Romney's Taxes & \"All you people\"

When Mrs. Ann Romney told Robin Roberts on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that she and her husband, presidential candidate Mitt Romney, had “given all you people need to know and understand about our financial situation and how we live our life,” she betrayed a grave misunderstanding on modern democracy. Her comment lacked the cluelessness of Marie Antoinette’s famous, and likely apocryphal, “let them eat cake” line, but the two remarks share a common lack: accountability.

In a democracy, we the people get to decide what we think we need to know about those who aspire to public office. And the extent to which we are entitled to invade a person’s privacy is directly correlative to the amount of power we are being asked to entrust to the person seeking office. In the case of the modern presidency, Mr. Romney seeks a great deal of power and consequently we are entitled to know a great deal about his past.

No one knows what Mr. Romney’s tax records will show. But, his reluctance to share them demonstrates something we most definitely want to know about an aspirant for Chief Magistrate: He believes he is entitled to more privacy than an aspirant for such a public office is so entitled.

The kerfuffle over Mr. Romney’s refusal to release more of his tax returns indicates something else: His campaign is not ready for prime time. The issue is not going away. Soon, he will name a vice presidential candidate. How many years of tax returns will the person chosen decide to disclose? Did the person chosen already release more of their tax returns when seeking a prior office? Mr. Romney has promised to release his tax returns for 2011. Whenever he decides to do so – he has promised by October – the issue will come back. Is there no one in the entire Romney campaign structure that can sit the candidate down and explain that the day of reckoning is unavoidable?

I can think of few documents more boring than a tax return, but Mr. Romney’s reluctance to disclose his have only elevated the degree of interest in them. It is like a Hitchcock movie: The fear comes from knowing that the murderer is waiting at the top of the stairs, watching the putative victim ascend the stairs to their doom, suspecting or unsuspecting, all the while the viewer knows the murderer waits. The anticipation builds. We love secrets only because we think we will find out what they contain.

Additionally, when Romney finally decides to release five or ten years of tax returns, he will look like he is caving. He will appear weak. Every day that goes by only increases how weak he will look when he finally gives in. And, then the press will have another week to sort through the documents and share their findings. Tidbits of information which might normally be considered trivial will assume outlandishly large significance. Reporters will be dispatched to the Cayman Islands and Bermuda (I volunteer!) to do stand-ups in front of the buildings where the off-shore accounts are located. He can count on another week of the nation discussing his finances rather than the nation’s. This is not how to run a campaign.

What if he doesn’t give in? What if he sticks to his guns? Americans like someone who is willing to stick to his guns, to be sure, but they have a greater liking for drama. And what is more tailor-made for drama than secrecy? How many shows on television are dedicated to some variation of the “secrets of the stars”? How many hours of television were spent on the non-public guest list at the last Kardashian wedding? Our culture is allergic to secrecy.

Many people object to SuperPACS in the post Citizens United era because of the lack of limits on campaign contributions. But, I think more people are concerned about the lack of transparency in the new campaign finance regime. Even if we think that money is speech, and I don’t, and even if we think that rich people should be able to spend as much as they like on campaigns, which I also don’t, very few people think that it is a good idea for people to be able to contribute to campaigns secretly. Several recent stories have focused on the reluctance of Democratic-leaning rich folk to write the kinds of large checks that have been flowing into GOP-leaning SuperPACSs, in part because they object to Citizens United. Here is a solution: Give as much as you want, but disclose the gift. The Supreme Court said that rich people do not have to disclose their gifts, it did not say you can’t do so. This would not only level the contribution playing field, it would highlight the need for transparency. Have a press conference every day at which someone says, “It is Day 28, and we are still waiting for Karl Rove’s SuperPAC to disclose its list of contributors and how much they gave.” Indeed, Mr. Romney has even declined to name his bundlers, those who raise money directly for his campaign. It is strange that he accuses President Obama of “crony capitalism” while taking large sums of money from people whose names we are not allowed to know.

Mrs. Romney is not the candidate, although she was acting as surrogate-in-chief on GMA yesterday morning. Still, I do not want to beat up on her. She was sent out to defend the indefensible. It is Mr. Romney and his chief campaign aides who have turned this particular molehill into a mountain. For all his business acumen, which we know is substantial, the demands of the private sector are quite different from the demands of public life. Mr. Romney’s failure to grasp that distinction is one more reason not to vote for him.

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