There's a Latin Phrase for This

Not Harry Reid's Finest Hour

Harry Reid's gambit on Romney's tax returns places the burden of proof on the accused.

I trust by now that no one will mistake me in any way with a person who thinks Mitt Romney should get within four or five area codes of the White House, but I’m not comfortable with Harry Reid’s crusade on Romney’s tax returns.

Let’s suppose, liberal friends, that in 2008, Mitch McConnell had alleged that he had it on good authority from a source on the south side of Chicago—who for various reasons wasn’t in a position to come forward—that Barack Obama and Tony Rezko were partners in some potentially shady commercial real-estate deals, deals in which laws were either skirted or manipulated in some skeezy way. The analogy is pretty precise, actually. How would we have felt?

I feel pretty certain that on some liberal blog, I’d have read the Latin phrase semper necessitas probandi incumbit ei qui agit, which means “the necessity of proof always lies with the one who lays the charges.” I don’t know much Latin, but I know what “semper” means, and it means no exceptions.

Now: This is not a court of law, this is a political campaign. That’s an important difference. No one’s life and livelihood and reputation and very freedom are at stake. If Mitt Romney loses, big deal. He suffers no penalty. He goes back to worrying about installing his car elevator.

And, of course, he should indeed release his taxes, as nearly all candidates have done going back to his father in 1968. And I join Reid and all critics in suspecting the obvious thing, that there’s really something he’s hiding in there that would do him very serious damage—not a violation of the law, but something possibly ethically or morally disqualifying him from the presidency in many Americans’ minds. I should think that would certainly be the case if Romney paid no taxes for 10 years, as Reid alleges.

That's very obviously the kind of thing the people have a clear right to know So in a way, Reid’s stratagem is ruthless and brilliant politics, and, in a way, it’s good to see Democrats playing this kind of hardball. I take some pleasure in watching conservatives squirm and kvetch. Needless to say, just as liberals would have been complaining in my hypothetical case above, conservatives would have been celebrating McConnell’s ruthless brilliance.

Trying to put myself inside my 2008 hypothetical, I imagine I’d have thought McConnell was out of bounds—but I did then and do now respect the guy’s shrewdness, and I’d have been more worried that he was correct. In other words, the underlying substance of the charge would have mattered more than the way in which the charge was laid. That's a categorical difference between a court of law, where improperly unearthed evidence is tossed, and a campaign, where the underlying truth matters more, especially when we're sizing up a guy who wants to be leader of the free world, which is the case here.

But the fact of this unnamed accuser and the placing of the burden of proof on the accused party doesn’t sit right with me. The McCarthyism charge leveled by the Romney campaign yesterday is over the top and basically wrong: The essence of McCarthyism is that the charges are spurious, based on flimsy or no evidence. Michele Bachmann’s campaign against Huma Abedin comes a lot closer to Tail Gunner Joe’s m.o. than this does. In this case, Romney himself, through his obstinant secrecy, gives us reason to think the charges may be correct. But this is hardly Reid’s finest hour.