Every presidential election something occurs that dominates the news over an extended period that has nothing to do with any substantive issue that affects any of us directly but consumes so much media attention that people seem to talk of little else. This year that issue is turning out to be Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital and his objection to releasing his tax returns except for 2010, and for 2011 when they are completed. (It beats me why someone who must be paying an army of accountants to do his returns still needs an extension to file.)
The issue with Bain Capital, the company that Romney founded and ran, is easier to understand. Many of the controversial off-shoring measures that it took that laid off many workers occurred in the years 1999-2002. Although the SEC filings for those years state that he was the sole owner and CEO for that period, Romney claims that he had nothing to do with the running of the company during that period because he was so busy preparing for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. But does that mean the SEC filings he filed were false and that he thus committed a felony?
Apart from the legal issue, I find it hard to believe that he had nothing to do with the company’s major decisions, however busy he was with the Olympics. These high-powered corporate types are used to keeping an eye on things and signing off on major decisions while not being involved in the day-to-day operations. I find it unbelievable that Romney would let major decisions be made without his input by the company he created and owned and was responsible for, and was still officially the head.
When it comes to his tax returns, Romney is on even weaker ground. He cannot take a principled position and say that his tax returns are a private matter, like his health records or his underwear, and should be off-limits. That option is gone because he has already released one year’s worth and said he would release those for another year. He also apparently gave 23 years worth of his tax returns to the McCain camp when they were vetting him in 2008 for the vice president’s slot. Not doing so now makes it look as if he has something to hide. The people in McCain’s campaign who had access to Romney’s returns have not (as yet) called on him to release them, leading to speculation that they have seen things that may be damaging.
What surprises me is that Romney has been running, or planning to run, for president for at least a decade. He had to have known that people would expect his tax returns to be released. Whether one agrees with the practice or not, the release of many years of tax returns has now become routine and was started, ironically, by Romney’s own father when he ran for president. So how is it that Romney, by all accounts a careful planner, did not prepare for this in advance by making sure that there was nothing embarrassing in them in the last decade?
As I wrote before, I doubt that Romney did anything flatly illegal, though nowadays it is what is legal that is the real scandal. The things that I can think of that might cause Romney some embarrassment are possibly the disclosure of how wide and varied are his offshore holdings, revealing him to be much wealthier than even what people think now, and that he has been exploiting every loophole in the book to avoid paying taxes. While not illegal, this may not sit well with some people who might otherwise like him. The other potential embarrassment is that the tax rates he paid in the earlier years may be much less than the already absurdly low 13.9% he paid in 2010.
The fact that he is stalling on releasing his returns should not lead us to conclude that he has done something wrong. For example, the birthers made hay out of the fact that president Obama refused for years to ask for his long form birth certificate to be released. They argued that this must be because he had something to hide, when all it seems is that he resented being pressured to do something that was not routinely expected of others and was an affront to his dignity. When he released the document, there was nothing there and the birthers looked even more foolish than before.
It may be that Romney feels that giving in to pressure to release his tax returns would appear to be caving in to Obama and would make him look weak. He is right but he has no choice. He may have been able to brazen it out if he could get his supporters united behind him, though that was still a long shot. But his putative allies are not backing him on this rejectionist stance (see here, here, and here) and are urging him to release his returns.
Again, it is not clear that any of this is deeply revealing about what kind of president Romney may make, although it is extremely revealing about him as a person and the attitudes and practices of the oligarchic class of which he is a member.
UPDATE: Tom Tomorrow’s latest cartoon deals with this same issue.