So lately, as everyone who reads blogs or watches left-ish TV pundits knows, much hay has been made about Mitt Romney’s seemingly-inexplicable refusal to release more than two years worth of his tax returns – the last two, when he knew for certain he was already running for President in 2012. Actually, Romney hasn’t even fully released all of those two years, but close enough. Speculation has focused on the previous, well, all of the years between the time Romney left the protective umbrella of his dad’s finances and forged out into the world on his own and the present. Many a commentator, up to and including President Obama’s oppo-research team, have speculated – not without reason – about why Romney continues to refuse to disclose tax returns from years prior to 2010.
Speculation has focused specifically on the notion that perhaps Romney may have paid no taxes at all in some years. The Obama campaign released an ad to that effect not long ago, to great fanfare and speculation on the left (as well as some deflection and outrage on the right). More recently, Senate majority leader Harry Reid dropped the bombshell that a former Bain investor with knowledge of the matter told him directly that in some prior years, Romney indeed paid no taxes whatsoever.
If these allegations are true, they are indeed a bombshell, for exactly the reasons Romney would be wise to keep such news private if he possibly can: because although the American electorate tends not to begrudge people wealth – even great wealth – we also have a stubbornly persistent anti-elitist streak, as well as an enduring sense of fair play. In short: while few voters will look upon the simple fact of Romney’s enormous wealth as a detriment (indeed, it may even be seen as an asset by many, on its own), those feelings would almost certainly change for many voters if it was revealed that Romney’s millions were accumulated at the expense of fellow Americans (hence the offshoring ads), or that Romney utilized strategies available only to the wealthy to avoid paying his fair share of taxes like most of the rest of us must. And if it were revealed specifically that Romney really did pay NO taxes whatsoever during some of the years he was raking in his millions – even only one or two years – such a revelation would be a candidacy-ending event. Mitt Romney would not be able to be elected dogcatcher in the wake of such a disclosure.
This dynamic is already well-understood by political observers, both professional and amateur. Certainly, both campaigns are aware that would be the case. And indeed, the Romney campaign’s continued stonewalling on the issue of the candidate’s pre-2010 taxes does lend itself to ever-wilder speculation along these very lines. Unfortunately, that’s exactly where the Democrats, the Obama campaign and progressive commentators may be making a serious tactical political blunder.
Let me be clear: if someone on the Democratic side knows for a fact the most-severe of the allegations about Romney’s taxes are true (not just suspects they might be true), then full speed ahead: up the pressure on the tax issue until Romney has no choice but to release the returns. That would be the equivalent of holding four aces for the Obama campaign, and it would be difficult to overplay or blow such a great hand.
But here’s the thing: if no one except the IRS and Mitt Romney (and, I suppose, John McCain) know what’s really in Romney’s previous-year tax returns – in other words, if Reid isn’t certain of his source and/or the Obama campaign is just speculating for political effect, then publicly and repeatedly speculating about a worst-case scenario such as Romney having paid no taxes at all may very well work against Obama and Democrats.
Why? Because although the pressure applied is the same, the end result almost certainly would not be. One of the lines of reasoning most often given (to fairly good effect) to explain Romney’s continued refusal to release any more of his taxes is that it must mean whatever’s in those tax returns would be so politically damaging to Romney that it’s better to take whatever damage comes from not releasing them, compared to the damage that would be incurred from disclosure.
If Romney really did pay no taxes, then that suspicion would be correct. But what if the Romney campaign’s refusal to release other tax years’ returns is nothing more than the stiff-necked authoritarianism and “you people” dismissiveness of a man not used to having to answer to anyone? What if those old tax returns show some chicanery, but not much worse than the 13.9% rate he’s already disclosed for the 2010/11 years, and nothing close to the bombshell of having paid no taxes at all?
In that case, ratcheting up the pressure on Romney to intolerable levels may very well backfire. If the Obama campaign and liberal commentators and journalists make the Romney team believe that the political cost of remaining silent has exceeded the likely damage of disclosure, the result could easily be that the public’s reaction to the actual revelations (having been set SO high by loose – and, it turns out, unsubstantiated – claims of total tax avoidance by Romney) is a big yawn. After such a build-up, moderate tax-avoidance may well seem like no big deal, at least in comparison.
Worse, Democrats, journalists and the Obama campaign will appear to have been embarrassingly hyperventilating in their accusations (not to mention wrong), and Mitt Romney will be easily portrayed by any competent campaign staffer as the aggrieved, unjustly-accused party, even though there may be issues the voters would otherwise care about in what Romney revealed.
Obviously, I have no idea either what might be lurking in Mitt Romney’s tax returns from, say, the Bain years or why his campaign is declining to release more than two years of returns even in the face of mounting pressure to do so. So I’ll repeat: if someone in the Obama’s oppo team or elsewhere in the Democratic establishment really does have the goods regarding what’s in Mitt’s old tax returns that’s making him so apprehensive about releasing them, and if that reason really IS that Mitt Romney paid no taxes in at least one year, then the current, wildly speculative strategy is exactly the right strategy.
But if this is all just guesswork on the part of the Obama campaign, Reid and lefty pundits, and an attempt to score points against an opponent’s seemingly-inexplicable refusal to disclose past tax data, then it might be worth trying to avoid overshooting the target with all that speculative outrage, and risking a let-down in reality. The stakes are too high for this kind of a bet if you’re not actually holding those four aces.