Mitt Romney clearly doesn’t want to release his income tax returns, lest voters be reminded that a very rich man dwells in a rarified world far removed from the one inhabited by little people.
For someone who is a millionaire roughly 200 times over, this is quite a political dilemma. If Romney keeps the lid on his returns, voters might conclude that he has something to hide. Yet if he does release his returns (as he probably will at some point), voters will likely discover that he has availed himself of tax advantages not available to the average Joe – namely, the 15 percent tax rate that private-equity company executives pay on their investment profits. During last night’s Republican debate, two episodes exposed Romney’s skittishness. Early on, Rick Perry eyed the front-runner and said (coherently!): “My income taxes have been out every year. Mitt, we need for you to release your income tax so the people of this country can see how you made your money. I think that’s a fair thing. As Republicans, we cannot fire our nominee in September. We need to know now. So I hope you’ll put your tax records out there this week so the people of South Carolina can take a look and decide if we have a flawed candidate or not.”Romney responded at length, talking about this issue and that issue – but never addressed the question about his tax returns. The other candidates on stage gave him a pass, and when the Fox News moderators failed to follow up, it appeared that Romney was in the clear.Not so. Forty five minutes later, a Fox moderator asked him directly whether he will in fact release his returns (as presidents and likely nominees have traditionally done since the ’70s). Romney responded with a stammering, grudging, teeth-gritting semi-affirmative – much the way that the Earl and Countess of Grantham have consented to open their Downton Abbey estate to hordes of recuperating soldier-commoners.Romney’s spoken words didn’t quite convey his awkward vibe, but still: “You know, I looked at what has been done in campaigns in the past with Sen. McCain and President George W. Bush and others. They have tended to release tax records in April or tax season. I hadn’t planned on releasing tax records because the law requires us to release all of our assets, all the things we own. That I have already released. It’s a pretty full disclosure. But, you know, if that’s been the tradition and I’m not opposed to doing that, time will tell. But I anticipate that most likely I am going to get asked to do that around the April time period and I’ll keep that open….I sort of feel like we are showing a lot of exposure at this point. And if I become our nominee, and what’s happened in history is people have released them in about April of the coming year, and that’s probably what I would do.”Note all the hemming and hawing: “if that’s been the tradition and I’m not opposed to doing that, time will tell” and “most likely I am going to get asked to do that around the April time period and I’ll keep that open” and “that’s probably what I would do” – coupled with the whining: “I sort of feel like we are showing a lot of exposure.”There it is: Romney has a serious fear of exposure. Which is why he only sorta kinda agreed to release his tax returns (maybe in April, after he presumably sews up the nomination), without quite committing to do so. But hey, at least he wasn’t stonewalling anymore. A mere three weeks ago, he told MSNBC: “I don’t intend to release the tax returns.” Politically speaking, a stonewall stance isn’t ultimately sustainable. Voters have a right to examine a candidate’s personal assets – to determine, for instance, whether there are potential conflicts of interest or suspicious tax deals. And rarely, in fact, have nominees and presidents paid a political price simply for being rich. Voters tend to assume that all major candidates are rich anyway. Everybody knew back in the day that John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt were rich, and it didn’t hurt them.But Romney is obviously sensitive about full exposure – understandably so, because that 15 percent tax rate is certainly sweet. The average citizen doesn’t get to play in that game. That’s reserved for private-equity executives, who pay the low rate on their investment profits, which are known officially as “carried interest.” (Indeed, critics call it the “carried interest loophole,” and President Obama is already on record saying that he wants to close it.) The political risk for Romney is that his tax return details might remind average voters that he is profoundly disconnected from their daily financial woes.Romney did his best last night to dodge the tax return issue by distracting the boisterous debate audience with some of his favorite lies – for instance, by claiming that Obama “does not have a jobs plan yet” (last autumn, Obama unveiled a comprehensive American Jobs Act, which, naturally, has been blocked on three separate occasions by Senate Republicans); and by recycling his canard about how Obama, a national security softy, supposedly plans to slash $1 trillion from defense spending (at least 60 percent of that money stems from a budget deal forged last summer with Republican leaders).Romney’s inartful dodging probably won’t damage him in the South Carolina primary – he still seems destined to win Saturday – but sooner or later, he likely will be dragged toward full transparency. He has repeatedly insisted that he’s not “required by law” to come clean about his tax returns, and he’s right on the law. He never released his tax returns when he ran for the Senate, nor when he ran for governor. But virtually all major presidential candidates, dating back more than 30 years, have opened the books because they deemed it the right thing to do. One of those transparent candidates, back in 1968, was George Romney. Mitt reportedly reveres his late father. It’s time to follow dad’s example.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1