Mitt Romney handed President Obama a political gift this weekend, when his campaign announced that he would not file his tax return on time. Romney made the announcement at 5 p.m. on Friday — the time politicians usually put out bad news they hope no one will notice. Team Obama noticed all right. The president took a break from the Summit of the Americas in Colombia to criticize Romney’s lack of transparency, while Obama campaign manager Jim Messina declared that it “begs the question — what does he have to hide?”
“What does he have to hide?” will be a major theme of the Obama campaign in the coming months. Both a pro-Obama super PAC and the Democratic National Committee have videos up asking: “What’s Mitt hiding?” And Obama strategist David Axelrod has told Politico that the Obama campaign intends to make an issue of “Romney’s penchant for secrecy.” “Harkening back to my youth . . . there was a show called, ‘I’ve Got A Secret.’ Increasingly, I think that would be the appropriate title for the Romney campaign,” Axelrod said, adding that voters need to ask themselves “Who is this guy? What does he stand for? What does he believe? What do we know about him?”
Republicans need to ask themselves: Why does Romney seem to be going out of his way to help Obama raise such questions?
Take, for example, news reports this morning that Romney has previously undisclosed plans to eliminate entire Cabinet agencies if elected. Romney is quoted as saying, “I’m probably not going to lay out [publicly] just exactly which ones are going to go.” Where did the media find out about his secret plan to reduce the size of government? The Wall Street Journal reports that Romney “discussed his plans while speaking to high-dollar donors at a private estate. During the backyard event, which could be overheard by reporters outside on a public sidewalk, Mr. Romney offered policy specifics he has yet to unveil on the campaign trail.” So Romney is sharing secret details of his plans to shut down government agencies with wealthy contributors in Palm Beach, Fla., that he has not shared — and in fact says he does not plan to share — with the American people.
These are self-inflicted wounds — and if they continue they could cost Republicans the election.
On taxes, it is simply inexplicable why the Romney campaign still cannot get a handle on an issue they should have seen coming years ago. Did they learn nothing from the tax-return debacle he went through during the South Carolina primary? Romney had a double-digit lead until he fumbled the tax issue in not one, but two, Republican debates. His evasive answers, and refusal to commit to releasing his returns, drew boos from the GOP crowd and helped Newt Gingrich win an upset victory.
Even Republicans are starting to ask: What could possibly be in his old tax returns that is worse than creating the impression he has something to hide? When Romney finally released his 2010 return, it was revealed that he had millions in an offshore Cayman Islands fund and millions more in a Swiss bank account he had failed to disclose earlier. This was perfectly legal, if politically tone-deaf. The man had been running for president for nearly eight years. One would think that, by 2010, he would have scrubbed his finances to get rid of any controversial investments. Whatever is in his earlier tax returns, Romney is better off releasing them and enduring some more bad press than giving Team Obama more fodder for its “what is Mitt hiding” campaign.
The “secrecy” charge is particularly damaging for Romney because it is a clever way for Obama to exploit some Americans’ discomfort with Romney’s Mormon faith without ever raising the issue directly. Recall the outcry last August when a senior Obama adviser declared their intention to highlight the “weirdness factor with Romney.” Team Obama knows many Americans see Mormonism as a “secretive” religion. Calling Romney a “secretive” candidate is a way to tap into those fears without incurring any political blowback.
There may be little Romney can do to change American attitudes about his faith. But he certainly can stop giving Obama more unnecessary excuses to call him “secretive.” The Romney campaign says Obama wants to “distract Americans from the real issues.” They are right. But Obama is not creating the distractions Romney is. He needs to stop. Now.