Mitt Romney continues to refuse to release his past tax returns, while insisting that there’s “nothing hidden in them.”
It’s an untenable position, since it begs the obvious question, “If there’s nothing hidden, why not release them?”
The answer, of course, is that the returns will likely show the enormous amount of money he makes, how he makes it and how he uses sophisticated techniques to avoid paying taxes. We won’t see anything illegal in Romney’s returns, but we will probably see how much he still earns from Bain and be able to connect some of those earnings in certain years to layoffs of companies that Bain bought and sold. It will also probably show a number of tax avoidance techniques using loopholes in the current tax laws, such as “carried interest” and tax shelters in foreign lands. The returns will reinforce the notion that Romney is a fat-cat one-percenter who should be paying more in taxes.
The returns will be bad news for the Romney campaign, which is precisely why he should have released them already.
Get the bad news out early and all at once. That’s one of the truisms that I have learned from 25 years of developing and implementing crisis communications plans for companies in many industries and of many sizes, including three of the largest chapter 11 bankruptcies in history. Letting the bad news fester can only lead to three things, all bad for the company or individual:
1. The bad news stays in front of the pubic longer.
2. The bad news leaks out slowly, so what was just one story becomes many stories over time.
3. When the bad news breaks, it will be bigger than it would have otherwise been, because added to the news is the fact of the cover-up. Take, for example, Penn State’s child abuse scandal.
Once bad news is out there, the company or individual can address it, either by telling the world why it won’t happen again or by asserting its side of the story. The second approach would be the one for Romney to take. He is already advocating the positions that enable him to make and keep so much money. The fact that he does what he says is okay shouldn’t surprise anyone. But by refusing to release the returns, the Romney campaign keeps the issue in the news and gives the Obama campaign a symbolic cudgel with which to beat Romney again and again…and again.
I can understand Romney’s reluctance to release the returns before he had sewed up the nomination, given the complicated tango he danced with the extreme right-wing of the Republican Party, AKA the Tea Party.
But if Mitt had asked me, I would have made a strong recommendation to release the returns as soon as he had a majority of convention delegates in hand. Once out, he could have responded to the criticism by saying, "There’s nothing illegal in the returns, so it’s a closed matter. Let’s move on.”
Romney would still have to defend his economic positions, he would still be a poster child for the fat cats and he would still be open to charges that his only concerns are for the wealthy and that he doesn’t care about anyone else. But he’ll have to defend those accusations no matter what. With the returns out, he could spend his time trying to explain to the American people why he thinks his tax policies work to the benefit of everyone (FYI, they don’t.)
By not releasing the returns, he reinforces the idea that something nefarious is going on. He turns a simple matter into a cover-up. And that’s much worse than admitting what everyone knows already: that like other wealthy people, he makes a lot of money and knows how to use existing tax laws to minimize his tax burden.