While I am amused by the hectoring I’m getting for an editorial (which I didn’t write) that is allegedly too tough on Romney from the same crowd that has been beating on NRO for years because we are too soft on Romney, my biggest concern has less to do with his tax-return records and more to do with his actual record. As I write in my column today (and Michael Tanner in his), I find Romney’s timidity about defending the industry he helped create and the career he has been running on maddening. I’m not sure he should campaign on the glories of outsourcing, as Tanner suggests, but speaking honestly and intelligently about it would be a good start. The guy is rightly running as the grown-up in the race. Sometimes grown-ups need to cut through the BS. Obama’s you-didn’t-create-your-business screw up offers the perfect opportunity for Romney to give a big, serious, speech that re-frames the conversation. As Romney has said — and pretty effectively — in the past, Obama attacks straw men in order to make his case for “transforming America.” If you can convince people that the other side doesn’t believe in roads or firemen, then your pitch for federally imposed social justice is a lot easier to hawk.
Romney has already bought in to the argument that he’s the champion of free markets and free people. He’s already said that he sees Obama as moving us to a European-style welfare state. He’s already said that his record in business prepares him to realize his vision. That’s all great with me. But he needs to connect those dots.
As for his tax returns, I’m more ambivalent. Dan Foster, for instance, offers three reasons why he dissents from the editorial. In summary, they are:
1. Releasing the returns would allow Obama to “dictate” Romney’s campaign and “embolden” them to try it again.
2. Obama is outrageously un-transparent, so Romney owes him nothing.
3. It’s outrageous that anyone thinks there’s anything terrible in his tax returns. We all know this is a fishing expedition to embarrass Romney over his wealth.
About point 1. Hmm, okay. This happens in every presidential contest. Opponents flail about looking for an issue that resonates with the press or the public or — they hope — both. If the issue becomes a problem for a candidate, the candidate may or may not need to respond. When Sarah Palin said Obama had been palling around with terrorists (which was true), he needed to respond to it. That Palin was “dictating” what the Obama campaign was doing was irrelevant.
2. True. But so what? Romney is running to be a different kind of president. Denouncing Obama’s hypocrisy and secrecy becomes easier when you adhere to a higher standard. “Obama does it too” is not a strong argument for anything.
3. Of course this is a fishing expedition. Obama is the guy who used his henchmen to get his 2004 opponents’ court-sealed divorce records unsealed.
As a tactical matter I am for anything that puts this nonsense behind him and lets Romney go on offense from a position that looks a little more reassuring than a defensive crouch. If releasing more tax returns will do that, great. If not, not. I don’t see this, in and of itself, as an issue of high principle or great moral significance. I don’t care that Romney is rich or that his finances are complicated. I don’t think either issue is of much interest to voters and Obama’s focus on it is a sign of some desperation. It’s also forcing Obama to make some great errors, like this “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that” gaffe.
What bothers me — both on the tax-return issue and the Bain/outsourcing issues — is that he’s been running for president for years and yet he seems unprepared to deal with these attacks.