Is Harry Reid's on-the-Senate-floor charge that Mitt Romney paid no taxes for 10 years despicable, or a stroke of political brilliance?
It could be both.
Reid, the deceptively soft-spoken Senate majority leader, is sticking to his claim that an unnamed source or sources with information about Romney's tax returns informed the Nevada Democrat that the very wealthy Romney paid nothing in taxes for a decade. Reid has not revealed the name of the source, but insists it is true. That standard is startling, to say the least. Even in our current media environment, where blogging and Twitter and a misguided focus on getting things first instead of getting them right, that standard doesn't hold. Reporters at legitimate news organizations could not get a story in the newspaper or online that is based on the premise that "rumor has it." Making such an allegation on the Senate floor raises the ante even more.
But it may be effective. Romney has stuck to his decision to release two years of tax returns (he's released one, plus an estimate of 2011) and nothing more. He's not a corporation, he notes; he's a person. Theoretically, there is some justification for that. Our personal financial and health records are just that—personal. Goading someone to release personal information with the logic that "if there's nothing bad there, why not show us?" is a bit manipulative. It's the same logic behind the post-9/11 "sneak and peek" law—the ones that allows federal authorities to come to your home without telling you and look through your things. If there are no bomb-making materials in your underwear drawer, why would you object?, is the argument. It comes down to a basic desire for privacy, even if we are doing nothing wrong.
But the standards change when someone is running for president. The media—and also the public—demand more information about the people charged with making life-or-death decisions about complicated, sometimes secret, matters. Presidents routinely release details of their yearly health check-ups (revealing what we weigh might be enough for many of us to skip politics altogether). And candidates commonly release a number of years of their tax returns.
So why won't Romney do it? Is it possible he really paid nothing in taxes? Probably not, the Washington Post's excellent fact-checker surmises that paying nothing would be virtually impossible for Romney, given his general portfolio. It's possible, of course, that the returns could reveal something Romney would prefer to keep to himself—perhaps that he paid less in taxes, as a percentage of income, than lower earners—not by cheating, but by taking legal advantage of legal tax deductions. Or maybe he doesn't want questions raised about how much he was getting paid by Bain during a time when he says he was not involved in the day-to-day decision-making that led to some jobs being relocated overseas.
But is it fair or right for Romney to be wheedled into revealing more information because, as Reid said, "the word is out" that Romney paid nothing? Politically, it may not matter. Reid's allegations may fail the attribution test, but they keep the issue in the news. Reid's not up for re-election for four years, so he has the luxury of falling on the sword for his party. Romney may not have that luxury.