This is a compelling case that Mitt Romney shouldn’t release years of tax returns that he’s not required to disclose. It almost persuaded me. Almost. But I think there are both political and moral reasons Romney should open up the books. The benefits for his campaign–and the public good–are multitudinous.
“There’s no evidence to support the contention that releasing the documents would hasten the end of this brutal news cycle.”There’s also no evidence the story will simply blow over. What you provided, not unlike the guesses as to what’s in the returns, was pure speculation. You say the press will find something else to write about, while you, a card-carrying member of the press, are writing about it! The media is particularly fond of this type of transparency issue with presidential candidates. The parallel with his father, who released many years of returns in 1968, and the aggressiveness of the Obama campaign is just too enticing. And it’s not like this situation is without precedent. During the primary, Romney was harangued into disclosing tax returns earlier than he’d have liked. Admittedly, he’d had to have disclosed those eventually under law, but he still responded to a few weeks of pressure, after which the issue went away entirely until just last week.
“The operative question is whether the stories about Romney’s reluctance to release the returns are more damaging than stories about what the returns actually contain.” Assuming Romney’s Sixth Sigma accountants didn’t accidentally inform the IRS of some legal wrongdoing, I agree there’s nothing THAT explosive in his returns. Something politically compromising maybe, but we’re not talking Eliot Ness-Al Capone stuff here. So I don’t think the issue is which story is worse, but that there’s a story at all. Because Romney wants the election to be a referendum on Obama, everyday the press spends talking about Mitt Romney is a point scored for the incumbent. Within a reasonable range, it doesn’t really matter what the topic is–Romney news is bad news for Republicans. Everything else—Obama, the economy—is good news.
“Romney is the best authority around on whether the downside of disclosure outweighs outweighs the downside of the slow drip of stories extinguishing his momentum.” First you argue that there’s nothing illegal in the returns, then you say you trust Romney when he says he’ll be eviscerated by whatever’s in there. Put aside all the issues with simply taking any politician at his word, and you’ve got a conflicting argument. Beside, if it’s really the content you’re worried about, do you think Obama is desperate for material to put in withering attack ads? Have you seen that America the Beautiful horror flick he’s airing? There’s plenty already out there. With political advertising, volume is more meaningful than substance anyway. There’s no way releasing his tax returns costs Romney the election.
“Set aside the moral or civic cases for the virtues of transparency.” I’d try to set those things aside, but I’d throw out my back trying to lift the weight. Morality and civic virtue don’t have anything to do with presidential politics now? That’s nuts. Romney should release his returns on principle alone. Full financial disclosure is important in politics because you never know what tomfoolery human beings interested in power might have gotten up to. This isn’t case-specific: Romney strikes me as an upstanding guy who’s probably never so much as jay walked in his life. He’s an eagle scout. Just a rich one with a low tax rate. But as a general rule, we’re much better off erring on the side of disclosure with our leaders. We’re handing off the nuclear football, after all. If that’s not compelling enough, there’s policy value in seeing how little he paid. Call it a teachable moment for American revenue.
“Suppose, to pick one possibility at random, that Romney paid a very low tax rate for one or more years. Such a disclosure wouldn’t end the discussion; it would fan the flames.” Hm, what if Romney paid a very low tax rate. Something like, say, 14%? We already know he paid a very low tax rate. Show me the voter who says, “Well I was going to vote Romney when he paid 14% on his income in taxes, but this whole 9% thing is a bridge too far. Four more years!” That’s just silly. As you imply, Obama is already running ads calling Romney a rapacious capitalist. You really think that’s going to stop because Romney won’t give him the goods?
“Just 17 of the 535 members of Congress complied with McClatchy‘s request for their tax documentation. Romney is within his rights to do the same.” Of course Romney is within his rights. More importantly, he’s also within the law. But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t release his returns, that just means he can’t be disqualified for not doing it. He should release them. Everyone running for office should. There’s just no downside, unless you want to make a privacy argument, which you notably haven’t. And if you did, I’d say there’s all kinds of uncomfortable public spectacles we submit our presidential candidates to. Disclosing some IRS forms isn’t that bad, and whatever discomfort it might cause is vastly outweighed by the potential for public good.
“For the conservative base, which is eager to see Romney engage Obama… sticking to his guns would be a gesture of defiance.” Are you sure the Republican base is with you on this? National Review‘s editorial board isn’t. Rick Perry, whose boots read “Liberty” and “Freedom,” who jogs with a laser-sighted revolver because the Constitution says he can, thinks Romney should release his tax returns. Rick Perry knows defiance. And Tea Party populists are no fans of opaque politicians.
“The horse race is static.” As you say, the attacks so far haven’t worked. So what difference would it make now if he opened up the books? Everybody wins. Hey, we could even write about something else.