Monday, April 2, 2012

Romney vs. Tax Returns: Round 2 (FIGHT!)

Does this sound familiar? Team Obama has called for Romney to release his tax returns dating back to the 80's to let us all know if he took advantage of some funky Bain Capital accounting:
Following a front-page Wall Street Journal article Thursday reporting that employees at Bain Capital, Romney’s former private-equity firm, were allowed to invest their retirement money in companies the firm acquired through a special share class, the Obama camp is seeking Romney’s old tax returns to see if they contain information about the investment arrangement.
Reports indicate that the deal could have increased the value of certain investments, which may have helped swell Romney’s retirement account. The candidate’s IRA was valued at between $20.7 million and $101.6 million as of August, according to his financial disclosures.
Team Romney has responded with something as interesting as it is stupid: a call fro Obama to release transcripts of all meetings with foreign leaders:
“The Obama campaign is playing politics, just as he’s doing in his conduct of foreign policy," Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul wrote. "Obama should release the notes and transcripts of all his meetings with world leaders so the American people can be satisfied that he’s not promising to sell out the country’s interests after the election is over.”
Why is this stupid? Well, because actually doing so--releasing transcripts of private meetings with world leaders would damage American diplomacy for years to come if not forever. Suggesting this raises the instant question: If the circumstances were reversed, if Romney were the president, Obama the challenger, and Team Obama released 30 years of Tax Returns--would sitting President Romney go "Okay--here's all the transcripts!"? Of course not--so when Romney is forced to admit he wouldn't do it ... then why's he asking Obama to?

The Answer: Open Mic Night
The answer, of course, is that he's trying to capitalize on Obama's Open Mic "gaffe":
Monday, President Obama told Russian President Medvedev that “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.” Medvedev responded that he would dutifully report that tidbit to Vladimir Putin back in the Kremlin. The men apparently did not realize their discussion was being caught by a live microphone.
(The word "gaffe" is in quotes because this was not a miss-speak by Obama but rather a comment he wishes the world hadn't heard).

It isn't that Team Romney is wrong to try to pounce on Obama for this--after all, as people are seemingly fond of saying, 'Politics ain't beanbag'--it's that this is a remarkably stupid way to do it. I'm not the only one who thinks so. Legal Insurrection, hardly a liberal blog, agrees:
For now, Romney can get away with a “no new tax returns” policy because it’s still the primaries. But once he is the nominee, the media which now is building him up will turn its full attention to taking him down, and the refusal to release tax returns will dominate the news for a few cycles, and then be a persistent talking point.
Romney has made it worse by tying the release of tax returns to Obama’s release of notes and transcripts of meetings with foreign leaders. The two are apples and oranges. The public expects candidates to release tax returns without precondition.
The public does not generally expect the President — any President — to reveal private meetings with foreign leaders. 
It Shoulda Been The College Transcripts!
A pretty common comments-talking point is that Team Romney should've asked for Obama's College Transcripts. This is better, so far as it goes--but there is a second problem. It is a matter of faith that there is this massive list of documentation that Obama has not revealed. From "The Trustworthy Encyclopedia*:"
The thinking is that should Obama be forced to release this material we would see that he was really born in Kenya and he'd be booted from the White House. No serious political operator thinks this--to believe it you have to think that everyone from Romney to Santorum to Gingrich to the entire GOP to McCain to Sarah Palin is such an incompetent that the million dollar campaigns aligned against Barack Obama cannot do even modest opposition research and cannot seize on a simple surefire win.

Or you have to believe it's all a giant conspiracy--which is what people in this position usually gravitate to.

But in any event you are in the uncomfortable position of concluding that Donald Trump is smarter than your preferred candidate.

In this zone--or anywhere near it--the idea that forcing Obama to release his either non-existent Harvard transcripts or the supposed list of C-grades (amplified with little Affirmative Action notations, no doubt) would damage Obama badly.

The fact is that if you did draw this line in the sand Team Obama could just release his transcripts--which most probably show nothing spectacular (I will allow that perhaps they are not the straight-A's true believers might expect of "Obama the Light Worker") and then you, having issued a 'Call' have to put your cards on the table.

And then we get to see whatever it is that makes Romney so damn reluctant to release his tax returns. Which is unsettling given that we already know he's Richie Rich and we've already seen his tax rate is 13.9%. If there is anything worse in there, well, he's not well advised to take that kind of risky bet.

So What Is He Hiding?
While it's easy for him to just go back the required 7 years or so, he's not likely to get away with doing less (as Legal Insurrection's headline: Romney’s been down this tax return road before, and it’s a dead end notes). If whatever he doesn't want in there is from the mid-to-late 2000's then he's screwed. Otherwise he can say "Sorry--I don't keep records past the required time" and unless he does ... and someone leaks ... he should be okay).

Since he is not doing this, we have to ask: is there something else besides Bain Capital in there? If there is, ouch. If not ... this is not a discussion he wants to spend another 10 seconds having.

The problem with the Birth Certificate thing--with Obama's selective service card or whatever--is that having the discussion makes his opponents look stupid. There's a reason Obama hasn't released everything and it's because having Birthers out there helps him. The same is not true of Romney and the tax returns.

What Do I Think?
Unless something weird happens Tuesday in Wisconsin, April is going to be a bad month for Santorum and while it gets a little better after that it seems very unlikely that we'll see much excitement in the primaries going forward. Romney should be able to start running the general. Which is what he really, really wants to do. I assume that Team Obama released this now because they're hoping that Santorum will seize on on it as a strategy and give the request some GOP-side boost.

Santorum would be wise to do so: he needs a game changer and his current strategy isn't going to give him one.

However, if this is how Romney runs his general strategy--with amateur hour missteps--then he might want to go back to the early days of the endless debates when everyone was afraid to attack him.

* Calling yourself The Trustworthy Encyclopedia is a surefire way to call attention to the fact that your image is a political cartoon. It's exactly the kind of thing you'd expect them not to be doing, isn't it?

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