Mitt Romney's defiant secrecy about his personal finances looks like a cross Republicans will have to bear all the way to Election Day. To put it mildly, the burden seems to chafe.
Apoplexy is not the tone politicians generally seek to project. Yet there was GOP chief Reince Priebus on ABC's "This Week," calling Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid a "dirty liar" for his claim about how little Romney may have paid in taxes. There was Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on CNN's "State of the Union," saying of Reid, "I think he's lying." There was Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell on CBS' "Face the Nation," decrying a "reckless and slanderous charge by Harry Reid."
It was a coordinated display of righteous indignation, a pageant of scenery-chewing. But in making such a show of denouncing Dirty Harry's foul calumny, all Republicans succeeded in doing was draw attention to Romney's stubborn refusal to release more than a year's worth of tax returns -- and guarantee more coverage of Reid's claims.
Reid was a boxer in his youth, and what he did to Romney was the equivalent of a head butt. He claimed to have a "source" -- someone who had business with Bain Capital, the private-equity firm Romney ran -- who told him Romney paid no federal income taxes for 10 years.
Who is this alleged source? Reid won't say. It's reasonable to question whether the source even exists, much less whether he or she would be in a position to know what's in those tax forms Romney is so reluctant to reveal. It's understandable that the GOP candidate and his surrogates would accuse Reid of an unfair attack.
But they can't prove it's an untrue attack unless Romney does what conservative commentators and Republican insiders have been urging: release the tax returns, as Americans have expected of every presidential candidate since, well, since Romney's father set the standard in 1968.
"His poor father must be so embarrassed about his son," Reid said, referring to George Romney's decision to release a dozen years' worth of tax returns for public inspection.
That was the equivalent of rubbing salt into the wound opened by the head butt.
If Reid is being as cynical and mendacious as Republicans charge, Romney could demolish the majority leader's credibility -- and put the whole issue to rest -- with a single phone call instructing his accountant to release the returns. "I have paid taxes every year. A lot of taxes. A lot of taxes," he said. But he still won't make that call.
He also told Reid to "put up or shut up," which is comical. Romney is the one holding the tax returns, not Reid. Only the candidate can "put up" -- and he steadfastly refuses to do so.
Romney did release his 2010 tax return, and he promises to release the 2011 return when it is completed. No recent presidential candidate has tried to get away with such meager disclosure.
In 2010, Romney paid a tax rate of 13.9 percent on income of $21.6 million. The most affluent wage-earners pay income tax at a rate of 35 percent, but Romney, whose net worth has been estimated at $250 million, earned most of his money from investments and thus pays the lower rate for capital gains.
Asked last week whether there had been years when he paid less than 13.9 percent, Romney said he would be "happy to go back and look" at his records. So far, however, the campaign has declined to provide an answer. Romney must still be looking.
What strikes you as more improbable: That Harry Reid actually has a mysterious source with intimate knowledge of Romney's finances? Or that a man who made a quarter of a billion dollars from his skill at reading balance sheets has no clue of how much he's been paying in taxes?
Neither, on its face, sounds terribly likely. But Reid isn't running for president -- and doesn't even have to run for re-election until 2016, assuming he chooses to do so. Romney could dramatically boost his credibility by opening his personal books to the normal degree of public scrutiny. The fact that he won't -- even when continued secrecy clearly hurts the campaign, if only by diverting attention from other issues Romney would rather be talking about -- clearly means there's something embarrassing, inappropriate or just plain ugly in there.
You don't need a secret source to tell you that. Common sense will do.
Eugene Robinson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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