Mitt Romney has two choices and neither of them will help improve his chances of winning the White House.
The likely Republican nominee can succumb to the avalanche of pressure from Democrats and Republicans alike, including former rivals Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Ron Paul, to release tax returns beyond the 2010 filing he has already made public and weather the criticism that follows. Or he can continue to get hammered by President Barack Obama and Democrats on why he won't reveal them, enduring a barrage of brutal television advertisements and web videos.
The latest such video, put forth by the Democratic National Committee on Wednesday, depicts a dressage horse, like one owned by the Romney's that is set to compete in the upcoming London Olympic Games, prancing around the arena interspersed with clips of Romney during the GOP primary explaining why he won't release his tax filings. Not only does it highlight how awkward his response to the simple question is, but it also casts a pall on his upcoming Olympics trip.
The Obama campaign also released a new web video on Wednesday, highlighting Romney's muddled response on who was in charge of his venture capital firm after he apparently ceded control of decision-making in 1999 to run the Salt Lake City Olympics until 2001, when his name was still appearing on federal filings as the sole owner, president and CEO of the company. The video's effectiveness lies in the fact that it merely shows a handful of "regular" people reading word-for-word the response Romney offered the day after a news report highlighting the issue came out.
"I was the owner of a, of the general partnership but there were investors which included pension funds and various entities of all kinds that owned the, if you will, the investments of the firm. But I was the owner of an entity which was a management entity," Romney said in an interview with CBS News, the text of which is read in the Obama ad. "That entity was one which I had ownership of until the time of the retirement program was put in place. But I had no responsibility whatsoever after February of '99 for the management or ownership – management, rather, of Bain Capital."
What most pundits agree on is that Romney's tax filings will not show any illegal activity, but will only serve to compound the campaign headaches already caused by his 2010 filings, which revealed Romney paid a federal tax rate of about 14 percent on $21.7 million in earnings. The rate is much lower than most Americans pay because the bulk of Romney's income comes from investments rather than wages. But the forms also revealed Romney at times had offshore bank accounts in tax havens including Switzerland and the Cayman Islands, as well as ownership of a corporation set up in Bermuda, opening the former Massachusetts governor up for criticism that he effectively exploited available tax loopholes. Romney himself has been proud to say he doesn't pay a dime more in taxes than required. He's also repeatedly refused to "apologize" for his success, though no one has appeared to ask him to.
"I'm simply not that enthusiastic about giving them hundreds or thousands of more pages to pick through, distort and lie about," Romney told the National Review Online on Tuesday.
The campaign issue he faces is that while people are talking about what he pays in taxes and where his money resides, they aren't talking about the flailing American economy, which is central to his election chances. And facing questions about his willingness to own up to his own finances – or lack of willingness – might also cause crucial independent voters to distrust Romney and stick with the devil they know in Obama rather than the one they don't, in Romney. And the candidate is further vexed by the fact that it was his own father's presidential run in 1968 that established the precedent for candidates to release their taxes. At the time, George Romney released 12 full years of returns, saying, "One year could be a fluke, perhaps done for show."
But as conservative thinker George Will put it earlier this week, the Romney campaign and perhaps the candidate himself have for some reason decided – so far – that the political cost of revealing more returns is greater than not. They made the same decision ahead of the GOP primary in South Carolina and suffered a devastating loss before changing course.
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.