Mitt Romney is steadfastly resisting calls to release additional years of his personal tax returns, arguing — not without good reason — that this demand is part of a fishing expedition by the Obama campaign, which hopes to exploit Romney’s personal wealth and successful business career as part of a class-warfare election strategy. Romney argues that whatever he releases will not be enough to satisfy the Obama campaign and its factota in the media, who are, once again, proving their bias and double standards. Romney is right, but he should release the returns anyway. Let them go fish.
We doubt that there is anything truly surprising in Romney’s additional personal tax returns (he’s already released 2010 and will release more from 2011). We already know that he has made vast amounts of money, that he gives generously to his church and to charities, that he has set up trusts for his family, that he maintains bank accounts and investments overseas, and that he takes advantages of such benefits as are available to him under our ridiculously complex tax code. If there is scandal to be had of that, it can be had from the information that already is available. But there is no scandal in that: Romney is a wealthy man — and he has complicated personal finances, something that is typical of wealthy men. In fact, Romney’s personal finances are a very good case study in what’s wrong with the American tax system and regulatory climate.
The Romney campaign says he has released as many returns as candidate John Kerry did in 2004, and cites Teresa Heinz Kerry’s refusal to release any of her tax returns. Neither is an apt comparison. John Kerry actually released returns from 1999 through 2003, and also released tax returns during his Senate runs. As for Teresa Heinz, Romney isn’t the wealthy spouse of a candidate, but the candidate himself. In 2008, John McCain released two years of returns, but he had been filling out financial disclosure forms for decades as a senator. Romney protests that he is not legally obliged to release any tax returns. Of course not. He is no longer in the realm of the private sector, though, where he can comply with the letter of the law with the Securities and Exchange Commission and leave it at that. Perceptions matter.
Romney may feel impatience with requirements that the political culture imposes on a presidential candidate that he feels are pointless (and inconvenient). But he’s a politician running for the highest office in the land, and his current posture is probably unsustainable. In all likelihood, he won’t be able to maintain a position that looks secretive and is a departure from campaign conventions. The only question is whether he releases more returns now, or later — after playing more defense on the issue and sustaining more hits. There will surely be a press feeding frenzy over new returns, but better to weather it in the middle of July.
If he releases more returns, Romney will be in a better position to resist the inevitable demands for even more disclosures. More important, he will be in a better position to pivot his campaign to what should be its focus — telling a story, through a series of detailed, substantive speeches, about where he wants to take the country. It is to President Obama’s advantage to fight the election out over tactics and minutiae. By drawing out the argument over the returns, Romney is playing into the president’s hands. He should release them, respond to any attacks they bring, and move on.