Are Romney Critics Really Attacking His Success?

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain Capital and his refusal to release more extensive tax records continue to dog his campaign. Host Michel Martin takes up these topics and other political news of the week with Republican strategist Ron Christie and Joy-Ann Reid, managing editor of The Grio.com.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Three high ranking Syrian officials were killed in a bomb blast in Damascus, the capitol of Syria yesterday, and more than 100,000 Syrians are now living outside the country. We'll hear from a man who fled the fighting, with his family, to Turkey and we'll also hear from a journalist who's been monitoring the situation.

That's a little later in the program. But first we want to turn to the political news here at home. It's hard to miss it. The campaigns are flooding television and online viewers with a storm of attack ads. Here's one of the latest from President Obama's campaign. In this spot, a series of people on the street read transcripts of Republican candidate Mitt Romney's explanation for why he was not responsible for the actions of Bain Capital after 1999. Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That entity was one which I had ownership of until the time that the retirement program was put in place.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But I had no responsibility whatsoever after February of '99...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: For the management or ownership - management, rather, of Bain Capital.

That sounds very suspicious.

MARTIN: Romney has also come under fire this week for resisting the call to release additional years of his personal tax returns, but Romney has also been counterpunching, promoting his cause with voters in Ohio. Meanwhile, President Obama is in the midst of a campaign trip to Florida where he hopes to woo voters in that critical state.

We wanted to talk about these political issues and more so we've called upon two of our trusted voices on politics. Ron Christie is a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. He's now the founder and president of Christie Strategies. That's a media and political strategy firm. Joy-Ann Reid is the managing editor of the new site The Grio.com and a frequent contributor to MSNBC and the Miami Herald.

Welcome back to you both. Thank you for joining us.

JOY-ANN REID: Great to be here.

RON CHRISTIE: Always a pleasure.

MARTIN: So let's talk about this whole tax issue. He's been facing increasing pressure to increase his personal tax returns. He has released two years of tax returns and says that that's enough but President Obama's camp - as well as some influential conservatives - are urging him to reconsider. I think what might have been particularly surprising to some people, Ron, is that the National Review wrote an editorial about this saying that he might be impatient about this but he's a politician and his current posture is unsustainable.

So, Ron, what do you think?

CHRISTIE: Well, it's not only just the National Review. You had George Will, a very prominent syndicated columnist, calling on Romney to disclose. I take a slight exception with what would be ordinarily convention wisdom to release the records now. He has released what he's legally obligated to do.

I think that Governor Romney has made a calculated decision that Team Obama is going to come through his records and try to find some bad information and we know he's very wealthy. I don't think there's any illegal to it. But from my point of view this is a question of is this a legitimate search for information or is this a fishing expedition?

And I think that Governor Romney's opponents are more interested in how they can paint him as being a rich out of touch guy than there is anything illegal in his returns.

MARTIN: But that's not the point, isn't it? I mean, isn't the point that people who are offering - he's asking to lead the country and he will direct the foreign policy of this country. He will direct the finances of this country and that citizens would like to know whether his personal wealth would be affected by some of the decisions he makes as the leader of the free world. I mean, isn't that the issue?

CHRISTIE: It could be the issue, but President Carter didn't release his returns until he was already president. President Reagan didn't release until he was already president. I mean, at what point do you say I'm going to look through Governor Romney's tax returns to ascertain what sort of a leader he's going to be? I just don't think that holds water.

MARTIN: Joy-Ann, what do you think?

REID: Well, you know, I think the problem for Mitt Romney is that he kind of set the - he set himself up for this. He's essentially said he's not going to run on his record as governor of Massachusetts, which is his last governing experience - his only governing experience. He's not really running on anything other than the fact that he is a businessman.

And the substance of his business experience, really, is Bain, which is of course also the source of his wealth. So the problem is because he's made that central to his qualifications to be president, it begs the question, OK, so what did you do at Bain? Well, he wants to disown a lot of what Bain did, so then we're down to, OK, well, then at least let's look at what the wealth is that you were able to obtain.

He doesn't want to talk about that either. I think Romney is trying to run as Brand X Republican and make the entire race about Barack Obama, but when you are the challenger, the race is also about you. And I think the other piece is something that actually Newt Gingrich said. You know, Newt Gingrich pointed out during the primary that we haven't had a president - we've had wealthy presidents - but we haven't had one with Swiss bank accounts.

This just sort of feels odd to Americans at a time when the wealthy are really on display for having been responsible - the Wall Street guys, the hedge fund guys - for the fall of the economy in '07.

MARTIN: But what about the point that some others are making? Ron didn't make this point, but others had made this point, that this feels like an attack on success.

REID: You know, I mean, I think that for most Americans, no one is saying that it's a bad thing that Mitt Romney made a lot of money. And I haven't heard any Democrat say that that is a bad thing. What they're essentially saying is that Mitt Romney is advocating policies that would benefit himself.

He's basically saying he wants to retain tax cuts for people in his own tax bracket, the very wealthy. And because he does represent the one percent, and because that's the argument that Americans are really having right now, it's not about his success; it's about whether or not he's trying to do policy that favors his own class against the middle class.

MARTIN: We're talking about the latest political news with Joy-Ann Reid. She is the managing editor of The Grio.com. That's a news site. Also with us Republican strategist Ron Christie. He's also a former Republican White House aide. So let's talk about something that we've talked about before but there's a new report that sheds new light on this issue.

This is the whole question of the states that have instituted new rules for voting, saying you have to have a photo ID, a government-issued photo ID. Now, the Brennan Center for Justice, which is at New York University did the study that said that, you know, more 10 million potential voters live more than 10 miles from offices that issue photo IDs; that nearly 500,000 of these voters don't have a car or other means of getting to those ID-issuing offices.

And also, some of these offices are only open, you know, one or two days a week. You know, in a couple of places they're only open like a couple of days a month. Now, Ron Christie, we've talked about this before and the question has been posed about whether this is a new form of a poll tax. And you've said, well, you know, you need a photo ID to get on a plane. You need a photo ID to buy cough syrup.

The Brennan Center is making the argument that these folks don't get on planes. They don't even have a car. So I'm going to ask you again. Why isn't this a poll tax?

CHRISTIE: It's absolutely not a poll tax. A poll tax was instituted during the terrible days of segregation in the South in the United States, and they were illegitimate means to keep black folks from voting. In this particular case, it is race neutral. You're not trying to discriminate against anybody based on the color of their skin.

You're not saying I want black folks not to be able to have the right to cast a vote. Voting in this country - I've said it to you before, Michel, and I'll say it again - it is a privilege, not a right. If you look in the constitution it does not say that there is a constitutional right to vote. It allows the states to set the mechanisms of which people can vote.

So therefore, if a state is very concerned about the integrity of the ballot box and they want to ensure that they have people who are registered to vote, who are actually the individuals casting that ballot, the Supreme Court has already held that it is racially neutral on its face, and therefore not a poll tax.

MARTIN: Joy-Ann? Racially neutral?

REID: Well, I would take exception to, basically, all of that. I think the Voting Rights Act made clear that we do have a right to vote in this country and that states cannot set up barriers to voting that affect certain ethnic groups. Look, I think everyone understands, Republicans have been pushing this a long time. They understand the demographic group that don't favor them, right? Younger voters, minority voters.

And they've set up this sort of series of hurdles that happen to make it harder for the voters who don't tend to vote Republican to cast a ballot. If this were really just about the integrity of the ballot, then why don't Republicans ever attempt to legislate about absentee balloting, which is where, to the extent there is any fraud in the system, that's where you find it.

These laws happen to be more likely to disenfranchise minorities - in this case, really Hispanics. A lot of this is saying we want to look at illegal immigrants, people with a Hispanic surname being challenged. And this is about the Republican Party's demographic nightmare. They haven't been able to increase support among Hispanics, African-Americans, and younger voters, so these barriers - it looks awfully suspicious that these are the people who make - who have a harder time getting these IDs.

MARTIN: You know, to that end in Florida, Ron, Governor Rick Scott - well, Florida's been in the news lately because it's been in the midst of purging its voter rolls. Governor Scott was actually a guest on this program where he talked about this. Late last week, it was decided that Florida could have access to the U.S. immigration database that state officials say will make it easier to clean up Florida's voter rolls.

Ron, I'm interested in your, you know, perspective on this. On the one hand, as Joy-Ann said, that this is an issue where, you know, Latino voters are saying this is not acceptable, that the database was not meant for this purpose, and that it does - that they are arguing - some are arguing that this looks like an attempt to keep these voters from the polls. What do you say to that?

CHRISTIE: I just don't buy that. I just don't believe that. I mean, a lot of the people that we're talking about, a lot of the governors in these states that we're talking about that are instituting these laws, I know. And I know they're not racist. I know that they don't have a particular will to disenfranchise people based on the color of their skin or their socioeconomic status.

I live in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Virginia, when I vote, I have to produce an I.D. In the area in which I live, there are a high number of African-Americans who live in my precinct. Do I sit there and think that my having to produce an I.D. is discriminatory or it's against those based on the color of their skin? No. I say I'm all in favor of it.

I mean, we've reached a point in this country where I think when you throw the term racist or racism or disenfranchise, you automatically stop the conversation. I think it is a legitimate question for us to ensure: How can we maintain the integrity of the ballot box without disenfranchising people and their ability to vote? I think that's a critical discussion that we need to have.

MARTIN: Joy-Ann, President Obama's in Florida today. What about - same question to you.

REID: Well, you know what? I don't think it's about racism. I think it's about it's about math, you know. I think the Republican Party has looked down the barrel of this sort of demographic nightmare. I mean, they really have a hard - are going to have a harder and harder time winning elections if they cannot attract significant numbers of Hispanics and African-Americans.

The black vote is gone. The Hispanic vote is now 65/35 Democratic. And so when they look at these laws, there is no empirical evidence that there's been widespread voter fraud in elections. There's never been found to be substantial voter fraud. So it's sort of a solution in search of a problem.

And the fact that these laws do disproportionately impact the kind of voters who tend to vote Democratic - look, there was a guy in Pennsylvania in the state Senate who said it outright. These laws are going to help Republicans, because to the extent that the electorate is more minority - which happens every four years in general elections - Republicans have a harder time winning. That's an absolute fact. And the idea of voter fraud has never been proven to be widespread.

MARTIN: Well, Ron, I gave you the first words. I think I better give Joy-Ann Reid the last word. We didn't get a chance to talk a little about the latest economic news, which is certainly an important part of the campaign. We'll have to talk about that next time. Joy-Ann Reid is the managing editor of the news site, TheGrio.com. She's a frequent contributor to MSNBC and The Miami Herald.

Ron Christie is a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. He's the founder and president of Christie Strategies, a media and political strategy firm, as well as an author of a couple of books. And they were both kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Thank you so much for joining us.

REID: Thank you.

CHRISTIE: Thank you.

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