Only Those Who Guard the Mystery Of Mitt's Tax Returns Shall Be Unhappy: The 2012 Speculatron Weekly Roundup For Aug. 10

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigns at Central Campus High School in Des Moine
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigns at Central Campus High School in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

For as long as anyone can remember, mankind has yearned to see 10 consecutive years of Mitt Romney's tax returns.

And for nearly as long, Romney and his close associates have prevented the disclosure of said returns. It is possible that they have done so out of charity. Who knows? Perhaps the simple fact of the matter is that to gaze upon Romney's tax returns and fully assay the mis-angled perfection of his overall tax strategy causes the viewer to permanently lapse into some giddy, numbing coma, in the manner of James Orin Incandenza Jr.'s "The Entertainment" from David Foster Wallace's novel "Infinite Jest."

The general tug-of-war over Romney's tax returns might have remained a background issue in the 2012 campaign, had it not been for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who told our own Ryan Grim and Sam Stein that he knew a guy -- a "Bain investor" -- who'd seen Romney's taxes and could attest to the fact that he hadn't paid any taxes in 10 years. Reid has enthusiastically continued to underline his claim, despite the widespread skepticism that it (understandably) sowed. And so, Romney's tax returns have, as they say, remained "part of the conversation."

How reliable are Reid's claims? We'll rate them "plausible" -- here's a speculative explanation of how it could be that Romney paid no tax returns for an extended period of time -- but we'll back away from rating them "likely" -- if only because no one has been able to deduce Reid's mystery source. (The current hot speculation on that matter shines on Jon Huntsman Sr. He has denied this, but adds his voice to those who want Romney to be more transparent.)

But the focus that Reid's claims have forced back onto the matter of Romney's tax returns has been sustained, and now factor in to every occasion where the Romney camp declines to disclose them. Now, one might think that the simplest way out of this trap is for Romney to just suck it up and provide some more material. To get the answer to "Why not just do that?" Buzzfeed's Zeke Miller talked to some people with, at least, tangential association to the Romney campaign, and put the question to them. Their response to Miller's inquiries is two-fold: Their critics will never be satisfied, and the timing is bad for Romney's campaign:

With less than three months to Election Day, the Romney campaign has passed the "point of no return," as one Republican operative close to the campaign put it, beyond which there isn't enough time for the media to digest the tax returns before the public starts to pay attention to the race.

"The complaining for more and more returns and the stories about how rich he is get old after a few weeks, but there aren't a few weeks left," the operative said. "Now we've got to keep doing what we're doing and hope it isn't too painful."


One Romney aide who privately supported the candidate releasing the returns during the Republican primary is now convinced it won't help.

"If we release six, they'll demand seven," the aide said, expressing frustration that the returns were not put out earlier this year giving the issue time to settle.

Now, these explanations do have the faint aroma of a dodge, but let's put that aside for a moment, and treat these as the authentic and sincere concerns of the Romney campaign. We think the Romney campaign has figured this wrong.

Before we get into this, let's stipulate from the outset that Reid's claim is either baseless or it is (perhaps coincidentally) backed up by material facts. If Reid has this right, then the Romney campaign's course is clear: It must guard against the disclosure of those tax returns on pain of death!

But if Reid has this wrong, it makes no sense to come out now and prove it.

Let's begin with the contention that releasing any additional tax returns will -- no matter how many questions they put to rest -- inevitably lead to demands for more disclosures. This is not an entirely unreasonable worry. I do not think that the media would treat it that way. But birtherism: It exists. And what we've learned from it is that there are partisans crazed enough to shrug off any proof against their claim and continually retrench into their lunatic position. We don't think Romney's most fervent critics share those qualities, but we won't know for sure until Romney pulls the trigger.

So let's say for the sake of argument that it's a legitimate concern. We still think that releasing returns is the right idea, if for no other reason than we'll personally inveigh against further demands. The fact is, releasing 10 returns is on the generous side of precedent. It's absolutely been deemed sufficient to the task of "vetting" a presidential candidate. Right now, Romney's disclosures have been on the stingy side of precedent. We say, if he squares this with the other contemporary examples he could follow, then any further complaints and demands should be given the brush-off.

Again, if further disclosures prove Reid's prescience, you can't do it! But if the worry here is that further tax returns will reveal that Romney pays a staggeringly low tax rate, uses exotic tax shelters, or has money in Swiss bank accounts, well, that's stuff we already know. So we'll know it longer and harder, big deal. The worst assumptions already have been made about these details of Romney's tax history.

As for the "point of no return" argument, this makes even less sense. Certainly, if Romney releases tax returns, there will be an army of reporters dispatched to comb through them. But to suggest that it alters the dynamic of the media's drive to build narratives is to badly underestimate the media's ability to resist any new, shiny, bouncing thing.

Besides, you have to consider the back-side of the equation here: If Romney releases a bunch of tax returns and it doesn't bear out the claims that have been made against him, then we're not set for a long and drawn-out saga about Mitt's taxes. We're going to pitch headlong into a narrative titled "The Fulsome Public Humiliation Of Harry Reid." The Romney message from that point on can be, "We just proved that the Democrats will resort to anything -- including fraudulent, baseless claims -- to avoid running an honest campaign that they can't win." There is no political downside in Reid getting filleted in public. If you know your opponent is bluffing, you play your winning hand, always.

It really seems to us that most of the people who have reported on the Reid-Romney contretemps do not understand what's actually at stake here. Reid has climbed up into a noose, put his neck in the loop, and is daring Romney to strangle him. Reid's actions are abstruse. The source that could back his claim remains a puzzlement. But at this point, the real mystery here is why Romney doesn't simply stride over to Harry Reid and just kick the chair out from under him.

PANDERING FOR GOLD: Over the past year, the Obama administration has undertaken a series of actions and initiatives designed to address various agenda items and policy goals, such as the "Caution: May Contain DREAM Act-Like Substance Executive Order of 2012." The administration holds that these actions were in keeping with their "We Can't Wait" theme, and have been borne out of a frustration with GOP obstructionists in Congress. (They certainly don't help.) Critics have maintained that these actions are "small ball" and simply an election year gambit designed to pander to the president's base. (They certainly don't hurt.)

Because we are bog-standard Beltway cynics realists about these things, we remember that political science teaches us that presidents attempt to keep their campaign promises, and leave it at that. But a clear exception needs to be made on President Barack Obama's seeming embrace of Sen. Marco Rubio's proposal to exempt Olympic medalists from being taxed on their medals. It's clearly an attempt to pander, and a wholly inept one.

Leaving aside the pure stupidity of Rubio's proposal -- (and it is, for many reasons, purely stupid) -- Obama's support for this measure is a pure contradiction to one of his campaign's central arguments.

People who win prizes are subject to taxation. Game-show winners get taxed. Lottery winners get taxed. Nobel recipients get taxed. Indeed, the profits that are produced by successful ventures, in America, are subject to taxation. The Obama campaign's absolute, indisputable argument on this matter is that this process is virtuous; successful people pay back into the common weal kitty to provide the opportunity for future successful people. When Obama talks about business owners not succeeding wholly on their own, but with the assistance of an invested-in public infrastructure, he is reinforcing this argument. Because the Romney campaign has willfully deceived people about Obama's actual argument, Team Obama Re-Elect has to redouble its efforts to make their position clear.

Climbing on board with Rubio's proposal obscures this in profound ways, as Matt Yglesias elucidates:

Obviously the specific revenue implications of this bill are small. But the framing around it is deeply right-wing. The idea is that taxes are a kind of penalty, and that we shouldn't be penalizing these worthy athletes for their efforts. But by that token we shouldn't be penalizing the people who invented Gmail or founded Papa John's or earn a living driving a long-haul truck or making beds at the motel or designing marketing materials for Sabre printers ... The end point of this line of thinking is that basically nobody should be taxed for anything. Which is a fine conclusion for Rubio, but a bad one for Obama.

To our mind, the reason that Obama has come behind this proposal is that, unlike people who win the Showcase Showdown on "The Price Is Right," Olympic medalists stand on a podium and stare at the flag as it ascends into the rafters, occasionally to the strains of our national anthem. In this context, it becomes politically untenable to do anything that can be perceived as a slight to our American Exceptionalism. It's a pretty typical situation, we're afraid. If tomorrow, the consensus held that the only way a congressperson could prove their patriotism was to stand in front of the U.S. Treasury and copulate with a bald eagle, Pennsylvania Avenue would quickly become a Hitchcockian dystopia of hot-and-bothered raptors.

BEGUN THIS MISSOURI SENATE BATTLE HAS: The GOP primary for Missouri's Senate seat is over, and Rep. Todd Akin has prevailed over John Brunner and the Sarah Palin-endorsed Sarah Steelman. Good news for the incumbent, Claire McCaskill? Salon's Steve Kornacki says yes, because of his "tendency toward inflammatory rhetoric that pleases his base but that could alarm swing voters."

For instance, last year Akin caused a stir by declaring that “at the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God and a belief that government should replace God.” And earlier this year, he argued that the federal government’s student loan program has helped push America toward “stage three cancer of socialism.” That he’ll make similar pronouncements this fall is very possible, maybe even likely, and under the general election spotlight the effect will be heightened.

This polarizing style helps explain why polls have shown McCaskill running better against Akin than the two Republicans he beat. A recent Mason-Dixon survey, for instance, gave Brunner an 11-point lead over McCaskill and Steelman, an 8-point edge. Akin’s lead was only 5 points.

So it's "good news" because McCaskill got the opponent she preferred. Now for the bad news -- as Mother Jones' Andy Kroll reports, McCaskill is one of this season's top targets of "dark money" donors:

As of July 17, outside groups had bought $12.75 million worth of ads attacking McCaskill. (Groups supporting her spent just $1.3 million.) Of that, $7.6 million came from groups that conceal their donors, according to a media-buying source in Missouri. McCaskill's dark-money foes include the heaviest hitters in Republican politics: Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS; David Koch's Americans for Prosperity; and the 60 Plus Association, billed as the conservative counterweight to the AARP. "I'm getting all the name brands," she told MSNBC's Chris Matthews in April. "I'm at the top of a lot of folks' lists."

Kroll goes on to note that "there's little chance progressive outside groups and donors will come to McCaskill's rescue," because "her relationship with liberal advocates has been rocky." So she'll largely depend on small donors to make a stand. If there's any comfort here, for McCaskill, it's that the forces arrayed against her wouldn't have minded if one of the better-positioned primary opponents had won.

THIS WEEK IN VOTER CAGING: Michael Tomasky, in plotting his "Romney has a narrow path" argument that portends future electoral college success for President Obama, says that in his estimation, "Obama can lose the big Eastern four—Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida: all of ’em!—and still be reelected." Well, Obama had better hope so, considering what election officials in Ohio are doing. Per Ari Berman:

In response to the 2008 election results, Ohio Republicans drastically curtailed the early voting period in 2012 from thirty-five to eleven days, with no voting on the Sunday before the election, when African-American churches historically rally their congregants to go to the polls. (Ohio was one of five states to cut back on early voting since 2010.) Voting rights activists subsequently gathered enough signatures to block the new voting restrictions and force a referendum on Election Day. In reaction, Ohio Republicans repealed their own bill in the state legislature, but kept a ban on early voting three days before Election Day (a period when 93,000 Ohioans voted in 2008), adding an exception for active duty members of the military, who tend to lean Republican. (The Obama campaign is now challenging the law in court, seeking to expand early voting for all Ohioans).

That is how the Romney zombie lie about Obama trying to keep military voters from voting, found its perch. But Ohio Republicans haven't stopped there. Early voting hours in Ohio are not in any way uniform, and the lack of uniformity follows a pretty precise pattern: in heavily Democratic counties like Cleveland and Columbus, voters are restricted to weekdays, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., to cast votes. At the same time, "in solidly Republican counties like Warren and Butler, GOP election commissioners have approved expanded early voting hours on nights and weekends."

Wonkette calls the ball correctly: "Ohio Republicans are the Steve Jobses of Democrats not voting." Which makes Florida's Grifter-Governor Rick Scott the Bill Gates of Democrats not voting, because he stole the look-and-feel of many of Ohio's innovations (like limiting the African-American church-going folks) and added a bunch of things that even election officials from his own party found to be lacking in user friendliness.

But yeah, there goes Ohio and Florida, potentially.

SCOTT BROWN IS SAD HE'S NOT FROM OHIO: Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R) took some time to emote and gesticulate about how downright unfair it was that Massacusetts election officials were stepping up their efforts to comply with the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, and contact welfare recipients to offer them a chance to register to vote. These redoubled efforts have come as a result of a lawsuit against state election officials that held they were not in compliance, and as Josh Israel at Think Progress reports, Brown is "seizing on the fact" that the daughter of his opponent -- Elizabeth Warren -- is "chair of the board of one of the groups suing" and that this "amounts to a conspiracy to elect his Democratic challenger." In a statement, Brown said:

I want every legal vote to count, but it’s outrageous to use taxpayer dollars to register welfare recipients as part of a special effort to boost one political party over another. This effort to sign up welfare recipients is being aided by Elizabeth Warren’s daughter and it’s clearly designed to benefit her mother’s political campaign. It means that I’m going to have to work that much harder to get out my pro-jobs, pro-free enterprise message.

Leaving aside his aversion to ensuring that poor people are not disenfranchized, that last sentence is deeply strange. Getting out his "pro-jobs, pro-free enterprise message," is what a political campaign does. That is, in a nutshell, Scott Brown's "job" -- present an argument designed to get him to 50 percent-plus-1. Is it too hard a job because his argument is lacking? Then cut the boo-hoos and get a better argument. Seems like only yesterday Brown was some sort of truck-drivin', hard-workin' dynamo. Now he's acting like another career pol, chafing at the thought of having to put in the work -- which was, we remind you, the knock on the woman he defeated, Martha Coakley.

What can we say? It doesn't take long to feel entitled when you come to Capitol Hill.

SAUL FALLOUT: As you probably know, Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul drew wave after wave of condemnation from conservatives for daring to tout the positive impacts of Romney's Massachusetts health care law. Well, I don't know if this will square things with all the people who have been frenetically exerting themselves over this or calling for her firing, but as Aaron Blake reports, re-embracing Romney's health care innovation might actually be, or have been intended as, part of the campaign's strategy going forward.

Regardless of how you think this strategy will pan out, it's revealing to us that a woman who notes that her candidate provided his constituents with access to health care has elicited such a thunderous condemnation from the members of her own tribe, as compared to say, someone who made a cheap joke at the expense of people with intellectual disabilities.

POLITICAL MEDIA IS GETTING REALLY BORED, NOW: Dave Weigel did his level best to make the argument that August hasn't been as gobsmackingly inane this year, as compared to many of the other Augusts we've shared. Just today, though, we have fresh evidence to the contrary.

Today, Politico has a story about Republicans jockeying to get in line for the 2016 campaign season (The hook: Candidate types have traveled to Iowa and Iowa is where the Iowa Caucus is, ermahgerd!). The usually level-headed Matthew Dowd has written a Manifesto To Giving Up Entirely that essentially holds that if the 2012 race was different, somehow, then it would be different, somehow, but since it suffers from a lack of dissimilarities to itself, you should shoot yourself in the face. And here's the Mark Halperin piece where he finally surmises that all this money in politics is bad and that someone really ought to do something about it that caused Josh Marshall to quip that the Time magazine political Thought Cataloguist had finally "[thrown] down [the] gauntlet to [the] self-awareness gods."

On the plus side, we have Henry Blodget gamely attempting to explain insufficient aggregate demand, and the deleterious effect it has on middle-class wealth in particular and job creation in general. Still: Three more weeks of nonsense to come.

SO IT'S PAUL RYAN: Well, how about that, right? There's a lot to say about this. Like we discussed last week, Ryan being placed on the ticket means that the race can have some real stakes and a real debate -- will we continue to have the New Deal/Great Society programs, or won't we? How quickly does the working class feel the Panem pinch of Ryan's Randian "Hunger Games" budget plan? It also needs to be said that when the chips were down and the poll numbers weren't good and the GOP establishment demanded that Mitt Romney emasculate himself, Romney was a team player, and gladly chose Paul Ryan as his personal president. Hey, will Ryan debate Obama thrice, now, and Romney just match up the one time with Biden? So many questions!

But they will all be answered in time. What's important right now, given that your Speculatroners were very insistent that Ryan would not be picked as Romney's running mate, is that we fall on our sword and offer you this:

ELECTORAL PROJECTION: OK, time once again for your Speculatroners to make their trademarked Electoral College projection, which is -- as always -- a mix of careful poll study, analysis of prevailing economic trends, pundit speculation and a careful study of the automatic writing we produce after visiting each other nightly in our subconsciousness through the complicated process telepathic lucid dreaming.

In general, Obama has slightly expanded his already slight-yet-stable lead nationally, but the situation is crazy fluid because voters, they be all pessimistic up in this piece! We've already taken note of the extracurricular efforts being undertaken on Ohio and Florida to bounce large demographic slices of the traditionally Dem-leaning electorate from the rolls. Let's also note that last week's polls that had Obama hitting the magic 50 percent mark in some swing states have been matched this week by polls giving Romney the same threshold in the critical state of Colorado. (These also suggest an improving picture for Obama in Virginia.) So, let's go to the map.


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