GWEN IFILL: This guy turned us down, so the rest of us are going to talk about the big debate and today’s big jobs numbers tonight, on “Washington Week.”
MITT ROMNEY (REPUBLICAN NOMINEE FOR PRESIDENT): (From tape.) The president has a view very similar to the view he had when he ran four years ago, that a bigger government, spending more, taxing more, regulating more, if you will, trickle down government would work.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) Governor Romney has a perspective that says if we cut taxes, skew towards the wealthy, and roll back regulations that we’ll be better off.
MS. IFILL: Ninety minutes later, even Democrats gave the debate win to Romney. But after the dust settled, what was true and what wasn’t?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) It is not possible to come up with enough deductions and loopholes that only affect high income individuals to avoid either raising the deficit or burdening the middle class. It’s math. It’s arithmetic.
MR. ROMNEY: (From tape.) Let me repeat. Let me repeat what I said. I’m not in favor of a $5 trillion tax cut. That’s not my plan. My plan is not to put in place any tax cut that will add to the deficit.
MS. IFILL: And will today’s improved jobs numbers change the political calculus once again?
Covering the week: Peter Baker of The New York Times, Dan Balz of The Washington Post, Jeanne Cummings of Bloomberg News, and John Dickerson of Slate Magazine and CBS News.
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. The first debate is behind us and the presidential race is tighter than ever. For different reasons, both candidates returned to the campaign trail this week with renewed vigor.
MR. ROMNEY: (From tape.) You may know that a couple of nights ago, we had a debate. You may have got the chance to hear it. So I got the chance to ask the president some questions like people – I think people across the country wanted to ask the question, such as why it was that when America was needing jobs so badly, he was pushing for ObamaCare instead of working to get jobs to the American people.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) My opponent, you know, has been trying to do a two-step and reposition and got an extreme makeover. Governor Romney plans to let Wall Street run wild again, but he’s going to bring down the hammer on Sesame Street. It makes perfect sense.
MS. IFILL: This morning, the president got some much longed for good news on the jobs’ front, as the unemployment rate dropped from 8.1 to 7.8, news so good that some Romney supporters even suggested the numbers must be cooked. But he who gets the blame also gets the credit. Let’s start with the debate. We’ll walk you through some of the numbers you heard and some that you didn’t to explain where the election stands tonight. First number, that 7.8 percent, this is how the candidates responded to that today.
MR. ROMNEY: (From tape.) So it looks like unemployment’s getting better, but the truth is if the same share of people were participating in the workforce today as on the day the president got elected, our unemployment rate would be around 11 percent. That’s the real reality of what’s happening out there.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) Today’s news should give us some encouragement. It shouldn’t be an excuse for the other side to try to talk down the economy just to try to score a few political points.
MS. IFILL: On balance, 34 days out, what is the bigger deal, the better – the worse deal, a bad debate or a good job number, Dan?
DAN BALZ: Well, if President Obama can turn around perceptions about the economy, that ultimately will be a bigger deal. Incumbent presidents have suffered through bad first debates and been able to bounce back. If you have a really lousy economy, it’s tough to go against that. The interesting thing is that the Obama campaign for months, as they’ve gotten one week job number after another, have always discounted the unemployment rate number. They say most people don’t pay that close attention to it. So I think today they want people to look at that and they want people to think that we’ve gone through at least a psychological barrier.
There’s been some evidence since the conventions that people do feel a little better about the economy and that has been – that was helping President Obama until the Denver debate. And so we’re now in a period in which this race is, as you say, tight and very much influx.
MS. IFILL: Jeanne, let’s talk about the trend lines. The president can still claim 30 months – now 31 months of uninterrupted job growth, but Mitt Romney just made that point about how if different things were true, this would actually be 11 percent. Does he have a point?
JEANNE CUMMINGS: Well, you can take statistics and play with them all you want. Yes, if you – if people weren’t leaving, if people weren’t dropping out of the job search process, then there would be more people in it. Okay, but what’s important is the number. And the number is good for Obama in the psychological way and also if you look historically. What we’ve just been through in the past year is one of the – the changes are tiny, but one of the longest declines in the unemployment rate since 1984. And so that’s a very good trend for the president.
And public opinion polls have been sending these mixed signals. The most recent Wall Street Journal poll had the wrong track number, you know, sky high, 60 percent. But of those who felt like the economy was improving and would continue to get better was like 54 percent. So something has been going on out there in the minds of the public in terms of their perception of the economy, and this gives him one more reason to at least stay in that direction.
MS. IFILL: Now – if there had not been a debate that occurred on Wednesday, perhaps what these numbers would have seem like it was ceiling things off, that this election was over, because that was the trend line that we were on. Romney was having bad week after bad week. Then he had a spectacularly good night. Does that change everything, John?
JOHN DICKERSON: Well, there’re some important things that it definitely, definitely changes. First is that Republicans. In that clip you showed, they were just waiting to roar. I mean, he could have been reading names from the phone book and they would have gone crazy. Now, remember how Republicans have responded to him before. Remember how hard it was in the primaries. People would grudgingly talk about their support for him. Now, they love Mitt Romney. Why do they love him? Because they went into a debate and behaved like the person they used to be worried about, which is to say he was much more moderate in the debate. And that’s what they used to – remember, Newt Gingrich used to say he’s a Massachusetts moderate, and that was supposed to be the great pejorative in the primaries. Well, he was a more moderate fellow in these debates, both in temperament and in also the things he would support and talk about the details of that. But they loved that he used that to beat up on the president. He also did a number of other things well. So that worked well for him.
In these insta-polls that came out of people who watched the debate, undecided voters – we have to be careful about relying on these too much – but when CNN and CBS did polls and a couple of other focus groups, Romney won decisively over the president and both Romney won decisively and also the president lost decisively.
MS. IFILL: Well, that’s where I was going. It was just, Peter, that Romney won, that Romney showed up, is that so many Democrats were very unhappy that the president didn’t.
PETER BAKER: Exactly. Some of the harshest reviews of the president weren’t from Republicans. It was actually from Democrats. They were very disappointed that he didn’t take the fight to Mitt Romney as they saw it - that he didn’t, in fact, raise all of the issues that his campaign has been raising for months, really beating down on Romney on Bain Capital, on outsourcing, on the 47 percent video, on his taxes, none of which the president brought up in the debate.
Now, what his people will tell you is, in some ways, they had expected that to come up as part of the moderators’ questions or what have you. The president didn’t want to look too cutting. That might turn off swing voters. I think they didn’t anticipate with just how much it would turn off their own supporters in terms of their disillusionment about how he performed.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about one of those numbers, the 47 percent, the famous 47 percent, secret video, Mitt Romney saying he didn’t really need to worry about those 47 percent who were victims, who were depending on government subsidies. He didn’t respond to that. He wasn’t asked about it. Barack Obama didn’t bring it up, but the next day, he – in an interview with Sean Hannity at Fox News, this is what he said.
MR. ROMNEY: (From tape.) Well, clearly in a campaign with hundreds if not thousands of speeches and questions and answers sessions, now and then you’re going to say something that doesn’t come out right. In this case, I said something that’s just completely wrong.
MS. IFILL: Now, completely wrong is not the same as inelegantly stated, which is what he said at first. Was that what he was prepared to say at the debate, but it just never came out?
MS. CUMMINGS: I think so and I think in some ways it was a loss to Romney that he didn’t get the question because he was so ready for it. They had made sure – they had telegraph that among a few other things beforehand that he was ready and prepared to take that question. And I think that they would have loved to have done it in front of 67 million people who were watching that debate to be able to sign clear that off of their plate because it has done so much damage to his campaign.
MS. IFILL: You know, another number which I think if you were just an average viewer who weren’t watching this very closely that you would leave a little confused about was the $5 trillion dispute. What is true, Dan, about whether Mitt Romney’s plan would cut $5 trillion?
MR. BALZ: Well, as you say, if you watch that debate, you would have no idea what’s true.
MS. IFILL: Ways – $5 trillion in taxes – even I get confused.
MR. BALZ: Well, he wants to cut tax rates a significant amount, and the estimate of what the value of those tax cuts would be is $5 trillion. What he is trying to say is that he would make up for a lot of that revenue because he’s not going to – he wants a revenue neutral – by eliminating deductions and loopholes and tax expenditures and corporate welfare and things like that. But he has never described in any detail that other piece of it. And he didn’t at the debate and the president - all the president did basically was say your math doesn’t add up, but never forced him to answer that question. Well, if the $5 trillion isn’t your plan, what is your plan? And that – I suspect we’re going to hear more about that in the subsequent debates.
MR. DICKERSON: A lot of people have keyed on this and said that Governor Romney wasn’t telling the truth when he said his plan doesn’t add up to $5 trillion. I think it’s important here to jump on what Dan is saying, which is it’s not an untruth. What it is is a tremendous lack of detail on Romney’s part. What he’s saying essentially is I’m going to lose 10 pounds and I’m going to eat this 12-pound cake. Now, he may be able to do that. It would be extraordinary and we’d love to know how he’s going to do that and that’s the thing he’s not saying, is how this is going to work out and that’s why when people press him on the question what loopholes are you going to cut, he never gives an answer. And it means there’s just a lot of how you’re going to do this.
The other way a lot of that $5 trillion would be made up is through economic growth. And this is, of course, an ideological battle longstanding between the parties. Democrats think the tax cuts reduce the deficit. Romney and Republicans believe that economic activity will create growth, which will create more tax revenue. That’s an old fashioned philosophical debate. But the clip you showed from the president was the one him saying basically how do you make this all add up.
MS. IFILL: Well, it should be said. He says he’s going to make some of it add up by cutting PBS, which of course is one one-hundredth of the federal government’s budget, so it’s – that is another – that was a piece of specific –
MR. DICKERSON: The only thing – yes – (laughter) – the president was specific too about a $90 million break. In other words, the things they’re being specific about are so small you need magnifying glass to find them.
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, I think some of this is defying plan. I think that’s really where it might come down to because when the president talks about $5 trillion, he’s talking about five tax breaks that Romney has already promised. So it’s the estate tax plus AMT plus keeping Bush plus lowering rates plus cutting the capital gains taxes. You put them all together, they add up to $5 trillion. But in Romney’s mind, his plan may be just saving the Bush tax cuts or one of these five. I think it could be a matter of semantics.
MR. BAKER: What Obama’s done here is he’s latched on to a study that says that because the math doesn’t add up according to the experts, therefore what Romney’s going to do is raise taxes on the middle class. And he goes around saying this and there’s been ads as if that was actually Romney’s intent. That’s not Romney’s intent. He made that clear in the debate. And so for the first time Romney got a chance, I think, in a large television audience, to dispute that and say the president is the one who’s not telling the truth because he’s implying I’m going to do something I’m not going to do, I don’t want to do, and if it would come to it, I would never do that.
MR. DICKERSON: And one important thing, last week, the Romney advisers started to say we’ve got two goals, one is deficit reduction and one is tax cuts. If tax cuts gets in the way, we want to do deficit reduction. So those tax cuts actually may get a lot, lot smaller.
MS. IFILL: But there’s another number, $716 million, which, if you didn’t – if you don’t follow it the way we do, you didn’t know that both sides are talking about a chunk of $716 million to deal with Medicare, but it’s coming from different places and going to different places, and therefore, they kind of ended up at a draw.
MR. BAKER: Yes, that’s – from the president’s health care plan, in order to fund it, but one of the things that they did was to assume savings over 10 years of $716 billion from Medicare. Mitt Romney obviously calls that a cut in Medicare, as if it was a cut to beneficiaries. It’s not meant to be a cut to beneficiaries. It’s meant to come from providers. However, what Romney was saying is also a fair point, which is if you take that much from providers, some of them are going to stop taking Medicare patients. It’s not that Medicare patients wouldn’t necessarily see some impact.
Now, the trick for him is that Paul Ryan, his running mate, had a budget plan that also assumed to save the same $716 billion –
MS. IFILL: And I believe Romney’s answer to that was, hey, I’m the candidate.
MR. BAKER: I’m the boss. We’re not going to do that. I’m going to put that money back into Medicare.
MS. IFILL: Okay. So let’s talk about the expectations game because going into these debates, we’re all probably guilty of being – setting the expectations bar somewhere. And the expectations bar was pretty high for President Obama, which is why when he fell short, there was such widespread disappointment among his supporters. I think the polls before showed him like 51 percent thought that he was going to win, 29 percent thought Romney was going to win. So compare this to previous incumbents. Was it an incumbent’s curse at the first debate that he was bit by?
MR. BALZ: I think there’s some of that, Gwen, but I think that in contrast to some of those previous cases where an incumbent had problem in the first debate –
MS. IFILL: Like –
MR. BALZ: Ronald Reagan, in 1984, lost his train of thought in his closing statement and it gave rise to questions about –
MS. IFILL: The Pacific Coast Highway.
MR. BALZ: Right. He lost his way on the Pacific Coast Highway and it gave rise to questions about was he too old? And he was able to come back from that –
MS. IFILL: But he came back by saying I won’t take advantage of my opponent’s youth and experience in the second debate.
MR. BALZ: In the second debate. This was a case that I thought from start to finish Governor Romney was the dominant character in the debate. He was much more forceful and so in that sense I thought it was a much more decisive case of somebody winning and somebody losing than in some of these previous –
MR. BAKER: It wasn’t a single moment. There wasn’t that sort of memorable –
MR. BALZ: Right.
MR. BAKER: – you know, Jack Kennedy kind of put down. It was in fact, as you say, a very strong substantive debate. Actually, the president, the answer this is a terrific debate, he might not have thought – (laughter) – later when he got the reviews –
MS. IFILL: When he actually walked off the stage.
MR. DICKERSON: You see how sustained – how sustained the quality of Romney’s evening was. If you look at his opening statement, he touched all the things he needed to. He talked about voters in Ohio and Nevada. So looking – I feel your pain – that part –
MS. IFILL: Told stories –
MR. DICKERSON: – told stories. He did the five things that he’s running on. He talked about the president’s path respectfully, but aggressively said it wasn’t going in the right direction. He did all the things he needed to do just in his opening statement. Then 90 minutes later, after a good cut and thrust between the two of them, he delivered a nearly flawless closing argument as if he were reading from a teleprompter – he wasn’t – and so he was able to do that at the end, after a rather long night. The president’s closing argument was meandering.
MS. CUMMINGS: I don’t think it was all loss for the president. I agree with everything that’s been said about Governor Romney. He had a great night.
MS. IFILL: He came to play.
MS. CUMMINGS: That’s right. He practiced. He took time off the road. It paid off for him big time and I think the biggest thing he did for himself is what John mentioned earlier: He solidified that base, and boy did he have to do that because they were ready to start moving money to Senate races. But the question –
MS. IFILL: And he closed that likeability gap probably for a lot of people who had never looked at him very closely.
MS. CUMMINGS: But what the president did was he did do some subtle things. And when you think about who were the persuadable voters out there, he spoke to them. And so while Romney was on a lot of defense, the president was mentioning hiring teachers. The president was talking about preexisting conditions. The president was talking about Pell Grants. He’s talking to the swing voters. So it wasn’t a total loss for him.
MS. IFILL: Here’s what the president was not talking about, the gender wars that we had been talking – covering – spilling so much ink on, immigration, gay marriage or gay rights, the housing bubble collapse, the auto bailout, which he alluded to a couple of times, but didn’t take the credit. It seemed like there were lots of missed opportunities for talking about what he had done and what he would do.
MR. BAKER: Well, here is another missed opportunity. He was asked what is the difference between you two on Social Security, a very big hot button issue, and in fact it’s not been a big issue in this campaign so far, and he said, there really isn’t that big a difference. He missed an opportunity to say, well, actually, Governor Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, has a plan to have – divert some payroll taxes into investment accounts and make a big case of that. He’s now taken that issue off the table in effect.
MR. BALZ: Gwen, two points. One is – one of the reasons that incumbent presidents in their first debates have trouble is because they have not been subjected to the kind of close in combat that you see in the debate. When you’re president, you’re surrounded by people who basically tell you you’re doing really well. And there’ve been any number of instances, where you hear about debate prep of an incumbent president not going very well because the person who’s playing the opponent just pummels them and they respond badly to that.
MS. IFILL: Is it because he’s busy being president? Is that any part of it?
MR. BALZ: Well, there may be – and one of his campaign people said that - that he had not had much time to prepare because of –
MS. IFILL: We thought they were lowering expectations – it turns out – (laughter) – they were right on the mark.
MR. BALZ: But the other quick point is Governor Romney left a lot on the table that is going to come back in the subsequent debates and it will be litigated in a much more fierce way than it was on Wednesday night in Denver.
MR. BAKER: And the third debate is going to matter more than the first debate. It’s the last one people will see before they go into the voting booth, although there is early voting, which is a fair point, but by this point a month from now we may not be talking about this.
MR. DICKERSON: To Dan’s point about what was left on the table, you had not only the lack of specificity, and so that this then becomes a question of who do you trust. The budget’s going to have to be cut. They both believe that. Hard choices are going to have to be made. They both believe that, although they don’t really talk about it much. But so the question is then who do you trust when those hard choices have to be made. And the president talked about Governor Romney’s secret plans and how he wasn’t giving any specificity. Well that notion of secrecy is something that showed up in focus groups. It’s why when they talk about Governor Romney not releasing his tax returns that –
MS. IFILL: Which didn’t come up, by the way.
MR. DICKERSON: Which didn’t come up at all, but that’s something that voters wonder about. What’s Governor Romney hiding is the argument that the Democrats want to be talking about.
MS. CUMMINGS: And if the president had one good line in the debate, it was on that issue where he basically said if Mitt Romney’s plan, tax plan, and his health care plan is so great for the middle class, why don’t we know about it? Why is he kept secret?
MS. IFILL: But did Romney in the end earn the second look he needed? He was on the precipice of a very bad storyline forming about the direction of his campaign. Did he get the second look he needed?
MR. BALZ: I think he certainly did. I think if – let’s say if the debate had gone the other way, what would we be talking about tonight? We’d be talking about how it’s virtually impossible for Governor Romney to win. Instead, we’re talking about how the polls are tight. He outperformed the president. He got a second look.
You know, we’re still 30 odd days away and there’s a lot that can happen. But there’s no question that he did everything he needed to do in that debate and probably –
MS. CUMMINGS: And he held that base because that base was about to run.
MS. IFILL: Or stay home.
MS. CUMMINGS: The money was on the verge of moving. The talk in town – people, Republicans were all over his campaign with criticism and when there was a focus group done by a Democrats, Stan Greenberg, and he found that some independents or some people on the fence moved, they were the leaning Republicans and they moved. He brought his base together and got himself back in the game. That’s a really big deal for them.
MR. BAKER: Actually there’re two numbers. We’re doing numbers tonight, right?
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. BAKER: The number of people who watched this debate was roughly 70 million people, more than watched McCain and Obama four years ago, ironically as storied as that race seemed to be. And the number of people who actually watched the Republican convention, who watched Mitt Romney give his speech was around 20-some million. So the difference between those numbers tells you this is a very big event, much bigger than the conventions that we spent so much time talking about.
MS. IFILL: And way more than were able to watch the president the day following the debate when he seemed to get his voice back on the stump and people watching, Democrats watching it said, who’s that guy? Where was he last night?
MR. BAKER: His line was who was Mitt Romney last night is a different – I don’t recognize Mitt Romney, but in fact you also didn’t recognize the Barack Obama.
MS. IFILL: Exactly, exactly.
MR. DICKERSON: You know, Mitt Romney had two jobs on that debate and this is why – another reason why he had such a good night is he had to be aggressive with the president and he also had to remain likeable, again, in looking at those insta-polls.
MS. IFILL: It’s a temperament issue.
MR. DICKERSON: It was a temperament issue which – and they’re in conflict because when you’re being aggressive, you may not be that attractive. And that in fact was something the president was worried about. He didn’t want to be aggressive and lose his high likeability, the fact that people like him. So in these insta-polls, in one of them, in the CBS one, Romney’s number in terms of do you care about a person like me was 30 before the debate. After the debate, it was in the 60s. So he made up ground while he was being aggressive, prosecuting the case against the president. He made up ground with undecided voters on this key question of do you care about me. The reason Romney’s folks think that is so key is that there is this pool of Obama 2008 voters –
MS. IFILL: The disappointed ones.
MR. DICKERSON: – disappointed with Obama, but not ready to hand the reins over to Romney yet because they aren’t quite sure about him. Well, if they start to think he cares about them from a performance like this and if he can match that with behavior over the next 30 some odd days, then that’s a combination they think gets him to the way.
MS. IFILL: Is it fair to assume that they’re all sitting somewhere in dark, windowless rooms this weekend, crunching those very numbers and trying to figure out what to do next on both sides?
MR. BALZ: Well, I think they – I think from the moment that debate endued, and particularly on the president’s side, they were trying to figure out what do we do next in the debate. We’ll have the vice presidential debate next week, which will be very interesting because there’ll be a question of does Paul Ryan defend his plan or does he say, no, Governor Romney is the nominee, not me. You can’t talk about my plan. You have to talk about his plan. That debate will be very interesting.
MS. IFILL: Okay, well, we’ll be watching all of it. Thank you, everyone. The conversation has to end here on air, but it’ll continue online in our “Washington Week” Webcast Extra. Find us still talking at pbs.org/Washingtonweek. Keep up with daily developments over at the PBS “NewsHour,” including live coverage of next Thursday’s vice presidential debate moderated by our pal, Martha Raddatz. And we’ll see you again right here next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.