The managing editor of The Washington Post‘s online politics coverage assesses this year’s election.
The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza
Tavis: Chris Cillizza is the managing editor of “The Washington Post” political section, which includes his very influential column, “The Fix.” He’s also the author of the new text, “The Gospel According to the Fix: An Insider’s Guide to a Less Than Holy World of Politics.” He joins us, as always, from the newsroom at the “Post.” Chris, good to have you back on the program.
Chris Cillizza: Tavis, thank you for having me back.
Tavis: So I’ve been reading your work but I have not had a chance to talk to you person-to-person since Mr. Romney made his famous 47 percent comment. Of course, since that he has appeared on “60 Minutes” to kind of walk that back a little bit. So let me start with the comment itself and what your read on it was or is.
Cillizza: Sure. Look, there were a number of bad things politically in it for Mitt Romney. Number one, it was a tape of him speaking at a fundraiser of wealthy Republican donors, so that’s not great. Number two, he seemed to say, in an attempt, I think, an honest attempt to say there’s a lot of people out there who just aren’t going to vote for me; there’s a lot of people who are going to vote for me and we need to win the middle.
He didn’t say that. Instead, he said, look, there are a lot of people who won’t vote for me because they’re dependent on government, because they want to keep being taken care of. What does that do for Mitt Romney? It reinforces the character that the Obama team has worked very hard to sell the voters in swing states, Tavis, this is this is a very wealthy person who looks out for and thinks about, first and foremost, himself and his wealthy friends.
That’s why it was so hurtful, I think, to Mitt Romney’s campaign, because it played exactly into the narrative that President Obama has been trying to drive about Mitt Romney since it was clear he was going to be the nominee.
Tavis: We’ve seen a number of politicians running for high office – Bill Clinton comes to mind immediately – who have gone to “60 Minutes” to try to set the record straight, and Mitt Romney has now done that. Did you get a chance to see it, and if so, what did you make of his appearance?
Cillizza: I think what he’s trying to do is re-start a conversation about the economy that is focused on Barack Obama. Now, Tavis, this last week he was supposed to be doing that same thing and got sidetracked badly by this 47 percent video. I don’t think Mitt Romney’s going to be able to put this entirely behind him.
I think for some people this will be kind of the moment that they decided not to be with him. He has to hope that that’s not a majority of the folks who still haven’t made their mind up; that ultimately, the continued struggles of the economy, the fact that a majority of people in most polling do not approve of how Barack Obama has handled the economy, that ultimately, those people will say you know what? I’m done with the guy who’s currently in office. Let’s give the other guy a chance.
So I think the CBS interview he’s done he’s going to continue to do. He’s on a bus tour in the next few days in Ohio with Paul Ryan. All of those things are an attempt to if not change the conversation, certainly shift it.
Tavis: Even Republicans have said that he is running an inept campaign. Whatever you think of him, his campaign has not been run well. To my mind, at least, in the “60 Minutes” conversation, he tried to suggest that it wasn’t his campaign, it did not need a reboot, that he took full responsibility for these sort of foot-in-the-mouth comments – that’s my phraseology, not his. But did you see that as sort of splitting hairs?
Cillizza: Yeah, and well, I actually agree with him on that, Tavis. I think we focus too much – Democratic candidate, Republican candidate – blaming the campaign. I went back, I remember in the ’08 campaign when Hillary Clinton, we did the postmortem on the Hillary Clinton primary campaign, and the conclusion, broadly, was her campaign ill-served her.
I would say look, ultimately, the campaign is the construct of the candidate. The candidate decides who the pollster’s going to be, the candidate decides who the campaign manager is, the candidate is the one who puts the person in charge of raising money. The candidate should be the person deciding on what the message of the day is. So I actually agree with Mitt Romney.
I think it is too easy to blame, well, the campaign’s not doing well. The candidate is at the center of the campaign, Tavis, and I just don’t think you can separate the two. I don’t think you can say, “Well, the candidate’s good but the campaign’s bad.” If one is good, the other is typically good. If one is bad, the other is typically bad. They follow one another directly.
Tavis: Okay, so we won’t separate the two for the sake of this conversation, but which still raises to my mind, though, this question, which is why the campaign is so inept, why these continual mistakes. Why keep shooting himself in the foot all the time?
Cillizza: I think that some of it is born of the fact that if you believe most swing state and national polling, and I do, that he is behind at the moment. I’m not sure if the expected themselves to be in this position. I think when you are behind, particularly as you see every day you rip another page off your calendar and you’re one day closer to the election, six weeks out now, you start to feel an urgency, a pressure to change the dynamic, to make something happen.
This is your classic you get up in the ninth inning with your team behind and you try to hit a home run rather than just get on base and see what happens. It’s natural human tendency. I think it often happens for the team that’s behind or the campaign that’s behind, and I think that’s what’s afflicting Romney right now, which is they’re trying to hit an eight-run home run when in truth you just need a base hit.
Tavis: Yeah. So everybody now is talking about these debates. The first one will be a week from tonight.
Tavis: To my mind, these debates at worst, at worst, for the president, that is, these debates break even, so Romney does a wonderful job in all three debates. So again, the president isn’t going to fall on his face; he’s pretty good at this himself.
So these debates, say they break even. That doesn’t do it for Romney, does it?
Cillizza: It probably doesn’t, Tavis, though I would say you never know. What’s hard about an election like this one is you probably have 46 percent of people who are voting for Obama, 46 percent of people voting for Romney, and that other 8 percent, we don’t really know what motivates them.
Is it possible that they see Romney on stage, he looks presidential, he looks ready for the job, he is seen broadly in the three debates just kind of doing well and holding his own with Obama? Does that matter or not? I would say to your point though my guess is Barack Obama, if the electoral landscape stays basically how it is for the next week, which I have no reason to believe it won’t, he is likely, I think, to play it relatively safe in the debates. The frontrunner strategy, don’t take any big risks that may shake things up.
Romney, on the other hand, I don’t know if he has to take a big risk, but I do think, particularly with that first debate, I think he’s got to win it cleanly, however you wind up doing that. But I think the kind of after-action analysis in the political world, which of course drives coverage down to local newspapers and local television and all of that, I think it has to be perceived as Mitt Romney clearly won this debate, because there isn’t another event, Tavis, any time soon that’s going to have that kind of viewership, that’s going to get that much media attention.
These smaller events in places like Ohio, that does well in Ohio but it doesn’t get you the national reach you need to change what has not been a good narrative for the Romney campaign over the last two weeks.
Tavis: Yeah. I hear your point. I just don’t see that happening. I don’t see the president just falling on his face and Romney just decisively winning a debate, but who knows, you’re right – anything can happen. But let me ask you this, though. What do you make of the fact that the campaign has even come down to this?
Here’s a guy who’s run before, here’s a guy who had a campaign apparatus in place, here’s a guy who was running two years out. You look at the experience and the exposure this guy has had and it really does come down to whether or not he can pull it out with these debates. What do you make of the fact that it even came down to this?
Cillizza: And I’ll add, Tavis, a couple of kind of political and environmental factors. You’ve got 60-plus percent of people saying the country, in a variety of polls, saying the country is on the wrong track.
Cillizza: Majority of people saying they disapprove of how President Obama’s handling the economy at a time when 60-plus percent are saying the economy is the most important issue in deciding their vote.
On paper – I’ve said this to lots of Republicans and Democrats; the Republicans kind of nod grimly, the Democrats agree – on paper, Mitt Romney should be winning this election because of the environmental factors that are working against Barack Obama. I think it’s a testament to the fact that campaigns and candidates, what we’ve been talking about, that they do matter.
The kind of candidate you are when you’re out there trying to ask for people’s vote, the type of campaign you put together, they do matter. They are able, in Barack Obama’s case, at least so far, to counteract what is a very difficult political environment in which to run.
But I agree with your broad point, which is Mitt Romney was chosen to be the Republican nominee in many ways because people thought, the Republican primary voter thought he was the guy who could best bring the fight to Barack Obama on the issue of the day, the economy.
This is a business guy, a turnaround specialist in business, Salt Lake City Olympics, so on and so forth. Yet that sale has not, in fact, been made, and you’ve seen some slippage. I would say when asked who can better handle the economy, Obama or Romney, Romney has had a steady lead, 5, 6, 8 points on that question throughout the spring and into the summer.
That lead has evaporated, and I think that’s part of the reason we’re seeing Obama pull ahead in swing state polling as well as national polling.
Tavis: There’ll be a lot of eyes, of course; maybe even more eyes, who knows, on the vice presidential debate between Mr. Biden and Mr. Ryan, but to your mind, has there been any clear advantage of picking Mr. Ryan as his running mate as opposed to a number of other persons who were on the short list?
Cillizza: No. No. I would say – I don’t mean that in a pejorative way to Paul Ryan. I don’t think there would be anyone that Romney was considering picking. I don’t think Romney was really seriously considering Condoleezza Rice. She could have been someone who I think could change the conversation.
But among sort of Rob Portman, the senator from Ohio, or Paul Ryan or Tim Pawlenty, these folks who were, we believe, on the shortest of short lists, I don’t think any of them, Tavis, fundamentally alter the race.
I also think we as a political journalist community have to be careful not to put too much weight in any VP pick in terms of deciding the overall race. I don’t think Sarah Palin helped John McCain, but I’m not sure anyone John McCain picked helped John McCain win that election.
People ultimately are voting for the top of the ticket, the person who’s going to be the president of the United States. Can the vice president help or hurt at the margins of that decision? Yes. I just think we over-blow it to think that in some way it’s going to fundamentally alter the broad race at the top of the ticket.
Tavis: What’s your sense of, given what’s happened in the past few weeks, whether or not there’s some international issue that might end up changing the dynamics of this race between now and Election Day that we know not of?
Cillizza: I always say the possibility, Tavis, both internationally or domestically, of something big happening exists, and as a political reporter, certainly as a politician, you kind of live with that uncertainty.
That said, I don’t think Libya, despite the ongoing tensions here and in the rest of the Middle East, I do not think that ultimately winds up being kind of a top of the mind issue for most voters. I would say that if you look at previous elections, foreign policy, it rises kind of to a back burner issue only at times of relative domestic tranquility – that is, the economy seems to be doing well and we may look abroad.
At times of struggle economically, like we are in currently on the domestic front, foreign policy back burnered, it doesn’t even make it to the back burner. So can it matter a little bit in terms of burnishing Barack Obama as a commander-in-chief or maybe burnishing Mitt Romney as a potential commander-in-chief? Sure. But again, I think this election is about the economy first, the economy second, the economy third, and then pretty much anything else you want to name fourth, fifth, sixth and beyond.
Tavis: Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix” for “The Washington Post.” Chris, good to have you on the program. I’m sure I’ll be talking to you once again between – if not more than that – between now and Election Day. Thanks for your work. Good to have you on, as always.
Cillizza: It’s always a pleasure. Thank you, Tavis.
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