Saturday, April 7, 2012

Mitt Romney's Taxes: The Story That Isn't (But Is) Relevant

Readers of a certain age will remember one of the most oft-spoken lines of the Watergate scandal: “the cover-up is worse than the crime.” I’m reminded of that in looking at the mini-controversy over GOP front-runner Mitt Romney’s tax returns. There’s not really a whole lot to the case itself: Romney is stinking rich, has a gaggle of high-priced accountants and tax lawyers and similar minions who stretch the law to precisely the breaking point and ethics a little further than that. In other words, he’s no different from any other ridiculously wealthy politician, whether that be Jon Corzine or Meg Whitman or Michael Bloomberg. There is, as Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland, no there there.

Still, there was a Washington Post story by Tom Hamburger detailing how Governor Romney “has taken advantage of an obscure exception in federal ethics laws to avoid disclosing the nature and extent of his holdings.” Curiously enough, Cleta Mitchell, “a Republican lawyer who has represented dozens of candidates and officials in the disclosure process, including [oh, so coincidentally] Romney’s leading challenger for the GOP nomination, Rick Santorum,” thinks Romney’s secrecy about his finances “turns the whole purpose of the ethics statute on its ear.”

And “Joe Sandler, a Democratic Party lawyer who has shepherded candidates and nominees through the disclosure process for 26 years [including for the John Kerry Presidential campaign],” proclaims that “Romney’s approach frustrates the very purpose of the ethics and disclosure laws.” Go figure: political rivals think (or purport to think) that Romney is up to no good. In other news, dry ice is cold.

But despite the arcane nature of the allegations, Governor Romney saw fit to send forth an emissary to articulate the reasons we should all believe the rich guy. Unfortunately for the Governor, the talking head chosen for this assignment was senior advisor Eric Fehrnstrom, best known as the guy who committed this year’s signature campaign gaffe, the Etch-a-Sketch line. He didn’t do a whole lot better with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd. Even a lightweight like Todd sets up a fairly tough question: “I understand you guys are following the letter of the law, but are you following the spirit of sort of what presidential campaign candidates have done in the modern era of releasing more details, more tax returns, than what you’ve released?”

Fehrnstrom is, presumably, a really bright guy. He just doesn’t play one on TV. He sniffed that:
The Governor has provided all the disclosure that’s required by law, and that is significant, but then he’s gone one step further than that: he’s voluntarily put forward hundreds of pages of tax return information…. we’ve put out 2010 tax return information; we had an estimate for 2011, and we think that’s sufficient.
Let’s parse that, shall we? First off, it’s significant that a candidate for President of the United States obeyed the damned law? Is that what he’s saying? That’s the impression one gets from the tape, although the transcript alone might be read to mean that what’s required by law is significant disclosure. It isn’t, by the way, given the public’s right to know whether a decision is based on the good of the country or of the President’s portfolio.

Secondly, Governor Romney has put forward “hundreds of pages of tax return information,” but it’s all from the same year. That’s right: hundreds of pages from the same year. My most complicated year had some stuff most people don’t, at least all at once—moving expenses, a little rental income, some capital gains, some dividends and interest, enough mortgage payments to make for itemized deductions, and so on. It totaled maybe 15 pages; throw in my scratch pads for calculations and you might get to 20. I’m pretty certain that if you added up all my tax returns for the 30+ years I’ve been filing tax returns, they’d barely total “hundreds of pages.”

One of two things is true: either Mitt Romney’s taxes are so complicated they require such documentation, or they aren’t, and all the excess is intended simply to obfuscate, to make it more difficult for journalists and opposition researchers to find the problematic needle in the haystack of irrelevant data. Romney, of course, makes more money (without actually, you know, working) in a month than a lot of people will make in a lifetime of labor. (Yes, really.) And he pays less, in percentage terms, in income taxes than taxi drivers and 3rd grade teachers do.

So it’s not surprising that his taxes go on for days: those hired guns have got to earn their keep, after all… it’s probably not literally true that he spends more to get his taxes prepared than the average American makes in a year, but it sure seems that way. Given Romney’s apparent embarrassment at being who he is—rich, well-educated—reminding us of the “hundreds of pages” of tax information for a single year might not be the most ideal strategy. The idea of the diffident übermensch doesn’t work very well to begin with; calling attention to it is as long on stupid as it is on disingenuous.

Then, of course, there’s the concept of “sufficient.” Frankly, that seems to be a theme for the Romney campaign: he’s not exciting, he’s not interesting, he’s not consistent, he’s not honest… but he’s sufficient. Sufficiently not crazy. Sufficiently not ideological. Sufficiently prepared for debates. Oh, and sufficiently not Obama.

Finally, this little escapade allows reporters and prospective voters to remember the last go-round. Sam Stein of the Huffington Post quotes Jim Messina of the Obama campaign:
Governor Romney provided 23 years’ worth of tax returns to the McCain campaign so they could determine if he would make a suitable Vice President. He must meet that same standard now so that the American people may judge whether he would be a suitable President, and whether there are any conflicts of interest that could cloud his judgment.
One is tempted to wonder what nefarious dealings might be brought to light if, having actually considered ol’ Mitt as a running mate, John McCain passed on him for a dimwit like Sarah Palin.

What we do know of Romney’s finances from his 2010 tax returns shows millions of dollars of income and offshore accounts in Switzerland, Luxembourg, and the Cayman Islands. That’s not likely to win him a lot of credibility in the “just folks” sweepstakes, but few people who’d have considered voting for him anyway are likely to be bothered much by those revelations. Further disclosures, should they happen, will be predicated on political motivations alone… is it better to maintain one’s privacy and have people suspect you’re hiding something or to release all that data and remove any doubt.

My suspicion is that more tax returns and accompanying information will appear shortly after the nomination is completely wrapped up. This stuff isn’t going to go away as a side-story, and dealing with it now is better than dealing with it later. Besides, people’s imaginations will conjure worse transgressions and creative accounting than Romney is likely to have committed. Or at least that can be proved. Probably. We hope.

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