Friday, July 27, 2012

Mitt Romney's Tax Returns, Part I

In keeping with the class warfare strategy that sparked an additional round of Bain attacks, Barack Obama's campaign has been calling on Mitt Romney to release his tax returns for the last ten years. So far, Romney has refused, releasing returns for the last two years only. Romney argues that he has released all of the information that's legally required, and that Obama would merely use any additional disclosure as the subject of distortions, distractions, and attacks. However, even some prominent Republicans (albeit including Republicans who arguably never supported Romney in the first place) have called on Romney to release the returns now so that the matter can be put to rest.

Those who followed the Republican primary will recall that Romney's tax returns became an issue back in January of this year. Just prior to the South Carolina primary, some of Romney's rivals demanded that Romney release his tax returns. At the time, Romney had not released any returns; he also had not released any during his run for governor of Massachusetts. Romney's answer was that he was not planning to release any tax returns, but that he might consider doing so later.

The tax return issue hurt Romney badly in South Carolina. Romney appeared evasive, and voters wondered what he was hiding. Granted, such issues are more important in a primary than a general election. In a primary, voters are chiefly concerned with electability--the ability of a candidate to compete in a general election. They don't want any hidden skeletons that will knock their party's nominee out of the race. In a general election, electability is no longer a campaign issue, because voters are choosing a president rather than a candidate. In other words, voters are choosing someone to run the country, not someone to win future votes. Character issues play a role, but they are weighed according to their substance rather than their appearance.

The Romney tax return issue was resolved before the Florida primary. Romney understood his image of electability had taken a beating, so he quickly and quietly released two years of tax returns--the same as other candidates were doing. Contrary to expectation, there were no bombshells. Romney could be criticized for paying a low rate and for using tax shelters, but there was no evidence of anything illegal. The matter was dropped, and Romney went on to win Florida, knocking rival Newt Gingrich out of the race.

Why did anyone care about Romney's tax returns in the first place? Because voters were curious why Romney wasn't releasing them, and their imaginations took flight. The tax return issue is reminiscent of the "birther" controversy that came to a head in the spring of 2011. For more than two years, Obama refused to release his long-form birth certificate. Because the birther issue existed in the realm of conspiracy "kooks," few paid it much attention. It's likely that Obama's refusal to release his birth certificate was a political ploy intended to string along the kooks and trap any unwary Republicans who allowed themselves to be dragged in.

But in 2011, Donald Trump began openly questioning Obama's status as a natural-born citizen. The issue found its way into the mainstream. Obama persisted in his refusal to release his birth certificate, and Obama supporters struggled to explain why. Voters also became curious, because they couldn't think of any logical reason why it shouldn't be released. Their imaginations ran wild, and polls began to show a large percentage of Americans unsure about Obama's birthplace. Obama was therefore forced to release his birth certificate--leaving observers wondering what the big deal was.

Now that Obama has resurrected the tax return issue, how will it affect the general election? We will discuss that in Part II.