Mitt Romney is not a good public speaker. I find it painful to listen to him. Even a short clip of his speeches reveals someone who seems uncomfortable in that role because he lacks the ability to make his points clearly. What has got him so far is money and preparation plus the backing of the party establishment, the media, and the oligarchy, coupled with his willingness to say anything to pander to his audience. This is what makes so puzzling his repeated stumbles on the question of his own taxes, a topic that he must surely have known was coming. His performance on this issue is weirdly awkward for someone who prides himself on his careful preparation.
There seems to be increasing intrusiveness in the political process resulting in the current expectation that candidates for major office must release their income tax returns, their medical records, and since the birther nonsense, maybe even their birth certificates. I personally fail to see the relevance of candidates’ personal lives (and that includes their tax returns) in weighing their merits for public office. So I can understand why some candidates resent being asked to reveal their personal information.
I think candidates should be able to retain the rights to their privacy and don’t care how rich or poor they are or how much they give to charity. What I am much more concerned about is influence peddling and outright bribery and would much rather see more transparency in those areas that would reveal quid pro quos that work against the public interest.
Having said all that, the idea that candidates must release their tax returns has become the norm. All candidates know this and this makes the stumbling evasiveness of Mitt Romney on this issue so peculiar since he must have known it was coming. If he had refused to release them on principle, saying that his private affairs are no one else’s business, he might have got away with it. At least I would have sympathized. Instead he has just tried to dodge and weave and changed his story. Stephen Colbert has fun at his evasiveness.
After the beating that he took in South Carolina, he has now said that he will release his 2010 returns and an estimate of his 2011 taxes tomorrow, but he is clearly doing so reluctantly.
So what could be the problem? The most common reason suggested is that he may be paying only about 15% of his income in taxes, which is a lot less than what most middle class people pay. But he has already said this publicly (although under pressure) so why the further hesitation?
The problem for Romney is not that he is very rich. American voters don’t seem to care and they even admire people who are wealthy. But as Matt Taibbi perceptively pointed out a few months ago when Wall Street executives were complaining that they were being unfairly portrayed as evil, people in America don’t get angry at the wealthy simply because they are rich, they get angry at people whom they think got rich by cheating. The anger at Wall Street is because of the perception that they did not do so fair and square but lied and cheated their way to wealth by rigging the rules in their favor. I think that Romney is afraid that he will be seen as a cheater.
Why? One possibility is that he may be paying even much less than 15% by using various tax loopholes that are effectively available only to rich people, such as parking his money offshore in the Cayman Islands and elsewhere. Rightly or wrongly, people view offshore bank accounts (and the Cayman Islands are notorious as a haven for cheaters) as evidence of shadiness and the excessive exploitation of tax loopholes as cheating, if it results in much lower rates of tax payments than ordinary people.
Another possibility is that he may have hidden much of his income using such devices as the ‘carried interest’ loophole. The idea that millions of dollars of income may not even be counted as income would strike some as cheating.
Romney may also have been using some shady tax shelters that have passed the mild scrutiny of the IRS but may not withstand the closer scrutiny that will come with lots of reporters analyzing his records. The oligarchy has been highly successful in having the number of auditors in the IRS reduced and its focus shifted away from aggressive enforcement of the tax laws so the wealthy have become remarkably creative at finding ways to avoid paying taxes.
If Romney’s release of his tax returns in April reveal nothing sensational, that will lead to suspicions that his taxes for 2010 (which were filed in 2011) and this year were prepared with his current campaign in mind and may not reflect what he has done in previous years, and that will ratchet up the pressure for him to release his previous years’ taxes. It does not help him that his father George Romney apparently released his own tax returns when he ran for president in 1968 and did so for the previous 12 years because he said that the returns for any given year may be a fluke.
I do not expect any bombshells in the tax returns that will be released tomorrow. Romney strikes me as too cautious a person to engage in outright illegality. But I think that they will reveal a lot about how the oligarchy exploits the tax system to pay at far lower rates than the rest of us, and that may start a useful conversation of how they have managed to rig the system so much in their favor.