MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up: The designers are sending their creations down the runway at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York City. And just in case your invitations to some of those big-name shows got lost in the mail, we will bring the runway to you. We'll talk with a reporter who's in the mix to tell us what's hot and what's not. That's later in the program.
But first we want to talk about what's hot on the campaign trail. The conventions are over, and the polls still show a very tight race. We've called upon two seasoned political operatives to help us understand what's happening now and what we're likely to see in the next few weeks.
Ron Christie's a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. He's now the president of Christie Strategies. That's a media and political strategy firm. Also with us, Anita Dunn. She is the former White House Communications director for President Obama. She's a managing director at the strategic communications firm SKDKnickerbocker.
Thank you both so much for joining us.
RON CHRISTIE: Always a pleasure.
ANITA DUNN: Thank you for having us on today.
MARTIN: So let's start with some good news for President Obama. Both Gallup and Rasmussen reports show President Obama leading the horse race. Now, you could argue this is - I mean, it's still very tight. It's beyond the margin or error, but it's still very tight. But Ron Christie, I have to ask, you know, Mitt Romney did not see the same bump coming out of his convention. And those unemployment numbers on Friday - disappointing. So what's the analysis? I know you're not speaking for the Romney campaign, but what's your analysis of why this is, given those factors?
CHRISTIE: Well, I think, Michel, he's exactly where he needs to be right now. Governor Romney needed to introduce himself to the American people. For the last several months, you've heard pro-Obama groups, superPACs, the president himself trying to define Mitt Romney as rich, out of touch and an elitist who really can't lead America forward.
I think what Governor Romney needed to do, and I think what he succeeded in doing, was giving a different narrative, giving a different side of himself. And now, as we have 57 days to go before the election, I think the debates coming up on October 3rd are really going to be the defining critical issues and the factors that are going to decide who's going to be the next president of the United States.
MARTIN: Anita Dunn, it's been well established that President Obama wins on likeability. Is that enough? And how do Democrats address this criticism that the president didn't offer anything new?
DUNN: Well, you know, I don't think likeability is enough, but I think trust and who can really lead this country forward in a path where we rebuild a vital middle class is important. And I think that that's what people who listened to President Obama's speech, who have been following the campaign and who watched the Democratic Convention heard very clearly, which is that this is a president who clearly believes that the way forward for this country is to invest in our middle class and that our economy is built on a strong middle class.
And that is a strong contrast with Governor Romney's view. I don't think, at the end of the day, this is a personality contest. But I think it is a trust contest, a trust contest about who do you trust to really look out for middle class families in this country, and that voters are comparing the two.
You know, Ron mentioned the October 3rd debate. It is going to be the next opportunity and a good opportunity for voters to see them side-by-side. And in an election year with as much noise and clutter and spending as this one, I think that those debates take on even more importance, Michel.
MARTIN: You know, Ron, you mentioned that this was an opportunity for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to rebut some of the criticisms that the Democrats have been leveling, you know, at them. One of the criticisms is that the Romney-Ryan ticket has been very vague about how they'd pay for their proposed tax cuts.
Now, here's Paul Ryan on ABC's "This Week" addressing that. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK")
PAUL RYAN: High-income earners use most of the loopholes. That means they can shelter their income from taxation. But if you take those loopholes, those tax shelters away from high-income earners, more of their income is subject to taxation, and that allows us to lower tax rates on everybody.
MARTIN: But, Ron, as you know, the criticism is still that these - that they're still not being very specific about which loopholes they would close. And is that problem, particularly given that Mitt Romney still hasn't made his own taxes available for scrutiny to see which loopholes he'd been - loopholes, whatever, you know, that they benefit from. You know what I'm saying.
CHRISTIE: I do. And I think it's a distraction. I think the whole why won't Governor Romney release more of his tax records - he's released what he's legally obligated to do. The Obama campaign has said: Well, why don't you release X number of years? And we won't make this an issue. The issue of the matter is exactly what Chairman Paul Ryan said.
We need to have structural and fundamental reform of our tax code. We have far too many loopholes going to people, frankly, as Ryan said, who don't deserve them, and we could use that money to pay for different things. Anita is exactly right when she says that this campaign is going to be a contrast of trying to grow the middle class.
And the way that we can do that and we can invest in our future is to make sure that all tax revenue that is available could be diverted for these purposes. So you can lower the marginal tax rates in one point, and you can also close many of these loopholes that I think we need to have a bipartisan discussion, not just what does Romney propose by way of loopholes. But I think this is a bipartisan discussion between the Congress and an incoming administration to really clean up our tax system.
MARTIN: We're speaking with former Bush administration advisor Ron Christie and former Obama White House communications director Anita Dunn. We're catching up on the weekend's political news, and we're also talking about what we're likely to see in the next couple of weeks.
You know, Anita Dunn, Mitt Romney did talk health care specifics on an appearance on "Meet the Press" this weekend, and what he said might surprise some people. Let me just play that for you in case everybody missed it. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "MEET THE PRESS")
MITT ROMNEY: I'm not getting rid of all of health care reform. Of course there are a number of things that I like in health care reform that I'm going to put in place. One is to make sure that those with preexisting conditions can get coverage. Two is to assure that the marketplace allows for individuals to have policies that cover their family up to whatever age they might like.
I also want individuals to be able to buy insurance, health insurance on their own, as opposed to only being able to get it on a tax advantage basis through their company.
MARTIN: How do you interpret that?
DUNN: Well, you know, it's not for me to interpret. It is for, actually, the people who followed the campaign yesterday to point out that Governor Romney's campaign clarified this "Meet the Press" statement to say, oh, but we're not actually talking about what Obamacare does, which is to make sure that nobody can be denied who has preexisting conditions.
We have the same position we did in March, which is to say that people with continuous coverage can't be denied because of preexisting conditions. They actually did this last night, which means that 89 million Americans - according to a recent article in the Washington Post posted this morning - 89 million people could still be denied because of preexisting conditions.
So what he said on "Meet the Press" yesterday morning perhaps wasn't as precise in terms of what he was actually endorsing as it could have been, because as it turns out, it's not the same thing as the president's plan. It wouldn't guarantee that coverage to people with preexisting conditions unless they've had continuous coverage.
And if you have continuous coverage, you actually don't have a problem.
MARTIN: Ron, I don't want to get lost in the weeds here, but, again, how do you interpret this? I mean, it sounds as though he's walking back his very strong statements that he's made to this point on the campaign trail that he would repeal...
DUNN: That he would repeal Obamacare on...
MARTIN: That he would repeal Obamacare, but now he's saying - so Ron, how should we - how do you interpret this? How should we interpret this?
CHRISTIE: Well, I think Governor Romney has been very consistent in saying that he wants to repeal Obamacare, the over-arching statute that's out there. But you just can't say that I'm going to repeal and have nothing in place. I think you need to have a repeal-and-replace structure in place.
And I think beyond what Governor Romney said, obviously, we need to address those who have preexisting conditions. There's no question about that. I think another thing that you've heard the governor talk about is the ability to purchase insurance across state lines. Our current statutes don't allow us to do so.
We need to make sure that people - and another popular provision, if you will, is that children are allowed to remain on their parents' coverage until age 26. So I think there are a handful of areas where there is bipartisan agreement with what the president and the Congress sought to do.
DUNN: But Ron - Ron. He would not...
CHRISTIE: I just think the conservatives think that there is another alternative.
DUNN: But Ron, he wouldn't actually pass a law saying insurance companies had to do that. That's what the campaign said last night. What he has said and how they clarified is that he thinks, quote, "competition and market" will take care of that. And if competition and market conditions allowed for this, we wouldn't have to pass a law to make insurance companies do it.
CHRISTIE: Well, Anita, I don't disagree with that. I do think, however, that the current statutes that are on the books are far too complex, far too complicated. I think you and I would probably even agree that you should have more flexibility, as I mentioned a few moments ago, to be able to buy insurance across state lines.
This just shouldn't be a Democratic or a Republican health care sort of fix-all. I think that we didn't come together on a bipartisan basis the last time, and I think there's many areas of common ground that we can do it on a bipartisan basis in the days to come.
MARTIN: Well, let's talk about that. We have a couple of minutes left. Congress is back in town and they're facing some challenges, including resolving the so-called fiscal cliff - a number of tax increases and spending cuts that are scheduled to go into effect in January. You know, it's an election year. It's obviously a very hard fought, you know, campaign.
Is there any - what's the likelihood that they can actually come to agreement on this in the time that they have available? Ron, I'll go to you first and then, Anita, I'll give you the last word since I gave Ron the first word. So, Ron.
CHRISTIE: Well, I think Anita and I both know, working in the White House and being in a very delicate time, particularly with a fiscal deadline of October 1st coming up for the new fiscal year to start. I think the one area of agreement that you'll have bipartisan consensus is having a stop gap measure that will get us well in the next year to pay for the appropriations bills.
Other than that, the tax extenders, to social security payroll - I think that's all going to come up in the lame duck session after the election and it's really going to be a critical time and one I hope the parties can come together on.
DUNN: Obviously, I agree with Ron. I think the real test for Congress and for the political parties will be after the election when the serious decisions are going to have to be made and at the beginning of next year. And I think it's important, because of that, that the next 57 days that the two presidential candidates are clear and honest with the American people about what their plans and proposals are.
You know, Governor Romney has been campaigning for the presidency for two years now and has yet to name one tax loophole he would close to fund his plans. I think, over the next 57 days, he's going to have to be more specific, as President Obama has already been, about what exactly he proposes to do for this economy.
MARTIN: And so one of the things I think you both agree on is the next thing we all want to be paying to is the debates, the first one being October 3rd. Is that right?
CHRISTIE: No question.
MARTIN: That's critical for both.
MARTIN: All right.
CHRISTIE: Critical for both.
MARTIN: Anita Dunn is a former communications director for President Obama. She's now a managing director at the strategic communications firm, SKDKnickerbocker and we caught up with her in Washington, D.C. Ron Christie is the founder and president of Christie Strategies, a media and political strategy firm, also a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush, a frequent guest on our program, and he was with us from our bureau in New York.
Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
CHRISTIE: Thank you.
DUNN: Thank you for having us on.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: Coming up, master violin maker, Howard Needham, helped his clients make sweet music with his creations, but the sour notes of this economy have made it harder for him and craftsmen like him, even as their work has soared in quality. His story is featured in this week's Washington Post magazine. It's called "The Ballad of Howard Needham" and we'll talk about it in just a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.