So What Is Mitt Romney Hiding?
In both of South Carolina Republican Presidential nomination debates, one of the issues that seemed to bedevil Mitt Romney was the question of if and when he would release his tax returns. Given that his success at Bain Capital — and the wealth he has accumulated — has become an issue in the campaign (not to mention a general issue as it relates to the Occupy movement and the question of the 99% vs. the 1%), it would seem that the answer to the question “Will you release your tax returns” should be an simple “Of course, because I have nothing to hide.”
But that hasn’t been Romney’s response.
Over the last month or so he first said that he wouldn’t release his tax returns. Then in the first South Carolina debate, Romney said that he was thinking about it and might release them in April. When pressed again in last night’s debate, his answer was somewhat more certain, but he continued to hedge as to when (probably April, after his 2011 returns are done) but said that he probably would not release tax returns for prior years.
Newt Gingrich, who I hate to agree with on anything, asked the right questions: He wanted to know what Romney was hiding and whether Republicans ought to know if there were any surprises in the tax returns before they selected Romney as their candidate. Romney, for his part, suggested that he didn’t want to release old returns and didn’t want to release his new return until April because he didn’t want to give the Democrats ammunition. Of course, that answer makes no sense at all. First, as Gingrich pointed out, what Romney is really doing is denying ammunition to his Republican opponents that they could use now. Whether he releases the tax returns or whether he limits the release to the 2011 return will be no different for the Democrats than for the Republicans. And if he waits to April, he will deny Republicans the ammunition, but Democrats will still have 7½ months to use those returns against Romney.
So why doesn’t Romney want to release his tax returns now. Why doesn’t he want to release old tax returns? Why does he want to wait until April?
What is Romney hiding?
And before you answer, it is worth noting that the three most likely answers can’t really be the reason … because that information is already available.
Romney has already released some financial information that shows that he is really, really rich. Like, as in, he’s got more than enough money to fly first class if he really wants to. Or, said differently, he could easily pay off Gingrich’s account at Tiffany and not even notice. So it seems unlikely that his reluctance to release the tax returns has anything to do with the fact that they will show that he’s rich.
So perhaps he’s trying to hide that he is the poster child for the so-called Buffet Rule (which some are now trying to rebrand as the Romney Rule). The idea behind the Buffet Rule is that those who earn most of their money from investments and not employment, shouldn’t pay a lower effective tax rate than do their secretaries. But Romney got out in front of this issue too (well, out front by a day or two) when he acknowledged earlier this week that his effective tax rate is probably only about 15%, far lower than the 30% or so that many “middle” income earners pay. So, given that we know that he pays at a low tax rate, it seems unlikely that bit of information is behind his reluctance to release his tax returns.
Could it be that he is nervous about people learning that he has
stashed deposited millions in offshore bank accounts in the Cayman Islands, a traditional haven for tax shelters for the wealthy? Again, he also acknowledged those accounts a few days ago, though he denies that they are tax shelters. Query, though, if they’re not tax shelters, why is his money in the Cayman Islands instead of, say, Boston. Or Salt Lake City. Or Toledo, Peoria, or Ypsilanti? In any event, again fear of “exposure” of the existence of the offshore accounts wouldn’t seem to be the reason for the reluctance to release the tax returns.
So what is Romney hiding?
If there was nothing in those returns that would have a negative impact, wouldn’t he just release them all now and say, as I’ve suggested, “Look, world, nothing to hide”? But he isn’t releasing them now and he’s refusing to release old tax returns. And his continued refusals and dodges on this simple question have been the cause of some very awkward, very uncomfortable, very telling moments in the recent debates. He was willing to allow last night’s debate audience to boo him on national television as he stood firm in his refusal and reluctance. Why not say, after hearing those boos, “OK, fine, I’ll release them tomorrow”? The crowd would have turned the boos to cheers and Romney would look the part of a hero, responding to the wishes of the electorate. But he didn’t do that.
So once again, I ask, what is Romney hiding?
I have a few ideas, the first of which would explain his reluctance to release the returns now but willingness to do so once he has the Republican nomination.
What if those tax returns showed a charitable donation to Planned Parenthood?
Can you imagine the Republican heads exploding when they saw that? And that isn’t a piece of information that would be of much practical use to Democrats who will already be able to accuse Romney of having changed his position. And how could Democrats even be overly critical of Romney for giving to an organization that Democrats support?
Or what if the tax returns showed charitable donations to pro-polygamy Mormon groups or other Mormon organizations that would make Republicans, especially evangelical Christian Republicans, uncomfortable with Romney’s religion?
What if the tax returns showed political contributions to Democratic candidates? Can you imagine if, after losing the nomination to John McCain in 2008, Romney donated to President Obama’s campaign? Doubtful, but you never know…
Or what if the returns showed donations to NPR or the National Endowment for the Arts or ACORN or any of the other Republican bugaboos?
Perhaps the tax returns would show income from a source that he doesn’t want to talk about, say consulting for the Chinese or Iranians or an investment in Venezuelan oil interests.
Maybe the tax returns would show that Romney stood to earn an enormous fortune if the auto industry had gone bankrupt. Or that he made an enormous fortune because it didn’t. Or what if the returns showed that he’d invested heavily in the housing bubble or bet against the market in those risky transactions that earned billions for certain investors while leading the economy into a near depression?
Obviously, I don’t know what Romney is hiding. But his refusal to release any tax returns until April certainly suggests that there is something that he doesn’t want Republican voters to see until he (presumably) wraps up the nomination. And his refusal to release old returns suggests that there is something he doesn’t want anyone to see. If there’s nothing to hide … why hide it?
It seems clear that, while Romney may still be the favorite to win, he just isn’t very well-liked by the electorate. Hiding something damaging won’t help that. But then again, his continued stumbling and bumbling over questions about his tax returns and being loudly booed by the audience on a nationally televised debate, clearly isn’t making him more likable.
Mitt Romney has a problem. Too bad.