This just in: planet Kolob has yet to be discovered, but Willard Romney's 2011 tax returns have been released, which means that an issue that had seemingly lost interest for nearly everyone but Nevada Senator Harry Reid is suddenly back front-and-center, which had the handicappers who cover these things scratching their heads.
Puzzled about what's puzzling them? Let's recap: Governor Romney, the Republican nominee for President, is the wealthiest man to ever be nominated by a major American political party, maybe the wealthiest to head the ticket of any party, period: conservative estimates of Romney's wealth total about a quarter of a billion dollars. He's the kind of guy who, if he wanted, could easily buy a professional sports team, and while not a billionaire, could put together a billion-dollar deal if he wanted to.
Romney's best argument for pursuing the highest office in the land, frankly, is that he has been a striking success in the private sector. After all, he began young adulthood as, you know, only a millionaire, and he's easily increased his net worth by a factor of, oh, 200 or more. The feeling in some quarters is, if you want to grow the economy, now's the time to find someone with that invaluable private sector experience to run things, not another professional politician who has spent most of his time in the public trough.
It's a success story that is beyond the imaginings of most Americans. OK, well maybe not me or Han Solo: we can imagine quite a bit, but it's impressive. But here's the problem: while emulating Croesus, Governor Romney has also had quite a few public instances of playing King Midas--in reverse. For one thing, he has so far refused to release tax returns from between 2003 and 2009, and only got around to releasing last year's returns today. Along the way, it became public knowledge that before Romney became governor of Massachusetts, he divested many assets into his wife's name, including Swiss bank accounts and some kind of mysterious tax shelter thingy in the Cayman Islands. These are the kinds of moves that can effectively conceal God-knows-how-much from the IRS and the scrutiny of the general public, and also the kinds of moves that the average American could only imagine having the resources to make.
As a consequence, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has for some time been repeating an unsourced rumor to the effect that Mr. Romney hasn't paid taxes sometime in the last ten years. That claim took a mild hit yesterday in terms of its credibility, given that for 2011 at least Mr. Romney has provided a return, and a supposed audit of his returns showed that, on average, he paid significant taxes over that ten-year period. However, that claim hasn't been disproven, either. It is still quite possible that during some of the last ten years, Romney paid little or no taxes. So, while today's release provides some details, it's not a "smoking gun" to make Reid's smear campaign go away. There are also some fascinating details in the 2011 returns that show that the Romney camp has tweaked the return in order to remain consistent with prior claims made by the candidate about the size and nature of his 2011 returns. The short version is that Romney ended up paying more than he was legally required to pay, in order that his effective tax rate would hover around 14 percent (as he had previously claimed), rather than less than 10 percent, if all of his charitable giving had been deducted as the law requires.
On MSNBC, the largely partisan analysis had a field day with this, while Reid essentially doubled down on his dark hints, supposedly telling a Las Vegas Sun reporter that he still believes that the Governor is hiding something. Well, maybe, maybe not, but the fact remains that the decision to release the returns now, with the first debates less than two weeks away, is quite curious. It will be interesting to see if the President even alludes to tax returns at all, and perhaps the Romney camp simply felt that a preemptive strike would make the DNC people think twice about returning to the issue. Well....think again:
Yes, if the thought this would make "the chattering class" just "stop it", as Mrs. Romney had pleaded earlier this week, well, this is an enormous blunder on the part of the Romney camp. Most Americans had been focusing on his other miscues, and this reminds voters of a detail that makes his ill-chosen "47 percent" reference seem not just a question of indifference, but indicative of arrogant disregard for the lot of ordinary Americans who pay taxes at a rate well above what's been shown in Mr. Romney's returns released to date. Releasing these numbers gave his DNC foes more grist for the mill, and pretty much forced media outlets, even FOX, to address the question of whether he had something to hide. Heads you lose, Mr. Romney, tails they win.
Let's be clear: a lot of this criticism is just patently unfair. Governor Romney makes a lot of money, and he gives a lot of money, and that's one reason why his effective tax rate is so low. If I was in a position to give at Romney scale, I certainly would, and I would certainly take advantage of a tax code that allows me deduct charitable giving, because that would allow me to give even more to the causes that I care about. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Governor Romney paying 14 percent or 9 percent, and charitable giving is absolutely something we should encourage our more fortunate fellow citizens to do. As far as I can see, Mitt Romney is doing nothing I wouldn't do to maximize my own investment in this country and its people. Nothing.
But you know what? I'm not running for President of these United States. If I was, and I was burdened with potential voter envy due to my success, I would certainly not approach the question of my personal wealth the way that Mr. Romney has. I would release all my tax returns, and I would've liquidated my foreign investments years ago and be completely transparent about them, even those transactions that provoke envy, because first and foremost I would not want to give anyone, anywhere, anything to hang their hat on where they could claim that I was hiding something. I would do that even if my effective tax rate would approach zero, because full disclosure up front would allow me to turn a potential negative (wealth that most Americans can only dream of) to a positive. Governor Romney's greatest asset in a troubled economy is his well-established ability to make a good living by making business ventures more profitable, but he can't effectively make that point if he hides behind the skirts of the law and refuses to discuss details about how he made those ventures more profitable, and just how profitable they were.
This could've been so different. Romney is a citizen of a country where, as one wag put it, most people don't see themselves as poor, but merely as future millionaires who are likely to strike it rich, any day now. If Romney had recast his business ventures and his income in terms of that great American dream, he might not become more likeable, but he instantly becomes harder to actively dislike. The way to counter the stereotype of "to the manor born" is not to allow your foes to characterize your success as privilege, but to paint yourself as a man who has worked very hard to achieve success in business, to describe the agonizing, the soul-searching that could attend making the very hard decisions about businesses that affect people's lives. Even blue-collar workers who've lost jobs due to mergers and outsourcing could appreciate why decisions for the greater good often involve short-term sacrifice, the distinction between eggs and omelettes.
Similarly, the way to counter the stereotype of "miserly plutocrat" is to emphasize the relationship between financial success and charitable giving. Mr. Romney could've pointed to people who are far wealthier than he, people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, and praise them for their philanthropy, and to tightly wrap their ability to give to a tax code that rewards personal generosity. You would pick billionaires on the other side of the aisle to praise, and draw careful attention to specific acts of charity that they have produced, rather than appear boastful about your own giving. This would make you look generous and principled in discussing "wealth creation", and walks you nicely back toward the conservative narrative as to how wealth is created.
(Now, keep in mind I don't buy that narrative, precisely because people like Gates and Buffett are exceptional. Rich people as a group tend to invest in old businesses rather than start new businesses, and "trickle down" fiscal policies, combined with increased leveraging of the system with money by the very rich, has created an economy that is increasingly stratified and which squeezes the middle class in a way that stifles economic growth. But I'm not arguing that narrative is true, merely that it has been historically persuasive for many Americans when sold a certain way, a way that Mr. Romney ought to understand how to sell.)
Yes, these are the kinds of things you could talk about if you were completely transparent about your own finances: hard work, tough decisions, charitable giving as a form of economic investment. In the hands of a skilled politician like Bill Clinton, you might not persuade an independent voter that your prescription for the economy is entirely sound, but it would be clear that your views on how to grow the economy, views that differ from the President, proceed directly from your own experience, your own hard work, your own success, and that becomes increasingly difficult to criticize without seeming mean-spirited.
Well, at this point we should all know that this path was not the path pursued by Gov. Romney. He chose to keep his tax records secret but, as Roger Simon points out, require his running mate (Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan) to provide ten years worth of returns, just like Senator McCain required Romney to release ten years of returns back in 2008 when he was being considered a potential running mate, just like Romney's own father (former Michigan Gov. George Romney) provided decades of returns. That Romney remains patently unwilling to abide by the same standard his father advocated, and that he and other politicians require of each other, can only be described as hypocritical. Perhaps his camp thought that the news that the Governor paid millions more than he had to in 2011 would make him more sympathetic and make the whole tax return thing go away, but you can't elicit sympathy when people see you as a hypocrite. It's only full disclosure that creates the dynamic where an open discussion of your wealth and privilege can be turned into a positive.
So, do I believe Gov. Romney has something to hide, as Harry Reid wants us to infer? I don't really care at this point, and I don't think most Americans care at this point, either. The issue is not whether or not Romney has anything shameful hiding in his returns, nor is the issue the supposed attempts of the left to revive class warfare and pillory Mitt for the "crime" of financial success. The issue is that Mitt repeatedly fails to connect to regular Americans in a way that embodies his views on fiscal policy, which is supposedly his strong suit as a candidate.
You can't separate the man from the policy, because the man manifestly embodies not the 47 percent, not the 53 percent, not the 100 percent, but the ultra-rich: the one-tenth of a percent of Americans who are doing fabulously well in this stagnant economy. It's not class envy to demand that a historically wealthy candidate in a time of great income disparity show transparency and consistency in their own financial dealings in order to be regarded as credible on fiscal policy: it's common sense.
Common sense would also suggest that if, for whatever reason, you don't want to shine the light of day on your tax records, it would be unwise to remind the electorate of that less than two weeks before your first presidential debate, and just 45 days before the election. Common sense, that any reasonably competent politician who knows how to connect with voters would appreciate. The problem is that Mitt Romney is not a competent politician. There are things that he is good at, including making money and building organizations behind the scenes. He is ambitious and smart, but he utterly lacks the common touch that politicians with less money and less brains have in earnest.
That's why any mention of taxes is now "death" for the Romney campaign, and just as I am certain of death and taxes, I am now certain that the Romney campaign will continue to shoot itself in the foot all the way to November. Mitt Romney isn't just a flawed candidate: he embodies a flaw in the Republican Party, he embodies a flaw in the entire conservative wing of American politics, he IS a flaw masquerading as a candidate. The flaw: the belief that money and power and the "right" ideas should be enough to buy an election.
I passionately believe otherwise. I believe a compelling and winning candidacy must have more than dollars, more than influence and more than a list of tired talking points. They have to personally connect to the American people, and it is striking that the Romney organization not only doesn't appear to understand that, but they don't appear all that interested in trying to understand that. Indeed, the entire GOP apparatus seems to hang, increasingly, on the idea that the big money made available in the Citizens United decision will allow them to leverage the election with a billion dollars worth of late advertising.
Mitt Romney may not really buy into every part of the ideology of the "Tea Party" movement, he might be something of a RINO who is attempting to conceal his more moderate views, but in this one thing he is definitely lock-step with the rest of his party: he's got the money, and he manifestly believes that the guy who's got the money should prevail, for both pragmatic and ideological reasons. I think that's a flawed outlook, likely a fatal flaw. But let's consider the possibility that I'm wrong, and that like death and taxes, the eventual ascendancy of Mitt Romney and his money is inevitable. If so, this election becomes a test of whether monied interests can prevail over the 47 percent of Americans who, Mitt Romney implies, are not carrying their weight. If Mr. Romney and his allies are correct, America is for sale, and the people who are the "job creators" are the ones who have both the means and the compelling moral obligation to put in the highest bid, and take over.
Total: 23, 586