Why Romney Should Resist Calls to Release His Tax Returns

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Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney gives a statement to reporters gathered at Middlesex Truck and Coach after he toured the facility during a campaign event in Roxbury, Massachusetts on July 19, 2012

When it comes to campaign strategy, everyone’s an expert. And as the brouhaha over Mitt Romney’s tax returns drags on, the experts — from Haley Barbour to Ron Paul to an array of seasoned Republican strategists and commentators — are all offering the same sage advice: Release the additional documents. A sizable majority of Americans agree, according to a poll by USA Today. They’re wrong.

The logic underpinning the disclosure argument seems sensible enough. Romney is getting battered by the Obama campaign, which has seized on the topic to cast the Republican as a shadowy rich guy concealing something potentially sinister. Releasing the returns would invite a stretch of potentially damaging stories as reporters and opposition researchers pore over the documents. But soon enough the tempest would blow through. Transparency would stanch the steady stream of speculation about what the candidate may be hiding.

(Counterpoint: Romney Should Totally Release His Tax Returns!)

The first flaw in this argument is there’s no evidence to support the contention that releasing the documents would hasten the end of this brutal news cycle. Though the campaign has been tactically coy on the subject, it’s likely that Romney intends to name his No. 2 at the beginning of August, when he returns from his trip abroad. That selection will surely swallow all talk of tax havens, offshore accounts and carried interest. Until then, the topic is certain to linger, no matter how many shiny objects Camp Romney offers up to distract reporters. (And you have to hand it to them: between Matt Drudge’s preposterous VP floats and John Sununu’s “American” dog whistle, they’ve been rather inventive.) Unless, of course, additional years of returns yield no politically problematic revelations. And even then, Democrats would just keeping asking for more.

If disclosure wouldn’t quash the topic, 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. Millions of pixels have been expended on speculation about what skeletons are lurking. Theories abound: Did Romney use additional tax shelters? Take advantage of perfectly legal but politically unpalatable accounting? Were there years when he paid zero taxes? (No, his spokeswoman said.) Is there a room somewhere in Gstaad crammed to the ceiling with gold, like Harry Potter’s vault at Gringotts? Nobody but Romney, his wife and probably a small retinue of trusted aides know what the filings contain.

Which is why the logic journalists like Erin Burnett have used to argue for disclosure is so strange. “If he refuses to release them, it is because one, he had a lot more money in tax shelters in prior years than he does now,” she said. “Two, he did something shady. Or, three, he’s stupid.” Romney’s not dumb. And his returns passed muster with the IRS, which is just one reason it’s highly unlikely they contain anything untoward. Which, as Burnett noted, leaves us with some variation of No. 1: the existence of politically problematic material.

(MORE: Romney’s Tax Returns Show He Paid More in Taxes than He Owed)

Romney is the best authority around on whether the downside of disclosure outweighs the downside of the slow drip of stories extinguishing his momentum. He’s apparently made up his mind. “In the political environment that exists today, the opposition research of the Obama campaign is looking for anything they can use to distract from the failure of the President to reignite our economy,” he told National ReviewAnd I’m simply not enthusiastic about giving them hundreds or thousands of more pages to pick through, distort and lie about.”

Set aside the moral or civic cases for the virtues of transparency. From a purely political perspective, Romney should dig in his heels on this position, particularly if we assume he’s correctly weighed the consequences of his options. 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. The Obama campaign would cut more ads casting Romney as a rapacious capitalist, except these would be buttressed by new facts in place of mere insinuations.

(PHOTOS: The Rich History of Mitt Romney)

That would be bad not just for Romney but also for congressional Republicans, who would be thrust into the awkward position of explaining why Romney was perfectly within his rights to minimize his exposure. More broadly, it would force a conversation about creative destruction, the merits of unfettered capitalism and income inequality — topics on which even Republicans with strong ideological convictions would concede do not favor them at the polls. The pundits counseling Romney to come clean don’t have to litigate these arguments within the confines of a 30-second debate answer. And as reporters Kevin Hall and David Lightman point out, even members of Congress calling for Romney to release additional returns don’t think the same standard of transparency should apply to them: just 17 of the 535 members of Congress complied with McClatchy‘s request for their tax documentation.

(MORE: 5 Hypothetical New Taxes That Americans Actually Support)

Romney is within his rights to do the same. John McCain released only two years of tax returns in 2008. The fact that George Romney released 12 years is an unfortunate juxtaposition for his son, but it hardly requires him to follow suit. “There is no standard,” Joseph J. Thorndike, director of the Tax History Project at Tax Analysts, a nonprofit, nonpartisan publisher of tax information, tells Factcheck.org. “Some candidates have released a lot more returns, and others about the same number. It depends on the particular politics at the time and if they are trying to pressure the people they are running against to release more of their returns. Someone will release a lot of returns when they think they have an advantage over their opponent.”

Clearly, Romney believes further disclosure puts him at a disadvantage. At the same time, he might accrue benefits from demurring. Already dogged by the dreaded flip-flop cliché, Romney knows that a reversal would give fodder to critics in his own party who accuse him of serially caving to political pressure. For the conservative base, which is eager to see Romney engage Obama — hence the honking-bus gimmickry, the rally crashing, the penchant for bracketing the President’s events — sticking to his guns would be a gesture of defiance.

Finally, the chorus of critics has overstated the level of damage Romney has sustained. The horse race is static. The Republican ad bombardment is coming. After weeks of getting pummeled in the press, Romney remains in decent shape. Acceding to pressure would make things worse, not better.

MORE: The Real Story of Romney’s Olympic Turnaround

185 comments
Godwinslaw
Godwinslaw

Any clown can deduce that the 13% rate he paid on the returns he released were the high water mark. What it no doubt will show is that a guy who has made hundreds of millions and who already pays less of an overall tax burden than a hamburger flipper, feels the need to shelter all of his income like he's some sort of drug kingpin. I would wager he paid 0% in many years. That reveals way more of his person-hood than he's comfortable having be known. The billionaires that are funding his super-pac onslaught expect something for their money. He needs to ensure he's there to pay them back. 

ChowT
ChowT

Mitt Romney for sale.

Samuel Adams
Samuel Adams

RED STATES = the poorest states in the Union, where Republicans have ruled for DECADES, through both Repub amp; Demo presidents.

And yet they claim they have ALL the answers to fix America.

What are they waiting for -  an invitation?

Samuel Adams
Samuel Adams

Please read the companion article:

"Why Romney Should Evade His Tax Evasion"

ottovbvs
ottovbvs

Let's set aside moral and civic virtue....after all they have nothing whatsoever to do with politics or government.....LOL....Actually this is not an argument that Obama can lose. Romney won't release them because he's clearly paid little or no taxes and has probably skirted legality. If Romney won't provide facts this will provide plenty of opportunity for others to invent them. 

ChowT
ChowT

What is so difficult in producing a tax return?

svanlear
svanlear

Cmdr_Casey_Ryback - Well, you have a sense of humor.  That is good.  I would assume that we both want what is best for the country.  Good Luck to You.

svanlear
svanlear

 Cmdr_Casey_Ryback - What's the matter, loud mouth? You lost your nerve to provide an intelligent response?  Now, I said "intelligent".  Don't go ware yourself out.

Cmdr_Casey_Ryback
Cmdr_Casey_Ryback

W E A R, D U H (D)

Good, I can feel your anger (D). I am defenseless. Take your weapon. Strike me down with all of your HATRED and your journey towards the dark side (D) will be complete!  

zzz05
zzz05

MITT ROMNEY!!!

RELEASE THE KRAKEN!!!!!!

Cmdr_Casey_Ryback
Cmdr_Casey_Ryback

OWE-BAMA (D)!

UNSEAL your college files! We need another 'GOD DA** AMERICA' moment!

sacredh
sacredh

Ann: Mitt, don't you dare release the Kraken. If you get elected and I'm Queen...er...I mean First Lady, I need something to keep the servants in their proper place.

xys
xys

 This is ridiculous article. The truth is plain and simple. Romney is not releasing the  tax return because he is smart enough to know and not disclose who he is. From what has surfaced so far there are only three possible outcomes of his tax return release. With minimally paid tax to no-tax-paid, offshore accounts, a shadowy trust for tax manipulation (which has all come up already), the absolute BEST scenario for Romney is "morally corrupt" title which could very much go to "borderline felon" or "felon" title. What is he being called out now? "not transparent". The label of "not-transparent" is equivalent to "badge of honor and pride" for Romney compared to the the title he will earn after releasing his tax.

Erin Brunet is stupid in thinking Romney is stupid in not releasing the tax, Romney is not - he knows he can fool many, if not all, of the Americans "the you people" by branding this as attack against "success".

 "the you people" trust me with your 4 trillion dollar coffer but I will not tell you how I have filled out my own coffer"