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.
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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.
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 Review. And 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.
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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.
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.