Mitt Romney told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday that he would release his 2010 tax return, plus an estimate of his 2011 tax liability, right away: “I’m going to make it very clear to you right now, Chris, that I will release my tax returns for 2010, which is the last returns that were complete. I will do that on Tuesday of this week. I will also release at the same time an estimate for 2011 tax returns.”
It’s a good thing Romney decided to “make that very clear” to Wallace and his audience. A team of quantum physicists has been studying his previous answer on the subject, given during the Thursday night debate in South Carolina, but had to suspend the project when one of the scientists went insane, babbling something about his cat being both alive and dead at the same time.
It’s a real mystery what might have made Romney decide to go ahead and put his tax information on the table right now, after agonizing at such Shakespearian length over whether he should wait until he files his final 2011 return in April. Did anything interesting happen in the GOP primary this weekend?
Romney has turned his tax returns into a real liability, if you’ll pardon the accounting pun, and it’s entirely his doing. It’s amazing that he thought he could get through the election, or even the primary, without releasing this information – didn’t anybody in his campaign game out his weaknesses, and consequences of responding to them poorly, especially in the current political climate? Whether it’s “fair” or not, public interest in his personal finances, stoked by campaign opponents, was entirely predictable. Politics is an unforgiving environment with little room for complaints about predictable unfairness.
Now he’s got the worst of all worlds, as the information he formerly guarded closely is made public, for the most obviously desperate of reasons. He looks both disingenuous and weak. The only way he could have made this worse would have been appearing on Fox News Sunday wearing a top hat and monocle.
Playing coy with his tax returns has already landed Romney on the wrong end of a class warfare argument, as it became big news last week that he paid an effective tax rate of 15 percent. Rival candidate Newt Gingrich was quick to point out that he, personally, forked over 31 percent to the government. Mediaspace was clogged with angry denunciations of Romney for paying a lower rate than middle-class voters with a tiny fraction of his wealth. When the time comes to dine upon the Evil Rich, the Warren Buffet table is always fully stocked with empty calories.
Romney can only effective respond to this assault with details. He took a stab at this by explaining that much of his income comes from investments and interest, but he sounded defensive instead of persuasive. He’s been confronted on ground that deserves aggressive protection, and he should be attacking the illogic and tyranny of a system that castigates people for obeying its laws.
Wealthy people obtain these low tax rates by taking advantage of various deductions in the tax code. These deductions are largely intended to shape the behavior of the public, by rewarding activities the government approves of. It is obvious that such incentives work… particularly when pursued by people who can afford skilled tax accountants to minimize their exposure. For example, all of the Republican candidates agree that tax rates on investment should be reduced, to encourage more investment. Rick Santorum wants a zero tax rate on manufacturers, to re-ignite the American manufacturing sector.
And yet, when the people who have enough money to make significant capital investments follow these deductions, and collect their reward for behaving exactly as the government has stated it wants them to, they’re savaged as villains. The entire point of the Alternative Minimum Tax is to sandbag people who take too many deductions. Many of these AMT ambush victims are small business owners.
Mitt Romney should have the courage and conviction to argue against the hypocrisy of promoting hatred for people who make a serious effort to solve the maze of incentives and penalties set forth by the government. The one big applause line he’s delivered during the last couple of debates was when he said he would not apologize for being successful. His tortured response to the tax return issue undermines that bold statement, and muffles the cheers.