Politics

07.10.12

Mitt Romney’s Flat-Footed Tax Dodge

How did Mitt Romney finally respond to attacks about his undisclosed tax returns? With a shrug. Daniel Stone on how he’ll need to do better if he wants to change the conversation.

It’s been almost two weeks of nonstop attacks on Mitt Romney’s personal wealth. And not just that he’s wealthy, but specifically where he keeps his money. The Obama campaign has hammered Romney for accounts in Bermuda, Switzerland, and the Cayman Islands—all of which, Team Obama alleges, allow Romney to take advantage of tax loopholes only accessible to the super-rich.

A Vanity Fair investigation last week detailed the suspected reach of Romney’s offshore money and the presumed reasons to move it out of U.S. banks. Now, after trying to change the subject for over a week, and as the barrage continues in a new ad from the Obama campaign featuring conservatives critiquing Romney for not answering questions about his wealth, Romney finally relented.

Sort of.

Speaking to Radio Iowa late Monday, Romney answered his critics about his shadowy accounts, which he claims are kept in blind trusts, a common arrangement for public officials who want to avoid conflicts of interest while managing their money. “I don’t manage [the accounts], I don’t even know where they are,” Romney said. “The trustee follows all U.S. laws, all taxes are paid as appropriate, all of them have been reported to the government. There’s nothing hidden there.”

The response was feeble. And the last line is highly subjective, if not wrong. There is something hidden in offshore accounts by sheer fact of them being off shore. Usually it’s an effort by high net worth individuals to hide funds or transfer money away from high U.S. tax rates. There’s also an element of security in overseas banks for millionaires– if, for instance, the U.S. banking system completely collapsed, you wouldn’t be stuck with the measly $250,000 that the government guarantees. Yet perhaps most important, the contents of offshore accounts can’t always be audited by the U.S. government.

It’s important to note: There’s no indication Romney has broken any laws. Tax incentives exist abroad, and those with the resources and know-how have long taken advantage of them, well within the law. But it’s also worth pointing out that Romney, a man running for the highest office of the land, has answered prolonged and serious attacks that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman say indicate Romney’s character through a proverbial escape hatch, effectively a shrug of the shoulders to avoid answering more questions.

It’s those tax returns in the past that Romney, by evading continued calls to release them, has practically confirmed contain something either illicit or unflattering.

His campaign as well as Congressional Republicans want to be done with the tax sideshow, which has drawn attention away from Romney’s economic message, and specifically the anemic job numbers last week that didn’t get as much attention as Romney would have liked. Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz sought to turn the page on CNN Tuesday morning, saying “Governor Romney has been very successful. Get over it.” Sean Spicer, spokesman of the Republican National Committee also said on MSNBC yesterday that the attacks have been proven false. The Governor has released his tax records.”

In fairness, yes, he has. He released his 2010 return and an estimate for 2011. But it’s the ones that go further back that may be the most revealing. And it’s those in the past that Romney, by evading continued calls to release them publicly, has practically confirmed contain something either illicit or unflattering.

The pressing question is whether it’ll matter. As the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein noted Tuesday morning, the election, for all its big money and hysterical reporting, has been largely static. Despite months of coverage, major economic news in Europe, a landmark Supreme Court ruling and gaffes from both candidates, the two have been largely tied since Romney wrapped up the Republican nomination in March. So no, voters don’t seem swayed by the argument—or any single argument, really.

But still, it’s likely to continue dominating the debate and monopolizing cable air time. Even Vice President Joe Biden was expected Thursday afternoon to slam Romney. Why? Because the issue consistently puts Romney on the defensive. And unfortunately for him, with such a flat-footed answer to such strong attacks, he hasn’t quite figured out how to change the conversation.