MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And this being an election year, there is of course a lot to talk about with our regular Friday political commentators E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome back to you both.
E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.
DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.
BLOCK: We're coming off Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, heading toward the South Carolina primary a week from Saturday. Mitt Romney, of course, coasted to victory in New Hampshire. South Carolina should, theoretically, not be as friendly a place for him, but his poll numbers have been really strong there. Do you think that holds, David Brooks?
BROOKS: I guess so. You know, I guess the wild card for me is this Bain issue, this issue about Bain Capital. Newt Gingrich, or at least his PAC, released a completely meretricious demagogic video which may have some effect. I think Bain Capital, on average, added value to the economy. They had every incentive to really do good for companies in the long run. Nonetheless, I think a lot of people take a look at Wall Street, take a look at financiers, take a look at capitalists who are not people who just start businesses, stay in place with their own product line, but who move from company to company, changing things very radically.
I think there could be a level of distrust. And so far, the Romney explanation for that has been pretty flat-footed. So, that could change things. But right now, Romney's still the prohibitive favorite.
DIONNE: It's hard to see his losing in South Carolina, and South Carolina is historically actually pretty good for establishment candidates. George W. Bush stopped the McCain rebellion with a pretty vicious campaign back in 2000. But I agree this Bain issue is a real problem. If not now, then later because one of President Obama's weaknesses has been with white working class voters. And I think the Bain issue and the way private equity works in terms of the part of it that - and often strips companies of assets or loads companies with debt, a lot of ordinary people look at this and say, this is not a good way to do capitalism.
And so, I think Romney, as David said, hasn't handled it very well. So, I think a lot of working class voters, lower middle class voters, have doubts about Romney today that they didn't have two weeks ago.
BLOCK: I want to talk to you about this a bit more because in his victory speech on Tuesday, Mitt Romney talked about desperate Republicans who he said were chiming in with President Obama on what he called the politics of envy. And the issue here is his time at Bain, also his claim that the talk of economic inequality was fueled by envy. Mitt Romney was asked about that the next day in an interview on the "Today" show on NBC. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY")
MITT ROMNEY: I think it's fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms and discussions about tax policy and the like, but the president has made this part of his campaign rally. Everywhere we go or he goes, we hear him talking about millionaires and billionaires and executives and Wall Street, it's a very envy oriented, attack-oriented approach and I think it will fail.
BLOCK: E.J., what about that envy oriented approach that Mitt Romney's talking about? We're back to the 1 percent, aren't we?
DIONNE: I thought that was a terrible answer. It just doesn't look good when a rich guy says, anybody who cares about inequality is exhibiting envy. He's accusing a majority of the country, judging from some of the polls showing how much people care about rising inequality. He's saying a majority is committing this sin of envy. And the other part is that we should discuss this in quiet rooms? I mean, you talk about feeding charges of elitism. It's OK. We want to keep this issue away from the riff-raff. I mean, he really has handled this very badly so far.
BLOCK: David, do you agree, bad handling of this issue on Mitt Romney's part?
BROOKS: I like quiet rooms.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BROOKS: Smoke-filled quiet rooms, preferably. You know, I don't think he's handled it well. He said this questioning of his Bain experience is either, you know, envy, division or an attack on capitalism. It's not. It's a legitimate point. I think most LBO firms and most private equity firms, as I say, do add value. They increase churn. So there are layoffs at the beginning when the private equity firms get involved, because they do lay off people. But the studies show that over the long term, they increased hiring and they increased jobs by making the firms more efficient.
Nonetheless, it's legitimate to ask was Bain doing the good kind of LBO activity, which really does help a company or were they, you know, getting these dividends by loading these companies with debt? The second issue, which I think Romney has not really begun to address is, is business experience a good preparation for political experience. That's not an easy case to make. Historically, it has not been a good correlation. Jon Corzine was pretty good at Goldman Sachs. I'm not sure he was a great governor of New Jersey. So, Romney really has to explain that a little more.
DIONNE: And I think his other problem is he made his business experience a centerpiece of his whole campaign. He doesn't want to really talk much about his time as governor of Massachusetts. But he's saying, I'm a business guy so I can create jobs. So, he invites us to look at the side of Bain that didn't create jobs and the side of private equity that does sometimes blow up companies, leaving the people in private equity still richer anyway. Those are legitimate questions.
BLOCK: A related question here. Mitt Romney has not released his tax returns that presumably would show how much he made when he was at Bain Capital and also how much he made since he left in the profit-sharing retirement arrangement that he has. Will he have to release those returns, do you think? How potent an issue might this become, David?
BROOKS: Yeah, I've never heard of a case where we've actually learned anything. We might learn that he's rich. I think we know that he's rich. I think the two issues that are sort of salient are what tax rates is he paying? Private equity guys sometimes pay these very low Warren Buffett level tax rates and that might be embarrassing for him.
Second, we'll, I guess, learn his charitable deductions. If he doesn't tithe the way he says he does, that might be an issue. I rarely think learning this stuff actually changes anything.
BLOCK: E.J., do you think he has to release them? Will he?
DIONNE: I think the pressure on him will grow precisely because the Bain issue has put the question of how did he make his money, what kind of taxes did he pay on the table. And now, a lot of Democrats - if he doesn't release them - want to say, well, what is he hiding? This was going to justify those kinds of questions, which he doesn't want Democrats to feel so free to ask.
BLOCK: Well, last question briefly about a new Gallup survey that shows within the American electorate, conservatives outnumber liberals nearly two-to-one; 40 percent conservative, 21 percent liberal, 35 percent say they're moderate. David Brooks, what does that say to you?
BROOKS: Well, it's we're still a center-right country. If you ask people: What do you fear more, big business or big government, a vast majority fear big government more than big business. It's not true that the Republicans outnumber Democrats two-to-one, because a lot of those people who call themselves conservatives are actually Democrats. But it means we're a country that's still center-right, still basically suspicious of government.
DIONNE: If you ask that question with the word progressive in there instead of conservative, the split is much closer. Conservatives have always outnumbered liberals. A lot of people who say conservative are talking about being old-fashioned family people and have quite liberal views on economic issues. Nonetheless, it's an advantage for the conservatives.
BLOCK: OK. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, David Brooks of The New York Times, thanks to you both. Have a great weekend.
DIONNE: You too, thank you.
BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.