Sometimes political campaigns really are like high school.
The campaign managers for President Barack Obama and Republican hopeful Mitt Romney demonstrated that on Friday, when they participated in was essentially passive-aggressive, public note-passing regarding Romney's tax returns.
Romney renewed discussions of his reluctance to release more than two years' worth of filings for public scrutiny when he told campaign reporters in South Carolina on Thursday that over the past 10 years he had paid a rate of at least 13 percent. It's a rate far below that of most taxpayers, because the bulk of his earnings come from investment returns, known as capital gains, which are taxed lower than wages.
Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager, penned an open E-mail to his Romney counterpart, Matt Rhoades, promising not to attack Romney for not releasing more returns if he ponied up a total of five years worth.
"Gov. Romney apparently fears that the more he offers, the more our campaign will demand that he provide," Messina wrote. "So I am prepared to provide assurances on just that point: if the governor will release five years of returns, I commit in turn that we will not criticize him for not releasing more—neither in ads, nor in other public communications or commentary for the rest of the campaign."
Of course, Messina did not promise to pull punches on the information revealed by such releases. In fact, Romney has been pummeled by Democrats for at times holding accounts in tax havens such as Switzerland and the Cayman Islands, which were revealed by his 2010 tax filing.
"A five year release would appropriately span all the years that he has been a candidate for president," Messina wrote. "It would also help answer outstanding questions raised by the one return he has released to date, such as the range in the effective rates paid, the foreign accounts maintained, the foreign investments made and the types of tax shelters used."
But the Romney campaign wasn't falling for the nice-guy ruse offered by Messina, whose request was likely just the wind-up for the equivalent of a political sucker punch on the schoolyard.
"It is clear that President Obama wants nothing more than to talk about Gov. Romney's tax returns instead of the issues that matter to voters, like putting Americans back to work, fixing the economy and reining in spending," replied Rhoades, also via an E-mail distributed to reporters. "If Gov. Romney's tax returns are the core message of your campaign, there will be ample time for President Obama to discuss them over the next 81 days."
Rhoades said rather than release more tax documents, Romney would "continue to lay out his plans for a stronger middle class, to save Medicare, to put work back into welfare, and help the 23 million Americans struggling to find work in the Obama economy."
He signed off the note with "see you in Denver," a reference to the site of the first presidential debate, scheduled for October 3.
Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.