There's been a lot of braying on the Left about Mitt Romney's tax returns lately. Most of it is transparently political. Some of it is mystifyingly hypocritical. But is it necessarily wrong? Romney has done everything the law requires of him, and then some. He's made public one full year of returns (2010) and released a comprehensive estimate of another (2011). As many Democrats would hasten to point out, however, Mitt is disregarding the example set by his father, George Romney, during his truncated 1968 presidential run. The elder Romney handed over twelve full years of personal tax documentation, establishing a gold standard in transparency. Should today's Republican nominee follow suit? A burgeoning number of conservatives are now urging him to do exactly that. Here's Bill Kristol on Fox News Sunday:
Former Mississippi Governor and RNC Chairman Haley Barbour concurs, arguing that the controversy has become disruptive and unnecessarily distracting:
“He ought to release his returns,” Barbour tells National Review Online. “Any time this campaign’s conversation is not about President Obama’s failed policies,” particularly his economic record, “then the [Romney] campaign isn’t talking about the right thing...This is what the Obama people have been praying for,” Barbour says. “The news media has been playing right into their hand, chasing this around. You would think this is the only thing happening in the campaign, which is why Romney needs to put it behind him. It’s a distraction and he needs to get back to what matters.”
One more example from Commentary's Jonathan Tobin:
There may be something obnoxious about the way candidates for high office are supposed to do a strip-tease in front of the media. But if Mitt Romney’s advisers aren’t telling him it’s time to release more tax returns, he needs new advisers...the longer the Republican candidate ignores such advice the less it looks like he’s got a handle on what it takes to get elected president. It’s true that after being pounded on the question in the primaries, he released his 2010 return and an estimate about his 2011 form. But that isn’t enough, and he knows it.
I'm of mixed mind on this. As I see it, there are four arguments against Romney releasing any additional tax returns:
(1) Don't feed the trolls: Democrats' hue and cry over Romney's tax records has been disingenuous and demagogic. They've seized upon this demand as a means to sidetrack the campaign from real issues, and their media allies (who were pointedly incurious about Barack Obama's enigmatic past in 2008) have eagerly joined the chorus. Given the Obama campaign's propensity to lie shamelessly in the face of established facts, there's no reason to believe that satisfying this particular request would satisfy them. They'd find something else to bully and badger Romney over, this time knowing that he can be cowed.
(2) It's a fishing expedition: As mentioned above, if your opponent is willing to twist reality and level all sorts of unseemly charges against you based on nothing, why hand him a trove of new material to dishonestly exploit?
(3) Obama's worse: It's entirely fair to point out that Obama has been a fraud on transparency. Much of his personal history remains shrouded in mystery and "composite" reality, he's used cynical maneuvers to violate his own openness pledges, and he recently invoked executive privilege to cloud an investigation into a lethal gun-running scandal that his Justice Department has been feverishly covering up.
(4) Real damages: It's possible -- though I'd say quite unlikely -- that Romney has something buried in recent tax releases that isn't just mildly embarrassing, but hugely problematic. The revelation of this malfeasance could cripple Romney's campaign, assuring a victory for Barack Obama, which many of us believe would be profoundly detrimental to the country in the long run.
I've listed these items in order from most to least compelling. On the first two points, yes, this action would involve catering to bad actors' fishing expedition fantasies, partially rewarding their poor behavior. It's a decidedly unpalatable thought, but not reason enough to withhold the information, in my judgment. The third reason may be true, but just pointing at the other guy is a grade school tactic. Moving on. Finally, if Romney's tax returns reveal some truly disqualifying information (say, some proof of illegal behavior), he deserves to reap the whirlwind. I fully concede that this outcome would place the country in a dreadful, untenable position, as our current destructive ideologue could be left at the helm for four more years. Because none of these points seem sufficient to justify Romney's current position, I find myself in agreement with the Kristol/Barbour/Tobin faction. In addition to rejecting the excuses listed above, here are four positive reasons for Romney to release more forms:
(1) Honesty is the best policy: In short, it's the right thing to do, even if it causes a few temporary headaches. These too shall pass.
(2) People won't care: Even if the tax information packs a modest political punch (look at how richie-rich he is!), the public will get over it quickly. Obama partisans will harp endlessly, naturally, but average voters won't give a hoot about Romney' personal wealth come election day if the economy continues to sputter and Romney offers a positive alternative vision for the nation. According to Gallup, Romney's affluence only negatively impacts 20 percent of voters. We call these people "liberal Democrats." That number might temporarily spike a little if the tax returns make major headlines, but better to weather than mini tempest in July or August than to have the 2012 presidential home stretch focused on Romney's "secrecy."
(3) Bad optics -- for them: Romney is a boy scout who has lived a life of great personal rectitude. He strikes me as a dot-every-I-and-cross-every-T sort of fellow. He's also a man of guiding and grounding faith. I am confident that his affairs are all in virtually perfect order, and that they do not contain the knock-out blow Team Obama is hoping for. When the records become public and there isn't much there, Democrats will look silly, petty and desperate for harping on the issue for weeks on end.
(4) A strengthened moral authority: If Romney complies with Democrats' requests, he'll have increased standing to confront Obama over his myriad shortcomings on the transparency front. Imagine this line at a debate: "Your campaign insisted that I release more of my personal tax returns from years past. I did, Mr. President. Now why don't you tell the American people why you've asserted executive privilege to obstruct an investigation into a gun-running scandal involving your administration that has resulted in hundreds of deaths, including the murder of a US agent? It's time for you to come clean, Mr. President. I have. It's your turn, and the American people deserve complete transparency and candor on this matter." Over to you, champ.
(5) Distinguishing accusations: Democrats have unapologetically undertaken a massive obfuscation effort in recent days, intentionally conflating various accusations against Romney and merging them into an overarching narrative. They've got nothing but hot air on Bain Capital, a fact confirmed by multiple fact-checkers, CNN, the New York Times and even Bob Woodward. What's helping them get away with their flagrant lies is their seamless transition into a simultaneous tax harangue. Taken together, they hope, voters will succumb to a sense that Romney's somehow up to no good. If Romney proactively takes one line of criticism off the table, all that would remain is the discredited Bain/"felony" nonsense. That's a much easier fight to contain, rebut and win.
One final consideration: If Team Romney wants to clear the air and partially defang critics by releasing the returns -- but they'd prefer to do so in such a way that minimizes their impact and media coverage -- they should quietly drop the documents within hours of rolling out their Vice Presidential running mate. Unless there's a bombshell in there (again, I doubt there is) the VP narrative will dominate several news cycles and drown out lesser stories. Or perhaps they could release things over the weekend during the Olympics. There are options.
UPDATE - Romney's tax "secrecy" was a topic of discussion on CNN last night. This graphic appeared on screen -- no joke:
What an embarrasment. (Red State's Ben Howe has some fun at CNN's expense).
UPDATE II - The Examiner's Conn Carroll crafts a thoughtful response, disagreeing with my conclusion.
Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson. He is co-authors with Mary Katharine Ham for their new book End of Discussion: How the Left's Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).
Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography