Here’s a $10,000 bet: Mitt Romney will stall and stall before opening his tax returns. His strategy is to open the returns after he is officially nominated at the Republican National Convention in August.
Earlier in my career, I negotiated large, complex contracts. The first rule of every negotiator is to have a strategy. One effective strategy is to put off addressing the most difficult issues until the end of all other discussions. Then, after all of the deal participants have spent untold hours on other details, are tired, and can envision a successful outcome, it’s far easier to tackle the hardest issues. At this point, everyone wants to be done so badly that inevitably some compromise is reached.
Mitt Romney is now pursuing precisely this type of negotiating strategy with the Republican Party. Unfortunately, the Republican Party is either unable or unwilling to recognize what’s happening.
There seems to be little doubt that Romney is hiding something. Indeed, even a critical piece of his 2010 returns has still not been opened to public view. The only question is what Romney is hiding. Speculation has ranged from questionable practices related to his “magical IRA” with the seemingly impossible value between $21 million and $102 million, to the creation of a “blocker corporation” which would have lawfully enabled tax avoidance (effectively invalidating Romney’s claim that his foreign holding had no impact on his U.S. taxes), to the possibility that he paid no federal taxes in 2009 because of large capital losses (a legal but politically deadly possibility).
In effect, there are now two potential realities. The first is that Romney’s off-shore activities don’t reveal any outright illegality but show a host of questionable or politically unpalatable practices. My money’s on this one.
In this case, Romney’s strategy is to force Republicans, willingly or not, to line up and uniformly defend whatever his tax returns ultimately demonstrate. Indeed, once Romney is the nominee, the Republican Party potentially will face a Hobbesian choice: Either vigorously defend practices which would otherwise be indefensible (and characterize them as good and virtuous) or somehow remove Romney from the ticket, which would almost certainly hand the election to Obama. Once Romney is the official nominee, it would be a disaster for the Republicans if he were forced off the ticket. Romney is calculating that Republicans will join ranks and vigorously defend whatever indefensible behavior he is now hiding.
The tactical (but destructive) and potential brilliance of this strategy is already apparent. An article in The Hill recently noted that Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner “jumped to the podium” at a news conference to say:
“Listen, listen, Americans are asking, where are the jobs? They’re not asking where in the hell the tax returns are.” he said. “This is another sideshow intended to draw the American people’s attention away from the real issue, and the real issue is that the president’s economic policies have failed. They’ve actually made things worse. And as a result, he can’t run on his record. He’s got to run on something else. And so, whether it’s the tax returns, whether it’s Bain Capital, you’ll see every distraction known to man because the president can’t run on his record.”
Does anyone believe Speaker Boehner would take this position is he were a Democrat?
The second possibility is even more troubling. One doubtful, but possible, explanation is that Romney is part of the super-confidential IRS amnesty program for tax evaders with Swiss bank accounts who came forward voluntarily to pay limited penalties. This is only plausible if, as has also been reported, Romney never intended to release his returns. Otherwise the American people would hear the faint echoes of Richard Nixon’s famous statement, “I am not a crook.”
In either case, Romney’s lack of transparency is a betrayal to America and to the two-party system. The American system depends on trust. Our success as a nation requires that we trust our leaders, our institutions and one another. Romney’s behavior is further destroying this trust and corroding our democracy.
It is a truism in American politics that Presidential candidates effectively give up all rights to their privacy. The American people have come to expect that otherwise personal records, including health and finances, will be available to them as they decide on who should be the leader of the free world. Romney’s finances are one indicator of his character and how he regards his responsibilities to the nation. I strongly suspect that the vast majority of voters who supported Romney in the primaries assumed that he would demonstrate he was worthy of their trust with an appropriate opening of his records. Now, he is betraying this faith.
At this moment, we need leaders who are working to rebuild the vital trust we have lost over the past decade. Yes, it’s the economy stupid. But, more jobs and any economic recovery will inevitably require compromises. In the absence of trust, these will never be achieved, either in the court of public opinion or in our system of governance.
Historically, Americans have been characterized by their unbounded optimism, which was seen as a central aspect of our success as a nation. Now, we face a growing cynicism and mistrust throughout the society. By failing to open his returns now, Romney adds to the cynical and mistrustful character of the nation. These are the opposite of what made America a great nation, or will restore our economic and societal prosperity.
Bruce Judson is the author of It Could Happen Here (HarperCollins, 2009), and a former Senior Faculty Fellow at the Yale School of Managment