What the Returns Won't Tell Us
To paraphrase Rhett Butler, I don't give a damn if Mitt Romney releases more of his tax returns. I expect to learn nothing from them, aside from the fact that he is very rich and has paid less in taxes than he has acknowledged. He has probably taken advantage of all the loops and dodges in the tax code, piling trusts on top of trusts, securing wealth for Romneys yet unborn -- gelt unto the third generation, little taxed, slightly taxed or taxed not at all. "Let me tell you about the very rich," F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote. S'cuse me, Scotty, let me tell you about them: They don't pay much in taxes.
This is what the average person would learn if all of Romney's tax filings hit the light of day. He has so far divulged just the most recent two years and the Obama camp, smelling blood, has demanded more. The din has reached such a level that even some conservatives are entreating Romney to reveal them. They are not, however, imploring their candidate to identify his bundlers -- for this might actually reveal who has their hooks into him. The filings, I promise you, will show loopholes and financial black holes that make taxable income disappear. What we will not see is anything revelatory or, as some insist, genuine insights into the character of the candidate.
Certainly, this has been the case in the past. Richard Nixon disclosed his taxes preceding the 1968 presidential campaign. He reported hefty earnings averaging $200,000 in his years as a New York lawyer, but there was nothing in the forms relating to occasional bouts of drunkenness, paranoia, excessive self-pity or a proclivity to listen to the telephone conversations of others.
Similarly, Bill Clinton, in his pre-White House filings, showed a gross 1990 income of $268,646, but the box (32a) relating to possible extramarital relations in the Oval Office was left blank, no doubt an oversight.
George W. Bush's tax forms were as vacant as he was of any suggestion that he moved his lips when he read and would, if given the chance, tank the economy and lead the nation into two wars, mismanaging both.
By and large, the tax filings tell you nothing you don't already know. But the refusal to release them is a different matter. In Romney's case, this is his one and only stand on principle, an odd example of political bravery. He has flipped on abortion, gun control and, of course, health insurance reform, his signature achievement as governor of Massachusetts. But not on releasing his taxes. Others have been recalcitrant. Ronald Reagan didn't want to do it (he charged his daughter Maureen interest on a loan) but ultimately did.
In general, presidential and vice presidential candidates have released their returns. Maybe this was because most of them were public servants whose salaries were already known and whose wealth was modest. Others though were persons of considerable wealth -- Lloyd Bentsen, John Kerry, John Edwards -- who laid it all out on the table. (I wonder if Edwards, if he still had presidential prospects, would have deducted his latest child.)
It's impossible to know what Romney is not revealing. But it is instructive to contrast him to his father, George, who was an auto executive and governor of Michigan. When George Romney ran for president in 1968, he released 12 years' worth of income tax returns. But he was essentially salaried -- his remuneration set either by statute or a board of directors -- and so he was really divulging little. Maybe more important, he actually made something (cars) or did something (governed). His son not only manufactured nothing but earned his wealth the new way -- by financial manipulation, leveraging and such. On paper, it could look ugly.
For Mitt Romney, there are no assembly lines, no factories or mines -- just back offices and computer terminals and such esoterica as the infinitesimal difference between what the Libor rate should be and what it is. He was loyal to no company, no industry -- just to his investors. The making of such money is concealed, based on the exotic manipulation of numbers and the disregard of people. Only a relatively few know how to do this sort of thing and they dont much like to talk about it. Romney, as we already know, is one of those people. He hides his taxes not because it would reveal anything new about him, but because it would reveal what he has always known about us: We're suckers.
Richard Cohen's email address is email@example.com.Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group