MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And now to our weekly political roundtable. David Brooks is away this week. I'm joined instead by syndicated columnist Mona Charen, who worked in the Reagan White House and as a speech writer for Jack Kemp. Mona Charen, welcome to the program.
MONA CHAREN: Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: And E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution is back with us. Hi, E.J.
E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you and Mona.
BLOCK: Well, let's talk about this back and forth that we had tonight, Mitt Romney demanding an apology, saying that President Obama has demeaned the leadership he should be bringing to the country. E.J., what do you make of this?
DIONNE: Well, you know, after watching a bunch of those interviews, I started wondering whether Romney was engaged in damage control or damage enhancement. I mean, yes, he did get his shots in at Obama, he was clearly counter-punching against Obama. But there were two things that really struck me about this. One was the absolute nature of his denial of any involvement in Bain after February of 1999. No role whatsoever in the management of Bain, he said, after February '99, on CNN. He said a similar thing again, no involvement - denied any involvement whatsoever on ABC.
And I think this could come back to haunt him because there are press releases out there listing him as a kind of part-time CEO. He was clearly involved in some ways. And so, I was curious about why that blanket denial. The other thing that struck me was the firmness with which he said, no more tax returns, he's going to put out two and that's it. And that very firmness, I think, is actually going to increase pressure on him to release more. I would suspect the Obama campaign is going to go straight at the tax return issue, partly on the grounds of the foreign investments he has and also asking, you know, what kind of taxes did he pay. So, I'm not sure how much good these five interviews did him tonight.
BLOCK: Mona Charen, what do you think? And would Mitt Romney be better off releasing more tax records, which he says he will not do?
CHAREN: Well, won't shock you to learn that I disagree with my friend, E.J. You know, I actually think this represents the desperation of the Obama campaign. They have been grabbing at every little shred that they can - a story in the Washington Post that suggests that Bain was responsible for off-shoring or outsourcing, they weren't making a distinction. And now, you know, this story that Romney was involved with Bain after he said he wasn't.
And if you look at the analysis that's been done, many different outside observers - including CNN, The Washington Post, FactCheck.org, Fortune magazine, none of the above are known for being conservative, they have all found that there is nothing to these allegations that Romney was involved with Bain. There really hasn't been any credible evidence of it whatsoever.
And I have to say something else, and that is that, you know, Romney may have faults but nobody has ever said that this is a person who is dishonest, who's a dissembler, who hides things. And so, you know, I think this allegation that he somehow lied to the SEC, which is what the Obama spokesperson said, it's really over the top and I don't think it actually sticks because Romney does give off that aura of integrity.
BLOCK: Why not just release his tax returns, then, and put that out on the table?
CHAREN: Well, you know, that's the other thing is that these calls for more, you know, more and more tax returns - look, maybe it would be fine to release them, but you know, on the other hand, it would just again distract from the issues that Romney is attempting to get the country to focus on, the issues involved in the campaign. This would be an opportunity for 10,000 Democratic activists to pore over his tax returns and say, oh, what about this - look, he bought a horse for his wife in 2012, you know, and so on, as if that were important to the country, and it really isn't.
DIONNE: Could I just say, I actually disagree with my friend Mona on the integrity issue itself - which is Romney has said a lot of things in the course of the campaign, you know, Obama has to keep - stop apologizing for America when Obama didn't apologize. There's a long list of things Romney has said that raise questions about whether he sort of either consistently told the truth or trimmed the truth. But I think the very fact that Romney chose to go out there tonight is telling us that this Bain Capital story, including the ads, have really hurt Romney - there's polling that suggests that.
And I don't think it's illegitimate to raise it as an issue. Of course, in a campaign, an opponent is trying to undercut the other guy, and clearly the Obama people are doing that. But it's precisely because Romney made his stewardship at Bain Capital so central to why we should make him president - because he says he'd be a job creator - that there were going to be a lot of questions about this. And as I said earlier, I don't see how he gets away from the tax return issue. I think that's going to haunt him all summer.
CHAREN: E.J., you can ask legitimate questions about the decisions that Romney made while he was running Bain Capital. It doesn't seem to me that it's legitimate to hold him responsible for things that Bain may or may not have done after he left.
BLOCK: Do you think that the American voter listening to this conversation, listening to the charges from both campaigns, is going to be so turned off that people will tune out of this campaign all together, if they can?
DIONNE: I don't think people will tune out of the campaign. Your question suggests something that's true, which is - ultimately, this is not the decisive question of the campaign. The decisive questions have to do with the economy, and what government's role is, and what tax levels different people should pay. The thing I think about the Bain issue is it does, underlying it, it does raise some questions about how the American economy has been run, what form of capitalism we want. But you're quite right, the larger questions of the campaign will dominate, but I think questions about the character of the candidate always come up, sometimes fairly, sometimes not.
BLOCK: Mona Charen?
CHAREN: I think the very fact that the Obama campaign is attempting to reduce the issues to really personal and petty accusations like this shows how reluctant they are to address the larger questions. They really don't want to talk about job creation and the state of the economy and the deficit and the other huge issues that the country is facing.
BLOCK: And we'll have to leave it there. Thanks so much to you both, have a great weekend.
DIONNE: Thank you.
CHAREN: Thank you.
BLOCK: That's syndicate columnist Mona Charen, and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.