Morals and Machiavelli

    The 19th century political columnist Finley Peter Dunne famously said, “Politics ain’t beanbag.” The 16th century diplomat-philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli famously said it better: “Politics have no relation to morals.”Keep those quotes in mind while we track the fracas triggered by Harry Reid’s rhetorical assault on Mitt Romney. The Senate Democratic leader asserted last week – without a shred of supporting evidence – that Romney is hiding his tax returns because he doesn’t want voters to discover that he paid no income taxes for 10 years. In leveling such a baseless charge, Reid was morally wrong. But, in the Machiavellian sense, he may be tactically right.And that’s because Romney’s beleaguered defenders have fallen right into his trap. On the Sunday shows, Senator Lindsey Graham denounced Reid for making “absolutely unfounded assertions,” and Republican chairman Reince Priebus denounced Reid as a “dirty liar.” Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell denounced Reid as “reckless and slanderous.” Romney himself, in a campaign stop on Friday, took the bait and said: “Harry Reid really has to put up or shut up.”Rest assured, Reid and Obama are delighted with the opposition response – because every time the GOP fulminates about Reid, it keeps the tax return story alive. It reminds the voters that Romney still hasn’t released multiple years of tax returns (unlike every other major candidate since the ’70s), and it stokes another round of speculation about what he may or may not be hiding. Every time Romney assails Reid (“put up or shut up”), it reminds the voters that Romney is the one who needs to put up. On Friday, Romney insisted: “I have paid taxes every year. A lot of taxes. A lot of taxes.” Really? Then show us the money. If Reid is dead wrong, then prove him wrong.There’s a big reason why several dozen prominent Republicans, as well as conservative media figures, are pleading with Romney to release multiple tax returns. They realize that his stonewalling stance is a tactical loser, that there’s no upside to being stuck on defense. Veteran GOP strategist Ed Rollins became the latest to say so, on Fox News yesterday: “I think at this point of time it’s going to dog him all the way and he needs to get it behind him. I think he needs to release more taxes. Absolutely.”Harry Reid has behaved with all the niceties of a junkyard dog, but Republicans know darn well that aggressive dishonesty can be very effective politically – as they have repeatedly demonstrated over the years, from Willie Horton to Swift Boat. Now they’re getting a taste of their own medicine, and they’re virtually at a loss about how best to respond. (Given Romney’s untenable stance, there really is no best way to respond.) Reid’s shameless nod to Machiavelli is not morally inspiring, but this is all about winning. It’s about keeping the tax story alive, keeping Romney back on his heels. The Republicans surely recognize the brutal rules of that game, having essentially written them for the modern era. And Reid has surely channeled one of the credos coined by the crafty Florence philosopher:”It is double pleasure to deceive the deceiver.”——-How noteworthy it is that while George W. Bush will be conspicuously AWOL from the Republican convention, Bill Clinton will be front and center at the Democratic convention. My Sunday newspaper column explained why.   ——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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