Former Aides Talk Strategy For Homestretch

Both GOP nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama have hit the campaign trail for the homestretch to Election Day. Host Michel Martin hears from two political insiders about what's in store for the final weeks: Ron Christie, former advisor to President George W. Bush, and Anita Dunn, former advisor to President Obama.

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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 - hard to imagine - we'll bring the runway to you. We'll speak with a reporter who's in the mix, to tell us what's hot and what's not. That's coming up.

But first, we want to talk about what's hot on the campaign trail. The conventions are now over, and the polls still show a very tight race for the presidency. So 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 is 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. Anita Dunn is with us. She's the former communications director for the White House, for President Obama. She's now a managing director at the strategic communications firm SKDKnickerbocker.

And they're both with us now. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

RON CHRISTIE: Thanks for having us.

ANITA DUNN: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So President Obama starts the week off with some good news. And Ron, I'm going to direct this question to you because both Gallup and Rasmussen Reports show President Obama leading the presidential race narrowly. Is this a concern? I'm interested in how Republicans are analyzing this, particularly given that Mitt Romney did not seem to see the same bump after his convention - and given those really disappointing unemployment numbers on Friday. So what's your analysis about why this is happening?

CHRISTIE: Well, I think Governor Romney did what he needed to do, down in Tampa, which was to introduce himself to the American people. He's been getting demonized on the airwaves - the president's been taking shots at him; millions of dollars have been spent trying to define Romney's character as an elitist, a rich guy out of touch, who can't relate to the middle class. I think what Governor Romney did in the convention - and what he's been able to do since then - is introduce himself to the American people; put his vision, his plans, his - frankly, measures of leadership out there on the table, and allow the American people to get to know who he is, a little bit better.

So heading into the October debates, and heading into the November election, for Governor Romney to be tied - I think this is exactly where he wants to be right now.

MARTIN: Anita Dunn, I think both sides agree that the president - right now, at least - is beating Mitt Romney on likability. Is that enough?

DUNN: I think that the voters are going to make their decision not based on likability, but based on trust. Who do they trust to look out for middle-class families? Who do they trust to lead the way forward with an economy that really does go back to the basics - building on the middle class - out, rather than the top down. And last week, at the Democratic convention, the Obama administration, and President Obama, laid out specific plans for moving our country forward by investing in our middle class and making our country strong again - not by giving more giveaways to those who have the most, but by investing in our future; in education, in clean energy, and in the things that will move us forward and make us competitive.

MARTIN: You know, Ron Christie, over the weekend, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan took to the Sunday talk shows. And you know, their purpose, as you mentioned, was to rebut some of the criticisms that Democrats leveled at them during their convention. One of their criticisms that Anita just mentioned - former President Bill Clinton - was that the ticket has not been - the Republican ticket has not been clear about how they would pay for these proposed tax cuts.

And I just want to play a short clip of Paul Ryan. He was speaking on ABC's "This Week."

(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: Now, Ron, the criticism that folks are picking up on today, is that the Republican ticket has not said which loopholes they will close. And I wanted to ask, is that a problem; particularly given that Mitt Romney is still being criticized for not making his tax returns available.

CHRISTIE: Well, I think what Chairman Ryan said was exactly right, Michel. I think that there are a number of high-earning - very wealthy people, frankly, who are using the tax system to their advantage. I think one of the things we need to do in this country is to have comprehensive tax reform. And as part of that, as Chairman Ryan mentioned - would be to close some of the loopholes for some of the high earners. Now, did they err by not being absolutely specific? No. I don't think this is a Rebublican solution, or a Democratic solution. It has to be a bipartisan one; and similar to what we saw with Simpson-Bowles, where you have folks from different parties coming together, to offer alternatives. I think that's how we need to have comprehensive tax reform.

But at least the Romney-Ryan ticket has mentioned it. President Obama continues with class warfare and - you know, the wealthy, and we're going to build out the middle class. But the reality of it is, is that we don't need to pit Americans against Americans, based on wealth. We need to find a way to bridge this gap together.

MARTIN: Anita?

DUNN: So many targets; which to choose first? The reason that Congressman Ryan and Mitt Romney won't name specific loopholes is because they know - as Ron knows; as anyone who's studied the tax code knows; as the Tax Policy Center knows - that even if you close all of the loopholes on the high-end earners in this country - ones that, to be honest, Mitt Romney has taken advantage of in his tax returns, that he won't let the American people see - that even if you close all of those, you still cannot pay for the Romney-Ryan tax cut.

I worked for former Sen. Bill Bradley, who in 1986 - with President Ronald Reagan - authored the last big, bipartisan tax bill that we had in this country. And the big deductions that were left in that tax bill - and that are really, the only ones large enough to pay for the Romney-Ryan plan - are the home mortgage tax deduction, state and local tax deductions and charitable giving; all of which are really, ones that middle-class families depend on - the child-care tax credit. And the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan study group, has looked at the Romney-Ryan plan and concluded that middle-class families would have to get a tax increase, to pay for the tax cut the plan wants to give to the highest earners in this country.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're catching up on the weekend's political news, and we're also talking about what we can expect in the weeks ahead, with former Obama White House communications director Anita Dunn - that's who was speaking just now; and former Bush administration aide Ron Christie.

You know, Ron, Mitt Romney did talk specifics on health care, on an appearance on "Meet the Press" this weekend. And what he said, might surprise some people. I'll just play that clip for you.

(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 pre-existing 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: Ron Christie, is that a reset? I mean, the - Mr. Romney was pretty clear, up to this point in the campaign, that his intention was to repeal the Affordable Care Act - called Obamacare, by some. So is this a walk-back? What's going on here?

CHRISTIE: No, I think he's very consistent. I mean, he has said from day one, that he would issue an executive order that would halt the implementation of the so-called Obamacare - the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. But there are provisions in that statute, that Republicans and Democrats enjoy; for example, there is wide, bipartisan support to allow people with pre-existing conditions to keep their coverage. There is support to allow children, up to age 26, to remain on their parents' plans.

So I think you can start with those two areas of common agreement; also, perhaps, throw in the ability to allow people to buy insurance across state lines - and say, rather than just repeal Obamacare, we need to repeal and replace it with something that's substantive. And I think that's another area where I think Republicans and Democrats, rather than having a partisan, one-party-only bill go through the Congress - but that they can come together, to find common ground.

MARTIN: Anita, I'm sure we could argue a lot about whether the - what Mr. Romney envisions, actually does what the Affordable Care Act is set to do. But I do want to ask you, in the time that we have left, about those numbers on Friday - about those unemployment numbers on Friday. That had to be disappointing. But given that the president's message - just the night before - was that he's on the right path, the economy's on the right path; how do you answer that?

DUNN: What we saw on Friday was that we've had our 30th consecutive month of private-sector job growth, but that it's not enough; and that the progress we are making is nowhere near what we need to make. And the president was honest with the American people about that, on Thursday night and on Friday - and going forward. He will continue to talk about the tough steps we need to take in this country, to put us back on a road where middle-class families know their children will have a better future; and the investments we need to make in our middle class, in order to grow our economy the right way, and make an economy built to last.

The one thing we can't do, is go back to what created the mess in the first place. And that is what the Romney-Ryan ticket has proposed. And that is a very clear choice for the people - facing this country. Do you want to go back to what created the mess? Or do you want to continue the progress, knowing there will be hard times, but there is a better place ahead?

MARTIN: Speaking of which, given - you know, hard times ahead and a lot of big decisions ahead, both of you - I want to draw upon your experience in the White House. Congress is back in town, and they're facing some big challenges, including resolving the so-called fiscal cliff. And that means that - a number of tax increases and spending cuts that are scheduled to go into effect in January. Is it realistic to expect that they can actually - given that we are just in the middle of this very hard-fought election - actually accomplish anything in addressing these really big issues?

Ron, I'll let you go first. And because I gave you the first word, I'll give Anita Dunn the last word. What do you say?

CHRISTIE: We have to find a way to come together, with the new fiscal year starting Oct. 1, to have a bipartisan bill go through the Congress - so that the president can sign - that will allow appropriations, to allow the government to function. That is critical, in the next week or so. Beyond that, I think the tax extenders; I think the Social Security payroll tax issues - all the other issues that Congress and the president have sort of punted, they're going to deal with in the week following the election. So I think the lame duck session will be critical to getting many of the long-term issues taken care of. But I think in the short term, they need to come together to deal with the Oct. 1 deadline, of the start of the new fiscal year.

MARTIN: Anita?

DUNN: Ron and I are in total, and bipartisan, agreement on this...

(LAUGHTER)

DUNN:...that they need to take care of the short term. And that in the long term, I think the voters of this country have the opportunity in November, to send a clear message - to Congress, and to Washington - that they would like people to work together to solve these challenges. And that is what next year is going to be all about.

MARTIN: I also hear you agreeing - both of you agreeing that the debates - the first debate being Oct. 3rd - is also another critical, punctuation point in this campaign; something that interested voters should be watching. Is that right?

DUNN: Ron and I are in bipartisan agreement on that as well.

(LAUGHTER)

DUNN: It's the best opportunity people have to look at the candidates side by side, face to face; and hear them directly. And I think debates always play an important role; I think they're even more important this year.

CHRISTIE: She's absolutely right. This will be an opportunity where they can assess President Obama, Gov. Romney side by side; and determine who has the leadership characteristics, the strengths and the ability to move us forward in very difficult times. So Oct. 3rd is a critical day for both campaigns.

MARTIN: Ron Christie is the founder and president of Christie Strategies; that's a media and political strategy firm. He's a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. You often hear him on this program. He was with us from our bureau in New York. Anita Dunn is the former communications director at the White House; she worked with President Obama. She's now managing director at the strategic communications firm SKDKnickerbocker. She was with us in Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

CHRISTIE: Pleasure.

DUNN: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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