We campaign gurus all agree: It's about forcing the other campaign to "educate the voter."
That's why President Barack Obama's re-election campaign continues to call for presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney to release more of his tax returns—to shift the burden of "educating the voter" to the Romney camp.
Let Romney explain offshore accounts and effective tax rates and depreciation and who knows what other arcane elements of America's 72,000-page tax code. Let him show Americans how it is right and proper for him to pay less in taxes, as a percentage of his massive income, than they do. Let him demonstrate how shell corporations, bank accounts in the Caymans, and tax-avoidance strategies most of us can't imagine add up to investing in America.
So far, Romney has resisted the calls from the Obama campaign, its amen chorus in the media, and even a growing number of Republicans and conservatives that he "come clean" and release more of his returns. Here's hoping he sticks to his guns.
There is no reason for Romney to supply the president's campaign with more fodder for oppo research. More, as Romney says, for the president's men "to pick through, distort, and lie about." Romney gave John McCain 23 years of returns when he was being vetted as a potential running mate in 2008, and McCain, who doesn't mind sticking it to fellow Republicans when he deems it necessary, says there is nothing untoward in them.
Let's keep the burden of education where it belongs—with Obama. Let him explain why this matters. We all know Romney is a rich guy who made his money in venture capitalism. We know his accountants know their way around the tax code like Joe Biden knows his way around a swear word. Let Obama either show why he knows better what is in Romney's returns than McCain, who has actually seen them, or otherwise educate voters on what of value we need to know from those returns.
Moreover, let him educate the voters on why seeing Romney's tax returns is more important than explaining why he has made no progress on fixing the economy, reducing unemployment, or healing the nation. Let him explain why Romney's tax records are fair game but his college transcripts are not. Or why a highly selective document release is appropriate for "Fast and Furious," which actually cost people their lives, but not for the tax returns of a man we all know is rich.
Romney's advisers are right: Voters are satisfied they know what they need to know about his finances, and they'll know if anything important about them has changed when he releases this year's return in coming weeks. Yes, there will be a steady drumbeat of calls for him to relent. But most of those calls will come from people defending a president whose performance in office is not in and of itself defensible.
The time may come when Romney has to change course. The president has the media on his side, and if the issue begins to change votes in Virginia or Ohio, Romney may have to rethink.
But for now, every time he is asked about his tax returns, he should respond: "Why ask me about something that has nothing to do with how I will perform as president when you could be asking the current president what on Earth he's done to deserve four more years?"