Tax Return Transparency Blues

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Tax Return Transparency Blues

Mitt Romney may have released his tax returns, but there’s more than one lesson he can learn from the legacy of George Romney

Just before his South Carolina shellacking by a thrice-resurrected Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney fielded a question during a debate about whether he would release his tax returns. Romney hemmed and hawed around an actual answer:

“At the very beginning, I indicated that I didn’t have any plans to release my tax returns and then it became clear that that was of great interest to everyone… There was such an interest in tax returns, I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’ Hadn’t planned on doing it, but there’s interest, so I said I will release the tax returns when they can all be released at one time.”

This is the sound of a candidacy in crisis – a campaign that cannot anticipate fairly obvious questions and a candidate who cannot think quickly and clearly on his feet.

The media, of course, was quick to invoke the name of George Romney, Mitt’s father as well as a contender for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination.

It was George Romney, actually, who set the precedent of presidential candidates releasing their tax returns to the public. Nor did he release the return for only a year or two, but a full twelve years worth:

“He ordered up all the Form 1040’s that he and Mrs. Romney had filed over the past 12 years – including those profitable ones when he saved the American Motors Corp. from bankruptcy and became a millionaire on the company’s stock options.

Romney’s disclosure was apparently unprecedented. While other candidates had released statements outlining their income, assets and other financial data, none had ever released his actual returns.”

Now, after relegation to the role of challenger, his son has finally followed suit, releasing returns from the last two years.

To no one’s surprise, Romney earned $21.7 million in 2010, paying $3 million in taxes, and in 2011 he earned $20.9 million, paying $3.2 million in taxes. Also to no one’s surprise, his tax rate was just below 14%, thanks to the fact that the vast majority of his income was generated by investments, which benefit from a lower rate.

It seems a wonder that this tempest in a teapot managed to reach the boil it has.

When Romney spoke with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell back in December, his tax returns were just becoming an issue. When he said he would “consider” releasing the returns, Mitchell asked, “Is there some secret? People know you’re wealthy.”

This is precisely the point. It’s common knowledge that Romney is worth something in the vicinity of $200 to $250 million. Romney had also previously admitted that his tax rate was around 15%. It’s doubtful putting an exact number on his wealth makes much difference to voters. After all, rich is rich and Romney’s rich.

What I suspect the Romney camp was trying to hide was the Romneys’ $7 million of charitable giving, amounting to 14% of their income.

Normally this would be something for a 1%-er to flaunt, especially with Newt’s charitable giving at a relatively paltry 3%. But Romney’s charity comes with an asterisk: $4.1 million went to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in compliance with the stipulation that members tithe 10% of their income.

Such devotion may strike many voters, even deeply religious ones, as unusual, especially since many already regard the Mormon church with suspicion.

There is no disguising that Romney is on the wrong side of the economic zeitgeist. Nor is there any disguising his commitment to his religion. So why bother? Why give himself the opportunity to fumble an issue like the tax returns that doesn’t reveal anything we didn’t already know?

Gingrich’s most recent rise isn’t due solely to the fact that this Cheshire cat seems to have nine lives. Romney has seemed muddled, botching what should be a fairly straightforward political parry – which brings us back to George Romney.

Just as George W. Bush’s presidency was painted as an effort to take care of daddy’s unfinished business, so too are Mitt Romney’s presidential aspirations characterized as both an attempt to live up to his father’s high expectations and also avoid the mistakes that doomed his bid for the presidency.

If George Romney was direct and open about his tax returns, he was direct and open about very little else. He was prone to needless gaffes – such as when he claimed receiving a “brainwashing” at the hands of U.S. generals and diplomats in Vietnam.

But he also suffered from an inability to articulate clear responses to issues. A profile in Life magazine described his style of speech as “grandiloquent waffling that so often confounds what he utters.”

The reporter described Romney’s emotional response to an item in the paper dissipating into shapeless, shifting campaign platitudes:

“As I later watched the right-minded shock he had expressed that morning slowly erode into another badly gullied public position, it struck me that this is what makes George Romney so often seem his own worst backer. For all his energy, for all his idealism – for all his loquacity – he still manages to turn self-expression into a positive ordeal.”

The lesson here extends far beyond tax returns. The younger Romney tries his best not to stray from the general platitudes of campaign-speak, which are too often sound like they’ve been filtered through a focus group. Even worse, Romney sometimes sounds like he’s impersonating someone else, a cardinal sin in a political culture that prizes “authenticity,” however manufactured.

Following his father’s example in releasing his returns was a good move, but in all other respects he should leave the Romney family campaign legacy of befuddling behind him. We all know he’s rich, and we all know he’s a Mormon. Why hide it? Without compromising his reputation for steadiness and competence Romney should be frank, forceful, and unafraid to speak freely.

I still have faith that the Newt tornado will drop his grandiose presidential ambitions somewhere over the rainbow, but that’s no excuse for Romney to play it safe.

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