In the spring of 2008, President Obama was facing the most difficult challenge of his campaign -- his association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Wright, the pastor at Obama's local church and the man who presided over his wedding to Michelle, was increasingly seen as a polarizing political figure. As part of an effort to diffuse the situation, he gave an historic speech at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia that served to distance himself from Wright, as well as elevate the conversation beyond political attack ads. Obama's approach was perfectly executed -- attack the allegations head on, and focus the conversation on another topic of greater importance.
Although different in substance, Romney faces a similar situation today. For Obama, there were questions about his views with regards to race and religion. Today, as Romney refuses to release more than two years of tax returns, he gives his opposition the opportunity to remind voters of some of his shortcomings. First, his "flip flopping" nature (is he hiding something or not?); and, second, the idea that he is rich, out of touch and just "not like me" (scores of bank accounts across Switzerland, the Cayman Islands and beyond isn't exactly common among the middle class).
So, if you believe these arguments to be true, why not just confront the controversy head on as Obama did in 2008 with Wright? If one has nothing to hide, why not release a set of comprehensive records (Romney reportedly, after all, provided the McCain campaign with 20+ years of returns when being vetted for VP)? The answer is simple -- he must have something to hide.
Could he actually be worth more than is being estimated under federal disclosure filings (currently ~$190-250 million)? Has putting money in offshore accounts in some way lowered the amount of taxes he's had to pay (according to his campaign, the answer is no)? Or, is there significant income from Bain that was earned after his departure in 1999 (when Romney claims to have not been involved in Bain's investment decisions)? And lastly, was a deal stuck with fellow Bain partners that Romney could never disclose certain information about the firm and its income (since Bain remains a private company)?
It's difficult to know, but one thing is evident -- Romney and his campaign would only weather the current storm if the alternative of releasing additional information about his taxes were even worse than the present. In fact, according to people close to the situation, Romney would drop out of the presidential race before ever releasing further tax returns. It does seem a bit ironic, that a man whose father was one of the champions of transparency with regards to a candidate's finances is now the most blatant offender in modern presidential politics. Even more ironic, is that in general any member of Romney's potential Cabinet (or political appointee confirmed by the Senate) would be required to submit at least three years of tax returns. It seems very strange that the most senior member of the Executive branch wouldn't be held to the same standard.
Beyond the information itself (or lack thereof), the campaign and its surrogates are having an incredibly difficult time navigating this issue because they don't have a bigger agenda to pivot the conversation towards. In 2008, Obama elevated the Wright controversy to being a discussion about equality and progress in America. Today, you would think Romney and his team of surrogates should have an easy time shifting the conversation towards Romney's vision for our economy and plan to improve America's global competitiveness. Instead, given the lack of a bold reform agenda, they revert back to attacking the President and look small in doing so. The conversation, therefore, remains stuck in a political quagmire of empty rhetoric devoid of ideas.
So, while Romney's taxes might seem like a trivial issue in the dog days of summer, this topic is real and will influence the election. Controversies without a resolution remain just that, a controversy. The media will continue to push for answers on Romney's taxes, and the Obama campaign (and their super PAC supporters) will make sure it remains a big part of the conversation. But, beyond the talking points and politics, Romney continues to send a loud message to voters -- he'll do what is politically expedient at the time, with little concern for transparency. As the economy remains the #1 issue on voter's minds, this election should be Romney's to lose -- and that makes it all the scarier to hypothesize what he is hiding.