Return to Transcripts main page


Examining the Presidential Campaign; Interview With Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; Does Romney Lack Backbone?; Reid Sticks by Tax Allegations about Romney; Why Are Campaigns Going Negative?

Aired August 10, 2012 - 22:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, HOST: Good evening, everyone.

Welcome to a special "Keeping Them Honest" hour.

We're focusing entirely tonight on the presidential campaign, specifically on the messages both candidates and their surrogates are putting out there, millions and millions of dollars in campaign advertising.

In recent weeks, more than 50 thousand ads and according to a leading media research group, 97 percent of the ads were negative. Only some of them stayed true to the facts. Sorting fact from fiction though, takes more than just the 30 seconds or the minute it takes each spot to play.

So tonight, we're taking some of the most factually challenged media spots and campaign claims up to this point in the campaign season and we're holding them up for a close examination. It's what we do every night "Keeping Them Honest."

And as always, we're not taking political sides here. We're simply trying to figure out what is true and what is not. We begin tonight with a Romney ad.


NARRATOR: In 1996, President Clinton and a bipartisan Congress helped end welfare as we know it by requiring work for welfare. But on July 12, President Obama quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements. Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job.

They just send you your welfare check, and welfare to work goes back to being plain old welfare.


COOPER: Well, in a moment, you will hear from Newt Gingrich, who joins us to defend that ad, but who also makes a pretty stunning admission whether the ad he is defending is strictly speaking true to the facts.

But first, I want to show you how Mitt Romney is campaigning on the claims made in that very ad.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: With a very careful executive action, he removed the requirement of work from welfare. It is wrong to make any change that would make America more of a nation of government dependency. We must restore and I will restore work into welfare.



COOPER: Now, listening to that and watching the ad, you would think that the White House, with the sweep of the pen, somehow managed to undo all that your elected representatives, Democrats and Republicans, accomplished back in the late '90s on welfare reform.

You get the impression the Obama administration wants an America where hardworking Americans pay taxes and lazy ones sit around collecting welfare. And in case you missed the implications, Romney surrogate Newt Gingrich today spelled it all out.


NEWT GINGRICH (R), FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I think on the hard left, there's an unending desire to create a dependent America. It's not just that Obama's a radical, but the people he appoints are even more radical.


COOPER: Obviously, the White House, the Obama campaign strongly disagree. And they're not alone.

A string of fact-checkers have blasted the ad as fall. PolitiFact gave it a Pants on Fire rating. "The Washington Post" fact guy weighed in with four Pinocchios. That's their rating system.

What in fact the White House and Department and Health and Human Services proposed doing was give governors more flexibility to tailor the program to their own states. And these were changes, by the way, requested by the Republican governors of Utah and Nevada. But what about this claim?


ANDREA SAUL, MITT ROMNEY CAMPAIGN PRESS SECRETARY: If President Obama didn't want people to think that he was going to waive the central work requirement in welfare reform, his administration shouldn't have written a memo saying it was going to waive the work requirements in welfare reform.


COOPER: Well, "Keeping Them Honest," here's the relevant portion from that very memo from the Department of Health and Human Services -- and I quote -- "HHS will only consider approving waivers relating to the work participation requirements that make changes intended to lead to more effective needs of meeting the work goals."

The administration is insisting they're not trying to waive the work requirement. They're in fact trying to make it less bureaucratic and more effective, precisely what those Republican state governors have asked for.

As we said, Newt Gingrich has defended the ad, going beyond it as well in some respects. But as you will see later on in this interview, Speaker Gingrich, who I talked to just a short time ago, also makes a surprising admission. I spoke with the former presidential candidate just a short time ago.


COOPER: Mr. Speaker, this ad says -- and I quote -- "Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check."

Now, according to pretty much every nonpartisan fact-checking organization, that's not true. President Clinton, who signed the law, which you worked on as well, says it's not true. Even Ron Haskins, who worked on the original welfare law, served as George W. Bush's welfare policy, said -- quote -- "There's no plausible scenario under which this new policy constitutes any kind of serious attack on reform."

Are they all wrong?

GINGRICH: Well, Robert Rector at the Heritage Foundation, who was the original developer of welfare reform, worked with Governor Reagan and then President Reagan, he was the first person to come out aggressively and say, look, this will in the end gut welfare reform.

And his reasoning is pretty straightforward. Once you start allowing states -- this is why, by the way, the law itself does not permit waivers. The president actually could not waive Section 407 which says there can't be any waivers to the work requirement, so he fudged and found a way to get around it, which I suspect will be -- turn out to be illegal.

Governor McDonnell of Virginia has come out and said he thinks that this is clearly gutting welfare reform. The two governors that the Obama administration is hiding behind, the governor of Utah and the governor of Nevada, have both come out and said that's not accurate, this is not what they wanted. This is not the flexibility they asked for.

And I think that this is going to become a genuine argument. Those of us who favored welfare reform and who worked hard to get it felt deeply that -- particularly in liberal states, if you didn't have some kind of strong requirement, you know, they used to have things like getting a massage counted. Going, you know, going through drug rehab counted as a work program.

It was amazing the range of things prior to 1995, the year 1996 that you could do and pretend they were work. COOPER: But under the -- I mean, this ad said under Obama's plan you wouldn't have to work, you wouldn't have to train for a job, they just send you your welfare check. There's no evidence of that at all.

GINGRICH: Well, given that this is an administration which has maximized the increase in dependency, maximized the number of people on food stamps, maximized the effort to get people to rely on the government, there's also no evidence that once the waiver system is in place that you could rely on this administration to defend work.

I mean there's no evidence --

COOPER: But it would be -- it would be up to governors as you just said. And according to the governors themselves, that is not their intention. You talked about Utah Governor Gary Herbert's office put out a statement, they said Utah's request for a waiver stems from a desire for increased customization of the program to maximize employment among Utah's welfare recipients.

That's almost word for word what the HHS is saying. The HHS -- acting assistant secretary of HHS said that this is all about trying to create innovative strategies, flexibility, policies and procedures designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families. They're basically saying the same thing, no?

GINGRICH: Sure. The question you have to ask yourself is, given the track record of this particular secretary of Health and Human Services, given the general -- somewhere between liberalism and radicalism of the Obama appointees, and remembering that part of what I think led to this strong reaction on the part of a lot of conservatives and a lot of Republicans, was this came out in the same 48-hour period as the president's famous speech that you didn't build it, that you weren't responsible as a small business owner, for what you achieved.

So it's almost as though he was psychologically attacking work and achievement at the same time as he was shifting the regulations. And candidly, this is not an administration that, I think, you're going to find any conservative give the benefit of the doubt to.

COOPER: But isn't this in line -- I mean isn't this waiver idea in line with what you have proposed about innovative solutions at the state level, basically decentralizing power, putting it back in the hands of the governors and the states?

GINGRICH: Right. And this is one of the rare areas where frankly the reason we wrote in that it could not be waived is our experience had been that when you allow liberals to do it, that they will, in fact, create a dependency environment and they will waive the work -- just come back and look back at the kind of things, really starting with Lyndon Johnson and then Jimmy Carter, and expanding.

The kind of things that state welfare departments and liberal states were doing were absurdities. And this -- the whole thrust of the welfare reform was a function of the failure of those kinds of states as contrasted with Governor Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin or Governor Engler or Governor Leavitt, who had done a great job of moving towards workfare, despite the federal bias.

COOPER: But -- I mean, I have got to come back to then the wording of this ad. And again, it's under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work, you wouldn't have to train for a job, they just send you your welfare check. That's not saying we assume this or we think this or we worry about this. It's saying as a fact, this will happen and that's just not supported by evidence.

GINGRICH: I think if the ad makers have asked me, I would have said this makes it possible. Would have been a good way to enter into...

COOPER: So you think the wording of the ad is not actually accurate? That it is too straightforward?

GINGRICH: Well, I think that the ad does assert -- but this is a political ad. In 30 seconds, you tend not to get all the various amendments and things. And...


COOPER: But accuracy is important.

GINGRICH: Look, I'm here -- I'm here tonight supporting the idea. And I believe absolutely that this -- the Obama administration is filled with people who do not believe in the work requirement. And this is -- as you yourself pointed out, even when Bill Clinton agreed to sign the bill, half the Democrats in the House, 100 representatives, voted no.

Barack Obama himself was opposed to it as a state senator in Illinois. There was a huge defense of dependency without work. So you say to me, do I think all those people who opposed the bill would probably try to gut it if they get a chance, of course I do.

COOPER: But if you were running this ad, you would change the wording of the ad to at least say I worry about it or based on what I believe about the president, I think he will do this? If...

GINGRICH: If I were running the ad -- if I would be running the ad it would be a much tougher ad. Because I would start by saying as the leading food stamp president in American history and the person who's increased American dependency more than anyone else in modern times and the guy who has failed totally with child poverty.

Remember, with the Clinton-Gingrich welfare plan, child poverty went down by 25 percent. The largest decline in child poverty was because we had a work requirement and people went to school and went to work and their lives got better. So my ad would probably have been tougher than this ad in setting up the conditions you're looking for. But then it would have been a 60-second ad and I don't know if we could have afforded it.

COOPER: Well, I think you could have afforded it. But I got -- you've got to come back to this because it did sound like you were saying earlier, and I want to just try to clarify this. You do think that the actual wording under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work, you wouldn't have to train for a job, they just send you your welfare check, that is not factually correct?

GINGRICH: We have no proof today, but I would say to you under Obama's ideology it is absolutely true that he would be comfortable sending a lot of people checks for doing nothing. I believe that totally.

COOPER: Speaker Gingrich, I appreciate you being on. Thank you.

GINGRICH: Thank you.


COOPER: Let us know what you think. We're on Facebook. You can follow on twitter or Instagram @AndersonCooper.

As I said, we are not taking sides here -- up next, a pro-Obama ad that draws a clear line between Mitt Romney and a woman's death from cancer.

I confront one of the men behind this ad made by a pro-Obama super PAC when our "Keeping Them Honest" special continues.


COOPER: We're focusing tonight on campaign ads, campaign claims, and the truth, not as one side or another side sees the truth, but the plain, old-fashioned truth."Keeping Them Honest."

We begin or we began, I should say, with a factually bogus Romney ad. Now, the factually bogus ad created by the leading pro-Obama super PAC. It features the laid-off Steel worker named, Joe Soptic.


JOE SOPTIC, WIFE DIED OF CANCER: When Mitt Romney and Bain closed the plant, I lost my health care. And my family lost their health care.

And a short time after that, my wife became ill. I don't know how long she was sick. And I think maybe she didn't say anything because she knew that we couldn't afford the insurance.

And then one day, she became ill, and then I took her up to the Jackson County Hospital and admitted her for pneumonia, and that's when they found the cancer. And by then, it was stage four. There was nothing they could do for her. And she passed away in 22 days.


COOPER: That's obviously a very sad story.

"Keeping Them Honest," though, as heart wrenching as the loss of a job and the death of a spouse obviously is, virtually nothing else about the story fits either the timeline or the facts. Though Mr. Romney was still on the books as being CEO when the steel mill shut down in 2001, he'd already left two years before to run the Olympics.

Now, you can argue he was still listed as CEO and had earlier had a hand in how the company was handled. But in the ad, Mr. Soptic said his wife became ill -- quote -- a short time after Romney and Bain closed the plant and he lost his health care. Well, it turns out it was five years after that, in 2006 that his wife unfortunately died.

In addition, CNN's Brianna Keilar spoke to Mr. Soptic. He told her that his wife actually had other health insurance. Actually her primary insurance was from her own job and she still had that when he lost his health insurance.

As with the Romney ad we talked about before the break, the fact checkers are not smiling on this one either."The Washington Post" giving this ad the same as Romney's, four Pinocchios, concluding -- quote -- "On just every level, this ad stretches the bounds of common sense and decency."

Tonight, both the White House and the Obama campaign are trying to distance itself from the Priorities USA ad, Press Secretary Jay Carney saying -- quote -- "I still haven't seen the ad. I have read about it. I don't speak for a third party group. I speak for the president and the administration, and I explain and defend his policies."

President Obama's campaign spokeswoman went farther than his White House spokesman saying -- quote -- "We have nothing, no involvement with any ad that are done by Priorities USA." She went on to say, "We don't have any knowledge of the story of the family."

"Keeping Them Honest," though, the campaign certainly ought to have at least some knowledge of Joe Soptic and his family because they used him in one of their own campaign ads earlier.


SOPTIC: I was a steelworker 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.


COOPER: That was just Joe Soptic in an earlier ad for the Obama 2012 campaign.

Bill Burton is a senior strategist for Priorities USA Action. He joins us now.

So, Bill, let's talk about this."The Washington Post" says about your ad -- quote -- "On just every level this ad stretches the bounds of common sense and decency." Independent fact checkers have echoed that sentiment, saying, it's inaccurate.

How can you imply that Mitt Romney and Bain are somehow to blame for that poor woman dying of cancer?

BILL BURTON, FORMER OBAMA WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: My goodness, we don't and we would not. I mean, those fact checks presuppose that that's exactly what we're trying to do. And that's not the point of the ad. The point of the ad is to tell the story of the impact that Mitt Romney had on the lives of thousands of people. When he came to town, they lost their jobs, they lost their health care, they lost their pension benefits. And that impact is felt still today in those communities.

COOPER: But you spent -- I mean, you're a smart guy. You have a lot of smart ad people in the group that you're working with. Half the ad is him talking about his wife's demise. And it ends with him, saying, I do not think that Mitt Romney realizes what he has done to anyone. The implication is clearly that he is responsible or what -- the actions he took led to his wife's death.

BURTON: You know, the story is a very sad one and the truth is that there are thousands of stories that are -- that happened as a result of Mitt Romney and his time at Bain. And some of them are really tragic.

But just because they're really sad or tragic doesn't mean that they should be off limits. Well, we think it's important to tell the stories of these folks and how they were impacted by Mitt Romney.


COOPER: How is a woman dying be -- I mean, she had health insurance from her job after this man lost his job and then she got an injury years later and then lost her insurance.

BURTON: Right. To say that presupposes that we're trying to link Mitt Romney with her tragedy.

COOPER: You are.

BURTON: No, no, no, the truth is...

COOPER: You've made a commercial about Mitt Romney and it's all about this woman's tragedy if you're trying to link it, why are you even talking about her?

BURTON: No, but Anderson, if we were making that point, that means that if she hadn't had another job in an intervening time, if somehow it had happened much sooner to when Joe lost his job, that somehow Mitt Romney would be more responsible. And that's now what we're saying. What we're saying is that at a moment of true concern and anxiety in a family, when Joe Soptic really needed health insurance for his family, he didn't have it. And that's the point here. He was promised health care benefits and he lost them.

COOPER: You claim -- you really claim -- you really want people to believe you're not trying to link in any way even just subtly or not subtly that there's some linkage between Mitt Romney, Bain Capital, business decisions he made and this woman's death.

BURTON: Anderson, it would defy logic to do so. The point here is that even to today that community is completely worn down. The whole area, the factory is abandoned. People still don't have jobs in some cases. Many folks still don't have health insurance. People who do have jobs are getting paid much less. And the point is that Mitt Romney's business experience had a profound effect on the lives of thousands of people.


BURTON: And that effect is still being felt.

COOPER: Right. And you...

BURTON: And that's what this ad tells the story of. That's what all of our ads tell the story of.

COOPER: OK. I mean, we -- I don't want to go back and forth on this, but I mean, this ad tells us a very specific story. More than half of the ad is him talking very detailed about his wife in a way which does -- BURTON: Anderson, it's a sad story.

COOPER: It is a very sad story, but it also jumps over -- I mean, it truncates time in a way that makes it seem like he got fired, she didn't have health insurance, which she did from her other job, her primary insurance, in fact...

BURTON: Not at the -- not at time when she died, though. She had health insurance for a very short time that...

COOPER: Right. Because she lost her other job.

BURTON: Right. But when -- but ultimately when Joe Soptic needed health insurance for his family, health insurance that had been promised to him by a contract that Mitt Romney had helped to negotiate, he didn't have the health insurance.

COOPER: Right. Because they -- because under bankruptcy protection, they were able to do away with the promises that they had made.

BURTON: They were able to void a contract that they had with workers.

COOPER: Right. That's bankruptcy law.

BURTON: But they still made -- they made plenty of money. All those workers got screwed.

COOPER: Right. Again, you can make an ad all about that. I just -- you're implying -- I think any rational or none -- certainly nonpartisan observers look at this and say you are linking this. Otherwise we would not put this in an ad.

BURTON: I actually think just the opposite. I think that the rational thing to take away here is that -- how on earth could you possibly imply that? What we're saying is that at a moment of true anxiety...


COOPER: You've made a 30-second spot about this. What are you saying how can you imply that, it's totally disingenuous, Bill. Come on, you know that. BURTON: I just -- I just don't think that that's true.

COOPER: Well, Bill Burton, I appreciate you coming on to talk about the ad. Thanks, Bill.

BURTON: Thanks, Anderson.


COOPER: Up next: Donald Trump's actually incorrect birther claims and the Romney campaign embrace of Donald Trump. Do surrogates and supporters on both sides help candidates have it both ways on controversial topics? We will "Keep Them Honest."


COOPER: Well, no hour on bogus complain claims would be complete without a visit to birther land.

Mitt Romney says he does not doubt that President Obama was born in Hawaii. But he is very publicly, and we might add, profitably for his campaign coffers embraced America's number one birther, Donald Trump. Despite report after report, investigation after investigation showing there's nothing to the birther's story, Mr. Trump is not backing down.

Either that, or maybe he's just looking for attention. Either way, the Romney campaign hasn't backed away from Mr. Trump since this controversy erupted several months ago.


DONALD TRUMP, CHAIRMAN, CEO, TRUMP ORGANIZATION: Nothing's changed my mind. And, by the way, you know, you have a huge group of people. I walk down the street and people are screaming please don't give that up. Look, a publisher came out last week and had a statement about Obama given to them by Obama when he was doing a book as a young man a number of years ago in the 90s, born in Kenya and raised in Indonesia. I mean, this was a statement. This was from Obama.


COOPER: That's not true. The publisher says it was only a typo. And for the record, President Obama has produced both a short- and long- form birth certificate showing he was born in Hawaii. He made the long-form version public in part to quiet Mr. Trump who claimed to have investigated in Hawaii on the case.

And when we sent Gary Tuchman to Hawaii on the same time, he found plenty of evidence the president was born there but no sign of Mr. Trump's investigators. I asked him, Donald Trump, about it months ago.


COOPER: We've had a team in Hawaii, talking to everyone from the state health department to the school where Obama's mother went, to other families who were in the hospital at the same time as when he was born. None of them say they've been contacted by anyone working for you.

DONALD TRUMP, CHAIRMAN & CEO, TRUMP HOTELS & CASINO RESORTS: Well, maybe they're not saying and maybe they haven't contacted the same people, Anderson.

COOPER: We've interviewed the former director of the Hawaii Department of Health, a Republican, one of two state officials who has actually seen the original birth certificate that you're talking about in the Department of Health vault. She says she hasn't been contacted by your people.

Isn't that somebody they should talk to if they're there?

TRUMP: Well, I have been told very recently, Anderson, that the birth certificate is missing. I have been told that's it not there and it doesn't exist. And if that's the case, that's a big problem.

COOPER: Who told you that?

TRUMP: I just heard that two days ago from somebody.

COOPER: Can you name even one person who your investigators have talked to, just one name?

TRUMP: I don't want to do that. It's not appropriate right now.

COOPER: You can't say anybody who they have talked to?

TRUMP: Well, it's just not appropriate, Anderson.


COOPER: Well, he never named any names or revealed any investigators or anything they found out.

As for the missing birth certificate, it was released shortly thereafter, "missing" in quotes.

As for Mitt Romney, he said -- quote -- "I don't agree with all the people who support me and my guess is they don't all agree with everything I believe in."

Donald Trump, though, is not just any Romney supporter. He has been aiming to raise $2 million tonight for the Romney campaign and hinted today to Wolf Blitzer that he might personally donate millions more.

He's also made robo-calls for the campaign. And up on the Romney Web site right now, this picture of Donald Trump as Uncle Sam on one of those old-fashioned recruiting posters next to amounts you can donate for a contest.

The winner gets flown to New York for a dinner with Mitt Romney and Donald Trump. So he's clearly more than a run-of-the-mill supporter. The question is, though, could his support actually cost the Romney campaigns with votes? Polling earlier this year shows what a Trump endorsement would make more -- one in four voters less likely to vote for Governor Romney. In any case, the governor has also said he needs to get 50. 1 percent to win and he's happy to have the help of -- quote -- "a lot of good people."

Now, back to those remarks we mentioned at the top. He was talking tonight about President Obama's lack of business experience. Listen.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Sometimes, I just don't think he understands what it takes to help people. I know he wants to help, but he doesn't know what he's got to do.

I was speaking with one of these business owners who owns a couple of restaurants in town. And he said, you know, I would like to change the Constitution. I'm not sure I can do it, he said, but I would like to have a provision in the Constitution that, in addition to the age of the president and the citizenship of the president and the birthplace of the president being set by the Constitution, I would like it also to say that the president has to have spent at least three years working in business before he can become president of the United States.



BLITZER: Joining me now is Republican strategist and Romney adviser Kevin Madden.

Kevin, some people are looking at those comments that the candidate made tonight and saying that it was sort of a dog whistle. The fact that he would bring up the birth requirements in the Constitution on a day where Donald Trump has talked a lot about birtherism was sort of a dog whistle on this issue. Fair?


No. Well, I just don't agree with that. I think it was -- the governor was actually relaying a conversation that he had had with a voter. And the voter's emphasis was on the business experience. And I think that's what Governor Romney is finding as he engages voters all across the country is that they're focused on the economy. They're focused on somebody who can turn the economy around.

And, quite frankly, that's been the entire focus of the governor's message today. When he was out there in Colorado, Craig, Colorado, he was talking about energy. He was talking about how important energy is to helping sustain the economy in that region of the country and how important the economy is and turning the economy around...


MADDEN: ... to voters right now. COOPER: But he is holding this big event with Donald Trump tonight and Donald Trump is on his Web site and Donald Trump is out there talking about birther stuff. When a supporter in a crowd said something false about then candidate Obama to John McCain, John McCain set that supporter straight.

Donald Trump is just not an ordinary supporter. He is clearly a surrogate. Democrats are saying the fact that Mitt Romney hasn't said Donald Trump is wrong and asked Donald Trump to stop promoting something which is factually proven false shows Romney doesn't have backbone.

Does he have -- that's what Democrats are saying.

MADDEN: Right.

COOPER: Does he have an obligation in any way to set his surrogates straight on these birther claims?

MADDEN: Oh, he has.

COOPER: You think he's spoken to Donald Trump?

MADDEN: Every time this issue has come up, Governor Romney has made it very clear that he disagrees with Donald Trump, and he disagrees with the emphasis on the issue. He believes that the reason that we need to take -- to beat President Obama in November is because he hasn't done enough to fix the American economy. Every time he's had an event he's talked about what it is that he would do to fix the economy.

COOPER: Does he have an obligation to say something to Donald Trump?

MADDEN: Well, I think he has said it. I think he said it clearly publicly. He sent the message time and time again that the focus of this campaign has to be the economy.

COOPER: You were saying it doesn't matter what surrogates say. When Hilary Rosen, you know, a supporter of President Obama, I guess was a visitor to the White House, according to some stories I saw, said something about Ann Romney. The Obama White House were very quick to distance themselves from her. And a lot of conservatives jumped on her as speaking for the candidate.

So isn't it fair, then, for Democrats to do the same thing about what -- what Donald Trump is saying?

MADDEN: Having worked on so many of these campaigns, I think all of the scrutiny is fair. I think the difference there is that was -- that crystallized the debate that we were having about the economy, about women's -- about women's role in the workplace and the different -- the different visions that each party has for the economy. And that was what really crystallized that debate.

I don't think that there a whole lot of people right now sitting at home, with 23 million people out of work, with unemployment over 8 percent, consumer confidence going down, I don't think there are a whole lot of people talking about the issue that -- that the media is talking about and that Donald Trump keeps bringing up. They're more focused on the economy.

COOPER: But it's not just -- right, but it's not just the media talking about this birther stuff. I mean, in Arizona they just were demanding a birth certificate from President Obama to prove his citizenship or to have him on the ballot there. I mean, these are -- there are initiatives in a number of states across the country that have been since he's been in office.

MADDEN: I think -- I think that's right. I mean, that's right, Anderson, but do you think that right now, that voters, that that's going to drive what their main decision is on this campaign? I really don't think so.

I think over kitchen tables right now across the country, there's so much economic anxiety about the state of employment, the lack of jobs. People that have one are worried about losing theirs.

COOPER: Right.

MADDEN: People who don't have one can't find them. I think that's really what the American people want to see debated. That's the focus that they want to see in this campaign.


MADDEN: And a lot of this are distractions.

COOPER: Kevin Madden, I appreciate you being on. Thank you.

MADDEN: Always great to be with you.

COOPER: When we come back, a trip across the aisle to America's top Democratic lawmaker. A man who's made big claims about Mitt Romney and taxes without showing the slightest evidence. That's next.


COOPER: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is from Nevada, of course. And despite his mild manner, he's a former boxer and is known to this day to enjoy landing a political punch. Well, he has. The question is, though, is it a cheap shot?

Reid has made and is standing by unproven allegations about Mitt Romney and taxes, claiming that Romney didn't pay any taxes for a decade without the chips, in this case the facts to back it up. Governor Romney reacted sharply to the claim.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (via phone): It's time for Harry to put up or shut up. Harry is going to have to describe who it is he spoke with. Because of course that's totally and completely wrong. It's untrue, dishonest and inaccurate. It's wrong. So I'm looking forward to have Harry reveal his sources, and we will probably find at the White House.


COOPER: He's not backing down a bit, offering no facts, no evidence, just allegations and insinuations.

Now, before we go any further on this story, you should know that we're not being partisan here. For weeks we reported on Michele Bachmann and her four Republican House colleagues who are making unfounded allegations about Islamic radicals infiltrating the U.S. government, making claims about relatives of Huma Abedin, a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Well, the standard should be no different for Democrats, independents, libertarians or anyone. Extraordinary allegations require extraordinary proof or, frankly, any kind of proof. Michele Bachmann and company don't even have ordinary proof, and neither, so far, does Senator Harry Reid.

This began earlier this week when Mr. Reid told the Huffington Post what he says a Bain Capital investor told him. "Harry," he says this investor told him, quote, "he didn't pay any taxes for ten years." He went on, "Now, do I know that's true? Well, I'm not certain." That was Harry Reid saying "I'm not certain."

So you'd think that not being certain about the truth of an explosive allegation, you'd kind of keep it to yourself, right? Well, instead, Senator Reid, the highest ranking Democrat in Congress, went further with some local reporters, saying he had a, quote, "number of people tell me that," unquote. So it went from one person telling him to now a number of people. Then today he went even further.


SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: So the word's out that he hasn't paid any taxes for ten years. Let him prove that he has paid taxes, because he hasn't.


COOPER: OK. So now this is on the floor of the Senate. He's now saying "the word is out." Well, the word is out because Senator Harry Reid put it out. What he hasn't put out is anything that anyone can check. Not the name of his source, not anything. Here's what Republican Senator John McCain told me about this earlier today.


COOPER: Harry Reid on the floor of the Senate today reiterated this idea that Mitt Romney has not paid taxes for ten years. He said, and I quote, on the floor of the Senate, "So the word is out that he hasn't paid any taxes for ten years. Let him prove that he has paid taxes, because he hasn't." He's offered absolutely no proof at all about this. Does it surprise -- I mean, what do you make of this? Is this just politics? Is this acceptable? SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: First of all, I've known Senator Reid for many, many years, and occasionally he displays some rather radical behavior.

To accuse someone of doing something without a shred of proof that the allegation has any substance is really something I, frankly, don't understand. I think politics are tough, and I enjoy the give-and-take, but I think Harry might have gone over the line here.


COOPER: Let's bring in our panel: Democratic strategist Paul Begala, who's currently advising the top pro-Obama super PAC; and Republican strategist Mary Matalin.

Paul, you cannot defend Harry Reid on this, can you? Seriously?


COOPER: But Harry Reid doubled down on this. He went on the floor of the Senate and said, well, you know, it's out there that he hasn't paid for ten years. It's only out there because Harry Reid said it two days ago without any evidence whatsoever.

BEGALA: First off, there's tons of evidence. Come on. The one release that he prettied up and turned...

COOPER: There's evidence that he has not paid taxes in ten years?

BEGALA: There's evidence of tax avoidance. Incredibly aggressive tax avoidance.

COOPER: That's not what Harry Reid -- Harry Reid said there was evidence out there that he hasn't paid taxes in ten years.

BEGALA: The senator is pointing out that this guy has a long -- has an incredible history of tax avoidance. A shell corporation in Bermuda, Cayman Islands. Switzerland bank accounts. A blocker corporation in Bermuda, whatever that is.

I mean, this guy goes -- first of all, and freshman philosophy. Occam's razor. When you're confronted with something and you have limited information, you choose the simplest, most obvious choice.

What do you think it is, Anderson? Do you think he secretly, like, owns the Bunny Ranch brothel? I don't. He's a man of extraordinary personal morality. OK. I grant him that. He's got impeccable personal moral character. So I don't think he's, like, secretly owning inter- city liquor stores that sell to children or something. No.


BEGALA: I think he's a billionaire who doesn't pay taxes. I'm just trying to show that it's not -- it's the most logical explanation.

People should like -- on the Twitter machine. Give me your ideas. What other reason is he hiding his taxes?

COOPER: OK, Mary...

MARY MATALIN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Anderson -- Anderson, I will tell you...

COOPER: Mary, Harry Reid has no evidence of this.

BEGALA: We have lots of evidence.

COOPER: Go ahead, Mary.

MATALIN: Really? You know what? To answer Paul's question, this is fallacy logic. This is how they argue. They make the accused -- put the burden of proof on the accused.

Do you really think, does this pass the smell test, the lab test that this man would have been governor, that he would have been running for president for eight years, that he has all of his money? Yes, he has a lot of money. He's a big success. He's an American opportunity inspiration.

That he would not -- that he would be doing something illegal? They've called him a felon. Now they're charging this...

Here's the sad thing. The really sad thing is Harry Reid is not some -- ostensibly not some goofball back-bencher. He is the Democratic Senate majority leader. Doesn't that give -- if I were a Democrat, that would give me great pause that the majority leader in the Senate, in that august body, is behaving like Eugene [SIC] McCarthy, or the other McCarthy.

COOPER: I'm sorry. I don't normally get -- get -- it just seems hypocritical to me. I mean, when Louis Gomert went on the floor of Congress and said that some unnamed former FBI agent told him that Middle Eastern women were coming to the United States pregnant to have babies, taking them back to the Middle East to raise them for 20 years as terrorists, so they could then come back as American citizens and attack us 20 years from now, and that he had sources on this, that we didn't call the FBI about this. And when we called the FBI, the FBI said, "What are you talking about? We never heard of this." We asked for him for evidence. He wouldn't give us any.

What is the difference between that lunacy and what Harry Reid is saying?

BEGALA: Occam's razor. What Gomert posited is ipso facto crazy. What Reid is positing is the most logical, simplest explanation for why this man, who is obviously burning with desire to be president, is hiding his tax returns when, as Mary points out, he knew or should have known getting into business it's not pleasant perhaps, but the guys and women at the top level, the presidential level, they all have to release their tax returns.

MATALIN: I'll tell you what Occam's razor -- well, we know he paid $6 million and $7 million in contributions. Six million in taxes. Occam's razor is this. May I? May I? Quit imitating James.

Occam's razor is this. That Romney -- that the Obama and strategic imperative is to distract. He can't run on his record. They've announced they're going to destroy Romney. This is just a distraction.

He put out two. If he put out four years, they'd ask for six. If they put out six, they'd want ten. Or his father's embarrassed. Jon Stewart said of Reid -- this is really gross, too -- he played the dead card. His father would be embarrassed? What has happened to your party, Paul?

BEGALA: He's -- Romney has the evidence. We can't see it. He's choosing the most sensible explanation for a puzzling political thing. Why is Romney feeding this distraction, as Mary calls it? Why? Because there's something in there that he does not want us to see. I've been doing this for 28 years. And when politicians don't disclose their taxes, it's because they can't.

COOPER: We've got to end it there, but before I get inundated by e- mails saying I'm a stooge of the GOP or supporting Romney on this, my point is simply, for any sitting member of Congress or the Senate, Republican or Democrat or whatever party, to be making allegations, serious allegations about somebody without offering any evidence whatsoever, I think seems a troubling -- a troubling precedent. And it surprises me that more people aren't upset about it.

Whether it's this or whether it's Bachmann, et al, making allegations against Huma Abedin and, you know, the infiltration of the Muslim Brotherhood without presenting direct evidence. Anyway, we've got to leave it there. Mary Matalin, Paul Begala, thank you.

So what's the strategy behind these lies by the Obama and Romney camps? We'll dig into that when this "Keeping Them Honest" special continues.


COOPER: Our show continues. As we've shown you this hour in the 2012 battle for the White House, both sides are using campaign ads that are heavy on attacks but light on facts. So what's the strategy behind these ads? Does it help or hurt the campaigns?

Let's talk about it with CNN chief national correspondent John king; chief political correspondent Candy Crowley, who's also anchor of CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION"; and "The Washington Post's" Nia-Malika Henderson.

So Candy, Mitt Romney had an interesting observation just yesterday. I want to play it for our viewers.


ROMNEY (via phone): You know, it's interesting too. When, you know, the various fact checkers look at some of these charges in the Obama ads and they say that they're wrong and inaccurate, and yet he keeps on just running them. You know, in the past, when people pointed out that something was inaccurate, why campaigns either pulled the ads and they were embarrassed. Today they just blast ahead.


COOPER: The interesting thing about that, Candy, is he and his supporters are just as, if not more guilty of doing the very thing that he's blaming the Obama campaign of doing, and his -- the Obama ad, for instance, that we're focusing on tonight is by a pro-Obama super PAC. The Romney ad that we focused on is by the Romney campaign.

Is this sort of, you know, argument, is it just par for the course or do you think it's worse than usual this year?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT/ANCHOR: Well, first of all, I think it's amazing that he can remember a time when campaigns actually pulled ads that were deemed to be wrong, because I can't remember one of those times. But OK, I'll take him at that.

But first of all, I think there a lot more watchdogs out there in this campaign.

COOPER: So we know about it more. We pay more attention.

CROWLEY: We do know about it. Yes. We pay more attention to it. And the -- you know, the rise, obviously, of television advertising has been out there for a while, but now it's almost a campaign unto itself. We talk about the money and certainly we talk about the content. But there so many people watching these ads now, I'm not sure there's more. But there are more ads.

So numerically, perhaps there are more. And I'll tell you, they are earlier, a lot earlier. They went negative and a lot earlier. They went, you know, not just stretching the truth, just plain-out lying about stuff. That happened so much earlier in the campaign than I've seen.

COOPER: John, I guess because of the power of the super PACs and the money involved, they're able to kind of take it to a whole new level.

KING: They're taking it to a whole new level. There's been more advertising in many key markets around the state, Anderson. And last July -- last month in July there wasn't the final month of the campaign in 2008. So it's at a new level.

When you're calling to the campaigns or the super PACs and you say, "Hey, that's been proven to be wrong. You going to take it down?" They kind of shrug and they say, "Well, the other guys are doing it, too."

It's like, OK, the other guy is robbing a bank so you can go rob a bank. Or the other guy is cheating on a test so you can go cheat on a test.

And so the standards, when you call them, it sort of numbs you a bit. But look, they believe, especially the Obama side needs to disqualify Romney. There's no question about that. So they're running these things. This particular ad you're talking about, I asked Bill Burton of Priorities USA today, will you take it off the Web? It's never been on pay TV. He said no.

COOPER: Yes, and Nia-Malika, I mean, Romney's favorability numbers have taken a tumble recently. The distortions, the false attacks, is it possible they do more damage to him because he's more of an unknown?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, "WASHINGTON POST": Well, that's certainly what the Obama campaign and his supporters are getting. They are looking at 2004. And you saw in that campaign that Bush really moved to define John Kerry very early. He started running ads in March. This campaign has started in May. And almost -- you know, a lot of what we've seen has been negative.

I mean, the thing about negative ads does is that they've been around and they also often work. And I think what you're seeing, particularly now in August, is that each of these campaigns is really trying to generate some feeling among their base, among those voters because if you generate a feeling, some sort of moral outrage and some anger, those are some of the sorts of feelings that really prompt people to actually act, to actually donate and to actually start knocking on doors and mobilizing behind these candidates.

So that's what you're seeing, these campaigns really trying to grab people by the collar and get them to feel and get them to act.

COOPER: And Candy, that's behind the big expenditure by the Obama campaign early on...


COOPER: ... to try to find -- define his opponent early on.

CROWLEY: Yes. Because he was undefined. You know, President Obama, people have gotten used to him. He's been on TV every day. He has a record now and the White House. It's much more difficult to redefine President Obama.

And I think what's interesting to me, is the Obama -- I'm sorry, the Romney campaign knew this early on. They admitted that the idea of making people dislike President Obama probably wasn't going to happen.

And what they wanted to do was make people like Mitt Romney. And the negative ads, I totally agree were aimed much more at Mitt Romney getting his base activated than at trying to drive down President Obama's favorabilities.

I mean, I think the really key question now, though, is whether Mitt Romney at this point can come back and use these big opportunities he's about to get to define himself in a positive way and bring up the likability.

COOPER: John, do you think he can do that? And which ads do you think are working the best?

KING: There's no question the Obama -- the Obama allies have done the most damage. They have hurt Mitt Romney over the last month, so you have to say there's are the most effective so far. There's also been more of them in many of the key markets across -- around the country. So you have to say they are winning, if you will, in terms of moving the numbers with negative ads, some of which happen to be reprehensible.

Can Mitt Romney change things? Of course he can. We have a lifetime left in politics. The vice-presidential role will be part of it. Then he has to do his own narrative; he has to work on his economic plan. He has to convince people that he will fight for the middle class.

The damage that has been done against him in the spring and the summer so far has been to say he's a rich guy. He's hiding his taxes. He doesn't care about you and your community when it comes to the economy. It's a steep hill. That's a scar the Obama people have put on him. He has his convention opportunity. He will own the second half of August. That's how it works. He has a big opportunity to do that. The question is, can he? Are they up to the challenge?

COOPER: John King, Candy Crowley, Nia-Malika Henderson, thanks very much. We'll be right back.

HENDERSON: Thank you.


COOPER: Well, there's a lot more we're following tonight. Isha is here with a "360 Bulletin" -- Isha.

ISHA SESAY, CNN ANCHOR: Anderson, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and its supporter, Iran, continues to pose a global terror threat. That's according to the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator. The feedback comes as U.S. Treasury places more sanctions on Hezbollah for its support of the Syrian government.

And across Syria today, opposition groups say at least 160 people were killed by government forces. They say most of the deaths happened in Aleppo, Syria's largest city.

The attorney for Scott Smith, the Ohio man arrested for bringing guns, ammo and knives to the latest "Batman" movie, says his client had the gear for his protection. The attorney claims his client feared an attack like the Colorado theater shooting spree. Police say the items were found in a bag Smith was carrying last Saturday night.

After a two-year legal battle and anti-Muslim cries of "not in my backyard," a new Islamic center and mosque opened in Murphysboro, Tennessee, today. Security is tight with fears of vandalism and arson.

And a dramatic rescue at sea caught on video. This 49-year-old fisherman was forced to tread water for 20 hours when his boat sank off the coast of western Australia. Sharks were circling him when a TV news crew in a helicopter spotted him. A rescue boat finally plucked the man from the water. He is recovering at the hospital while a fellow fisherman is dead and another is missing. Quite incredible -- Anderson.

COOPER: That's it for this "Keeping Them Honest" special report. We'll see you again. Thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT" starts now.