MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
We're going to talk about this question of taxes and more with our Friday political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and subbing for David Brooks this week, Reihan Salam of National Review. Welcome to you both.
E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.
REIHAN SALAM: Thanks for having us.
BLOCK: And before we get to taxes, I would like to get both of your takes on the pick of Paul Ryan as vice president alongside Mitt Romney. He's had nearly a week to make his mark on the campaign trail and usually we see a bounce in the polls after a vice presidential announcement. We don't seem to be seeing much of one here, an average gain for the Romney/Ryan ticket of about 1 percentage point.
Reihan Salam, your take on this choice, I'd be curious to hear, and whether you think Paul Ryan's positions, especially on Medicare, help or hurt the Republican ticket.
SALAM: Well, I think the fundamental question about Ryan is whether or not the positions that he's taken in his budget are a liability that outweighs a lot of his personal advantages. He's someone who is a very effective communicator, very charismatic. He brings an element of youth and vigor and dynamism to the ticket and he's also someone that many conservatives are very enthusiastic about.
And so when you see that very small bounce that the Romney ticket is getting, it's important to keep in mind that we have a very polarized electorate in which this is really going to be an election about exciting base voters.
BLOCK: Just to follow up there, you said since we haven't seen that bounce, the question is, is one outweighing the other? Do you think it is outweighing those personal advantages, the vigor that you were talking about?
SALAM: I think that's very hard to say. We're going to see that unfold over the coming weeks. I think that so far, the key thing to keep in mind is that it's all about the impact it's having in a small handful of states among a small handful of voters. And Ryan has a biography that, in many respects, is very appealing to a lot of working class white voters and older voters.
On the other hand, a lot of the anxiety about the entitlement reforms that he's advanced could be something that actually damages the Romney/Ryan brand over time. But as of now, I'd say it's very hard to say. We still have yet to see how this ticket is going to be defined.
BLOCK: E.J., what about for younger voters who may be very skeptical right now about the future of Medicare, whether it's going to be there for them. Do you think this youthful vigor of Paul Ryan that Reihan's talking about could win them over and might those arguments convince them, bite into the base, part of President Obama's base?
DIONNE: I don't and I don't really. I mean, a couple of points. He looks good. He's 42 years old. But I think young voters vote on the fundamentals no less than anyone else does. And in fact, the Ryan Medicare plan plans to give young people less than older people get now out of Medicare. So I think that could be a liability. I think fundamentally, yes, Romney - and I agree with Reihan, this may have created some enthusiasm on the right.
It certainly stopped some of the criticism of Romney on the right. But I think the cost is pretty large. The cost is, number one, we were talking all week about Medicare and the Ryan Medicare plan. Romney's campaign should be wanting to talk about the economy and the unemployment rate. And there were a lot of the ideas in the Ryan budget, including the large tax cuts for the wealthy - yes, they track Romney's but those ideas are unpopular and he really brings that home.
And thirdly, the Romney campaign has gone back and forth on how close Romney is to the Ryan budget. Over a series of days, Romney said very different things. You know, one day, it's yes, it's just like his budget, no, mine is different on another day. They didn't seem to have their act together as to how they were going to respond to questions about the Ryan budget.
BLOCK: Reihan Salam, do you see those same issues that E.J.'s pointing out or do you see a clearer path here for the Ryan/Romney ticket?
SALAM: Well, I do think that there's going to be a big battle over defining terms. So for example, I respectfully disagree with E.J. regarding what these Medicare reforms do for folks who are 55 years old and younger. The reason why Democrats like Alice Rivlin, Clinton's former budget director and Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon have endorsed very similar reforms to Medicare over the long term, is that the goal is to preserve a defined benefit.
The question is how much is that defined benefit going to cost and will you allow other folks other than just the traditional Medicare system to deliver that defined benefit. Now this is a very complicated issue and, frankly, it's a very hard issue to discuss on the campaign trail and I think that there's been a lot of genuine confusion about it. It's not just, you know, mudslinging and what have you.
There's really a lot of uncertainty because these ideas are very, very complicated. So I think that that is definitely a liability for the Romney/Ryan ticket because, you know, frankly, people like the idea of the program being as is. The problem is that the program being as is, as President Obama has acknowledged, is simply not viable because the cost of Medicare is exploding so rapidly that Democrats and Republicans alike are really struggling to figure out a way to contain its cost so that taxpayers can have a sustainable burden while we also preserve a safety net that works for older Americans.
BLOCK: E.J., briefly?
DIONNE: Yeah, first of all, my colleague Alice Rivlin did sign on with Ryan to the general idea of premium support, but she has been very critical of the actual iterations of the Ryan plan.
SALAM: Not of the Ryan/Wyden plan.
DIONNE: The second point - but she was critical of the Ryan budget. But the second point is if they think this is so good for everyone, why are they going around reassuring seniors that don't worry, this won't take effect on you, their Republican base?
I think that you have done more to defend their plan than they have been willing to do this week, and that's a very interesting fact to note.
BLOCK: I want to end by talking about these renewed questions about Mitt Romney's own taxes. Reihan Salam, are these valid issues, a meaningless sideshow to the campaign? Where do you come down?
SALAM: I don't think that this is particularly pressing. I mean, but we've seen this before. In 2008, for example, Hillary Clinton was very reluctant to release more of her tax returns, and the Obama campaign pressed her on this for several months. So, this is not the first time we've seen it, and I think that it makes a lot of sense from the president's perspective to emphasize this rather than the fact that, for example, 44 out of 50 states have seen their unemployment rates increase, according to the most recent data.
That's not a pretty picture, and if I were the Obama campaign, I would absolutely insist on talking about this to the extent possible. It's something that definitely fires up their base, and I think it's a very good issue for them.
DIONNE: There are three problems here. Barack Obama, Joe Biden have put out 12 years of tax returns. Why shouldn't the Republicans do the same? Secondly, Mitt Romney asked Paul Ryan for several years of tax returns. Why shouldn't the public, who is hiring one of these tickets, know as much about Ryan and Romney as they do, some minimal amount?
But also, this raises a fundamental question because the tax code is biased toward people who make money from investment, like Romney does, against accountants and firefighters and factory workers. And this puts that issue front and center, and I do think we're going to be talking about it if Romney doesn't release his returns.
BLOCK: OK, thanks so much to you both, have a great weekend.
SALAM: Thanks very much.
DIONNE: Thank you.
BLOCK: That's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Reihan Salam of National Review. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.