MS. IFILL: Hot buttons everywhere you look, from a debate over students loans to Supreme Court arguments over immigration. We put on our oven mitts, tonight on Washington Week.
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: Is it easier to make ends meet?
MR. ROMNEY: Is it easier to sell your home or buy a new one?
MR. ROMNEY: It’s still about the economy. And we are not stupid.
MS. IFILL: With five more primary wins under his belt, Mitt Romney throws down the gauntlet and the president picks it up.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Your voice matters. You’ve got to stand up. You’ve got to be heard. You’ve got to be counted. You’ve got to tell them now is not the time to double your interest rates on student loans. Now is the time to double down on the investments in a strong and secure middle class.
MS. IFILL: But was that a policy speech or a campaign speech?
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH) [Speaker of the House]: It doesn’t even pass a straight-face test. Are you kidding me?
MS. IFILL: Either way, welcome to the general election – even at the Supreme Court, where a big immigration case takes center stage. Plus, we assess the Obama record, this week, on interrogation and privacy.
Covering the week: John Dickerson of Slate magazine and CBS News; Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics; Pete Williams of NBC News; and James Kitfield of National Journal.
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. I suppose there are one or two of you out there who are still at the edge of your seat waiting for the general election to officially begin. Well, wait no more because this week offered no looking back evidence that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are in their corners and the bell just rang. The fight, as we’ll outline tonight, will be about policy as well as politics.
Example number one – the president this week challenged Republicans to extend low-interest rates for a college loan program. Romney said, yes, they should be kept low, but for congressional Republicans, there was a catch. The House voted today for the extension, but only if the cost comes out of the president’s health care plan. The White House in response called it “a politically motivated proposal and not the serious response that the problem facing America’s college students deserves.” And a veto threat was promptly issued. Is this the kind of fight we’re going to have to just get used to this year, John?
MR. DICKERSON: I think so. I think it’s going to get uglier for two reasons. This entire campaign is operating in a time of scarcity – $1 trillion deficits – and so every penny is being fought over.
Also, at the top of the ticket, you have two weak candidates. You have the president, whose approval ratings are low for an incumbent, for people think that his handling of the economy has not been good. So he’s weak. He’s under threat. But then you’ve got Mitt Romney who is not a terribly strong candidate. His numbers in terms of likeability are very, very low. People basically dislike him more than they like him. So you have two weak candidates and they’re basically both going to be tearing at each other.
And so what we saw today in this fight was – it was not a question of whether to hold down the interest rates on these Stafford loans, but you see that in a weak economy, four in 10 parents said in a CBS poll last week that they changed their financial decisions about sending their kids to college.
So you have a time of scarcity. People are hurting like that – 7.4 million people are affected by these loans. Both sides say, we want to keep this interest rate low. The fight is about how to pay for it. And when they have that fight, they go for a few short ribs out of each other’s sacred cow. So the Democrats say they want to pay for it by taking oil subsidies away from oil companies. The Republicans say they’re going to take it out of this health care slush fund. And so these fights get right into where people live their lives and that’s why they get so nasty.
MS. IFILL: And do these fights, Alexis, also go to the voters which these candidates are trying to target? For instance, we saw the president this week at three different college campuses on policy White House official trips, not political trips, no matter how much you heard those chants of “four more years.” And they’re clearly targeting them in states that he has to win in November as well.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Swing states, young people – what a surprise, right? So the idea is for the president – if you’re the sitting president and you’re in a weak economy, as John was just describing, you’re trying to show a couple of things: that you’re working on the economy, that you’re trying to produce results, and that you’re up against your opponents – there’s some sort of force out there that’s keeping you from improving the economy in some way.
The president has an enormous advantage with young voters in general. Obviously, he had a two-to-one advantage over John McCain in the last election, 2008, and if he could just keep that margin with Mitt Romney large going into this election, he could see a victory in some of these key states.
So we’re turning again and again to the swing states focusing on young people and then focusing on what looks to many voters, and particularly independent voters, like producing results.
The other thing I would mention is student loans – that is not just an issue for young people. That is an issue for parents everywhere. And we know that from talking to the parents we know.
MR. WILLIAMS: When you say swing states, both of you, are they the same that they were four years ago? Are there surprises here, states in play that you wouldn’t have thought about?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, depending on who you ask, it’s a smaller pie than maybe the 12 that we started the year off with now. And the Obama campaign is boasting that they might be able to have multiple maps to get to these 270 electoral votes.
MS. IFILL: And a poll out this week showing them close in Arizona.
MS. SIMENDINGER: In Arizona. And I think John’s been reporting about Hispanics. We’ve all been looking at Arizona with a great deal of interest. John McCain, of course, was the candidate in 2008, carried Arizona. We don’t have that this time. Hispanic voters could deliver potentially for Barack Obama in Arizona.
MR. DICKERSON: Part of this is trying to shape the conversation so the Obama folks want to say the map is enormous; we can play in all kinds of states, including Arizona, which is a very red state. The argument they make is because there are so many Hispanic voters and Mitt Romney has such trouble with Hispanic voters. In polls, among Hispanics, he’s 40 points behind the president. That’s real trouble. But when you talk to Democrats candidly, they say Arizona is not in play. And this is a bit of – the Obama campaign trying to say, we can play everywhere to keep the Romney team off balance.
The Romney team says, we’re not going to worry about Arizona, and the places to look at are some traditional ones – Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Virginia – if you had to pick four states to pay attention to, pay attention to those.
A couple of interesting states to really watch in this new period is North Carolina. The president won there in 2008. He may not win there this time. That’s one that’s likely to fall into the Romney camp. Pennsylvania’s one that might be a battleground, but that likely might stay in the Obama camp. Those are two that might go into their various camps and that will allow us to focus on those probably four to eight battleground states.
MR. KITFIELD: Romney spent some time with Marco Rubio and clearly that is a look towards the Hispanic vote. Is there a sense that his trouble with Hispanics might improve Rubio’s chances that he may be –
MS. IFILL: The freshman senator from Florida, of course.
MR. DICKERSON: Freshman senator from Florida. Rubio does a couple of things. He’s from Florida, okay, so we all remember that’s an important and key battleground state. Unemployment rate there is 9 percent, hard hit by the housing boom so the president’s got some issues there, even though he won it last time. So Marco Rubio might help Romney just in the state of Florida.
Now, the Hispanic question is an interesting one because in Florida, Rubio does well with Cubans. He is of Cuban heritage. And so that will help him in that state. Some people would say Republicans always do well with Cubans so maybe Rubio is not helping him that much.
But does he help him in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, some of these Western states in which Hispanics in – the Pew Hispanic Center did a poll – 51 percent of Hispanics don’t like to be called Hispanics. They’d prefer to be known as Puerto Ricans or whatever country that they come from or their parents came from. So, in other words, just because you’re a Cuban in Florida and you do well, doesn’t mean a Puerto Rican somewhere else is going to translate.
So the question of Rubio – also, by the way, Rubio has no executive experience. Romney made a big deal about executive experience. Hard to see how he would pick a number two who he says has to be ready for the office, who lacks that key quality.
MS. IFILL: If we know one thing about this campaign now that the primary season is essentially over, we know that there was never an amazing overflow of warmth and enthusiasm for Mitt Romney’s candidacy, which is why it went on so much longer, even though everyone assumed eventually he would win the nomination. How much is the White House counting on that, because when you look at the poll numbers, the enthusiasm gap seems pretty significant?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, one of the things that we know is that the president has always enjoyed what they consider their favorability aircushion, you know, that voters, no matter what they think of his policies, tend to like him. They think of him as a kind of an average nice guy. When we see the president doing things on entertainment shows or singing or whatever it is we’re seeing him doing, he’s trying in some ways to contrast against Mitt Romney, who is considered sort of the dork. He’s been written about that way. And people are encouraging him to embrace his dork, his inner dork, just be the contrast.
MS. IFILL: Be who you are.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Right. But the president has not necessarily just assumed that Mitt Romney was going to be seen this way. They certainly have gone out of their way to suggest to everyone who’s listening or reading or watching that Mitt Romney is this person who’s malleable, who’s swinging in the wind, who speaks weirdly.
MS. IFILL: Unreliable.
MS. SIMENDINGER: The president mocked the way he’d used the word “marvelous,” that he doesn’t have an internal rudder, that he’s so wealthy that all he’s trying to do is support a range of people that he knows in a world with (auto garages ?) –
MS. IFILL: We heard the president say Michele and I weren’t raised with a silver spoon.
MS. SIMENDINGER: – that he never knew about college loans, for instance.
MR. DICKERSON: That’s right. You are – your campaign is based on who you are. So the president says – his view is the government gives people a little bit of help and then, once they get that little bit of help, they do well and become productive members of society. Mitt Romney says that you give everybody freedom, and if you get government out of the way, then they can become productive members of society. And so his biography follows that lane.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Today in Ohio, he suggested people could turn to their parents for loans.
MS. IFILL: Yes. I saw that. That wasn’t the smartest thing to say. But one of the things I thought interesting is that the Romney folks on one hand also want to make the point that, yes, he’s a likeable guy, but he’s in over his head. And on the other hand, they come out with ads saying, he’s just a celebrity. We’ve been through here before, haven’t we?
MR. DICKERSON: This is so interesting. In 2008, John McCain ran an ad that talked about him being a celebrity. And they started to get some purchase on it. It was really hurting Obama. And then they picked Sarah Palin and things went another direction.
What you hear from the Romney people is this – that voters out there, they’re going to start pushing the message that President Obama is not just incompetent – there’s a moral failing here, that while everybody is hurting, he’s off living the celebrity life. They sent out a mailer raising money about how many golf games he’s played. Mitt Romney talked about the vacations he takes – that he takes extravagant vacations. The idea here is to push people’s buttons and say, it’s not just that you’re hurting. It’s the guy who’s supposed to be running the show is off there enjoying his time and the fruits of his office and not really concerned about you.
MR. WILLIAMS: It’s typical for presidents to take a vacation during the opposite party’s convention. I suppose he will take his vacation this year.
MR. DICKERSON: He will, although, you know, it’s so fraught because he doesn’t – unlike other presidents, he doesn’t have a vacation home that he has already in his family that he can repair to, so he has to go places where things look pretty fancy.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Look, this will be the last few weeks before voters are making up their minds. This might be the year in which we would see the president, the vice president, the first lady all doing things that look like they’re working for the American people. I can well image that there will be opportunities for them to do that in a low-key way.
MS. IFILL: And we saw, as a matter of fact, on a Marine base today. I think one of the bigger question is also that week is going to be whether Mitt Romney is bringing folks together in Tampa, not what’s happening away from the spotlight. But we’ll wait and we’ll watch all of that.
Another hot button this week, the Supreme Court stepped into another legal minefield that may turn out to be a political one as well – the issue, what latitude should individual states have to police their own borders? The state, Arizona, and the debate essentially was in some ways about suspicion, Pete.
MR. WILLIAMS: Right. And it’s that part of the Arizona law that’s the most controversial. It would require police, whenever they stop anybody for any reason, traffic offense, no matter how minor, they would have to verify the immigration status of that person and would have to detain them until they can get that answer.
Now, the Obama administration argued that federal law trumps that state law, that Arizona’s policy of enforcement at all cost would overwhelm the federal system and that the Obama administration has different priorities for immigration enforcement: gang members, people who have committed crimes, potential terrorists.
So they said that the federal law preempts the field, but it seemed to me that the Supreme Court justices were not buying at least that part of the law. Several of them said, look, all the Arizona police do here is call up the federal government, call the federal center that is set up to take these calls from the states and say, hey, we’ve got a guy here. Do you want him held or not? And what the lawyer for Arizona said, if the feds say, no, we don’t want him, then they’re supposed to let him go. And the justices couldn’t see – or a majority couldn’t see how that interferes with federal law.
MS. IFILL: In fact, the chief justice was the one who said, don’t we want to know where our illegal immigrants are?
MR. WILLIAMS: Right. He said, it sounds to me like the federal government doesn’t want to know who’s here illegally. Now, there are two other sections in the Arizona law that may not fare as well because they make it a crime under Arizona law to do something that is not a crime under federal law for illegal immigrants, that is to try to get a job and also to not have their federally required papers. The justices didn’t talk as much about that. Those parts may not be upheld.
MS. SIMENDINGER: So, Pete, is immigration – is this the end of the road for immigration cases that might come to the Supreme Court or can we see this continuing on?
MR. WILLIAMS: I think no for two reasons. One is that there are civil lawsuits filed by civil liberties groups against these laws. They claim they’re racial profiling. That was not an issue before the Supreme Court in this case. It was strictly about that exciting issue of preemption.
But, secondly, this was what’s called a facial challenge. The government was saying the law on its face is unconstitutional. I’m sure that once – if parts of it are upheld and it goes into effect, then you’ll have new claims that it’s unconstitutional as it’s applied to people.
MR. DICKERSON: This law, as you mentioned, in oral argument there was a lot of coverage about the fact that it looked like all the justices were kind of against the government’s case. One of them wasn’t even participating – Elena Kagan. Why and what effect will that have on the ultimate outcome?
MR. WILLIAMS: The second Arizona immigration case she sat out, one last year as well, presumably because she worked on these issues when she was the solicitor general in the Justice Department.
So here’s what that means. I suspect them majority will find this call-the-cops to be constitutional, but it raises the prospect of a four-to-four tie on the others. And under the Supreme Court rules, if there’s a four-four tie, the decision doesn’t count – that part of it, and the lower court ruling would stand. Now, the lower court ruling here declared the Arizona laws, these other provisions unconstitutional. So if there is a tie on those other things, that part of the law would remain blocked.
MR. DICKERSON: What does that mean for other states then that have similar kinds of laws?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, as I say, I think there’s going to be a split decision. There’s every indication of that. However, the states will see – I think if the Supreme Court upholds any part of this, they’ll see that as a green light. Now, you know, there are five states that have copied Arizona or have gone further – Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, also Indiana and Utah. So other states will undoubtedly be emboldened by this if the Supreme Court upholds part of it.
MR. KITFIELD: The solicitor general got a lot of bad reviews this week for his argument, for not really seeming that coherent and persuasive. Was that your impression as well? Does that make any difference to the administration? Is there a sort of displeasure with him?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, I think – you may have to remember that oral argument is the only part of the process that we see, so we make a big deal out of performance by the advocates. In fact, what difference does it make in terms of how they vote, they’ve read these briefs, they’re going to have conversations among themselves. You know, they don’t really score and it’s not a debate. So the performance of the advocates probably in the end doesn’t make that much difference to how the decision comes out.
MS. IFILL: You talked about these other five states who are trying to copy Arizona. And I wonder whether in the time it’s taken for these laws to work their way to the system, there hasn’t been any buyer’s remorse. There was a lot of pressure on Arizona and these other states at the time because of crime rates which have since gone down or because of other kinds of tensions which have since faded.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, in fact, you’ve seen some pushback from business groups in these states who’ve claimed that the states have lost business from tourism or conventions, and farmers, agricultural workers who can’t get the people to come in and work the field. So that’s one thing.
But the second thing is very interesting data came out this week showing that immigration from Mexico is basically at a net zero, that as many people are now leaving the United States and going back to Mexico as are coming here. Immigration from Mexico is half of what it was. Returns to Mexico are twice of what they used to be. So that pressure has gone as well.
MS. IFILL: And maybe some of the reason for that is because of this perceived pressure for people to self-deport.
MR. WILLIAMS: Undoubtedly and probably effects of the economy as well.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, thank you, Pete.
Finally tonight, we turn to one of our periodic segments, assessing the Obama record. This week’s topic – fighting terror. Next week marks the one-year anniversary of the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden, a promise kept.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The president has shut down secret prisons overseas, banned torture, and in doing so demonstrated that we don’t have to choose between protecting our country and living our values, and as a consequence of those decisions enhanced the security of our own soldiers abroad and the power of our persuasion around the world.
MS. IFILL: But what of foreign policy promises not kept, like the president’s vow to close Guantanamo? James Kitfield writes about it this week and he writes about how much this has not changed the administration’s approach to privacy and secrecy in these kinds of issues. So why isn’t Guantanamo closed as was promised? It was the first thing he signed an executive order to do when he became president.
MR. KITFIELD: Right. And he ran on that. He made a very big deal, a big issue in his campaign about banning torture and closing Guantanamo within a year. They put a goal in place without a plan, the short answer is, and when they actually looked at the cases of Guantanamo, they were a mess; created political space for his opponents to start creating the impression that they’re feckless on protecting national security. Dick Cheney comes out and gives a really tough speech about the torture memos, et cetera.
And, very quickly, they got on the defensive. Congress started passing bipartisan law after bipartisan law saying you can’t transfer the Guantanamo prisoners to the United States. You can’t let them go. You can’t transfer them to third countries without certain assurances that are almost impossible to give. And the net result was they basically have been on the defensive on Guantanamo, and now it looks like it’s going to be with us in perpetuity.
MS. IFILL: Now, is it – one of those things which is one thing to run on an issue and then you become president and you discover, ah, this is why this is here or is because the Obama administration has aggressively decided that this is a good idea, this idea of heightened interrogation or secrecy?
MR. KITFIELD: Certainly not on heightened interrogation. They were very strong on that in saying, you know, saying that enhanced interrogation was torture and we’re not going to do it and they got a lot of credit from civil libertarians.
But they wouldn’t investigate or prosecute any of the Bush administration officials for those acts, and because they didn’t set that precedent, it’s just an interpretation by the next administration comes in. And you had Republican candidates, like Rick Santorum, say waterboarding was very successful. You had Governor Romney saying that he would increase the detainee population at Guantanamo by doubling it.
And then the administration itself has taken some pretty hard lines: has vastly increased the drone strike targeted killing program to the point where they just claim the right to actually use that against American citizens like al-Awlaki, who was a suspected terrorist – probably a terrorist we can say. So civil libertarians are saying this is not what we expected out of this president, but that’s the new reality.
MR. WILLIAMS: One of the things you write about is the fact that this administration is setting records for prosecutions under the Espionage Act. Did your reporting – did they say why that is?
MR. KITFIELD: Well, the administration says that actually even though they have brought more of these cases than any previous administration, it’s mainly because they now have the ability through digital trails – e-mail, et cetera – to actually find out who the leakers are. And that wasn’t something a lot of previous administrations were able to do.
Civil libertarians are not buying it. They say this administration has been really, really tough on leaks and it’s really angered them because some of those cases involve people who leaked the name of some of the CIA agents who were involved in the enhanced interrogation. So instead of prosecuting the people who did those interrogations and now prosecuting what the civilian libertarians think are the whistleblowers and they’re furious about that.
MS. SIMENDINGER: James, I covered the Bush administration and one of the things I was thinking about when I was reading your article was how the American public has been so accepting, more accepting than I would have imagined initially, with the kinds of tradeoffs that we have made as a society. What does your reporting show about the tradeoffs we all as a civil society were willing to make under two administrations?
MR. KITFIELD: Yes, it’s a really good question. In a war without end – and when you’re in the middle of a war, the American people will give the government great latitude and the executive great power.
When you get a war without end, that sort of never self-corrects itself, so now you find majorities of Americans support torture; the majority of Americans support keeping Guantanamo open. A majority of Americans support the drone strikes even against, in some cases, American citizens who are suspected of terrorism.
So the new reality is that’s sort of the viewpoint of the American people. We’ve sort of gotten into a consciousness that we’re at war and it justifies many powers from the government that we normally wouldn’t put up with.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And that supposedly it’s made us safer?
MR. KITFIELD: Yes. I mean, we haven’t had a major, serious attack on the homeland since 9/11. And it’s also played very well for the president because he’s not – he’s kind of taken away – blunted the Republican’s advantage on national security because this plays well.
MR. DICKERSON: How much of a change will there be if there’s a Republican administration? A lot of people said Barack Obama is not radically different in a lot of these policies than the Bush administration.
MR. KITFIELD: Well, I mean, it’s an interesting point, but certainly the rhetoric during the primaries was pretty strong about – from some quarters of the Republican Party saying you should bring back enhanced interrogations. They work. They’re one of the reasons why we could track down bin Laden. It’s hard to say. Mitt Romney said he would double the detainee population at Guantanamo, which suggests that he’s much more amenable to the idea of starting to send terrorists there again which this administration hasn’t done.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, thank you, James. Thanks everybody else. The conversation has to end here but it will continue online where we tackle the eternal question: do political endorsements matter? You can find that in our “Washington Week Webcast Extra.”
And I answered your questions this week in my monthly web chat. It’s posted at pbs.org/washingtonweek. Keep up with daily developments with me on the NewsHour.
And we’ll see you again right here next week on Washington Week. Goodnight.