On Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace, Mitt Romney said he would release his 2010 and 2011 tax returns in the coming week. This is a sudden reversal for Romney, who had said he would hold off on releasing the returns until April. This issue dogged Romney in South Carolina, and it caused many to wonder if he had something to hide. The question Americans should be asking themselves in the wake of this reversal is simply: “Had Romney won in South Carolina, instead of losing by a double-digit margin, would he be releasing his tax returns this week, or would we still be waiting until April?” The calamitous decision by the Romney campaign to withhold the returns until April brought non-stop negative press to their efforts in South Carolina, and while it’s clear that they’re now changing in order to stop the bleeding, what Team Romney misses is that it wasn’t the tax returns that skewered them.
Here’s the interview:
The thing that made this issue stick was the obvious reluctance of the Romney campaign to disclose now what they had already said they would disclose eventually anyway. Voters wondered, “Why wait?” Republican voters had some justification in believing that he might be concealing something that he wouldn’t mind disclosing later, after securing the nomination, but might become a real obstacle to the nomination itself. In short, the base of the Republican party wondered what might be revealed by the returns that they would find objectionable.
The other problem is that Team Romney permitted this issue to fester to an extent that was unreasonable. When Romney said “maybe” in answer to whether he would follow his father’s example during Thursday’s Debate, it became a serious impediment to him. It take on the look of a stall, and a dodge, or another Romney vacillation. This kind of thing can be prevented from becoming a monstrous, self-defeating issue by early disclosure. When the issue began to erupt, they should never have let the Thursday night debate commence without having committed to releasing the returns before Saturday’s primary.
This signifies something about the Romney campaign to which voters will pay particular attention: Romney really has no sense of how to get out ahead of issues of this sort, leaving them to smolder instead of leading with a fire extinguisher. It may be that their campaign has become “too smart by half.” Campaigns are a fluid progression of events, and the desire to force a certain outcome without respect to the changes in the media coverage suggests that for all its vaunted money and organization, the Romney campaign is simply too inflexible and too intractable when events demand an agile reaction to changes in the facts confronting them.
I’m afraid that the belated reversal merely typifies the Romney approach to politics: Say or disclose as little as possible, until there’s no choice, with the delay resulting in another needless black eye. This is also the reason that after nearly six years of campaigning for the presidency, the American people still don’t have a clear sense of who Mitt Romney is at his core. Standing back to view it in this way, it is astonishing to realize that in the period between losing the nomination to McCain in 2008, and the beginning of this nomination cycle in 2011, Mitt Romney did very little to introduce himself to the American people. He remained largely invisible, and did not come out to support conservative issues in the interim to any substantial degree, although he did make a number of endorsements in the run-up to the midterm elections in 2010. Still, one would think he’d have been more aggressive, and more visible.
At the end of this tax return controversy, the truly dumb approach of the Romney campaign is now clear: They will now release what they should have released weeks ago, and all the obfuscation will have accomplished is to deliver their own black eye. That sort of thinking is not going to work in the general election campaign, when a more nimble Obama campaign will exploit this staid, almost stodgy approach of Team Romney for many more public relations disasters. I believe this is one more reason the Obama campaign will be only too happy to face Romney as the GOP nominee: His feet are encased in the concrete of a decisive commitment to institutionalized indecision. It simply will not play, and the Obama campaign knows it.
Conservative voters in Florida should take notice that it was only the black eye of the defeat in South Carolina that prompted Romney’s campaign to release the tax returns, but this fact should offer a warning: What kind of president would Mitt Romney be if in order to get him to simply do the right thing, we conservatives are confronted with having to defeat him, or force his hand? Will that redound to the successful advancement of the conservative agenda? Conservatives would be right to doubt it.