Full Episode: April 20, 2012

Apr. 20, 2012 AT 8 p.m. EDT

Conflicting polls show both Mitt Romney and President Obama leading in November's election. What do the numbers reveal? Plus, a breakdown of the candidates' economic plans. Also, Super PAC numbers, the Secret Service prostitution scandal & the GSA spending scandal. Joining Gwen: Michael Duffy, TIME; Jim Tankersley, National Journal; Jeff Zeleny, New York Times; Jeanne Cummings, Bloomberg News.

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

MS. IFILL: Election 2012, the debate turns to the economy and to who can raise the most money, while Washington focuses on scandal, tonight on Washington Week.

FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R): This is a president that is putting in peril our economic future.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Somebody gave me an education. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth.

MS. IFILL: The economy, where the battle of 2012 will be fought. Mitt Romney narrows the gap with Barack Obama as each campaigns on a single theme: Whom do you trust? And as both sides work overtime to raise big money, $13 million last month for Romney, $53 million for Obama and the Democrats, with more to come.

Meanwhile, the scandal industry is back in full swing, this time involving the Secret Service –

REPRESENTATIVE PETER KING (R-NY): What these 11 agents did put the – potentially puts any president at risk. Puts themselves at risk. Leaves themselves open to blackmail and to threats.

MS. IFILL: – and the General Services Administration.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When you’re wasting taxpayer money, what happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas.

MS. IFILL: Covering the week: Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times, Jim Tankersley of National Journal, Jeanne Cummings of Bloomberg News, and Michael Duffy of Time Magazine.

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, from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL: Good evening. We are experts here in Washington at the fine art of distraction, from dogs to shuttle flybys, which was pretty cool, by the way. But most Americans remain focused like a laser beam, as a certain former president used to say, on the state of the economy. And no matter what you hear, the candidates for president know it and they know where to go to talk about it: the general election battleground state of Ohio.

PRES. OBAMA: Should we settle for an economy where a few people do really well and then a growing number are struggling to get by, or do we build an economy where everybody gets a fair shot and everybody does their fair share and everybody’s playing by the same set of rules?

MR. ROMNEY: Now, as you can tell, we’re in a factory. This factory is empty. It’s owned by National Gypsum. It was closed in 2008 at the beginning of the economic downturn. Had the president’s economic plans worked, President Obama’s plans worked, it’d be open by now.

MS. IFILL: They were both in the Lorain County, Ohio, and I wonder whether it was possible that both of these candidates were speaking to the same set of voters, Jeff.

MR. ZELENY: In fact, they were. And they’re going to be for the next six months or so. And they were both sort of going after these white working class voters, mainly men that we’ve been talking about. But Ohio is going to be one of the central battlegrounds. It’s one of the probably nine, 10, 11 states. In the Romney campaign, it’s one of the four states they believe they’re most critical, but they were trying to essentially just to lay out their arguments.

President Obama is saying that he’s trying to make it an economic fairness argument. He’s trying to say that, look, Governor Romney may not treat you as fairly as you would like. He’s trying to point out without saying so that he’s a wealthy man and he may not relate to you. At the same time, Governor Romney is trying to lay out a competence argument through this, saying, you know, this factory is empty because of President Obama’s policies.

Now, it should be noted that the factory actually closed before President Obama took office. He was still a senator. He was still running for the offices in the Bush administration, but it made clear that they’re going to go back again and again and again to all of the Obama statements that he said in ’08. They handed out copies of the speech that Senator Obama made at that very plant, when he visited in 2008 promising a change in Washington, promising economic revival. And now President Obama owns his record.

MS. IFILL: Jim, when you – both of these candidates tried to make this case. Trust me, I’m the one who can fix the economy. Do the numbers back them up?

MR. TANKERSLEY: Well, the numbers are difficult here, right? Because they each have a record and it’s each subject to how you want to look at it, right? The president has his record that Mitt Romney wants to describe as one of extraordinary job loss or making the recovery worse. And it’s true that jobs are bad right now. We still have 13 million Americans out of work. That’s a ridiculously high number that no one in America should settle for. But the president’s argument is, look, I came in, in the middle of an avalanche down the mountain for payrolls and we’ve recovered. We’ve been adding millions of private payroll jobs. We’ve had steady growth.

MS. IFILL: Including in Ohio, it should be said. I think –

MR. TANKERSLEY: Including in Ohio, where – yes – where the unemployment rates are lower than the national average right now. It’s below 8 percent.

MR. ZELENY: Which is one of the things that President Obama actually has in his favor at this point, and it’s largely because of the auto industry turnaround. Governor Ted Strickland – former Governor Ted Strickland, the Democrat who lost in 2010 because of the high unemployment, he told me earlier this week that, you know, the single campaign message should be Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive. He borrowed that from Vice President Biden. But it is sort of the central thing. So one out of every eight jobs in Ohio is connected to the auto industry, which is actually improving. So it’s why it makes Ohio so interesting, even more so than other areas.

MR. DUFFY: Do you guys see yet any clear sort of a point of disagreement on what to do about the economy? Is there a place where this sort of campaign is going to come down to a choice between one man’s policy on jobs and another?

MR. TANKERSLEY: Here’s what’s fascinating about the debate so far, right. More than half of Americans in most polls say that what they care most about in this election is the economy. But we haven’t really had an economic debate yet. We’re having a debate about a whole bunch of things that are kind of tangentially related to the economy. We’re having a debate about Warren Buffet’s secretary’s tax rate. We’re having a debate about whether Mitt Romney is too rich to relate, whether Barack Obama understands how private enterprise works, and income inequality, all of those things. We’re not having a debate yet over how really to create jobs.

MS. CUMMINGS: Well, when you mention the polls, both of you all have looked at them very carefully, Jeff, in terms of the economy, who has an advantage or do either of them have an advantage on that issue if they haven’t really begun to engage voters on it?

MR. ZELENY: Well, it’s really interesting because in our poll that we had out this week actually a slightly higher number of people had confidence, they say, in Governor Romney’s plan to restore the economy. They say they have confidence in his economic leadership and even as commander-in-chief. So that’s one of the worrying signs here for the president because they don’t know yet enough about Mitt Romney, but they still sort of are choosing someone else other than this incumbent president, which is why, of course, it’s incumbent on this president and his vast campaign apparatus to start defining Mitt Romney and really using a lot of these arguments of economic fairness again, like would he treat you fairly? But more than an economic debate, it’s a tax debate really. And it’s – it hasn’t gotten very specific. The general election’s just beginning, but Mitt Romney begins it in a pretty decent place.

MS. IFILL: Go ahead.

MR. DUFFY: I was going to say, does the government yet have a – I’m sorry –is there a conversation going on yet about whether either man has a economic plan beyond jobs that will solve the question of deficits and debt? Has that debate been joined yet or are we still dancing around the edges there?

MR. TANKERSLEY: We’re going to have a size-of-government debate. It’s going to be a big one, but the question is whether it’s a serious debate over reducing deficits. For example, Governor Romney started the year or started the campaign with a very detailed plan on deficit reduction, but then he added an extra tax cut on top of it, which has made very difficult to call it a real deficit reduction plan. The president has not put forth a large and aggressive deficit reduction plan either, and so I think you could see a major battle on that front.

MS. IFILL: Can we talk a little bit about the fairness argument because the fairness argument seems to be targeted by both campaigns to very specific groups of voters, to women and to white working class voters who did – who’ve only graduated high school, who are not college educated? How does this campaign, once it gets focused on these matters, speak to those groups, because it’s kind of – that’s why we’re neck in neck, right?

MR. ZELENY: No question, it is why we’re neck in neck. And one of the interesting things that came out in our poll I thought was while people see some improvement in the economy; they don’t necessarily see it in their own personal lives and conditions. Four out of 10 parents in our poll said that they have changed their college choices for their children because of this economy. Two-thirds of people say that the – are concerned about paying for their housing. So that’s one of the reasons, just the underlying things, why President Obama could be in some trouble here. I mean, he is in a fight for his life. He knows that, but it’s because of these underlying personal economic conditions. People don’t see the recovery necessarily. And they’re definitely going after, you know, working class voters, largely men.

We always talk about the women’s vote as being pivotal, which it is, because there are more women voting and – but interestingly, that’s an economic debate, too. It’s been sidetracked a lot on contraception and other things. And our poll, it showed that even among women, only 6 percent of women say that they vote on those issues. They’re concerned about the high price of everything, the rising prices. And men are more concerned about deficit.

MS. IFILL: Isn’t that the point Ann Romney has been making, by the way?

MR. ZELENY: She’s been trying to, yes.

MS. IFILL: She’s been trying to make.

MS. CUMMINGS: Jim, I was wondering. There was a Congressional Budget Office report out this week that grabbed some headlines. It was said that the president’s plan would essentially slow down growth. And they didn’t score a Romney plan, but what are we to make of this CBO report and if it were to cast – turn its lens towards the Romney campaign, what would the results be then?

MR. TANKERSLEY: Fascinating difference, I think. First off, the president’s plan, the CBO found would slow growth in the long term, but help it probably in the short term, and that’s because the president wants to do more things like keep payroll taxes low and spend more money on infrastructure than the Republicans do. But the extra debt you accumulate from that slows you down in the long term. That’s sort of classic economic thinking.

Governor Romney’s plan almost does the opposite. If you believe his deficit reduction targets, it’s better long term. It’ll mean less debt holding back the economy, but it’s going to take a lot more of that demand out of the economy right away with more dramatic budget cuts right now. And if that happens, then what CBO’s scoring would suggest is that that’s likely to slow the economy at a time when this recovery is still pretty feeble.

MS. IFILL: Why is it so feeble? I mean, what are the signs – I mean, I feel like there’re some weeks where it feels like, ah, we have turned the corner, and then we begin to get these kind of sub-rosa reports about construction and housing and new housing starts. And it doesn’t ever consistently get on an upward path.

MR. TANKERSLEY: Well, it’s sort of a – it is sort of on a consistent upward path. It’s just not a very steep one.

MS. IFILL: Slow one, yes.

MR. TANKERSLEY: It’s a slow one, sort of a two steps forward, one step back. You can think about it like we keep sort of eating a lot of sugar and then it wears off and we kind of slow down, and eat some sugar and it wears off and we slow down. The problem with this economy is the fundamentals underneath it aren’t very strong still. Housing is terrible. And it’s holding back the recovery in a big way, along with a lot of other just underlying lack of investment, lack of consumer demand. These are things you need to have a really strong, robust recovery.

MS. IFILL: And as a result, Jeff, we come to – my favorite line in your stories – one of your stories this week, in which you said voters feel like they’re choosing between Brussels sprouts and liver, both of which I happen to like, but not everybody.

MR. ZELENY: Not everybody, and people just don’t know. There’re a lot of people who we talked to this week all across Ohio. They say, look, I voted for Obama last time, President Obama last time. I don’t like him. I don’t really get a good feeling for this Romney guy, which is why this is going to – in some ways it’s a big campaign about big things. It’ll also become a small campaign because there aren’t, in some people’s minds, a ton of difference in terms of what they can do for their lives.

MS. IFILL: Thank you, Jeff. Thanks, Jim.

Well, that ka-ching you hear is the sound of candidates tonight counting their money. New reports out today show both President Obama and Governor Romney are racking it in from different sources and spending it, too, on different things. What do the tallies tell us about the state of the campaign, Jeanne?

MS. CUMMINGS: Well, what these latest reports indicate is that Romney is starting from a very deep hole. He really benefits quite a bit that Santorum stepped down because he is well behind the president. The president has – at the end of the last month, beginning of April, he had $104 million in cash. Romney had $10 million in cash.

MS. IFILL: This is what happens when you have a natural primary campaign.

MS. CUMMINGS: Yes, exactly. And so it just shows so that Romney really needed to pivot. Another month of a contested primary, where he would have to turn and start doing fundraising in July, could have been devastating for his campaign. As it is right now, it is a steep climb. He will get assistance, as we all know, from the Super PACs on the outside – Crossroads, the group created with the help of Karl Rove, the former Bush advisor. They’re healthy. They are among the healthiest. They’ve raised $100 million. Unclear how much they’ve really got in the bank because half of their operation is behind the wall. But they are expected to be big players, and they will be big players.

The Super PAC that supports Romney Restore Our Future, that is really interesting to me. They’ve took in $8.5 million, which keeps them ahead of the Republican PACs, but Priorities USA, the little guy that was created to support the president – and the Democrats are having a devil of a time to get anybody to give any money to it – it’s not spending anything. So Restore Our Future, Romney’s PAC, has $6.5 million in the bank and Priorities has $5. So there’s almost parity there because Priorities hasn’t been spending anything and because Romney had a primary fight.

MR. ZELENY: We hear a lot of talk about there’s going to be $1 billion campaign. The Republicans have, in fact, tried to raise money off the fact that President Obama, they say, is going to raise $1 billion. But for the first time, we’ve seen a target on the Romney campaign in terms of how much they want to raise. We’ve heard the number $800 million thrown around.

How do they get to that if they’re at $10 now? What do you make of that number?

MS. CUMMINGS: I’m very dubious of that number. I understand why they said it is a goal. And when you look at it on paper, it can make some sense. Of that $800 billion, they expect $200 billion to come from the Super PACs. That’s probably right. That’ll probably happen. They expect $500 million to come on the candidate’s side of things. And buried in that $500 million is also $300 million from small donors. And that’s when I suddenly stopped because the Romney operation has not invested a cent in small donors. And getting small donors to give at the level that they have for President Obama is just unprecedented. Nobody’s been able to match him. He’s got some kind of magic going on with the little donors.

MS. IFILL: One other thing, he has, I think, a lot of things today online, where $3, it may be you can go to dinner with George Clooney, that I –

MS. CUMMINGS: That helps. That helps. But he raised $35 million – the president, $35 million in March – 52 percent, half, from small donors. Romney raised $13 million, 13 percent from small donors. We’re talking about maybe $1.5 million. That’s how much. They do not have an operation in place and they put that big a target on small donor donations.

MR. TANKERSLEY: Jeanne, from small donors to big donors, one of the big stories of the Republican primaries was the fact that there were sort of these godfathers of spending for Newt Gingrich, for Rick Santorum. Will we expect to see these big financiers of Mitt Romney now going forward or President Obama, will they have big Daddy Warbucks behind them?

MS. CUMMINGS: Well, President Obama – we’re still waiting on those – the Democrats still aren’t giving. He’s got money out of Hollywood, but that’s about it that goes into his Super PAC. As for the Republican millionaires, they’re starting to move and they’re moving to Romney. Those that were supporting other candidates have now said that they intent to shift. Harold Simmons, the Texas billionaire, has already begun to shift. He was with Perry, then Santorum, then Newt. Now, he’s with Romney. So he’s been moving all along.

In the new reports today, in our “Bloomberg Review,” we also found someone unusual, a fellow named Scott DeSano, who is a former Fidelity investor who was under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and was actually fined for $250,000 and was tossed out of his job at Fidelity. So with these big donors sometimes comes risk.

Editors Note : During the Friday, April 20, 2012 Washington Week program, a $400,000 contribution to the pro-Romney committee, Restore Our Future, was attributed to Scott DeSano, a Florida investor. Restore Our Future corrected its Federal Election Committee disclosure reports on April 24 to identify Darlene and Gerald Jordan, of Palm Beach, as the donors of that cash. Read More

MS. IFILL: Okay, well, let’s talk about risk because I’ve come up with a whole new theory about Washington, which is there are four stages of a Washington scandal. There is outrage expressed, heads then roll, investigations are held, and lawsuits are filed. They’re usually about sex and money or both, and that’s what engulfed both the U.S. Secret Service and the General Services Administration this week, where workers on the taxpayer dime allegedly went way, way outside the lines. First, Michael, a brief recap.

MR. DUFFY: I don’t know if we’re at stage three or four or what –

MS. IFILL: I don’t know.

MR. DUFFY: If you’ve ever been frustrated of the government, this has been a fun time. Officials at the General Services Administration, that’s an agency that takes care of office space and other functions, managed to throw nearly a million-dollar conference for themselves outside of Las Vegas, including spending $7,000 on sushi and $3,200 on a mind reader. When that story broke, quickly we had four congressional investigations. About a half dozen officials at the GSA lost their jobs or resigned. And Congress is moving now toward a measure that would cap the cost conferences at $500,000, which certainly is going to make it harder to be a federal contract mind-reader. (Laughter.)

The other story, however, that broke almost as soon as that one had come out and overshadowed it quickly is about how nearly two dozen Secret Service agents, along with as many as perhaps 11 military personnel, hired up to 20, maybe more, female escorts on one night, leading up to the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Columbia, last weekend. Six Secret Service personnel have lost their jobs. Eleven were on administrative relief. And there may be – there’s 11 also in the military may be implicated as well. This story is far more shocking, not only because of the sexual angle, but because of the fact that these men and women are in charge of – the Secret Service are in charge of protecting the president.

MS. IFILL: I think we can say men in this case.

MR. DUFFY: Yes, men in the case, that’s right. Secret Service is not an all-male force. But what’s odd about this is that the shocking story is not the one that has generated the most heat. Reaction on the Secret Service front, though, it has been shocking across the country and Washington has been relatively muted because both parties are reluctant to take on or at least criticize openly an agency that is, you know, essentially a national security arm and responsible for protecting this most important asset of the government.

On the other hand, the GSA story, which is actually predictable by comparison, has generated a great deal of criticism of the agency and the administration’s oversight of it, and also plays into the Republican argument that the president isn’t capable of managing economic resources.

So it’s a little bit of a surprise on both fronts.

MR. ZELENY: Speaking of the argument, a lot of people, a lot of – at least some Republicans did not hold their fire. Senator Jeff Sessions from Alabama, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, she kind of merged the two things and said, that’s what happens when you have the men in charge and things. And she had some – her own sort of connection to this because one of the agents had posted a picture on his Facebook page, I guess. Do you think that that argument has any resonance or salience with voters – that this is the Obama administration’s fault?

MR. DUFFY: Well, I don’t know about fault, but anything that gives the Republicans a chance to sort of direct the spotlight onto even apparent mismanagement or a lack of oversight by this administration is useful because that’s not where the White House wants to be having a conversation, even though it’s bending over backwards not to have the conversation and say we really aren’t talking about it. We’re really not concerned about it. And that this will be handled internally.

So I think that has been effective, but it is – I think those two are kind of a bit of an outlier and hasn’t yet sort of moved into the party yet. Could – even Romney has been relatively muted about it. I think Palin’s line was that the president needs to make – have heads roll at both agencies.

MS. CUMMINGS: I wonder if even though the Secret Service scandal has got most of the attention because it’s shocking and it has sex and it’s – you know – intriguing, but the GSA one, in terms of politics and a campaign year, that one, it seems, could really have some legs.

MR. DUFFY: I think it too, not only because this is a very large agency with offices everywhere. It’s full of patronage jobs, particularly at the local level. But it really does play into this whole larger Republican question of managing public resources, which everybody has been concerned about. Everyone knows the government is in many places bigger than it needs to be. These examples, while amazing to read about, actually, you know, you can sort of multiply them and think everyone’s seen these before. And I –

MS. IFILL: It’s easier to ding bureaucrats.

MR. DUFFY: It is – than it is to ding men who protect the president. So I actually think we’re going to hear, going forward, more about the GSA than we are about the Secret Service.

MR. TANKERSLEY: Can you explain –

MS. IFILL: Quickly.

MR. TANKERSLEY: – very quickly how it is that Secret Service suddenly, for the first time ever, appears to be enmeshed in a scandal that would be better placed in a rap video?

MS. IFILL: We really don’t have a lot of time. Good luck.

MR. DUFFY: There was a dispute the morning after about how much the services that were rendered had been paid for. And so it came very quickly. This is the kind of thing that has to be investigated, I think, to find out how wide spread this behavior is going to be.

MS. IFILL: We’ll see how willing members of Congress are to take on that one, as well as the other. We’ll watch it. Thanks, everyone. We’re done for now, but we have goodies for you online this week, our first Washington Week town hall event, where the panel will talk about the economy with viewers in Cleveland, Ohio, and Portland, Oregon. And next Thursday, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, join me online for my monthly web chat. I’ll take your questions and have a few of my own. You can find it all at pbs.org/washingtonweek. And we’ll see you next week, on Washington Week. Goodnight.


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