Americans aren’t voting on foreign policy issues, and yet, here’s one that won’t go away.
MS. TUMULTY: It’s interesting also because this issue is an issue that until quite recently President Obama had a huge lead against Mitt Romney.
MS. IFILL: You would just say Osama bin Laden and the conversation would end.
MS. TUMULTY: But the polls do suggest they are chipping away at that. It’s an interesting strategy, though, because as one Republican strategist, who’s worried about it told me, you know, when you start playing on those issues, you are playing on the commander-in-chief’s turf, and the only time that has ever really worked and made a difference in an election was with Jimmy Carter.
MS. IFILL: And one of the things that seemed that Joe Biden was trying to do to get back at that, with the grinning and the smiling and condescension, was to try to say, you know, I know this guy. You can back up on this. And even on domestic issues, like the stimulus, which the Republicans have always criticized, he was saying, hey, buddy, you asked for money too.
MR. ZELENY: Exactly. He said, you asked for money, and was happy to produce the letters. He almost read the letters that the congressman read. He was looking for funding for a project in Janesville or something.
But then he also said, now, hold on. The House budget that you all passed would eliminate some of this funding. So really, at every turn last night, the vice president used all of his savvy and skill from his time on Capitol Hill.
To me, it seemed like a couple – sort of a committee hearing with just someone from the House and the Senate, I guess a conference committee of two, if you will, the gentleman from Delaware and the gentleman from Wisconsin. And then they went after it so hard. But, I mean, I think that –
MS. IFILL: Except that thanks to Martha Raddatz, our friend –
MR. ZELENY: She kept it moving along, thank God.
MS. IFILL: Imagine going to a congressional hearing where Martha could say, be specific.
MR. ZELENY: Next year in this Congress we might need her, but I think that the vice president though, he was pretty skilled at sort of shutting this argument down at every turn. But the condescension I think is – you’re right. I mean, it’s still going to settle in, as Karen wrote this morning. We need a few days to see sort of how this plays out, but by then there’s going to be another debate. So I think this one will not have a lasting effect, but it gave the president some more time, which he desperately needed.
MS. IFILL: It gave him some breathing room after a very bad week. But here’s one of the questions that wasn’t asked last night, Doyle. Are you ready to be president? Usually, that’s how we judge vice presidential candidates, the heartbeat away question. But it really wasn’t a directly asked or answered question.
MR. MCMANUS: It wasn’t. Martha did not put that question directly, and I haven’t talked to her about this but I have a theory as to why. That is a question that inherently would favor Joe Biden, who’s been in the White House for four years. It would inherently put Paul Ryan on the back foot, as they say in soccer.
How do you prove that you’re ready to be president and the other guy isn’t? Joe Biden would have a very easy answer – I’ve been in the National Security Council meetings; I’ve been to Afghanistan more times.
And on that measure, I actually think Paul Ryan acquitted himself very well. You did not walk away from that debate thinking, as was possible, incidentally, after his convention speech in Tampa, thinking this guy isn’t quite ready. This guy is a little rattled. This guy wasn’t on top of every piece of his brief.
MS. IFILL: Is that possibly because this debate wasn’t about either of them? It was really about the guys who weren’t in the room?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Exactly. I came away feeling that Vice President Biden’s mission was not necessarily to create an aura that Paul Ryan was not ready to be president, but that Mitt Romney is not ready to be president. And I felt that he was very much trying to use Ryan as a proxy for the person who was not at the table, which was exactly what you’re supposed to do in a vice presidential debate. They were both talking about the top of the ticket. And that I thought was a very interesting thing to watch because the strategy that the Obama team has been using was just blanketed right over Paul Ryan in terms of combating Mitt Romney’s verity, his qualifications, his ability to direct policy, all of it.
MS. TUMULTY: But I also think that even though Paul Ryan is young, looks young, the fact is that he is an intellectual force in his party. He is a committee chairman. I just don’t think that question has been raised and batted about about him as much as it was, say, with Sarah Palin four years ago. It was a totally different dynamic on the stage that you were four years ago where one person was there sort of trying to prove that she belonged there. And I don’t think it was about that.
MS. IFILL: And Joe Biden was there trying to prove that he was not going to beat up on the girl essentially. He was being – he knew he had a reputation for being a bully, just like he had a reputation last night for being gaffe prone. And as quietly as he’s kept, he didn’t really make any big gaffes.
MS. TUMULTY: Can I say though what’s ironic about the whole thing is, yes, he is known as bring gaffe prone with his words. If there was a gaffe last night, it was when he wasn’t talking and he was on the split screen laughing and grinning and interrupting. And it was a total – (inaudible).
MS. IFILL: (Inaudible) – for many years, but now we’ve had two debates in a row in which the Democratic candidate seems to fall victim to it.
MR. ZELENY: But I think some of it though was intentional. I think there were so many Democrats out there who were clamoring for – we want to take the fight to them, but in doing so I wonder if he’s sort of raised the bar a little bit for the president next week. I mean, no one is voting specifically for the vice president. I don’t think a presidential candidate per se could get away with necessarily all the smiling and the “ah” shots.
In the next debate, which is a town meeting next Tuesday, the president, seems to me, has even higher expectations now because no matter what he does, he’s not going to be quite as saucy as his vice president or as sharp as his vice president. So it made it – I wonder if it made the president look a little bit weak. We’ll have to see how he does next week.
MS. IFILL: Well, there’s only a few days and the next one will wipe this one out maybe.
MS. SIMENDINGER: The town hall format I think is suggesting that their facial expressions or their emotion has to be directed towards the people in the audience and their questions. And that’s a challenge for President Obama and for Mitt Romney as we’ve seen, correct?
MS. TUMULTY: Yes. And they have to actually answer the questions. When they are asked by an ordinary American as opposed to by a media moderator, I think can you can try kind of play games with a question when it comes to you from a moderator. You can say –
MS. IFILL: Shockingly. Sometimes they (don’t ?) answer the moderator’s question.
MS. TUMULTY: But you cannot get away with that in a town hall format because it looks disrespectful of the person who’s asking the question.
MR. MCMANUS: But the other challenge there is to connect with the voter and this is the challenge for Mitt Romney on whom the rap has been all year long he’s too far away from the average voter. He can’t quite connect.
MS. IFILL: Most famous town hall, at least the one I remember the most is the one in which there were three people on stage. It was Bill Clinton, Ross Perot, and George H. W. Bush and he looked at his watch.
MR. MCMANUS: And the important part of that was before he looked at his watch, he misunderstood a question from a voter. She phrased it awkwardly about the national debt. Bush kind of fumbled the question, and Bill Clinton walked over and said, I think I understand what you’re talking about. And he did.
MS. IFILL: It was also the other one in which George W. Bush was staying on stage with Al Gore, and Al Gore came over and crowded him. He gave him this look, like what are you doing here, buddy, and then moved on. It was very, very smooth.
I find these debates to be interesting because the one thing that presidential candidates don’t do that the vice presidential candidates do is sit down. It’s too presidential. They stay at their podium and that really changes the nature of the discussion it seems to me.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And I think it makes the eye-rolling and all of that more easier because it’s like you’re sitting in a much more intimate setting with the vice president.
MS. IFILL: So the president acknowledged – it took him a couple of days – that he had a terrible debate last week. He’s acknowledged it in a couple of different ways. It took him a while to make fun of it. So does he have a strategy? Was this debate, the vice presidential debate part of the strategy to get back on track, because if anything else, they gave away a week’s momentum.
MR. ZELENY: I think it was designed exactly like that. It’s one of the reasons that David Axelrod, the president’s senior advisor, was spending all this time this week with the vice president. This was part of the rebuilding strategy.
And part of the president’s first acceptance that he had a weak performance and then he kind of kept adding on day by day by day, that was a recognition from donors specifically I’m told and from supporters that he has to acknowledge this publicly that he didn’t do very well. And that’s not something that this president does all that often, sort of acknowledge so bluntly that he had a problem here.
But I think going forward they do believe the clock now is sort of – or the match is sort of reset. And for all that talk and consternation about this among Democrats, what they’re most heartened by, what Chicago, the headquarters, is most heartened by are these battleground states. Things haven’t moved as much as the national polls because the ads have still been playing and these sort of laboratories of democracy if you will, Ohio, where there are tons of ads going back and forth, it really hasn’t shifted. We saw a couple of polls this week where it closed a tiny bit, but not – it’s just almost outside the margin of error. So the Romney campaign realizes that they still have work to do in all important Ohio.
MS. TUMULTY: Although there is one outlying poll in Florida that does suggest a big shift down there.
MR. ZELENY: Almost too big of a shift there. I even talked to Romney advisors. They said, you know what? We’re not up seven points like that poll said. We’re just not.
MS. IFILL: Don’t scare us like that. I wonder whether this – we’re just right where we were before the conventions and we’re going to stay there.
MS. SIMENDINGER: In fact, the Obama campaign said that this week when you were saying it lost a week. In fact, they were sort of suggesting that in the national polls it had tightened to the point where it was before the convention. So if you think about that, they lost a month, more than a month. So they were acknowledging that at least. I thought that was very interesting that they were trying to say that – their argument is that Mitt Romney does not have enough time to make up the gap in the battleground states that Jeff is talking about. And that it sounds like a Hail Mary wish on their part.
MR. ZELENY: He’s still trying – four out of five days in Ohio. He’s not done that much campaigning for a long time. This is Governor Romney. He’s waking up there on Saturday. They’re really fighting for this. I think there may be enough time, even though people are voting as we speak. And the crowds and other things – the enthusiasm is there on both bases.
MS. TUMULTY: And that shows up in the polls, the enthusiasm.
MR. MCMANUS: And to the question of are we going to stay right where we are? I think actually in the last week or 10 days we learned the answer to an old political science question. That is: do campaigns matter? Do messages matter?
MS. IFILL: And?
MR. MCMANUS: They sure do. One really bad debate performance by the president combined – we should remember – with a quite masterful debate performance by Governor Romney did move a lot of numbers around. And that’s why it was so important that Joe Biden stop the momentum in that direction. Everybody’s favorite analogy this week was this is like a Major League Baseball team. It’s okay to drop the first game, but if you go down two games in a row, you’re in serious trouble.
MS. IFILL: Gee, I wonder why we had baseball analogies this week. I can’t image. Go Nats. Okay. But I still want to ask the question about what these candidates do about this, if they know that they’re neck in neck, and they know they’ve got three weeks to go, and they know they’ve got two debates in those three weeks, how do you start strategizing? What are they doing? What’s different?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, the Obama campaign, what they say that this has always been a football game that’s going to be won by a field goal, not a touchdown. They are working very hard on their ground game. They are supremely confident in their ground game. Again, as Doyle said, people are already voting. And so I think in the end, that’s where the money is going to go.
MS. IFILL: One of the interesting questions toward the end of the debate last night was about abortion, the Catholicism of the two candidates, who then had the opportunity to explain where they stand and how that clashes or is observant of their religion. And it seemed to me they were being asked to speak to a swing voter group which is very important to them, which is women, young women of child bearing age, who are paying very close attention.
MR. ZELENY: And we’re going to see that answer replayed. Or we may not see it – but through direct mail, through targeted online advertising to women and other things.
The Obama campaign thought that they have a new opportunity here with Congressman Ryan’s sort of suggestion that I think he said something like, we’d changed these laws through a democratic process or something so meaning that there could be some type of law, a change coming up here. The whole suggestion of the Supreme Court, which really hasn’t been a big topic of discussion, all these conversations are going on in sub-groups.
So I think that is what’s going on right now is sort of this micro-campaign. They know exactly specific areas of interest for each voter. It’s why they’ve been micro-targeted things. So things are going on which we can’t even see right now targeting these voters specifically.
MS. IFILL: Biden’s – (inaudible) – across Wisconsin today talking a lot about the future of the Supreme Court which you don’t hear a lot of on the stumps.
MS. TUMULTY: Don’t forget the big hit they took in the polls was based largely on a big swing by women voters and those – they know that they have to win – they’re going to lose men. So they’re going to have to win women by, pollsters tell me, 53 percent or higher to win this election.
MR. MCMANUS: And also don’t forget that a week ago, Governor Romney to the “Des Moines Register” was trying to obscure his position on abortion a little bit. He said he didn’t have a big legislative program.
MS. IFILL: Was that responding or anticipating this Ryan problem that Jeff was just talking about?
MR. MCMANUS: Well, I think Ryan kind of put it back where he thought it needed to be. He re-clarified a position that maybe Governor Romney for a couple of minutes there didn’t want to be so clear. But, of course, then Romney ran into trouble with some people in his own base.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And they don’t agree – they have not agreed entirely with one another. And so Ryan also affirmed my position is the nominee’s position in terms of exceptions to abortion.
MR. ZELENY: The Romney campaign is fine with a little bit of confusion now. This confusion is good. But the first phone call that Governor Romney made I’m told after he met with the “Des Moines Register’s” editorial board was to Tony Perkins, a leader in the pro-life movement, the anti-abortion movement saying I’m with you. I am still 100 percent pro-life, et cetera.
So I think that – but they’re fine with the confusion on this. We’ll see if voters are though. It’s the burden of the Obama campaign to maximize the opportunities of this confusion.
MS. IFILL: I was in Jefferson County, Colorado, which is this famous swing county in a swing state, talking to swing voters earlier this week. And I talked to a woman – the elusive undecided voter. And she said to me, you know, I kind of – young woman, 11-month-old child and she runs a small business with her husband, and she said, I really like what it is that the president says about women, but I like what Governor Romney says about small business. I truly cannot decide yet until I do more research, which is what they say when they just haven’t been paying attention. But she plans to vote.
Now, do these campaigns focus on someone like her or they just focus on keeping their bases energized?
MR. ZELENY: I think both at the same time. This is not a one-track operation. I think they have to do both.
MR. MCMANUS: And that’s not at all an unusual pattern. Karen and I were both watching a focus group that Peter Hart did of undecided voters in Ohio this week and there was a lot of, you know, on the economy, I really like what Governor Romney is saying, but on all these other issues – health care, women’s issues, abortion – he seems awfully conservative. Couldn’t we have somehow a combination of the two?
MS. IFILL: No, you can’t have a combination.
MR. ZELENY: That’s a choice.
MS. SIMENDINGER: You know, one of the things that Doyle’s mentioning that I think is interestingly, really quickly here, is that pollsters have suggested that maybe President Obama needs to be more articulate in these debates about what his vision is. There still isn’t that hurdle crossed.
MS. IFILL: We’re going to talk about what we think the president’s going to have to do in this debate coming up next week on our webcast. Thank you all very much.
Only three and a half more weeks until Election Day. Some of you are even voting now. How will you keep up? Join me every night on the PBS “NewsHour” and for special coverage of the second presidential debate Tuesday night in Hempstead, New York.
Read what our panelists are writing. You can find their stories at the “Essential Read” section of our website.
And next Thursday, at 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time, join me for a live chat. I’ll answer anything you ask, within reason. You can send your questions in advance to email@example.com.
And we’ll see you next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.