MR. DAVID GREGORY: This morning, the president on the world stage, hosting global leaders at two high-profile summits, and the agenda has as much to do with the U.S. economy as Europe's.
Also, the debt crisis back here at home. Will we see a replay of last summer's debt ceiling debacle? A debate this morning over the hardest choices to be made this year about your taxes and spending and whether President Obama and Governor Romney will tackle them in the campaign.
With us, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan and assistant majority leader, Democratic Senator from Illinois Dick Durbin. Also this morning, our political roundtable and my big question this week: If the election were held today, what would happen? The electoral map, the fight for middle class votes.
VICE PRES. JOE BIDEN: My mother and father dreamed as much as any rich guy dreams. They don't get us. They don't get who we are.
MR. GREGORY: And those questions of character. Jeremiah Wright and Bain Capital.
FMR. GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R-MA): I've been disappointed in the president's campaign to date, which has focused on character assassination.
MR. GREGORY: With us this morning for the roundtable, Republican strategist Mike Murphy, Democratic Mayor of Newark Cory Booker, host of CNBC's "Mad Money," Jim Cramer, and Wall Street Journal editorial board member Kim Strassel.
Announcer: From NBC News in Washington, MEET THE PRESS with David Gregory.
MR. GREGORY: And good morning. A big weekend of summits as the president is, as I said, on the world stage. These summits always attract protesters and on the streets of Chicago over the weekend that's been the case. Mostly peaceful protest, anti-war, anti-NATO, that'll be the big focus as the president meets with NATO leaders this week. It's actually been threats of violence, as well, among the protests. Three activists arrested, accused of plotting to bomb targets, including President Obama's campaign headquarters. Also accused of trying to target the home of Mayor Rahm Emanuel as well as other targets.
Back up at Camp David over the weekend, it was the president with European leaders and beyond the photo ops and all the messages, a very serious debate: austerity vs. growth. And this is not just a debate in Europe. This is very much a part of the U.S. economy. What do you do to get the economy growing again? Do you have to slash budgets here in the U.S. if you're going to get the economy to grow or not? That's going to be a fight for the campaign and a fight for the fall as well as we wonder whether they'll be another debt debacle like we saw last summer.
That's where I want to begin with my guests this morning. Joining me, Assistant Majority Leader and Democrat of Illinois Senator Dick Durbin and Chairman of the House Budget Committee Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin.
Welcome to both of you this morning.
SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL): Thanks. Good to be with you.
REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI): Good morning, Gregory. Good morning, Dick.
MR. GREGORY: Chairman Ryan, let me start with you. This question of austerity in Europe. They had failing economies, nearly depressed economies, the answer throughout the region was to slash their budgets. Has it failed?
REP. RYAN: Well, no, David, I would say they've also raised taxes, they have--this is a cautionary tale of what happens when politicians who make a lot of empty promises end up running out of the ability to borrow money at cheap rates and now they're broken promises. It's a cautionary tale of what will happen to us if we stay on the path we are on. What we're saying is let's get on growth and prevent austerity. The whole premise of our budget is to pre-empt austerity by getting our borrowing under control, having tax reform for economic growth, and preventing Medicare and Social Security and Medicaid from going bankrupt. That pre-empts austerity. The president, his budget, the fact the Senate hasn't done a budget in three years, puts us on a path towards Europeanlike austerity. That's what we're trying to prevent from happening in the first place.
MR. GREGORY: So this is the problem, Senator, whether if the president's message to European leaders is your approach hasn't worked. He wants a pro-growth agenda. What does that mean? More taxes? More spending? More stimulus? Is that his answer for the U.S. economy as well?
SEN. DURBIN: No, Paul, David, I can tell you that Paul and I agree on the basic premise. We are facing serious deficit and debt challenge in this country. Our approaches are different. President Obama, and I agree with his position, thinks that we ought to make certain that we're strong coming out of this recession, that we are creating good jobs and growing businesses. Secondly, focusing on the working people, middle-class Americans, who have been struggling, falling behind when it comes to their income. And making certain that the programs that we preserve as we cut spending are critical programs like education and innovation and infrastructure. When I take a look at Paul Ryan's budget and see $150,000 in income tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, that is not consistent with those goals. If we really want to bring this deficit down, stick to the Simpson-Bowles Commission approach. Put everything on the table, but first get this economy on its feet and moving forward.
MR. GREGORY: But I just want to go back to this point about what Europe is going through and the lessons from Europe because they seem to be very much be part of our political debate, as well, which is can you cut government spending and create economic growth or not?
SEN. DURBIN: Well, I think you have to do some cuts in spending, that's part of it, for sure.
REP. RYAN: (Unintelligible)
SEN. DURBIN: But don't--what the president says and I agree with this, don't eliminate the basic things that middle-income Americans need to succeed. We're talking about an opportunity to own a home, to have an education for your children. These are things, unfortunately, cut by Paul's budget in the House of Representatives. That is not the approach to grow the economy and tame the deficit.
MR. GREGORY: Chairman:
REP. RYAN: Well, it's as if our approach is Draconian or something like that. What our budget does, David, is it grows spending on average by 3 percent a year for the next 10 years vs. President Obama's approach, which was to grow spending by 4 1/2 percent over the next 10 years. So we're actually not even really cutting spending, we're simply slowing the rate of increase. But to your earlier question, can you cut spending without jeopardizing the economy? I think answer--the answer clearly is yes because if we fix the programs that are the drivers of our debt, then we'll reduce a debt crisis likelihood. Then we actually bring borrowing down, which opens up certainty for investors. And more to the point, we should budget to fix this problem. Dick and the folks over in the Senate, they haven't passed a budget in three years, David. How can you send signals to investors, to entrepreneurs, to families, to the American economy that we're going to prevent a debt crisis, prevent Europeanlike austerity if we're not even willing to pass a budget to deal with these issues for three years?
MR. GREGORY: Chairman Ryan, what about your own budget?
REP. RYAN: The president, he gave us a budget, but unfortunately his budget doesn't address these things.
MR. GREGORY: Well, what about your own budget and the fact that there are a good many Republicans who don't support your vision of how to deal with the budget deficit? So don't you have a problem within your own party?
REP. RYAN: Not in the least. We've--we had 41 votes in the Senate alone just the other day. I think the Toomey budget got 42 votes, a budget very similar to ours. We passed it with a very comfortable vote margin in the House. What we did is we showed the American people specifically how we think we can save Medicare from bankruptcy, improve Medicaid, get this debt under control by balancing the budget, by getting spending under control. And what we're saying about taxes is take the tax shelters and the loopholes away from, from the well connected and the well off so we can lower tax rates for everybody so we can allow small businesses to grow and compete. Most of our businesses file their taxes as individuals. President Obama is content with bringing their top tax rate to as high as almost 45 percent in January when our competitors, even in Europe, have an average tax rate of about 25 percent on their businesses. We think that's a recipe for economic stagnation.
MR. GREGORY: But...
REP. RYAN: Mitt Romney is showing a different path forward and that, that's--we, we put our ideas on the table. Unfortunately, the Senate isn't even trying.
MR. GREGORY: Senator, I want to have you respond to that, but let me advance this a little bit because, you know, I read something by Dan Balz this morning in The Washington Post that is a fundamental question I think Americans are asking around the country. When I go around the country, this is what I get: Can Washington govern? And the reality is that lawmakers in this town have kicked the can down the road on some very big questions that will have to be answered by the end of this year. Let me put something up on the screen that shows you what the stakes are here as we move through this election year. At the end of the year, the Bush tax cuts expire. So taxes will go up. The payroll tax holiday expires. You also have by January of next year $110 billion in across the board spending cuts that automatically take effect unless there can be an agreement to avoid that. Now Speaker Boehner spoke this week on the question of raising the debt ceiling. Like it had to be done last summer, it's going to have to be done again here before the end of the year. And he said we're going to look at this fiscal cliff again and he's going to have some stern demands. This is what he said this week.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): When the time comes, I will again insist on my simple principle of cuts and reforms greater than the debt limit increase.
MR. GREGORY: Senator, how do you react to that?
SEN. DURBIN: I was surprised. I'll tell you why I was surprised. I didn't think Speaker Boehner wanted to remind the American people what the Republicans in the House did to us last year. Remember what happened? Twice they threatened to shut down the government and then they went further and said we're going to shut down the economy. They proposed literally defaulting on America's debt for the first time in our history. Business leaders came to Capitol Hill and said you can't do this. You're going to raise the cost of borrowing for families and businesses. This is going to hurt our economic recovery. And now Speaker Boehner has said, "I want to do it again at the end of the year." This ought to be a clear indication to the voters of the choice that they'll have if they continue with the House Republican leadership and their tea party dominance. This is not responsible. Here's what we need to do, we need to get back to the Bowles-Simpson principles. Now Paul Ryan and I were on this deficit commission. I voted yes to put everything on the table, Paul Ryan voted no. I still think it is the most reasonable bipartisan approach. We've got to convince Speaker Boehner and the House Republicans to get down to this basic bipartisan Bowles-Simpson Commission approach to bringing our deficit down but not destroying this economic recovery.
MR. GREGORY: You know, if the, if the criticism, Chairman Ryan, against the Republicans are "My way is the highway," if that's the criticism, in fact, Democrats have done some of that as well. Vice President Biden, you may have heard, was on the program a couple of weeks ago and he talked about more than his support for gay marriage. I also asked him about this issue of what happens after the election if, in fact, they get re-elected. Watch.
(Videotape, May 6, 2012)
MR. GREGORY: If you win re-election, is your, is your position, "That's it, we're not going to compromise on taxes, rates are going to go up for wealthier Americans, period"?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Yes. Because there's no way, there's now way to do anything other than hurt the middle class if we don't do that.
MR. GREGORY: So Chairman, when you hear that, do you think right after this election as we face a debt ceiling negotiation and all of these cuts that are going to go into effect, you're looking at another standoff here over taxes?
REP. RYAN: Well, there's one more example of how the president disagrees with, say, Bowles-Simpson. Bowles-Simpson says reduce tax rates across the board by closing special interest loopholes, which is what we say. The reason people like me didn't support Bowles-Simpson, because it ignored healthcare entitlements, the driver of our debt, and therefore we put up our alternatives. Look, I think the past is prolonged in the future, the president hasn't offered a single solution to fix this debt crisis, to deal with this tax explosion that happens at the, at the end of the year, and more importantly, he's disavowed any other alternative. That's how you get the compromise, David. You pass what you believe, then the Senate passes what they believe, then you compromise. That isn't happening because the president and his party leaders in the Senate are refusing to do anything to address this debt crisis. What's going to happen at the end of the year I think will largely be determined by who wins this election and his election is really going to be a great choice of two contrasting visions...
MR. GREGORY: All right.
REP. RYAN: ...the president's government-centered society approach or the opportunity society of the American idea offered by Governor Romney. But the country will choose, and I think that will largely decide what ends up happening in lame duck and in 2013.
MR. GREGORY: All right. But first to you, Chairman Ryan, depending on the outcome of the election, let's say the president's re-elected, as I said to Vice President Biden, will you and other Republican leaders feel like, "OK, we've had a referendum on this, we're going to have to give on this tax revenue increase and spending equation to get something done," or, or, will you just pass some stop-gap measures to put this--the hard decisions off some more?
REP. RYAN: That's all we've been doing because we've seen no corresponding leadership on the other side of the aisle. So if, if the last four years is any indication of the next four years under current management, we will keep kicking the can, we will keep making empty promises to voters, and then we'll probably have a debt crisis, David, in, in the next presidency if we stay on this path. And then those empty promises become broken promises to seniors. We need to fix these problems before they get out of our control. We really believe we have a narrow window of opportunity to prevent a debt crisis from happening and to get this economy growing again. And if we keep the kind of leadership we have in place, I fear we're going to have more of the same kind of results of what we have right now.
MR. GREGORY: All right. But I'm saying if the president if the president wins re-election, do you and Republican leaders feel like you have to compromise on the tax question?
REP. RYAN: Well, I, I would like to do tax reform, and you can get more revenues, you know, through economic growth and closing loopholes through tax reform. And the thing is we have bipartisan consensus on Medicare reform, on tax reform. Unfortunately, that bipartisan consensus is not with the president and Senate leaders. But there are plenty of Democrats who agree with our approach to fixing these big problems, just not the president and the Senate, so I don't know how that's going to end up.
MR. GREGORY: But I'm not hearing you say that the election is going to change anything. I mean, your view on tax reform is the same Republican view that we've heard now for a couple of years. Are you saying that the election one way or the other will not change what Republican leaders will do and should do with regard to compromise?
REP. RYAN: Well, first of all, I'm not going to negotiate with myself or on, on television before the election. Second of all, if the president is, is--acts the way he does today in the future if he's re-elected, how do we prevent a massive tax increase? I don't know. Because you know what, David, current law is bringing this massive tax increase. Current law is bringing us toward a debt crisis, and if the president is unwilling to sign legislation to change or prevent current law...
MR. GREGORY: Right.
REP. RYAN: ...then we're going to have a huge tax increase.
MR. GREGORY: So...
REP. RYAN: Then we're going to have a debt crisis. That's his, his burden of responsibility, so I can't answer it for what he will or will not do...
MR. GREGORY: All right. Well, Senator Durbin, let me ask you the same question.
REP. RYAN: ...or how a compromise might occur.
MR. GREGORY: If Governor Romney wins--I mean, we, we--voters are being told that this--these are contrasting views of government, big issues that are on the table. So if Governor Romney wins and becomes the president-elect, do Democratic leaders, you and your other Democratic leaders, say, "You know what, we're going to have to compromise on this in order to get something done, so we're going to have to bend on our position of spending, we're going to have to bend on the issue of what the chairman proposes about Medicare or, or on taxes themselves, that we're going to have to give up the idea of, of raising taxes on, on higher-income Americans"?
SEN. DURBIN: I can tell you this, David, Governor Romney has said he wants to return to the same economic policies that we had under President Bush that lead us into this recession. He called Paul Ryan's budget marvelous. It's a budget that cuts taxes for the wealthiest and eliminates Medicare as we know it and makes deep cuts in programs that middle-income families need. Now here's the answer: Instead of finger-pointing and name-calling, on the Senate side we have a bipartisan approach; sitting at the table, Dick Durbin, Tom Coburn, a conservative Republican from Oklahoma, Mike Crapo, conservative Republican from Idaho, and Kent Conrad. There are eight of us with Mark Warner and Saxby Chambliss and Mike Johanns and Michael Bennet. We are working toward the Bowles-Simpson approach, which unfortunately Paul Ryan's budget doesn't reflect. Everything has to be on the table. If we're going to work this out, if we're going to compromise and give the American people an answer instead of a political speech or sound bite, we've got to get back to the same basic Bowles-Simpson principles that Paul Ryan and, unfortunately, the three House Republicans refuse to vote for. It's still the bottom line solution to our problem.
MR. GREGORY: Senator, let me ask you a political question in this campaign. Look at the polling, USA Today Gallup. This is a, a show of strength for Governor Romney on the economy, folks saying, 55 percent, that the economy would get better if Romney's elected, 46 percent believe that if the president's re-elected, and you see the corresponding numbers for how it gets worse. How much of a negative right now is the current state of the economy for President Obama?
SEN. DURBIN: I think people see an increase in private sector employment, which is a positive thing. They see the unemployment rate going down consistently month after month, that's a positive thing. We want it to move more quickly. They don't want a return to the Bush economic policies that created this recession. I know these shows have to sift through the entrails of public opinion polls every Sunday. I'm just telling you we have six months to go here. Who would have guessed two weeks ago what happened to Jamie Dimon and Chase in terms of the, the Wall Street reform? There are going to be 10 events between now and the election; we can't even predict. But the bottom line is we're moving positively in the right direction to help middle-income families, we've got to continue to do that in a responsible way.
MR. GREGORY: Chairman Ryan, your thought on this.
REP. RYAN: Look, just last month for every person who found a job in this economy, which was not nearly enough, three people stopped looking for a job, they gave up. Twenty-three million Americans are either unemployed, underemployed or simply stopped looking for work. This is a stagnant economy, it's going in the wrong direction. The president is not providing the kind of leadership we need to get this economy growing and to prevent a debt crisis. Mitt Romney will. He's providing this kind of leadership. He is giving the country a choice of which different vision. And, David, I really believe we can turn this economy around, we can avoid the European-style austerity if we get the right leadership in place and put these solutions which traditional have had bipartisan support. That's what's on the ballot this November, that's what the country's going to select, and I believe if we get the right leadership in place we'll fix this mess, we'll prevent a debt crisis and we'll grow this economy.
MR. GREGORY: Chairman, before I let you go, the VP process, you've been asked about this a lot. Are you being vetted by Romney's team at the moment?
REP. RYAN: Look, I'm not going to get into the internal process of, of, of another campaign. I'm focused in on doing my job here as a Wisconsin congressman, as a, as a Budget Committee chairman.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
REP. RYAN: And so I'm just not going to get into all that speculation.
MR. GREGORY: I will urge you to rethink this view you have about not negotiating on television. That's highly underrated as a tactic.
REP. RYAN: At least for your sake it is.
MR. GREGORY: Thank you. Not to be selfish. Anyway. Chairman Ryan, Senator Durbin, thank you both very much.
SEN. DURBIN: Good to be with you.
MR. GREGORY: And coming up here, so...
REP. RYAN: Good to be with you, David.
MR. GREGORY: ...if the election were held today, what would happen? Where are the campaign--campaigns now focusing their attacks and their visits and all of their advertising? Also, what's fair game as we talk about this character question. Our political roundtable is here. Democratic mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Cory Booker; Republican strategist Mike Murphy; CNBC's Jim Cramer; and The Wall Street Journal's Kim Strassel.
MR. GREGORY: Coming up here, I've been thinking all week, if the election were held today, what would happen? I'm going to ask my political roundtable. They are all here. Also, does character count in this election? I've got Mayor Cory Booker, Mike Murphy, CNBC's Jim Cramer and The Wall Street Journal's Kim Strassel. They're ready and they're up next, after this break.
MR. GREGORY: We're back with our political roundtable. Welcome to all of you, Mike Murphy, Mayor Cory Booker, good to have you, as well. We've got Kim Strassel from The Wall Street Journal and Jim Cramer of CNBC.
Mike Murphy, I, just listening to Chairman Ryan...
MR. MIKE MURPHY: Right.
MR. GREGORY: ...and Senator Durbin, it doesn't sound like the election is actually going to solve anything that's going to lead Washington to govern any better. Do I sound naive by saying I'm surprised by that?
MR. MURPHY: No. I think you're dead on right. Look, the tough reality is that elections are about not solving anything because when you solve something, you go to the voters with pain.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. MURPHY: And if politicians have one thing in common, they know voters don't like pain. So the elections are about winning and then maybe doing something later.
MR. GREGORY: And it--but it's crazy, Kim Strassel, that we've got people who are so angry about Washington being fundamentally unavailable to govern. I put the chart up of all the big things that have to get decided by the end of the year after the election or we could face another debt debacle. Are they serious about all this?
MS. KIM STRASSEL: Well, look, I think what you just said was important, have to get solved. Something is going to have to happen.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MS. STRASSEL: I mean, it's just going to be a question of who has the ability to get it done. And so one of the issues is--I mean, I actually disagree a little bit with Mike in that, I think, that if, for instance, Democrats win maybe both the presidency and keep the Senate and/or if you had Republicans take over everything, then you would have some real movement to do something different.
MR. GREGORY: Well, that's the question.
MS. STRASSEL: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: I mean, it would have to be, if it's a slam dunk election in one way, is there more leverage? I mean, that's what you heard from the vice president in my interview a couple weeks ago, which was like, hey, if we win, we're not negotiating on taxes.
MR. JIM CRAMER: Totally true. If they win, if the Democrats run the table, then I think rates are going to go up dramatically, particularly for dividends, for capital gains. And I think you can get a little, rid of the root--loopholes like Romney got.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. CRAMER: No more conversion of ordinary income into capital gains and rich people not having to pay that much.
MR. GREGORY: And but this is sort of, this is not an easy thing, Mayor, but the idea of tax reform fundamentally changing, this is where the president's been criticized, which is why didn't he try to do that easier? It might be an easier bipartisan thing to fix than some of these other areas.
MAYOR CORY BOOKER (D-NJ): Well, I think the president's put forth a bipartisan plan. The problem with this election, though, is we're frozen looking at this year and we're not realizing the deep trench that our economy was put in the first place. The first time in the history of humanity, the history of the United States that we went to two wars really without figuring out a way to pay for them.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MAYOR BOOKER: We had a global economy in decline and had to bail out banks and bail out auto industries. So there was a tremendous amount of cleanup that we had to do to the economy to get it back on a track where we've had about 20, 25 months of straight economic growth. So it's, it's just hard to say that we're going to clean up a problem in four years, and it's hard to judge somebody on 2012 when we really should look at the totality of the problem within our, within our, within our nation and within our own economy.
MR. GREGORY: Well, Governor Romney is looking at the totality of the problems under this first administration of President Obama. And he's got this new ad out called "Day One." I want to show a portion of it.
(Videotape, campaign ad)
Offscreen Voice: What would a Romney presidency be like? Day one, President Romney immediately approves the Keystone Pipeline, creating thousands of jobs that Obama blocked. President Romney introduces tax cuts and reforms that reward job creators, not punish them.
MR. GREGORY: Jim Cramer, this is an area of strength now for Romney on the economy.
MR. CRAMER: Right.
MR. GREGORY: I showed that chart earlier. He's got some traction.
MR. CRAMER: Right.
MR. GREGORY: What does this ad say to you about their approach and its potential effectiveness?
MR. CRAMER: Well, I think that the specifics are good. In other words, people recognize that that pipeline would have created jobs. But at the same time, Romney's known as a job destroyer, not a creator. I just don't think that this will stick. I think Bain sticks. I think the idea that you bring in Bain, which is what happened in the '80s. They fire a lot of people and that's how they get prosperity for the rich. And that is a more resonant theme, I think, than anything that Romney's come up with.
MR. GREGORY: Kim?
MS. STRASSEL: Yeah. And he's got to begin engaging on this and he doesn't. And the, the weird thing about it is, I mean, this was an attack you could see coming from another planet. He was attacked on this back when he was running against Ted Kennedy, when he was governor, even in the primary by other fellow Republicans. He seems to think he's--right now they're very focused on what Obama has done wrong. They want the election to be about that. But a criticism unanswered is a criticism unanswered, and this election is fundamentally about two different visions for the country. Obama's, which he is presenting via the Bain ad, and, and Romney is going to have to use that to explain what his alternate vision is, free markets and so on.
MR. GREGORY: Well, I want to get back to Bain in a minute, but I want to stick to this ad, Mike Murphy, because this says to me, one, can you be comfortable with President Romney?
MR. MURPHY: Mm-hmm.
MR. GREGORY: It's also an ad that recognizes, as they do talking to Romney advisers, people like President Obama.
MR. MURPHY: Mm-hmm.
MR. GREGORY: They don't want to reject him necessarily, but they want to...
MR. MURPHY: Right.
MR. GREGORY: They're certainly unhappy with economic policy.
MR. MURPHY: Yeah. No, I think what's going on right now is both campaigns before the conventions, which are the real kickoff, believe it or not. It feels like it's been going on a decade but we're in like inning three here. There--it's a race to define Mitt Romney. The Obama guys want to because they know how vulnerable they are. They want to ruin Romney. You know, "Mr. Scissorhands," that's their whole campaign.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. MURPHY: That's the Bain demagoguing. The Romney guys are trying to fill in the blanks about, what do you get. What does day one look like? And if you look at that ad, turn off the sound, all it says is jobs, jobs, jobs, working, working, working. So it's a smart ad for them to try to fill in the other side of the Romney story, who he really is. They've got to do that and then make the fall campaign a negative referendum on the president. Which we know from the polling, people are interested in. They think he's doing bad on the economy. And in American politics, you do--you're perceived as doing bad in the economy, you get fired. I think the missing piece is what happens in Europe. And in some ways, the president's future is not in Mitt Romney's hands, not even in his hands. It's going to be in the European voters' hands and the policy makers there.
MR. GREGORY: Mayor Booker the--this question, I want to go back to this issue of Bain Capital in terms of how Romney gets defined on the economy because the president's campaign went after this very hard in their own ad, where they talk about Romney as a vampire. I think we have a bit of that and I want to go to it.
(Videotape, campaign ad)
MR. JOE SOPTIC: I was a steel worker for 30 years. We had a reputation for quality products. It was something that was American made, and we weren't rich but I was able to put my daughter through college.
MR. JOHN WISEMAN: Having a good paying job that you can support and raise a family on is hugely important.
MR. SOPTIC: That stopped with the sale of the plant to Bain Capital.
MR. JACK COBB: It was like a vampire. They came in and sucked the life out of us.
MR. GREGORY: So Governor Romney says this is character assassination. This is not about economic record, it's about saying he's a bad guy.
MAYOR BOOKER: Well, two points I want to make real quick. First of all, I think it's a race for President Obama to remind the American public the kind of things he's been doing and stop letting the other side steal his narrative. He's a guy that's cut taxes on small business, the lowest discretionary spending we've had in decades in the United States. Start telling the truth about the Obama record to let people know that not only is he doing the kind of things, cutting taxes on the majority of Americans, but he's also doing things to stimulate the economy, the economy's getting better. As far as that stuff, I have to just say from a very personal level, I'm not about to sit here and indict private equity. To me, it's just this--we're getting to a ridiculous point in America, especially that I know. I live in a state where pension funds, unions and other people are investing in companies like Bain Capital. If you look at the totality of Bain Capital's record, it ain't--they've done a lot to support businesses, to grow businesses, And this, to me, I'm very uncomfortable with.
MR. GREGORY: You know, I know you're not--I know you defend the president, but I have to tell you, this--when I talk to business leaders, Jim, this is the difference in a lot of cases between Washington figures and local officials like yourself, who are out there trying to grow the economy, who say hey, wait a minute, let's not indict all of private equity, and yet you have a campaign that's making him out to be Gordon Gekko. They, they want the voters to think that Mitt Romney is Gordon Gekko and Wall Street greed and a throwback.
MAYOR BOOKER: Well, again, I talk to the White House quite often. I'm a surrogate for the Obama campaign. The messages that they're sending me out to do, out to talk about is nothing about this.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MAYOR BOOKER: They're talking about very clearly, the average American, middle-class Americans, in fact, over 90 percent of Americans have seen tax cuts under this president. Small businesses, like the ones that are in my city, have benefited tremendously from incentives for investment, rewards for creating jobs, rewards for hiring, hiring veterans. So on the issues that matter in the communities, I see the Obama administration having stepped up and just needing to get their voice out more. Even Obama, Obamacare, as people talk about, when people start--when you pull Obamacare, it doesn't do well. But when you start polling the aspects of it, people in this country support that legislation.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MAYOR BOOKER: But the last point I'll make is this kind of stuff is nauseating to me on both sides. It's nauseating to the American public. Enough is enough. Stop attacking private equity, stop attacking Jeremiah Wright. This stuff has got to stop because what it does is it undermines, to me, what this country should be focused on. It's a distraction from the real issues. It's either going to be a small campaign about this crap or it's going to be a big campaign, in my opinion, about the issues that the American public cares about.
MS. STRASSEL: Well, the ad was undermined this week, too, because of a couple of things that--one, as this ad was coming out, the very day you find out the president was going up to New York for a major fundraiser with the president of the largest private equity outfit in the United States. And so he's happy to take money from private equity if it's helping his campaign and then go out and attack. I think the other problem is this particular issue, the one plant that they're talking about. The more people have looked into it, the more they've found that actually it's not really the story they told, that Bain went in there. This was a failing steel plant, they actually gave a lot of money, they kept it open for an extra nine years. It arguably would've closed in '93 rather in 2001. So it's a tough story as well.
MR. GREGORY: All right, but if the, if the election were held today, Mike, what is the leadership lesson of Governor Romney when he ran Bain that voters are thinking about as they're going to the polls?
MR. MURPHY: Well, I think it's too close to call now. The polls say Romney's now a bit ahead. That's news. And it's been a couple in a way--in a week, but it's margin of error stuff and the Electoral College is more complicated. I think we're at the beginning of this Bain litigation. I think they're going to bank on it heavily. The problem is I think Mayor Booker makes a good point. People know the country's in trouble. This is a wrong track election. People are worried. They're watching Europe. And small ball on either side is not the way to go because the whole category of politics will be ruined. I mean, that ad--look, I am not the church lady when it comes to negative ads. I've made a lot of them, all right. But when that plant closed, Mitt Romney was running the Olympics. The new guy at Bain who actually made the decision to pull the plug on the thing is an Obama super donor. I mean, there is a level of cynicism here in the tactics of politics that I think we're hitting overflow on and I think it's interesting that this Bain assault has happened at exactly the time Romney's inched up in the polls a little bit. But...(unintelligible).
MR. GREGORY: All right. But then you say there's a legitimate hit here on Romney, his governing philosophy, whether he ran Bain or how he would run a federal budget.
MR. CRAMER: Right. Well, look, when I interviews, at trying to figure out whether I'd work for Bain under Romney, came to school, I heard look, we're going to cut the fat, we're going to make these companies lean. The only way to do it is to fire as many people as possible. And by the way, that was very chic then. We forget, that was the message that you heard as a young person trying to figure out where to work. Obama...
MR. GREGORY: That's when people actually said chic.
MAYOR BOOKER: Guys, but this...
MR. CRAMER: Yeah. That's true.
MR. GREGORY: There is that, yeah.
MAYOR BOOKER: But this is what's crazy.
MR. CRAMER: Obama is missing a major opportunity here. But he doesn't want to talk about bailout. It's about the auto industry, 15 million cars we built this year. It's a gigantic number.
MR. GREGORY: Yes.
MR. CRAMER: Do you want to know who's hiring? Ford's hiring, GM's hiring, Chrysler's hiring. He never takes an ounce of credit for that, Obama, not at all. In the meantime, Romney was against that. You could've shut down the auto industry, make it so the Japanese car companies, the German car companies would be ascendant. It will be about Europe because Germany is ascendant. They can take down Europe and make our country weaker because of Europe. Obama is missing the point. It's not Bain, it's GM and Ford.
MAYOR BOOKER: But I think Obama is saying that Jim, you put your finger right on it. This is not about what happened at Bain Capital. Heck, I've reduced the employees in my city 25 percent because it's the only way my government would survive. Call me a job cutter if you want. But the reality is we're seeing two men with fundamentally different ideals.
MS. STRASSEL: That's right.
MAYOR BOOKER: One would've let the Obama--let the auto industry fail, costing this nation, not just the auto industry. We're talking about people that have authorship dealerships, you're talking about people who have--sell parts.
MS. STRASSEL: Right.
MAYOR BOOKER: These are the big ideas that I think Obama is talking about, but it's not getting through.
MR. MURPHY: Well...
MAYOR BOOKER: The sexy stuff of campaigns that the media plays over and over again that we wasted time talking about is this negative stuff. The reality is if we have a--and I listen to Obama and I have Obama surrogate notes here, they're talking about the positive issues that define one economic policy that to me reflects where Bush was.
MR. GREGORY: Well, let's not get too pious about this...
MAYOR BOOKER: And another economic policy.
MR. GREGORY: ...because their strategy is also to so disqualify Romney as a legitimate opportunist--as a legitimate alternative to President Obama, which is very similar to what President Bush did to Senator Kerry in 2004.
MR. MURPHY: Right. We had summer strategy, which is ruin--it's like you've got to fight Tyson, go after him when he's six years old before he grows up. They want to knock Romney out before the convention when the thing really begins.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. MURPHY: So I got to quickly say, I'm a Detroit guy, I grew up there. Romney gets a bum rap. What there really was was a debate on how to restructure. Romney had the tougher plan. But in both cases, the auto industry is smaller than it used to be, it had to be. We had to lose capacity. It's a good story now. I'm very proud of my...(unintelligible).
MAYOR BOOKER: But you give credit for Obama for guiding that Chapter 11.
MR. MURPHY: Yeah, you know, they both wanted the bankruptcy. The difference is that Romney wanted it--Obama wanted to put in billions of dollars, then the bankruptcy. Romney wanted the bankruptcy. What Romney didn't say, but he should've, he'd be in better shape politically on this, there would've had to be a government liquidity loan to get the new thing up on its feet.
MR. CRAMER: But he's not saying it.
MR. MURPHY: But they were both for the big restructuring.
MR. CRAMER: He makes it black and white. I mean, when you listen to what he wanted to do, it was OK, GM, triage, OK. Triage. And you can't do triage. It is still one of the largest companies in the world.
MR. MURPHY: But they did. The bankruptcy was the triage. You know, they off-load a lot of the pension debt.
MAYOR BOOKER: Right.
MR. MURPHY: They gave Chrysler to Fiat, which is the only thing you can do. And the government put in billions and billions of dollars. So...
MR. CRAMER: Obama's not taking credit for it anyway.
MAYOR BOOKER: But we're dancing around the bigger issue.
MR. MURPHY: Oh, he ran an ad on it. He wants to talk about it every time.
MAYOR BOOKER: But we're dancing around the bigger issue. So take local issues like mine. Investing in infrastructure, investing in the kind of things that actually reduce long-term healthcare costs. These are the things the Obama campaign is talking about.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MAYOR BOOKER: Romney isn't talking about not investing in those things, he's talking about giving tax breaks to the wealthiest people in this country, and to me that's not what's going to drive this economy.
MS. STRASSEL: But this is why--this is why...
MR. GREGORY: All right. Kim, Kim and then let me get a break in.
MS. STRASSEL: This is why Bain actually does matter because it needs to be used to talk about the bigger issues.
MAYOR BOOKER: Right.
MS. STRASSEL: Bain fundamentally is about two conflicting visions. I don't entirely agree with how you see the visions.
MAYOR BOOKER: I frame it.
MS. STRASSEL: But I mean, this is about a president who thinks that private business is bad, that you need bigger government, more regulation, higher taxes, all of those things, and that people like Mitt Romney who were job creators, fundamentally suck the life out of the economy. And this is--and president--I mean, Governor Romney has to be making the alternate view about why free markets matter, why government isn't the answer, and why job creators have to be left to do what they do.
MR. GREGORY: All right. Let me get a break in here. I want to come back and talk more about if the election were held today. I want to look at some of the real battlegrounds where these candidates have been spending their time, not all the ones that you might think of. And I'm going to continue on this character question and the specter or Jeremiah Wright back in the news this week. More with our roundtable after this.
MR. GREGORY: We're back with our roundtable. And, and my big question this week is kind of looking inside the campaigns, if the campaign were, were happening today, where would things stand? And I want to come back to this, this character question now on the president's side. Here was a headline from The New York Times this week, an article that made a lot of news, and that is the "GOP Super PAC Weighing A Hard-Line Attack on Obama. A Plan to Highlight Race-Related Sermons." The focus once again on the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. And he, of course, in 2008 played a big role as he was the president's pastor. And, Mike Murphy, very quickly this became a storm...
MR. MURPHY: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: ...and the Romney campaign repudiated it. Is Jeremiah Wright a factor in 2012 in evaluating the president's character?
MR. MURPHY: Oh, I think if you look at his entire biography of pluses and strengths, you can look at the rhetoric from Reverend Wright and say, "Oh, a little too much, maybe you should have said something," but it's not the center of the campaign, I don't think it'll be a major issue, I don't think there'll be an ad about it. Now I got to fault The New York Times a little very quickly. There are a lot of rich guys running around under the new laws who want to put money into campaigns and there are a lot of fast-buck consultants trying to sell them stupid ideas. This is one such case, nothing got done. An inflammatory, incredibly stupid campaign document got to New York Times and they ran with it. But Romney had--was out publicly against this thing before the ink was dry on it.
MR. GREGORY: Kim Strassel...
MR. MURPHY: I think that's the real story.
MR. GREGORY: ...part of the difficulty--look, there's--on both sides there's going to be haters and there's going to be people who, you know, and they could do it to, to Romney on his Mormon faith. But one of the things that, that I got from talking to Romney advisers this week, again, this recognition that a lot of voters like the president.
MS. STRASSEL: Right.
MR. GREGORY: Beyond that, a lot of voters felt very proud, Republicans included, about America electing the first African-American president. It seems like the Romney campaign does not want to make this about the personal, doesn't want to make it about character questions...
MS. STRASSEL: Right. Right.
MR. GREGORY: ...even as the governor complains that that's what's being done to him.
MS. STRASSEL: I mean, this is why Wright wasn't necessarily a good way to go. It's not only it was sort of 2008, but also, again, the president does best on questions of likability, and if you're going to go after his character it probably doesn't have a lot of juice there. I mean, the thing that was amazing to me about this episode was this sort of feigned outrage from the left about this, though. I mean, at least Jeremiah Wright actually has something to do with the president himself, who is running for re-election, question of his associations and his past. The Obama campaign has itself been going out with its websites targeting people for simply donating to Romney's campaign, smearing them, saying terrible things about them. And, you know, this is a president who only a year ago stood up and said we need more civility in politics. If you're going to go out and smear Romney donors, and that's the example you are going to set, you shouldn't be surprised if people are talking about bringing up Jeremiah Wright.
MR. GREGORY: Mayor?
MAYOR BOOKER: Well, I think...
MR. MURPHY: They said he had no core at this table, a White House employee.
MAYOR BOOKER: ...I, I, I, I think you're missing the biggest point. You're going to have two campaigns that are not always going to be pious choirboys on what they're doing. But that's not the issue. To me, the issue is you have these super PACs that are going to take this fight into the gutter and try to leave it there, where they're going to be the dominant voices because they're going to be spending millions of dollars on ads. Those super PACs are the one--because at least if the Obama campaign and the Romney campaign do something, their fingerprints are on it. These--this unbelievable amount of campaign cash that's eroding, in my opinion, the democracy, but more important, pulling our campaigns in the gutter, this is the problem. And the second point I, I want to make is, you know, maybe this should be entitled "Hot Tub Time Machine" because you've got a, a cesspool of, of a petri dish that's pulling us back to redeal with issues from the past. Jeremiah Wright is 2008, women's rights, voting rights, all these things that we seem to be revisiting now in this campaign which are distracting us from moving forward as a nation and keep wanting to pull us back.
MR. GREGORY: Mike Murphy, I want to talk about the maps briefly here because, again, where the real battles will be fought will be in some of these swing states. Look at the four that have been getting so much attention, as we put it on there. Iowa, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina.
MR. MURPHY: Right.
MR. GREGORY: They're spending a lot of money there, multiple campaign stops. Remember Ohio, of course, where the president kicked off his campaign. Let's keep that chart up there and talk me through those four states and why they matter.
MR. MURPHY: Well, it's kind of interesting because the map changes a little bit with the country, and the president's campaign has some ambitions to do well on the border South, which used to be very Republican. So I think Virginia could be the key race--key state outcome. What happened is the northern Virginia suburbs are not old Virginia, and that's changed the politics of Virginia. Same with North Carolina, although I think the Republicans have an edge there, that's moving our way in the polling. Ohio is always the metal-bending battleground.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. MURPHY: That's where you're going to be hearing about fixing the auto industry or not, that'll be a slugfest. And the new one is Iowa, upper Midwest. Could be the same in Wisconsin where I think Governor Walker's going to hold off that recall. You can see a state that really hasn't been in play, it's been a more Democratic state now in play. Now conversely on the map, you go West, there are some Republican states that are looking pretty Democratic now.
MR. GREGORY: All right. I want to go around the table here on some other issues that caught our attention this week that we're talking about in the political world. And as we do that, we're going to begin with GOP veepstakes. A lot of talk about the big players who are mentioned here. We'll put them up on the screen. You got Rob Portman from Ohio, Marco Rubio certainly a player, Paul Ryan who we talked to this morning, of course, Bobby Jindal from Louisiana, and Kelly Ayotte, the senator, of course, from New Hampshire. And as we look at those faces, it's also been interesting, Rubio's been out there attacking the president. But there was something else that the New Jersey Press Club this week that was shown and featured Mayor Booker and maybe another potential choice for the VP. Watch a portion of this.
Unidentified Man: Governor.
GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: Hey, Trooper, how you doing there? You guys got any problems you want me to handle, like a, a fire anywhere, people trapped?
Man: No, I think we're all set here.
MAYOR BOOKER: Trooper, what have we got?
Man: Mayor, thank you for coming. There's a two-alarm fire down on State Street. We do have a car broken down on Route 1. And yes, a little girl has lost her cat in a tree.
MAYOR BOOKER: All right, Trooper, as you were. Governor, I got this.
GOV. CHRISTIE: Booker!
MAYOR BOOKER: Governor, Governor Romney, Governor Romney, yes, yes, that was me running into the fire. Yes, I do shovel snow as well. Yes, you're, you're very persuasive, but I'm not a number two guy, I'm not a, I'm not a background singer. Mitt, sir, with all due respect, I know you need a big...
GOV. CHRISTIE: Excuse me, Mayor. I got this.
MAYOR BOOKER: Christie!
MR. GREGORY: So that was fun with how active you are on Twitter and running around doing things and tweeting about it, and there's Governor Christie still being considered to be on the ticket.
MAYOR BOOKER: Absolutely. Look, whatever you want to say, we were talking about this before the show, Chris Christie is an impact player. He, he definitely makes headlines in New Jersey regularly. If you want somebody that's going to shake it up--and as you were saying, I think quite accurately, in some of these battleground states, if you want electricity, if you want somebody that can go--really go in there and mix it up for the blue-collar role, Christie's a very strong guy. And he's not boring, he's not vanilla, he's a guy that's made New Jersey politics very interesting.
MR. GREGORY: Is he qualified to be president?
MAYOR BOOKER: Look, again, I'm, I'm, I'm with him on a lot of issues in New Jersey and fight against him on a lot of issues in New Jersey. I will say this, he's as qualified if not more than all the other names I'm being hearing mentioned.
MR. GREGORY: All right. Let me go back up to our, our next item here as we go around the table. We're looking at the G-8, eurozone economic woes. And, Jim Cramer, as you heard the debate this morning and the news from the summit this week, a lot of people are going to be talking about just how central a role Europe actually plays in our fall election.
MR. CRAMER: Unfortunately, huge. I'm predicting bank runs, Spain and Italy within the new few weeks. Without a coordinated policy, there is going to be financial anarchy in Europe and it is going to cause a slowdown worldwide, China and here. This must be dealt with. The Germans are in charge and they're pro-austerity, not growth.
MR. GREGORY: Kim Strassel, does the U.S. have a role to play here in helping Europe, or is this going to be, "Sorry, folks, we--we're out of bailouts"?
MS. STRASSEL: No. Look, I think what has to happen here is Germany's--look, the Greeks are trying to force them to renegotiate again, the Germans are going to have to say, "This is the way that it's going to have to be if you want our money, and you make your decision."
MR. GREGORY: Interesting. Final item here as we go around the table has to do with the issue of Facebook. They got a lot of people talking this week, the Facebook frenzy. But this was the headline in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend once the IPO came out and the price appeared to be rather flat was it that it was somewhat disappointing, that the launch actually sputters. Back to you, Jim Cramer. What does Facebook mean? Should everybody be buying the stock?
MR. CRAMER: No. No. Please stay away. As a matter of fact, it was supported by the bankers. The deal was a total fiasco. They still can't figure out who bought and who sold. This was just one of the worst handled things I've ever seen. Sell, sell, sell.
MR. GREGORY: Really?
MAYOR BOOKER: Wow.
MR. CRAMER: Yeah. Sell, sell, sell.
MR. MURPHY: Oh, yeah. Short, short, short.
MR. GREGORY: Not even for the long term? You don't, nobody trusts them to give me a break?
MAYOR BOOKER: You tell, tell me, I'm going to go against the guy who has much more knowledge and experience in this area.
MR. CRAMER: Yeah.
MAYOR BOOKER: But talk about a product being used by one out of eight human beings on the planet.
MR. CRAMER: Yeah, but...
MAYOR BOOKER: There is so much upside for this company.
MR. CRAMER: It's so good, we don't have to pay for it. We don't have to...(unintelligible)...the ads. It's really terrific.
MR. MURPHY: You can have a great company and a lousy stock.
MR. CRAMER: Yes.
MS. STRASSEL: Bigger lesson. If you're an investor and you decide to go to Singapore, beware.
MAYOR BOOKER: If I'm betting, I'm betting on Mark Zuckerberg.
MS. STRASSEL: If you're one of the founders, yeah.
MAYOR BOOKER: And I, and I think you're going to see some incredible things coming out of the company.
MR. CRAMER: I want to be Zuckerberg. I don't want to...(unintelligible).
MR. GREGORY: OK. We're going to take a break here. We'll come back with our trend tracker, a look at the hot political stories trending this very morning. We'll spend our last few minutes with our roundtable, after this break.
MR. GREGORY: I want to get you caught up on some developing news this morning from our trend tracker here and the top stories that people are clicking on and looking at online this morning. The G-8 Summit, of course, we've talked about. Senator Rubio attacking President Obama, I'll come back to that. And a Lockerbie bomber dies. This, of course, is Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. He was released, as you'll recall, on such a controversial step. There he is arriving back in Libya. He had cancer. Part of his relief--release, now he has died. We have that confirmed for us this morning.
We were talking about veepstakes as well, and Senator Marco Rubio, who is in that mix being considered by Governor Romney, also taking on President Obama speaking this weekend. Watch.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): The man who today occupies the White House and is running for president is a very different person. We have not seen such a divisive figure in modern American history as we have over the last three and a half years.
MR. GREGORY: Mayor Booker, perhaps more of a tryout here for Marco Rubio, but also a real shot here that, that Republicans want to pick up on as we get into the fall.
MAYOR BOOKER: Well, look, if you continue to attack President Obama's character, the reality is is America knows what kind of president they have. They like him as a man. And I think they understand that here's a balanced equipoise. He's a good leader. So I...
MR. GREGORY: But is there a price to be paid for not changing how Washington works, not bringing the country together? Which, of course, was the great promise of President Obama?
MAYOR BOOKER: I think you've heard Obama's frustrations himself when he's had to deal...
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MAYOR BOOKER: ...with things like the debt ceiling and other problems, that there's something broken about the way Washington worked. The hope is that out of this election comes a stronger mandate to pull the country together. Because what Obama is talking about is not the absolutism that you see on the right with people saying don't raise taxes, don't do this. He's saying, let's find a way to come together because we do need to cut taxes. He put a proposal up to cut to a significant amount of deficit. But we also need to make sure we're making investment in the things that in the long term are going to provide a return for our country.
MR. MURPHY: You know, the challenge is that for political campaigns character attacks are the crack cocaine. They're easy to do and the voters reward them. The problem is, I think it would be good on both sides because Obama's out there saying, Romney has no core. They're demagoguing this Bain stuff. It would be nice if we'd have a presidential election where it as not the goal to destroy the character of each candidate. You know, we have enough to argue about. But the incentives, and the voters reward these incentives, are to do it.
MR. GREGORY: All right. I'm going to leave it there. Thank you all very much for a robust discussion this morning and a debate that will go on.
Before we go, a reminder. You can download the new NBC politics app that gives you access to all the latest content, including our own PRESS Pass interviews as well as reporting and analysis from me and the rest of our terrific political team. You can find it in the iTunes app store. We put a link up on our website.
And speaking of PRESS Pass, you can watch my latest PRESS Pass interview with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on our blog. We talk about her new book in which she details her life growing up in Czechoslovakia. I also get her thoughts on some of today's foreign policy matters and what role they should be playing in this presidential race. Again, that's at meetthepressnbc.com.
That is all for today. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.