Will Income Tax Returns Come up in Tonight's Debate in Houston?

Mitt Romney: Donald Trump has a bombshell

For many years, I have admired Mitt Romney for his character and decency. He is, in many ways, a class act. A man of modesty and civility, he at times seemed an unlikely candidate for public office. That, actually, is a compliment.

But Romney and his team did not do well in the last election. The strategic blunders and tactical errors are legion. Some flow from the top as Romney set the tone and picked his team. Moreover, he seemed to represent the mainstream Republican establishment, the Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers, the Beltway insiders and lobbyists, Wall Street instead of Main Street and, as Mark Levin would say, "and so on and so forth." His linking of people on social security and Medicare to a sort of entitlement of "living off the rest of us" paradigm hurt him significantly.

In short, Mitt Romney was not very good at telling his own story - -which is a good story - and not adroit at explaining his policy positions in everyday language. His defeat was as much a rejection of his campaign as a rejection of Republican Party politics.

After Romney failed in his 2008 primary run and lost to John McCain, and then after McCain lost to Barack Obama, Romney began to prepare for his 2012 race. His team did a trial run with Meg Whitman's disastrous 2011 race for governor of California, against Jerry Brown, who had been governor more than a generation earlier. Met Whitman could and should have won that race, in which she supplied the bulk of the $180 million spent. As in Romney's case, Meg Whitman did not put her best foot forward, and her campaign team of Romney intimates was of little help.

Knowing he would run in 2012, Romney had time to "paper' his tax returns and add a bunch of politically appealing non-Mormon charities to his excellent portfolio of philanthropy. Not only did Romney not do so (in contrast, Obama papered his return with money to veterans charities), but also Romney clumsily resisted the release of his Form 1040 tax returns. Eventually he complied, after delays and bad press and did what was inevitable. He then acted embarrassed about all the money he paid in taxes, because it wasn't at a higher rate.

Now four years later Romney raises the matter of Donald Trump releasing his personal tax returns. There is - or could be - Romney warns - a "bombshell" here. Maybe there is. Could it show insufficient income? Perhaps more income is in Trump's corporate or partnership returns, as opposed to his personal (Form 1040) returns. Do the returns show a generous pattern of giving, or is Trump like Joe Biden and various liberal Democrats who are generous with taxpayer dollars but hold back and are stingy?

Trump likely has a good income and is known to be generous. But perhaps he pays a lower tax rate than some might feel is appropriate. Romney seemed so ashamed of his income and his wealth. Trump boasts about his business success, his high income and his multi-billion dollar net worth. The reason for Romney's low tax rate was investment income and gains. But Romney paid the same rate on this income as any American would - on the same sort of income. Romney was defensive, Trump would not be.

Trump is being disingenuous by saying he will decide later whether he will release his personal tax return. He switches the subject to their complexity, and to his business returns. Perhaps he does not want to release his personal returns AND his business returns, the latter telling the full story of his income, and other information. As Romney points out, it will take awhile for the 2015 returns to be ready. But surely Trump could release the 2014 returns.

The consummate media impresario, perhaps Trump wants to set the timing of his returns for maximum impact and consistent with his storyline. It's unlikely he can go through a general election and not release his returns, a customary process for presidential candidates in recent election cycles. Surely, Republicans will want Hillary's disclosure, and also look at other Clinton operations such as the Clinton Foundation that has been a slush fund. You can't push for Clinton Cash, Inc. without opening up your own ancillary operations.

One thing we know for sure. Trump does not look back, is not apologetic, and often turns a negative into a positive. If he doesn't pay much in taxes, he will boast about it. He will talk about how he would apply the same "toughness" to negotiations and to "being greedy for America." He will proudly tell Americans what they know - they try to pay the least taxes possible.

All of tonight's debate contenders have already said they will release their tax returns

If Marco Rubio brings up the tax return issue, don't put it past Trump to ridicule Rubio for his nonexistent net worth, his borrowing money at high interest rates, his lack of real world job experience, and then launch into Rubio's inability to lead because he is a "lightweight" who can't handle his loans. If Cruz brings up tax returns, Trump will switch to how Cruz had to borrow money, via his wife, from Wall Street and with favored treatment. Ben Carson says he will release his tax returns. No one cares. John Kasich probably does his own.

So if tax returns come up in tonight's debate in Houston (likely to be raised by Wolf Blitzer or down the line), expect a classic Trump response.