Thune, Gillespie and Axelrod on "State of the Union"

Thune, Gillespie and Axelrod on "State of the Union"

By State of the Union - August 12, 2012

CROWLEY: I'm Candy Crowley and this is State of the Union.

The campaign trail is most often a series of mind-numbing days interrupted by the ones you will never forget, the days when you know that one way or another something has changed, and Saturday was one of those days for Mitt Romney.


MITT ROMNEY, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: What works here, what works around the world is free people pursuing their dreams. We want those dreamers here. We can accomplish our dreams.


CROWLEY: Because as much as voters learned about Paul Ryan yesterday, they may have learned more about Romney first and foremost that this most cautious of candidates will take a big risk for the potential of a big payoff.

At first blush this much could be said for the Ryan pick, it appears to have brought home conservatives. Joining us now for a conversation about hat more is Senator John Thune of South Dakota. Senator, thanks for being here. And that really is the first question. We had seen -- has some hesitation, some skepticism, whatever you want to call it by conservatives, who by the way very publicly pushed for Paul Ryan to be the pick. Do you think that this settles conservative doubts or hesitations about Mitt Romney?

SEN. JOHN THUNE, (R) SOUTH DAKOTA: Well, good morning, Candy. What I think it does is it certainly demonstrates that Governor Romney is very serious about doing big things for the country, and wants this campaign to be about the big things, and in a discussion about the future of the country, it is a decisive pick, it's a bold pick as you mentioned. And I congratulate him for it, because I think that Paul Ryan represents the kind of leadership that people in this country are hungry for, and his efforts to not only define the issues that we need to face as we get into the days and the weeks and the months and the years ahead, but also to come up with solutions to those issues, is something that I think that will serve as a great asset to Governor Romney and the campaign.

But it clearly is something that I think conservatives are receptive to. Paul Ryan is viewed favorably out there among the conservatives and as you mentioned there are a number who were encouraging Governor Romney to make a pick like that. And I think Paul Ryan represents everything that conservatives hoped for in terms of a real contrast as we head into the fall campaign.

CROWLEY: Is it not at the same time a pick by Mitt Romney that shows he agrees with some of the critics up to now that have said that Romney thought he could run a campaign based solely on the Obama economy?

THUNE: Well, I think that a lot of us, and many of us who support Governor Romney, believe that this is a referendum on the Obama economy. The Obama economy -- and again to be fair to the president, he inherited a bad economy, but after three-and-a-half years of his policies, things are much, much worse. His policies have made the economy worse. We have 42 now consecutive months of unemployment above 8 percent, 23 million Americans unemployed or underemployed, wages are down, health care costs are up, college tuition costs are up, fuel costs are up. The economy as a whole is really in very, very rough shape. And I think that is something that this president has to own. It is his economy.

But I do believe that Governor Romney in making this pick has said, I'm going to take the game to my opponent. I'm not going to sit back and just run the clock out and hold the ball, I think he's made it very clear that this is going to be a campaign about big issues and about a very different vision, contrasting vision for the future of this country.

So I think it is good for Governor Romney. I think it demonstrates leadership and decisiveness on his part, but more importantly it's good for the country to have this debate.

CROWLEY: Do you agree that there is a risk to this pick when you look to the general electorate, and how would you describe that risk?

THUNE: Well, you know, I think that it is going to be described that way. Obviously, people are going to say that this represents, you know, a direction for the country in picking somebody like Paul Ryan who is very identified with certain policy prescriptions for Social Security and Medicare for example, and people are going to describe it that way, but I don't view it that way at all. I think it is a risk for President Obama to have someone like a ticket like a Romney/Ryan ticket where you have actually laid out definitive solutions and answers to America's problems. This president has kicked the can down the road on every major issue. He's not somebody who has provided the leadership that the country needs to get the economy back on track and get people back to work or to deal with this trajectory that we have right now of year over year trillion dollar deficits.

So I think the risk -- I think this is a bigger risk for the president, because they are going to attack the Romney or the Ryan budget as cutting Medicare, but the president is the only one in this campaign who has cut Medicare to the tune of $700 billion. So I think that there is a considerable risk for the president to have this ticket opposing them in the fall campaign.


On the other hand, you know how elections work. They are not always the best formats for lengthy discussions about line by line bills and what it would and wouldn't do. And if you look at history in terms of candidates who talk about privatization of Social Security, partial privatization, who look at Medicare and say, we have to change the way we are doing business, that is almost certain to be something that will shake up seniors, even as you try to tell them it is not going to affect them, because they are already receiving benefits.

How would you suggest that they approach what is already the criticism that Paul Ryan simply fits in with Mitt Romney's plan to make the middle-class and now add seniors to that, take all of the burden on?

THUNE: Well, I think that you always have the challenge when you are explaining something like that to be able to help people out there, American public, understand, educate them on what is at stake. I think that the biggest risk for the country is doing nothing. That is what ends Medicare as we know it is doing nothing. You have to have a plan to fix it. And I think that Paul Ryan, to his credit, whether you like it or not, has come up with a plan that puts Medicare on a more sustainable fiscal path going forward.


CROWLEY: Do you think it could cost them Florida? THUNE: Now are there going to be independents across the country -- well, I don't think so. I think that frankly if you get out to explain that and people understand. You know they always talk about Florida, but senior citizens, people over the age of 55 are not going to be impacted by this, it's people younger than the age of 55 who would have more options and more choices and greater competition and hopefully more affordable health care in the future.

So I think part of his explaining it, and there is no better person to do that than Paul Ryan. He is the man who best understands these who best understands the budgetary implications of doing nothing as well as laying out a specific plan that will save and strengthen Medicare for the future. So I think that this is a very -- it is really a strong move by Mitt Romney. I think it shows his desire to make this campaign about big things as well as to create a very clear distinction and contrast between someone who wants to fix the problems and face the challenges of the future and someone like President Obama who for three-and-a- half years now not only made the matters worse, but has not laid anything forward in terms of a plan to address these big issues.

CROWLEY: You know, if you could give me a quick answer to the following. One of the big hole in the numbers that we see when you look at Mitt Romney's approval rating is women and minorities. Does the addition of Paul Ryan to the ticket add a thing in terms of attracting either one of those demographics?

THUNE: Well, frankly, I think that most women across the country care like everybody does about the issue, and that's jobs and the economy. So if the Romney/Ryan ticket can articulate a clear vision for how they're going to get the economy growing and expanding again and get people, get Americans back to work, I think that will attract the women voters.

I think right now, people are holding back, their waiting for this fall campaign to get under way, and they are going to have a very clear choice in front of them.

CROWLEY: Senator John Thune, thanks for getting up this morning to join us. We appreciate it.

THUNE: Great to be with you. Thanks, Candy.

CROWLEY: Mitt Romney and Congressman Ryan are in North Carolina this morning getting ready for their first rally of the day. Once it gets going, we will take you there live. In the meantime, Congressman Ryan is widely described as a intellectual type, but he can throw a political punch like this one aimed at President Obama.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RYAN: He's going to divide and distract this country to win an election by default. And you know what, we are not going to fall for that.


CROWLEY: President Obama's senior adviser David Axelrod up next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: Joining me now is David Axelrod, senior adviser to the Obama campaign. David, thank you for joining us.

AXELROD: Sure, Candy. Good to be with you.

CROWLEY: I know that you were with the president yesterday, and on a big day for the Republican ticket. There have also been some sort of famous public scenes, exchanges between the president and Congressman Ryan over health care. The president went to a Republican retreat once and was challenged by Congressman Ryan. What does the president think of him?

AXELROD: Well, I think that he thinks that he is a perfectly genial and bright guy. He just thinks his theory is wrong. I mean, Congressman Ryan is a right-wing ideologue, and that is reflected in the positions that he's taken. You know, the budget that he constructed for the House Republicans that would include trillions of dollars of new tax cuts skewed to the wealthy so that we are giving a millionaire $250,000 tax cuts, while we are cutting college age -- college aid for kids and research and development, and a whole range of things that we need to grow.

He disagrees with Congressman Ryan's idea that we should turn Medicare into a voucher program, shifting thousands of dollars ultimately onto the backs of seniors.

CROWLEY: Let me ask you about the Medicare program.

AXELROD: Disagrees with Congressman Ryan on a woman's right to choose. Congressman Ryan would ban a woman's right to choose, even in cases of rape and incest. So he is quite extreme. Good, good person, you know, genial person, but his views are quite harsh.

CROWLEY: OK, then let me ask you about this a bit. You describe him as extreme, so I want to take you back to a December 15th, "Wall Street Journal" op-ed which the congressman wrote along with Senator Ron Wyden, who is a member of your party, and who is seen certainly as a moderate to liberal Democrat. And the two of them together came up with a plan to help save Medicare, and they wrote, "Our plan would strengthen traditional Medicare by permanently maintaining it as a guaranteed and viable option for all our nation's retirees." So this extreme plan has been signed on to, and one of the authors of it is a member of your own party. So why is that extreme?

AXELROD: Well, I just disagree with Senator Wyden on this, and Congressman Ryan, and so have most of the experts who have looked at this, who have said the way this thing is constructed, that Medicare would be in a death spiral under this plan, and that ultimately it would raise costs on seniors by thousands of dollars.

So, you know, that -- I mean, the truth is, Candy, that this is the second iteration of Congressman Ryan's attempt to do away with Medicare. He did this in the last budget as well, and Newt Gingrich called it right-wing social engineering, and he was right about that. The way -- what we need to do is strengthen Medicare. The president has already lengthened the life of Medicare by eight years. He is going after waste, fraud and abuse. He is promoting better delivery of care, and these are the ways to save Medicare, not by a Trojan horse that ultimately will spell its demise.

CROWLEY: David, you know, waste, fraud and abuse, as you know, is often used sometimes when people need to cut things out of a budget and to look like there's savings. If you could name me the one thing President Obama has done over the course of the first three and half years that you think will save Medicare in the years ahead, knowing that the baby boom is aging, what has he done?

AXELROD: Well, Candy, first of all, you and I should not -- we should leave it to the experts to say that the Congressional Budget Office said what President Obama has done already has added eight years to the life of Medicare. What Romney and Ryan propose --

CROWLEY: Is that sufficient, do you think?

AXELROD: -- would end -- no. We have to do more, and--

CROWLEY: Like what?

AXELROD: -- in the budget he does -- he -- in his budget, he does more in terms of delivery of services and how that is done. He does ask a little more of upper-income seniors. And in terms of waste, fraud and abuse, you are right, people always say it, but this administration has done it. He has increased health care prosecutions, fraud -- health care fraud prosecutions by 75 percent, recovered tens of billions of dollars. That is what we need to do.

Everybody knows that there is a lot of waste there that we can get at, but what we don't want to do is turn it into a bonanza for the insurance companies with the cost of it being borne by senior citizens, and that's what would happen if we followed, if we followed Congressman Ryan's road map.

CROWLEY: Since Romney is at the top of the ticket, as I understand his Medicare proposal right now, Medicare would be one of the choices listed in, along with private plans that would compete with Medicare. Seniors could have their choice, which is not unlike how you all set up health care insurance in the health care bill, so what is so bad about that?

AXELROD: Actually, it is not, because we don't have a public option in the health care bill. But you are taking a system that has fundamentally worked, Medicare, and you are giving people incentives essentially of going to the private health care system. And what is going to happen is the private system will bid and compete for the healthiest, younger seniors, and they are going to leave the sickest and the most needy of seniors in the Medicare program, and it is going to drive costs up for Medicare, and ultimately it is going to destroy the program.

CROWLEY: Let me ask you, turn you just a little bit, and ask you whether you think that this choice by Mitt Romney has shaken up the race, and in what way?

AXELROD: I think it has helped further define the race. I don't think it has shaken up the race, because Governor Romney has embraced many of the positions that Congressman Ryan espouses, extreme as they sound. I mean, he is for the trillions of dollars of tax cuts for millionaires.

You know, Candy, one interesting thing, Congressman Ryan had a proposal in 2010, if you took Governor Romney's tax returns and applied the changes that Congressman Ryan wanted to make to the tax system, Governor Romney would pay less than 1 percent on his taxes. We know he paid 13.9 percent. How is that going to strengthen our country, strengthen the economy, help the middle class? And so you know, I think they are kindred spirits on some of these policies, and certainly on the social issues, they have come together banning abortion and so on.

CROWLEY: Let me--

AXELROD: But I don't think these are mainstream positions in the country.

CROWLEY: Let me show you our latest CNN/ORC poll, the question was, how are things going in the country today? Right now only about 36 percent of Americans think that things are going well, 63 percent think that things are going poorly, so a 7-point drop since April on whether people think the country is going well. What has happened?

AXELROD: Well, the question is, well, look, we have just come through a catastrophic experience that was brought on by policies that, by the way, Congressman Ryan in his role in Congress embraced in whole. The whole Bush economic...

CROWLEY: Wait, wait, but it had been going...

AXELROD: But let's...

CROWLEY: But this had been going to other way, is what I am saying, like before April, we had been seeing an increasing number of people saying, I think things are going fairly well again, better now, all of the sudden, it has dropped?

AXELROD: But we know that we have experienced some headwinds because of Europe and other factors that have slowed our growth some in the last few months and picked up, you know, jobs -- private sector jobs picked up in the last month.

But here's the point, Candy, you are not reading the entire poll. It also shows that the president lengthening his lead. It shows that people have more confidence in him to fight for the middle class and look for solutions that will strengthen our economy in a way that creates broad prosperity.

Governor Romney's negatives have risen there, because people are taking a good hard look at him and his policies and they've made a decision. So that is the rest of your poll and I think it is significant.

CROWLEY: David Axelrod, senior adviser to the Obama campaign, thanks for joining us this morning, David.

AXELROD: All right. Great to be with you, Candy. Thank you.

CROWLEY: In a moment, the view from the other side. We will talk to Romney campaign senior adviser, and former Republican Party Chair Ed Gillespie, right after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) CROWLEY: I'm joined now by Ed Gillespie, he's a senior adviser for the Romney campaign.

Ed, it's good to see you.

GILLESPIE: Good to see you, thank you.

CROWLEY: Big day for the campaign yesterday. We have heard so many people interpret what it meant for the campaign and what it said about Mitt Romney. So why don't you tell us from the inside-out, what was the message you all were trying to send yesterday with this pick?

GILLESPIE: Well, the message was that this is a big election, and it is about big issues, and it needs to be serious. And Governor Romney has been putting forward the Romney plan for a stronger middle class for a long time. Our first ads were about what he would do as president.

And picking Paul Ryan says we are going to choose someone here who has a record of taking on the tough issues, of facing the challenges that we confront as a country and providing solutions and answers to those things.

And I think that it shows that we're not going to, you know, be distracted by some of these little things that the Obama campaign seems to constantly want to be putting out there. We want to talk about the big issue issues facing the country, and I think it was a bold move by Governor Romney.

CROWLEY: That is part of the beauty of this, right, is that you can change the conversation, which had been about, where are your tax returns, it has been about Bain and what the decisions that Bain did or didn't do to folks.

But there has also been this sense that the Romney campaign thought it could go along the whole time going, the economy is bad, the economy is bad, the economy is bad, elect someone else. And that this was a decision that said, I understand, we have got to move this forward.

GILLESPIE: Well, Candy, any presidential election where you have an incumbent president seeking re-election is partly a referendum, it's about what is the performance. And obviously we do have concerns and the country has concerns about the record run of unemployment above 8 percent, about falling incomes, about our debt being downgraded and the massive debt. But we also have, you know, put forward a solution, and Governor Romney has put forward a solution, and the Romney/Ryan ticket now puts forward, you know, big ideas that I think the American people deserve to take into account for an election.

CROWLEY: We got a look at an internal Romney memo from yesterday with -- here are the possible questions you are going to get about this pick, here is how to answer them. One of them was about, do you sign on to the so-called Ryan budget, just his ideas in particular about Medicare, and the Ryan suggestions for that.

And the internal memo said: "Governor Romney applauds Paul Ryan for going in the right direction with his budget, and as president, he will be putting together his own plan for cutting the deficit and putting the budget on a path to balance."

Widely seen as, well, no, we don't actually embrace the Ryan plan. You can't have a guy on your ticket without embracing the fullness of his plan?

GILLESPIE: Well, look, as Governor Romney has made clear, if the Romney -- I'm sorry, if the Ryan budget had come to his desk as president, he would have signed it, of course. And one of the reasons that he chose Paul Ryan was for Congressman Ryan's willingness to put forward innovative solutions in a budget.

At the same time, it is the Romney/Ryan ticket, and as president, President Romney will be putting forward his own budget. But in terms of, for example, the Medicare proposal that Senator Wyden and Congressman Ryan have put together, and the Wyden/Ryan plan, that is something that Governor Romney agrees is an approach we need to take.

We need to save Medicare for future generations, that includes giving an option for people to stay in the current system of Medicare if they choose, or having other options as well, reforms that could save it for future generations.

CROWLEY: And you have heard the Obama campaign argue that this just puts the costs on seniors, it will leave them out there as those premium prices continue to rise. You look at a state like Florida, but there are plenty of other states where senior vote is completely important, you understand, Ed, more than anyone, how this kind of thing is so hard to sell to seniors.

You can say all you want, this does not affect those currently on Medicare, it is not how it comes across. We have already seen commercials on the Ryan plan with him pushing an old woman pushing in a chair off of a cliff.

This is also a third rail, how do you fight that on the campaign trail?

GILLESPIE: Candy, you know, the campaign of hope and change of 2011 has diminished to the campaign of fear and smear in 2012.

We understand that. We understand that they are going to try -- look, the other side has accused Governor Romney of being a felon, they have accused him of being responsible for the tragic death of a woman. They are going to do all kinds of things to try to scare voters.

We believe that voters will look at the facts. The facts by the way, also include...

CROWLEY: Why is it different now, though, because you know so many times -- I mean, I remember during the Mondale campaign as I'm sure you do, that he said, I am going to tell the truth we're going to talk about what we have to do. I'm going to raise taxes. And he lost. So this -- it sounds great, we're going to talk about big ideas and it's a good way to push off some of the stuff that the Obama campaign has gone after you all for, but as a sheer sort of campaign tactic, it seems to me that you all now own as we say the Ryan Plan or are going to have to convince folks that this is not about budget cutting, it's about saving it.

GILLESPIE: Well, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan agree and share a view that we need to make hard choices, and we need to save entitlement programs for future generations. What they are talking about doing, and would actually save Medicare, what the Obama administration has done. One, they raided the Medicare accounts for $716 billion and spent it on the massive increase in government known as Obama care. And two, they are doing nothing to save it for future generations, and Medicare Part A will go bankrupt in 12 years, Candy. And so the fact a is that there is only one ticket that is in favor raiding Medicare to the tune of over $700 billion and allowing it to go bankrupt and another ticket that is for protecting Medicare and saving it for future generations. And that is the Romney/Ryan ticket.

CROWLEY: I want to show you something from our poll. This was taken before Ryan was chosen, at least before we knew he had been chosen. There's some favorables and unfavorables. And what is shows is that the unfavorables have gone up for your candidate from 42 in July to 48 now in where we are now in August. This is a tough number.

Somebody in the campaign once told me, you know, we do need them to like our guy. That hasn't happened. Can you do something to turn that around?

GILLESPIE: Well first of all, of course there have been -- there's been a ton of money spent in the target states by the Obama campaign... CROWLEY: And a ton more left.

GILLESPIE: Governor Romney. We are at a point now where people are starting to pay attention to this race, voters in the middle and the undecideds. I think they're going to see in Mitt Romney someone who is genuinely good person. Over time, people form their own conclusions...

CROWLEY: How? If they haven't so far...

GILLESPIE: Well, I think if you saw him yesterday -- if you saw for example Paul Ryan talking about the governor's record of success in Massachusetts where unemployment went down, household incomes went up, and the credit rating in Massachusetts was upgraded in contrast to the Obama record. When they learn about his success in the private sector helping to create jobs. When they learn what he did in the Olympics to save the Olympics, and when they learn about the kind of family person he is, and those things, I think that the convention will enable us to convey for more of that. But it is worth noting, Candy, that in the process of trying to drive up Governor Romney's negatives that President Obama's negatives went up as well -- when you look at the ballot test, I feel very good about where Governor Romney is today and would much rather play our hand than theirs in this election.

CROWLEY: Next stop, the convention?

GILLESPIE: Next stop -- well, we have a few more stops along the way before the convention.

CROWLEY: You do, but the next big time when folks are looking, what kind of tone do you want to set there? What's the...

GILLESPIE: Oh, I think, you know, we want to make clear we have a plan for the future, that this a future-oriented approach that Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan are putting forth in contrast to kind of the negative campaign. This is a substance-driven campaign versus a fear and smear campaign.

I think the American people are going to see the big choices that are before them and they're going to make the right decisions about what kind of country we want to be and what kind of people we want to be as Paul Ryan said yesterday.

CROWLEY: Ed Gillespie, Republican strategist for the Romney campaign, thanks for being here, Ed.

GILLESPIE: Thanks for having me. 

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