Thursday, August 9, 2012

Why Mitt Romney’s taxes matter

SOMETIMES the simplest actions are the most revealing. Look at any news providers’ video clip of Mitt Romney at the Western Wall during his recent visit to Israel. As he stands preparing to place his personal prayer message in one of the wall’s myriad cracks and crevices — observing an old tradition for those who visit one of Israel’s holiest sites — he pauses for a few brief moments.

Then, rather than finding a spot more or less at eye level, directly in front of them — and the videos will show there were at least a few of those available — Romney reaches for a location well above his head, about as far over his head as a man 6’2” tall could reach without standing on tiptoes.

The Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency would no doubt blithely explain it away; his campaign staff would probably dismiss it with no explanation at all. Maybe he just didn’t see what was literally inches away. But it’s just as likely that Romney’s reach for the most inaccessible place to secret a message at the Western Wall was no accident, dovetailing as it does with the candidate’s obsession with secrecy, an obsession that’s spilled into the campaign in ways he both can and can’t control. The matter of release of his tax returns is both of these.

Some analysts and political writers dismiss the issue of Romney’s taxes as unimportant to the central issue of the 2012 race: jobs and the economy. Peter Beinart, writing Monday in The Daily Beast, called the issue ”irrelevant to Romney’s fitness to be president.” He couldn’t be more wrong.

Among other things, the release of more of Romney tax returns will enlighten us on how Romney would approach tax policy; the tools and leverages he uses for his own returns would be an indicator of what emphasis he’d place on certain parts of the tax code, and the income that certain Americans would have to earn for those parts of a Romney tax code to do them any good.

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We know enough right now, not of his tax returns but his tax philosophy, to be concerned. On Aug. 1, the Tax Policy Center, a widely recognized and politically impartial organization, released a preliminary analysis on Romney’s tax plan (a plan the candidate said couldn’t be scored because, secrecy gene working overtime, he won’t release the details). The gist of the Center’s findings:

“Our major conclusion is that a revenue-neutral individual income tax change that incorporates the features Governor Romney has proposed — including reducing marginal tax rates substantially, eliminating the individual alternative minimum tax (AMT) and maintaining all tax breaks for saving and investment - would provide large tax cuts to high-income households, and increase the tax burdens on middle- and/or lower-income taxpayers. …

“For instance, even when we assume that tax breaks — like the charitable deduction, mortgage interest deduction, and the exclusion for health insurance — are completely eliminated for higher-income households first, and only then reduced as necessary for other households to achieve overall revenue-neutrality, the net effect of the plan would be a tax cut for high-income households coupled with a tax increase for middle-income households.”

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Reuters columnist David Cay Johnston, a journalist and widely acknowledged tax expert, explained Tuesday on MSNBC: “Romney’s tax plan is to raise taxes on families with children at home and families that want to send their children to college. Now, that ought to be, and I suspect will be before the election, a much more important issue than it is right now. [Lowering] taxes on families with children … was a big goal of the Republicans. Now Romney wants to raise them.”

John Cassidy, writing in The New Yorker on Aug. 8, distilled further: “Romney's real enemy isn't the Tax Policy Center, the work of which his campaign has praised in other contexts: it is the laws of arithmetic.”

But leave it to President Obama, on Monday, at a campaign rally in Stamford, Conn., to offer the single, masterful, brutally adhesive locution that will ride the roof of the Romney campaign bus from now until Election Day:

“He’d ask the middle class to pay more in taxes so that he could give another $250,000 tax cut to people making more than $3 million a year. It’s like Robin Hood in reverse …

“It’s Romney Hood.”

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BUT IT’S NOT just what his tax returns would reveal about his basic sense of economic fairness that makes their release to the public important. Romney’s undying secrecy about his tax returns indicates his unwillingness to truly understand what disclosures, the legal ones and those common to the traditions of American politics, are required of a presidential candidate in the modern era.

Mitt Romney hasn’t come to grips with what’s required — beyond desire, money, name recognition and people to hire and fire — to be president. He wants to be president on his terms, and that ain’t happening, no matter what his net worth is.

Release of more of his tax returns matters because it’s a fundamental indicator of his belief in transparency in government. That’s not a matter of politics or policy; that’s central to the American experience, and what we purport to be as Americans. That’s the bedrock of what we are, or it’s supposed to be. And if he’s not prepared to stand for that principle of transparency, in action and in rhetoric, he doesn’t deserve to be president of the United States.

Mitt Romney’s father, George Romney, the former governor of Michigan, released a dozen years worth of tax returns in his run for the presidency in 1968, effectively setting the bar for personal tax transparency for presidential candidates from then on. George Romney finally, cleanly resigned from his position at the head of American Motors Corporation before he got into politics.

George Romney died in July 1995. He’s been gone for 17 years and he’s still a better politician than his son is.

With his penchant for secrecy and control, George Romney’s son has yet to grasp what the best presidential candidates, and by extension the best presidents, deeply understand: A candidate’s transaction with the American people is not controlling. It is always a merger; it is never an acquisition.

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The rich “are different from you and me,” Nick Carraway observes in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic “The Great Gatsby.” But the enduring response to that hardly sage statement (“yeah, they’ve gotta lot more money”) isn’t the real answer.

The rich have more options than the rest of us. That, more than anything else, is what money bestows. And for a former governor of Massachusetts with a lifelong cloistering in the precincts of privilege, a man with deep and even troubling ties to Wall Street, those options include the inclination to brandish an arrogance that is, for all intents and purposes, existential. Even with only the outlines of his tax plan, and what few we have of his tax records, that much is obvious.

Mitt Romney’s taxes matter: Those tax returns will tell us more of the details of what’s both in his heart (his values, vision and his baseline sense of fairness) and what’s in his head (his priorities vis-à-vis economics and the tactics used to actualize them). Both can and should be leveraged on behalf of the American people: We’ve known for years that Mitt Romney has the brains to be a CEO. With his tax returns or without them, what’s vey much in question is whether he’s got the guts, and the heart, to be president of the United States.

Image credits: Romney, Romney at Western Wall: via Tax Policy Center logo: © 2012 Tax Policy Center Urban Institute & Brookings Institution. After-tax income chart:, derived from Tax Policy Center findings. George Romney: public domain.

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