Full Episode: March 23, 2012

Mar. 23, 2012 AT 8 p.m. EDT

After the controversial killing of teenager Trayvon Martin, in Florida, national attention focuses on "Stand Your Ground" laws & the local police department. Plus, Mitt Romney wins Illinois but still faces criticism from conservatives. Also, a look at the GOP budget. Joining Gwen: Pierre Thomas, ABC News; Dan Balz, Washington Post; Sam Youngman, Reuters; Naftali Bendavid, Wall Street Journal.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

MS. IFILL : Federal investigators look into the Trayvon Martin case, plus victories and miscues on the campaign trail, and the renewed debate over the size of government, tonight on “Washington Week.”

SYBRINA FULTON : Our son was not committing any crime. Our son is your son.

MS. IFILL : Uproar over the killing of an unarmed Florida teenager reaches Washington.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA : My main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.

MS. IFILL : As protests build, the Justice Department steps in.

On the campaign trail, victories –

FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R) : What a night. Thank you, Illinois, what a night.

MS. IFILL : – and setbacks.

ERIC FEHRNSTROM : It’s almost like an Etch-a-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.

FORMER SENATOR RICK SANTORUM (R-PA) : We might as well stay with what we have instead of taking a risk of what may be the Etch-a-Sketch candidate for the future.

MS. IFILL : Does Romney have a lock on the nomination or is he still a weak frontrunner?

On Capitol Hill, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan once again throws down the gauntlet on the size of the federal budget.

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN (R-WI) : If we simply operate based on political fear, nothing’s ever going to get done.

MS. IFILL : Is this the beginning or the end of an old debate? Covering the week, Pierre Thomas of ABC News, Dan Balz of “The Washington Post,” Sam Youngman of Reuters, and Naftali Bendavid of “The Wall Street 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.”

(Station announcements.)

ANNOUNCER : Once again, live from Washington moderator Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL : Good evening. It started in a quiet gated community in Florida, nearly a month ago. Three weeks later, it exploded online. And tonight, the curious case of the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager at the hands of a neighbor who considered him suspicious, has sparked a national outcry and a federal investigation. This was the president today.

PRES. OBAMA : I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this and that everybody pulls together – federal, state, and local – to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened.

MS. IFILL : George Zimmerman, who admits he shot the teenager, has still not been arrested and the calls of action are now coming from leaders of all races, age, gender, and party. What kind of investigation are we talking about? What the president was talking about today, Pierre?

MR. THOMAS : Gwen, you know, innocent until proven guilty, but the question everyone has is how? How do you end up walking down the street with Skittles and tea and end up dead? And the Justice Department investigation is not going to resolve the murder issue. What they’re looking at is was there a civil rights violation. And the key there is did Mr. Zimmerman have the intent to harm or violate Trayvon’s rights because he was black.

MS. IFILL : It’s an interesting question because all – as the week went along, we all sat there and thought this is a terrible thing, but it’s a terrible thing in Florida. Here, it turns out now, between the Justice Department and the president speaking of today, it turns like – it seems like there is much more writing on it.

MR. THOMAS : Right. And you have two parallel investigations – the Justice Department investigation, you can almost think of it as a backup in case the local and state prosecutors cannot move forward. And there’s a real issue there because of the law involving stand your ground. And there are some complications because of questions about how the police handled the case. They didn’t talk to all the witnesses initially. So there’re some serious questions of can they make a case now? The Justice Department, again, will take this case. FBI is deeply involved. They will look at the 911 tapes. They will listen to his voice. What did he say? Did he give any indication of his intent? A key moment, I’m told, is this moment where the police tell him we don’t need you to do anything more, and he still goes after the young man. So that is going to be a key part of the investigation.

The other aspect is the 911 tapes also reveal him saying something about the young man. Now, that tape is going to get considerable scrutiny because depending on what he said that, again, will get to the intent.

MR. BALZ : Pierre, you mentioned the stand your ground laws. What’s the origin of those? There’re a lot of states that have them. How is that a complicating factor in this?

MR. THOMAS : Well, 20-plus states that have this law – and it is basically put forth by people who want local citizens to have the right to, quote, “stand your ground.” And it was intended to deal with people breaking into your home. In fact, the author of the Florida law has been saying this week that he does not think that this law applies to this circumstance. He said, I meant that law to apply to persons defending themselves when confronted. The question tonight will be a person who’s chasing a young man or following a young man, does that get into a grey area that has not been resolved before?

MR. YOUNGMAN : I’m curious. Gwen mentioned that we’ve really seen this movement grow over the last few days. Do you feel like – how do you quantify or how do you measure the impact of the president getting involved. I know on Tuesday, I asked Governor Romney about this in Chicago. He didn’t have any answer. And today, he came out with a statement. I’m curious. Can you talk about a little bit how the president’s involvement sort of shakes things up?

MR. THOMAS : The president, it seemed like, again, just watching it, as a moment where he was asked a question and you could tell he had thought about it. And what’s happened is that this is such an emotional issue that, particularly in the African-American community, everyone is talking about this. If you know someone who’s African-American, they’re talking about what do you say to your son or to your cousin who might be out there. There are conversations that have been had through the generations that many people thought you shouldn’t have to have in the 21st century that we’re still having.

MR. BENDAVID : It seems like this extraordinary moment in the African-American community, almost reminiscent of some of the things that happened during the Civil Rights era.

MR. THOMAS : Well, again, as I said when we started, you’re walking down the streets. You have Skittles and tea. How do you end up dead?

MS. IFILL : You know, there’s another question, though, because we talk about the stand your own ground laws and the role of the National Rifle Association in getting a lot of these laws on the books. How do we know that this has – that one thing is connected to the other? I guess that’s a key part of what this investigation is about.

MR. THOMAS : As I’ve been studying it this week, it seems to be an evolution. First of all, people wanting to make sure we have a right to bear arms. Then there became – you see a lot of laws about conceal and carry. And then outgrows of that was this notion that stand your ground, protect yourself. Well, now we’re seeing the ramifications in some cases where these laws aren’t as precise as people maybe intended them to be. And now, you have a situation where this man is accused of being a vigilante essentially and killing this boy in cold blood.

MS. IFILL : So who actually handles, then, this investigation? We say that the Feds have stepped in and we’re talking about the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms.

MR. THOMAS : In this case, it’s going to be the FBI. The FBI is a lead investigative agency for civil rights violations and it really – we saw that in the ’50s and ’60s, where the FBI is asked to step in, where in some cases the local community can’t or won’t.

MS. IFILL : Okay, well, we’ll be watching it very closely. The local community, of course, has now forced the police – the police chief to step aside. They’re beginning to revisit all of this and I get the feeling it’s going to continue to boil.

Now, we move on to politics. On paper, Mitt Romney had a good week. With a big win in Illinois, he muted much of last week’s mutterings about a contested convention. He snagged an endorsement from former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and he widened his delegate lead over his nearest challengers. So there was plenty of room for everyone to go off message. His communications director talked about hitting the reset button for the fall campaign. And Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum pounced. So was this much ado about very much or more evidence of enduring weakness on the part of the frontrunner, Dan.

MR. BALZ : Well, it is certainly the latest example of the Romney campaign’s ability to trample on good news. It seems like almost –

MS. IFILL : It’s a skill. They’ve got a real skill.

MR. BALZ : It seems like almost every time they have a good moment, by the next day they’re in the soup in some way. And this was a perfect example of that. I mean, go through the balance sheet that you just laid out. The Illinois victory was a good victory for them. They picked up the endorsement of Jeb Bush. Endorsements don’t mean a lot, but an endorsement from somebody like Jeb Bush, coming at this particular moment, had a psychological impact that gives the Romney campaign and loyalists to the Romney campaign the opportunity to begin to say to everybody it’s time to close this down. It’s time to focus on Barack Obama, not on one another.

But if you look at it from the flip side, he should have won Illinois. I mean, Illinois is set up perfectly for Mitt Romney. It’s a state that is much more partial to moderate Republicans than to deeply conservative Republicans. He runs the risk of losing a state tomorrow, Saturday, in Louisiana. He widened his delegate lead, and yet, nothing happened in that race in Illinois that suggests he’s going to get to the magic number of 1,144 significantly faster than he was before Illinois.

MS. IFILL : Sam you have been kind of nonstop on the road, following this circus. And as you watch this develop, what plan do you see forming in the mind of the frontrunner especially to keep people who – from nipping at his heels?

MR. YOUNGMAN : Well, it’s interesting, my first thought when I heard the Etch-a-Sketch remark was this is the first gaffe of the general election campaign because I felt like, after Tuesday night, everything sort of seemed to be devolving from the rest of the field. The Etch-a-Sketch moment, as better as it was for Romney, I’m not sure it’s doing Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich any favors to be on stage waving this thing until they break.

This is clearly something – this is clearly something that the Romney campaign has thought about. It’s clearly a strategy position that they’ve taken, going in – that they’re planning on making after the nomination’s settled and going into the general with Barack Obama. This makes it a lot more difficult. This puts an image – this to me is what flip flop was in ’04. Flip flop wasn’t flip flop before ’04. It wasn’t the sitcom punch line. It wasn’t what sportscasters were talking about. In ’04, it was pretty new. Flip flops with John Kerry’s face on them. That’s what they were giving out before he went to the convention in New York that year. To me, this is the most – the biggest gaffe so far of the general election.

MS. IFILL : Actually, it seemed the only people happier than Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum about this was Chicago, the Obama campaign in Chicago, which immediately started tweeting, oh, we won’t let you forget this.

MR. BALZ : No and they’ve got a long list of things that they’re not going to let the Romney campaign and Mitt Romney, in particular, forget. They’ve been keeping a chart and we’ve seen some evidence through the DNC of the kinds of things that they intend to go after him on. And I think that they think that in a significant way this limits his ability to maneuver once he becomes a nominee, assuming he does, as everybody does at this point, that this locks him into a situation where you can’t go back if you’ve already suggested that you’re intending to. So he’s moved to the right in order to win the nomination –

MS. IFILL : Which they all do.

MR. BALZ : Which – yes, not surprising. And given where this party is and where Mitt Romney starts, he had to. He is not in total fit with this party. So he had to make those moves. It makes it a lot harder to go back when something like this has been said.

MR. BENDAVID : So given all that, where does the primary fight stand now? In other words, are we any closer to Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich stepping out? And is there any real chance of – if not one of them winning, at least preventing Romney from getting the 1,144 before the convention?

MR. YOUNGMAN : Well, I think the primary fight for all intents and purposes has been settled. It’s just nobody’s told Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich that. And if they have told them that, they’re not listening. It’s going to keep going as long as those guys want to stay in. The most fascinating thing to me about this election cycle is the way the Super PAC is extending the natural lives of candidates who otherwise wouldn’t still be around.

Rick Santorum’s made it very clear. He wants to stay into this to go through Pennsylvania. I could envision a scenario where he thinks he wins on Pennsylvania – he wins Pennsylvania and then exits stage right. I’m not sure he can win Pennsylvania. So as Dan mentioned, they vote in Louisiana tomorrow. It’s looking favorable for Santorum. Maybe he’ll get some more mileage out of that. As for Speaker Gingrich, I don’t know what to tell you, but I’m getting press releases saying that his canceling his trips to the zoo and he’s responding to Robert De Niro’s comments. It’s get a little harder for me to envision him as the nominee.

MS. IFILL : I remember Pat Buchanan winning Louisiana and last I checked he wasn’t President Buchanan.

MR. BALZ : No, but the interesting thing about this race at this point is that there are two grooves that these candidates are now in. Mitt Romney has a coalition of people who make more than $100,000, people who are not evangelical Christians. Rick Santorum has the opposite coalition.

There is a statistic my friend Ron Braunstein I think was the first to point this out, from “National Journal. Rick Santorum has not won any contest where evangelicals make up less than 50 percent of the electorate of the state. And Mitt Romney has not won a state in which evangelicals make up more than 50 percent. But if you go down through the rest of the states, you can see Romney winning a whole series of races in April. And then if Santorum is somewhat alive, Santorum going on a winning streak in May.

MS. IFILL : Pretty bright line.

MR. THOMAS : But Dan, is there any way to stop him from getting to 1,144 before June?

MS. IFILL : Which is the number of delegates you need to clinch a nomination.

MR. BALZ : You know, I think there might be – I mean, I think it’s possible –

MS. IFILL : Okay, walk us through that. How is that possible?

MR. BALZ : Well, the math is hard to do, but the reality is the Romney campaign – I think Sam would confirm this – believes that it will take virtually until the end of the primaries in June for him to get to 1,144, assuming that he’s still got competition. The only way I think he really gets out of that is for him to begin to break away. Now, there was a sign of that in Illinois. He did a little better with some of the groups that he doesn’t do particularly well with. He’s beginning to inch up.

If he had a breakout victory in Wisconsin, which is on April 3rd, you could then begin to see him putting a coalition together in which he would get –he would accumulate delegates faster. But if Santorum decides to stay in the race, and we don’t know whether he will or won’t, and these coalitions continue sort of as they are, it could be hard for him to get there much before the end of the primary.

MR. BENDAVID : So what do these guys want? I mean, if they’re – they’re not exiting at a time that a normal candidate would exit. They just seem determined to stick around – Gingrich, Santorum, and Ron Paul. So what do you think they’re really after here?

MS. IFILL : Well, and could I piggyback on that because it’s really interesting to hear if Santorum goes so far as to say, as he did, and then stepped back from a little bit this week, that anything is better – I mean, Obama is better than Romney essentially. That was a kind of a gaffe.

MR. YOUNGMAN : Yes, without question, and it’s one that the Romney campaign jumped all over. Eric Fehrnstrom’s biggest saving grace this week was that the Republican nomination battle turned into a foodfight, more than it had been before with the Etch-a-Sketch, with Santorum’s comments, and with some of the comments they’ve made just around Trayvon Martin this evening. So you know, look, I don’t know what Speaker – I don’t know what’s motivating Speaker Gingrich or Rick Santorum at this moment. I really don’t.

What I have noticed is interesting is you’ve seen a shift from the Romney campaign. After Super Tuesday, they brought us all in Boston and it was like math class. They sat there and they walked us through how they could win this thing and nobody else can. Now, you’re hearing a change in message. It’s not about we’re going to get the delegates. It’s about it’s time to unite. You heard Ann Romney in Illinois saying it’s time to coalesce. That’s the word she used.

So they’re starting to shift the message with the endorsement of Jeb Bush and make it about let’s not weaken ourselves and lose to President Obama. It’s not about 1,144 as much as it was because they know it’s going to take a long time to get there.

MS. IFILL : Yes, but you know what, if what Dan says is true, which is this divide within the Republican Party, the Jeb Bushs of the world, who represent the establishment portion of the party are not what they need. What they need are the Jim DeMints of the world and Freedom Works and the tea party themed organizations who are giving him kind of a lukewarm, well it could be worse.

MR. BALZ : They’re a step short of an endorsement, but they’re saying better things about him today than they were a few months ago. I mean, to your question, I think for Gingrich – I think Gingrich just in his heart has concluded that the party will not, in the end, go with Romney, and he’s just going to kind of hang around for a while –

MR. THOMAS : You really think he believes that.

MR. BALZ : I think he has believed that. I don’t know if he believes that at this moment. I think for Santorum – Santorum looks at Romney and says – and looks at the Republican Party of today and says this is a misfit. This is a disconnect. There is no reason that Mitt Romney should be the nominee of the party. And I think there’re some Romney people who kind of say it’s pretty surprising that he’s done as well as he has. And so for Santorum, again, because he’s able to keep winning off and on, the incentive is to kind of keep planting the flag for the most conservative side of the party.

MR. YOUNGMAN : That’s why Etch-a-Sketch was such a big moment in Santorum campaign. He feels like he’s been screaming for months that the emperor has no clothes and nobody’s listening. And here was further evidence that in fact the emperor’s naked and still nobody’s listening. So – you know – I do think he wants to stick around until he can prove what he believes is his point that Mitt Romney is not a real conservative.

MS. IFILL : So we have Louisiana on Saturday. We have Pennsylvania coming up down the road. Are there any other key moments we should be watching for to get us to – that will tell us what direction this is going to go and how quickly it might wrap up?

MR. BALZ : Well, I go back to Wisconsin. I mean, Wisconsin is a state – Santorum made a good run in Michigan, fell short, made a better run in Ohio, fell very short but lost that, didn’t have a good week in Illinois, lost that badly. Wisconsin is another opportunity. Wisconsin’s sort of on the border between the states where Santorum has done well – Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri – in the beauty contest and where Romney has beaten him in the big industrial states. So this is a kind of a transitional spot. It doesn’t have the kind of evangelical population, but it has more of a downscale – it’ll have more of a downscale than some of the other states. If Santorum does something surprising there or conversely, if Romney really rules there, then you could probably see an acceleration.

MS. IFILL : Sheboygan, here we come. (Laughter.) Okay.

MR. BALZ : Waukesha.

MS. IFILL : Waukesha, let’s go.

Okay, back to Washington. Paul Ryan wants to save America, at least that’s what the Republican House Budget chairman hopes you take away from his latest effort to get Congress and presidential candidates, too, to focus on the looming budget deficit. Few think his plan will survive the Senate, but Ryan thinks it’s a fight worth having.

REP. RYAN : If I had a dollar for every political consultant that told me don’t touch these programs, don’t touch Medicare, Medicaid, all of these things because the other party, they’re going to run all these negative ads against you and you might lose your election, if I had a dollar for every one of those people, we could probably retire the national debt.

REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI (D-CA) : They want Medicare to wither on the vine, to die, and this is an important step for them in that direction. Bless their hearts, they don't believe in Medicare, and they act upon their beliefs.

MS. IFILL : Naftali, we’ve heard some version of this fight before, but Ryan is clearly trying to accomplish the same thing in a slightly different way this time. What is that?

MR. BENDAVID : Well, you know, last time, it wasn’t an election year. And I think what he’s clearly trying to do now is insert this plan into the national debate and more specifically into the Republican presidential campaign. He was very clear when he rolled it out. We still have this muddle, as we’ve just been discussing, in the Republican presidential nominee – nomination fight. We don’t have a nominee. But we also do have a coherent, unified message. And he’s kind of stepping up. I think he sees himself a little bit as – if not the leader of the opposition, a leader of the opposition, and saying, this is what Republicans are about: slashing spending, slashing taxes, and really taking another look, and overhauling Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security.

MS. IFILL : Overhauling Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, so easy to do. (Laughter.) That usually gets great support. Once again, what’s different this time?

MR. BENDAVID : Well, you know, the Democrats immediately are jumping on that and they hope basically that nothing’s different. I mean, they want to do exactly what they did last time, which is make Medicare, in particular, this huge issue. Now, the thing that Ryan is doing a little differently is he’s introducing a very specific – well, I shouldn’t say that – it’s a moderately specific tax change, where there’ll be two brackets, a 25 percent and a 10 percent bracket. He hopes that that’s clear, understandable, a message that the American public can latch on to. So while the Democrats are talking about the Medicare part of the plan, he’s going to be talking about the tax cut part of the plan.

MR. YOUNGMAN : I wonder, we heard Paul Ryan say that all these political consultants, the trillions of them that he’s spoken with – (laughter) – they say it might cost him an election. Well, he’s not the only one running, of course. What’s the risk? Is it the same as it was last year, the risk of getting involved with something that has such dramatic cuts or changes to entitlement programs?

MR. BENDAVID : I mean, I think there is a risk. The public really does like Social Security and Medicare, Medicaid perhaps a little bit less, but these are sort of cherished programs and we’ve seen that since the first Ryan budget and I think we’re going to see it again. It’s interesting the balance that the Republican candidates are trying to strike. I mean, you don’t lightly, in the Republican Party, either criticize or distance yourself from Paul Ryan. Newt Gingrich found that out, when he was critical of a previous Ryan budget. But at the same time, they don’t want to embrace it too enthusiastically because in a general election there’s a lot of aspects of it that might be a bit controversial. So you’re seeing them basically walk this line, where they’re supportive of the Ryan budget, but they’re not embracing it too loudly.

MR. THOMAS : What does Mr. Ryan expect to get out of it? What’s his goal?

MR. BENDAVID : Well, you know, again, he was fairly clear that he doesn’t think this is going to become law right away. He wants to put out there what he thinks is a contrast with the Democrats and that this is an issue that Republicans can run on. Of course, Democrats think it’s an issue they can run on at the same time. But in terms of Ryan’s future, I mean that’s a question that comes up alike. He’s this young, charismatic, smart guy, and he’s had opportunities to run for Senate. He’s had opportunities to run for House leadership. He’s turned them down. But I think he sees himself sort of as the conscience of the party, if you will, you know.

MS. IFILL : And certainly, the last time that he was attacked by a national figure was when Newt Gingrich talked about this being a social – right-wing social engineering, and that didn’t go so well for Gingrich, not for Ryan.

MR. BENDAVID : Absolutely. He’s really become this revered figure, I think it’s fair to say, within the Republican Party. Now, among independents and at the national level, it’s a little bit of a mixed impression, I think you would say. But the way he talks – it’s almost like a prophet. He talks about the decline and the doom and the despair that we’re really destined to have if we follow the Democratic path and the hope and prosperity and growth that we’re going to have if we follow the Republican path. And I think he’s more comfortable talking in those kinds of almost apocalyptic, sweeping terms than he is with the nitty-gritty of being an actual party leader like John Boehner.

MR. BALZ : One of the reactions this week to the Ryan plan was that it disrupts or it violates the budget agreement of last year. What will this do to the budget talks themselves? How will this –

MS. IFILL : You’ve got to do it really quickly, got to answer this question really quickly.

MR. BENDAVID : Well, I think the short answer is that it raises the possibility, at least, of another government shutdown threat coming up right before the election, which is something that I don’t think either party looks forward to.

MS. IFILL : Okay, another government shutdown threat. Thank you, Naftali and thank you, everybody else. Conversation has to end here, but it continues online, later on in our Webcast Extra, where we’ll explain why both Democrats and Republicans think Ryan’s plan can only help them. Check us out at pbs.org/washingtonweek. Keep up with daily developments on air and online at the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you again around the table right here, next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.


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