One thing Mitt Romney has been noticeably reticent to do is embrace the full spectrum of conservative attacks on President Obama. When it comes to the economy, Romney has no problem playing with the gloves off; for months, his campaign ran with the claim that Obama presided over net job losses, even though it’s absurd to blame any president for the economic conditions of their first months in office. Romney has repeatedly insisted that Obama has “apologized” for America around the globe, despite the fact that there is no evidence for the assertion.

Still, there have always been limits to the hard-nosed approach of the Romney campaign. When a Republican Super PAC floated racially-tinged attacks on Obama — using Jeremiah Wright as a bogeyman — Romney immediately distanced himself from the fracas. “I repudiate the effort by that PAC to promote an ad strategy of the nature they’ve described,” sad the Republican nominee, in an interview with conservative website Townhall. It’s not that Romney is politically courageous — he held a joint event with Donald Trump, after all—but that he sees the danger in trying to “otherize” Obama. Harsh personal attacks wouldn’t play well with the majority of Americans who still like the president, even if they disapprove of his administration.

But with Romney reeling from relentless criticism of his career at Bain Capital, and bipartisan calls to release further tax returns, he has apparently decided to break the seal on personal attacks. McKay Coppins describes a new plan to hit Obama for corruption and general degeneracy:

[F]acing what the candidate and his aides believe to be a series of surprisingly ruthless, unfounded, and unfair attacks from the Obama campaign on Romney’s finances and business record, the Republican’s campaign is now prepared to go eye for an eye in an intense, no-holds-barred act of political reprisal, said two Romney advisers who spoke on condition of anonymity. In the next chapter of Boston’s pushback — which began last week when they began labeling Obama a “liar” — very little will be off-limits, from the president’s youthful drug habit, to his ties to disgraced Chicago politicians.

“I mean, this is a guy who admitted to cocaine use, had a sweetheart deal with his house in Chicago, and was associated and worked with Rod Blagojevich to get Valerie Jarrett appointed to the Senate,” the adviser said. “The bottom line is there’ll be counterattacks.”

These counterattacks aren’t original; they are the bread and butter of conservative bloggers across the country, and were pushed heavily by the late Andrew Breitbart as part of his attempt to “vet” President Obama. There is a belief, among some on the right, that Obama is still an unknown quantity. According them, Obama escaped thorough vetting from the McCain campaign, and as a result, is still vulnerable to revelations about his past. The attacks on his drug use are part of this, as well as the focus onTony Rezko, a disgraced Chicago businessman.

Even if these attacks were effective — and given the degree to which they haven’t worked in the past, I’m skeptical — it will be clear to everyone that this is nothing but a distraction. The real story is, and will continue to be, Romney’s refusal to release further tax returns. Pundits and newspapers will continue to speculate that he’s hiding something, and the Obama campaign will continue to hit him for secrecy.

Try as he might, Romney can’t turn the controversy over his tax returns into a game of he said, she said; the questions are too widespread, and the concerns are too deep. Releasing the returns are the only way to resolve the issue, even if it means a massive, and damaging, hit to his campaign.

Jamelle Bouie is a Writing Fellow at The American Prospect. You can find his blog here.