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The Romney Tax Distraction

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. Bill Kristol was the latest conservative to say what everybody knows is common sense when he called the refusal to release more returns “crazy” on Fox News yesterday. He’s right, and 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.

The Romney campaign has been operating fairly smoothly since the primaries ended with only occasional hiccups such as his zigzags about whether ObamaCare was a tax. But by digging in their heels on this point, they are showing they are not as light on their feet as they should be. The tax return story may be a deliberate attempt by the left to distract the country from a bad economy, but it is also about transparency, something every presidential candidate must demonstrate in this day and age. Like it or not, a presidential candidate must reveal all of his financial data or doom himself to be the focus of conspiracy theories. If Romney wants to counter the Obama campaign’s vicious attacks on his record, he needs to show that he has nothing to hide. Once he does that, he can return to making substantive points about the president’s philosophical commitment to big government and against economic freedom. In refusing to give in to political fashion, he is not merely making a tactical blunder. Doing so also lends credence to the Democratic narrative seeking to portray him as a heartless plutocrat.

Romney is very wealthy, and his returns from previous years probably contain information about all sorts of investments that will be mined by Democratic opposition researchers and their counterparts in the mainstream liberal press for items that will embarrass him. That won’t be pleasant. but it’s doubtful there is anything in there that would change many minds about the election. Some (conservatives) will admire him for his wealth and others (liberals) will despise him for it. Most will not care one way or the other. But by stalling, he gives Democrats a stick with which to beat him and feeds the faux controversies about his leaving Bain Capital and outsourcing.

Yet the main conclusion to be drawn from all of this is not the substance of this minor issue but what it tells us about Romney and his campaign staff. If they are so out of touch with reality that they think they can stall on this issue indefinitely without it hurting them, they aren’t as smart as they think they are. What’s more, it shows they are capable of making even worse mistakes in the coming months, a prospect that will encourage their Democratic counterparts. A bad economy and a weak incumbent give Romney a good chance to win in November. But if he thinks he is above petty concerns such as releasing his tax returns, that shows a degree of detachment and arrogance that bodes poorly for the GOP’s chances.