Many years ago I worked for the campaign of a very wealthy businessman who was running for governor. In the normal vetting of his candidacy, we were going down a list of potential landmines — lawsuits, affairs, angry former employees, etc. — when the subject of tax returns came up. “Any problem, there?” we asked. “Uhmm, I’m not releasing my tax returns,” was the reply. We then went into the usual consultant spiel about how there really wasn’t a choice in the matter — that we had seen this movie before. Candidate refuses, opponents challenge, press picks up the scent, editorial boards weigh in. You either release the returns themselves, or a pretty good summary of your income and taxes paid. Surprisingly, he didn’t resist, suggesting we meet with his lead accountant. Which we did. When we emerged from that meeting, the consultants agreed, “don’t release the tax returns.”
They were awful. Pages and pages of deductions, mostly from oil and gas investments. Years with little to no income tax paid on huge income due to these offsets. It was one of the few times when the cure was worse than the disease. We refused to release; saying we had complied fully with the state’s — almost meaningless — financial disclosure requirements. We were beat up — in every debate, our opponents raised the question. They started a counter of “hours without returns,” etc. We lost, but I remain convinced we would have lost even worse had the returns been released.
Which brings us to Mitt Romney. He is now in the trap set for him and flailing. He “thinks” he paid about 15 percent as an “effective” tax rate. To most Americans, the effective tax rate is what the government takes out of their paycheck and it is a lot more than 15 percent for many of them. In the days ahead, Romney may take us on a tour of accounting techniques afforded to the wealthy, and it will confirm what most Americans already believe: The game is stacked against them.
This is an important moment in the campaign, and so far Romney is handling it badly. (Note to the White House: Get out of the way. Just say, “sounds like a pretty low rate” and don’t try to tie it to some policy initiative.) Romney needs to shut up and release the returns in April, or now, if he feels he has to — assuming that he can.