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Mitt Romney has a dilemma. Everyone on the left, center, and now much of the right is telling him that he HAS GOT TO release his tax returns for the past 12 years. But he doesn’t want to do it.
Romney presents this as a principled stand against, uh, people having information, I guess. We all know that it would be extremely impolite to ask a Presidential candidate what goes on in his or her bedroom, so there’s precedent for respecting secrets; he just thinks that one’s tax returns should fall into the same general privilege.
And anyway, as Ann Romney said today to African-American (in this case it’s relevant) interviewer Robin Roberts, the Romneys have “given all you people need to know and understand about our financial situation and how we live our life.”
“You people” — a phrase famously used by Ross Perot a couple of decades back to the NAACP convention — has garnered a lot of the commentary about the aspiring First Lady’s remarks so far today, but it’s “all you … need to know and understand about ____” that gives me the chills as I consider a Romney Presidency. Isn’t that something that we, rather than our leaders, should get to determine?
Presidents usually don’t get this way until after they’re elected. The Romneys don’t even pretend to respect us.
Back to the main point, pundits are saying that Romney has to either release his returns or suffer increasing attacks, condemnation, and contempt from across the political spectrum. You see a lot of speculation about what’s there — did he pay no taxes at all in 2009? is there damning information there about his offshore accounts? is he going beyond the normal use of tax shelters to push the law to its limit or beyond, as he did at Bain Capital? A story has even been floated on the Huffington Post — co-authored by the daughter of Romney’s fellow Mormon and Presidential rival Jon Huntsman! — that Romney never believed that he would be forced to release his tax returns and that had he expected to have to do so he would probably never have run for office! Yet there is a general consensus that whatever is in the tax returns just can’t be as bad as the hammering he’s going to be taking for not releasing them.
And so you have his dilemma. He must either release the returns and suffer the political fallout or not release the returns and suffer even worse political fallout. What’s a rich fellow to do?
He could lie.
What people seem to be forgetting is that Romney does have a third option: release bogus returns that are nowhere near as bad as people suspected, do it so close to the election so that they can’t be checked in time, and then loudly proclaim that, see, he was only concerned with principle all the time, because he had nothing to hide, and the world owes him a big apology (and, of course, the Presidency.)
That would be so audaciously evil that many seem to dismiss the possibility out of hand — forgetting that in the past several decades we’ve had Presidents do no less about matters even more weighty. (Watergate, Iran-Contra, lying about receiving oral sex, lying us into a war in Iraq — you know.) This, by comparison to most of those, is kid’s stuff.
The thing that would be holding him back, according to some with whom I’ve discussed this, is that surely he’d be caught. Well, I’m not sure that he’d be caught before the election. Far fewer people would have to be “in on it” than you might think. The records could be created in India for returns using records with someone’s different name on them, then transferred; he wouldn’t be expected to release all of the supporting documentation at the same time as the 1040 and schedules and attachments. Then, afterwards, after discrepancies showed up, he could simply refuse to talk about it. Those of us yelling “WAIT A MINUTE HERE!” would be lampooned as the equivalent of birthers.
Or maybe he gets caught after the election and the fraud is revealed. So what? Bush was elected in 2000 through massive fraud (of a sort being tried again this year in a major voter disenfranchisement effort); he still got to govern. His supporters might see this as a clever move on his part to stand up for the right to, uhm, hide one’s financial information.
But let’s say that people are truly pissed — he is impeached, the Republican Senate won’t protect him, he is forced to resign. Again, so what? He beat Obama. Justice Scalia could now safely retire and be replaced by Attila the Judge. Romney’s Vice-President, as the 46th President, would be able to appoint Supreme Court Justices and craft tax policy that would be very very good for “we people” like the Romneys. He would probably presume that history would judge him to be a hero. ”Just win, baby,” Republican heroes have counseled, “it’s the only thing.”
But wouldn’t the IRS report his fraud? Nope. First of all, it’s not “fraud”; he would not lying to the IRS, he’d be lying to the public. That’s not a crime (or else Bill Clinton would be sharing a cell with George W. Bush.) Second, the IRS has to maintain confidentiality; it has no basis to say that his published returns don’t match, and the release of returns would probably be preceded by a whispering campaign saying that the IRS would probably say that they don’t match just to harm Romney’s campaign. Third, any such release would be attacked both as itself being a fraud by the IRS and as a dirty trick from the Obama Administration. Fox News Channel would promote the story and lots of people would believe it.
The last line of defense I’ve seen against this prospect is that Romney just would not do something this unprincipled. Here, I must object. It’s now in the public record, from Romney’s own mouth, that he filed forms stating that he was the CEO and Managing Director — Managing Director! — of Bain Capital at a time that he now says that he had nothing to do with the company, assertions upon which those entering into business relationships with Bain Capital relied. That lie — which might have cost people who thought they were buying Mitt Romneys brain and skills when they made a deal with Bain Capital but were instead signing up to be managed by some amorphous group of investors supposedly unguided by their genius capitalist leader — was worse than releasing false tax returned would be, even if less brazen.
We already know that Mitt Romney is the sort of person who would do this if he would get away with it! (For me, that’s the decisive reason that people should decide against suffering through four to eight years of a Romney Presidency. If he clamps down on information now, what would he do once in office?) Now the only question is whether he thinks he could get away with it.
So when you see people saying that Romney is in a dilemma — and especially if he finally decides that he will release his tax returns in mid-to-late October, “to put this matter to rest,” please bear in mind that it’s a trilemma — he does have a third option — and he is the sort of guy who might use it.
That’s why I no longer demand that Mitt Romney release his tax returns. I demand that he have copies of his tax transcripts sent directly from the IRS to various major news organizations, as well as some less major ones like Orange Juice Blog. We’ll put them up on line as soon as we can have them scanned.