During Monday night’s debate in Myrtle Beach, Mitt Romney was compellingly and cogently pushed — by Rick Perry, no less — on the issue of releasing his tax returns. The former Massachusetts governor sputtered. “I have nothing in them that suggests there’s any problem and I’m happy to do so,” he replied. “What’s happened in history is people have released them in about April of the coming year, and that’s probably what I would do.”
But even the transcript, with its awkward constructions and noncommittal “probably,” doesn’t quite capture the unfortunateness of the response. It was quite simply Romney’s weakest moment in his weakest debate, combining all of the silly tropes alleged by his opponents into a single caricature of a slippery, well-heeled frontrunner trying to coast through the primaries.
Responding to a reporter the next day, Romney allowed — again with modification — that his effective tax rate is “probably closer to the 15 percent rate than anything,” since most of his income comes from interest and investment. But if Romney hopes to defuse the issue, he’ll have to do better than a ballpark guess. He should release his current tax return, or, if it is not yet available, his 2010 returns, and he should do so now.
While we won’t know until we see the records, we can adduce little that could be contained therein that would cast doubt on Romney’s ability to execute the office of the presidency, or his ability to execute it better than Barack Obama. Romney took no salary as Massachusetts’s governor and none as head of the Olympic Games, and signed on to turn around Bain & Company for a dollar. He reportedly tithes, and, through a fund administered with his wife, has given millions to charity, including the proceeds from his book. If his effective income-tax rate is in fact 15 percent, it would exceed the effective rate paid by the average American. That most of his income is taxed at lower, capital-gains rates is not the result of some arcane loophole, but a core feature of the United States tax code. Not even President Obama is calling for capital gains taxed at regular income rates.
But if there is something troubling — or at least politically exploitable — in Romney’s returns, ’twere best it be known quickly. As Perry put it when he confronted Romney on the issue, since Republicans “cannot fire our nominee in September,” it is critical that Romney release his tax records now, that voters might “take a look and decide if we’ve got a flawed candidate.” We know that should Romney become the nominee, he will be criticized over the sources of his wealth and will have to effectively respond. Republican primary voters deserve to see whether he can do so before they vote.
If he is to be the nominee, a speedy release benefits Romney, as well. If he discloses tomorrow, he will have secured the time and space necessary to exhaust the present attacks on his wealth and craft a counter-narrative. If he waits until April, or beyond, he will have ensured that the attacks reach a fever pitch just in time for the Obama campaign to make them a centerpiece of its reelection class war.