How did a campaign as well run as Mitt Romney's so badly botch the issue of his tax returns?
It's no surprise that Romney was forced to back down from his initial position that he would not release the returns; the only questions, as far as I was concerned, were when he was going to cave and — still an open matter — how many years of information he would supply.
It's no surprise either that Romney's effective tax rate — in the neighborhood of 15 percent, he said the other day — is so low. As you're looking at your W2 form and marveling (or, more likely, grumbling) about how big a bite the government took, think about Romney's 15 percent and ask yourself: Is this fair? Is it necessary to encourage investment, innovation and job creation? Warren Buffett has the answer: No.
But I digress. The real surprise from the still-unfurling tax episode is that the issue of releasing tax returns was simultaneously so predictable and so mishandled.
It is an iron rule of presidential politics that candidates face pressure to release their tax returns, pressure that mounts the closer they get to the nomination. To try to defy this fact is a fool's errand: Just ask Hillary Clinton, 2008. You can do it after weeks of being battered by the media and your opponents, or you can spare yourself the pain, and the ensuing damage.
If I were advising Romney, I would have suggested that he unload the documents during a stretch when reporters were otherwise occupied and wouldn't be apt to pay much attention. New Year's Eve in Des Moines, for example.
Instead, Romney first said he would not be releasing the information. "Never say never, but I don't intend to do so," he told NBC News last month — and promptly, predictably, spent the next several weeks backing away from that assertion.
By Monday night's debate in South Carolina, Romney hemmed and hawed his way to committing, kinda, sorta, to release his returns in April: "But, you know, if that's been the tradition and I'm not opposed to doing that, time will tell," he said. "But I anticipate that most likely I am going to get asked to do that around the April time period and I'll keep that open."
For Pete's sake, as Romney might say. If you're gonna say yes, just say yes and stop waffling.
Pressed again, Romney went a smidge further. "I think I've heard enough from folks saying, look, let's see your tax records. I have nothing in them that suggests there's any problem and I'm happy to do so," he said. Happy, really? Could have fooled me.
By Tuesday morning, Romney had shot himself in the other foot by acknowledging that his tax rate was around 15 percent. Oh, and also — is there a third foot? — Romney described the $374,327 he reported in speaking fees as "not very much."
By choosing to pull off the Band-Aid with excruciating slowness, Romney has guaranteed maximum attention to the tax issue. Now we're in for a debate about how many years is enough. What happens in April — cable channels running countdown clocks to his tax release?
It's been interesting to watch Romney's Republican opponents doing the Obama campaign's dirty work in roughing up Romney over his record at Bain Capital. That damage was not completely foreseeable — Bain was an obvious general election target but not necessarily an issue for the GOP primary — nor was it self-inflicted. The same cannot be said about Romney's income taxes. Somewhere in the White House, David Plouffe is smiling.