Thre Big Differences

The McCain Defense Shouldn't Fly

07.17.12 4:23 PM ET

We've seen Mitt Romney fly thither and yon grasping at excuses not to release his tax returns. The Teresa Heinz Kerry approach was pathetic; as has often been said by now, the guy's not running for First Lady.

The better attempt is the McCain Defense--John McCain released only two years, so if it was good enough for him, it's good enough for me. Strikes me as the only reed he has to lean on.

But there were some differences between McCain and Romney. Mainly, this: McCain didn't make his years in business the centerpiece of his entire rationale for becoming president. When you open a door like that, uninvited guests enter as well as the invited ones.

It's a hard rule of politics. It's why, for example, Barack Obama almost never talks about race; because he knows that if he opens that door, then it becomes the subject, and it probably isn't going to do him much good in the long run. As president, he's stuck a toe in racial waters just once that I can remember, the Skip Gates business, and he screwed that up royally and presumably learned his lesson.

So if you go around saying "Businessman! Businessman! Businessman!", you invite people to respond by asking, "Okay, Mr Businessman, let's have a look at what that really means then." So that's the main one, but there are others.

Eveybody knew that McCain wasn't a rich man. Whatever he made on his own aside from his salaries, he made through books, and that's considered earned, because of the logic of the publishing business: generally speaking, you are paid what you sell.

The rest of his dough was Cindy's, and there was some poking around in her fortune, to be sure, mostly because it was a somewhat unorthodox one (beer). And because of that one time when he didn't know how many houses he owned. But it never became a hot issue.

Finally, McCain had won some goodwill in Washington by working to lessen the influence of big money in politics, an issue on which he was seen as working against some in his party, and certainly in his social class.

For these three reasons I don't think the McCain Defense will hold.

For the record, I think one phrase in the new Obama ad "Makes You Wonder" goes too far: "Makes you wonder if some years he paid any taxes at all." That's asking a man to prove he didn't beat his wife, and it's inappropriate and out of bounds. Better: "Makes you wonder about all those years he's not releasing." No direct allegation there, but point made.

Finally, friends: What IF, I mean just suppose, there is a year in there that he paid no taxes, or even paid negative tax, which is possible with these muckety-mucks. I stick with my hunch from yesterday: He made a lot during those phantom years, not just a couple hundred thou, for no work. But if this no-tax scenario is true, he's about cooked, innit'e?