President Obama’s re-election campaign has come up with the rarest of attack ads–specifically, it has substance and actually clarifies what is at stake in the radically different visions the 2 candidates offer for how to restore economic growth. Governor Romney sings a slightly off-key but pleasant rendition of “America, the Beautiful” in Florida, his voice echoing through abandoned factories as Bain Capital’s history of closing-down domestic industrial operations and cashing the profits reads-out on chyron cards in the foreground. We are told of the profits he subsequently deposited in foreign bank accounts (while his singing ironically carries even to the Cayman Islands and Switzerland, where he has stashed millions). Finally the ad fades out, Romney having just reached “And crown thy good with brotherhood…”
I like to imagine this ad will be 2012’s equivalent of the Johnson ad of a girl picking flowers interrupted by a nuclear blast that so undermined Barry Goldwater, or George Bush Sr’s. notorious “Willie Horton” that stirred-up long-standing fear towards crime and Michael Dukakis’ Liberal attitude towards it in Massachusetts. The difference between this ad and those is that the Obama campaign has found a serious issue on which to go on the attack.
I give Governor Romney credit for running (what by historical standards is) a principled campaign outside of the fact that it hasn’t found any way to respond to challenging political circumstances. The Obama campaign has found a line of attack that makes him look pretty bad (and didn’t have to stoop all that far to find it, mind you), and so far he hasn’t come close to finding a good defense. More to the point: Why won’t the Romney campaign come clean with his tax returns?
A friend of a friend offered a Conservative’s theory that Governor Romney has nothing to hide and is simply waiting for the appropriate time to release the non-incriminating information. This explanation is implausible to me; it makes sense to wait to release damaging information in a way that, to quote anti-US hack Julian Assange, “maximizes political impact,” but I don’t think the same can be said about defending one’s campaign. It’s the attack on one’s character, judgment or past policy choices that sinks-in; you want to dispel those doubts with a substantive counter. In politics, the right time to do that is always now. The fact that Governor Romney hasn’t been forthcoming makes me think he’s hoping to ride this out, which suggests he’s less-worried about the erosion of public confidence than about what we might find.
Whatever it is, if he hasn’t broken the law to sequester his millions in those offshore bank accounts it will very likely look like there should be a law outlawing what he has done–and that would be just as bad for Romney. In that case his call to lower taxes on the rich further may look like a particularly unfair conflict of interest, considering all the Federal money he has proposed cutting-off to the working and middle class. So, if he hasn’t technically committed a crime in evading so much in taxes and moving so much money out of the country, he will play into the Democrats’ refrain that the tax law is broken.
The very fact that every question about Romney’s finances seems to have multiple answers (Was he legally responsible for Bain Capital’s actions from 1999-2002? Did he deposit all the money he currently has in foreign bank accounts legally? Does he have $205 million to his name, or is it $260 million?) itself testifies to the failure of basic equability in our tax law, and of how he personally has thrived in its broken spaces. It’s the idea that he has been able to do this without breaking the law that really kills Republican rhetoric about “empowering job creators.”
I give Governor Romney credit for running a clean campaign, but in case anyone hasn’t noticed, he is significantly less of a Conservative than the base of his party. He probably figured that sticking to a technocratic campaign based on his qualifications to fix the economy would be both resonant and safe. That’s true if economic conditions remain as weak as they were for the past 2 months; meanwhile, Romney’s attendant case about the overreach of Federal power under President Obama was just undermined by 2 Supreme Court rulings in late-June, and with the passage of the highway bill and the extension of low student loan interest rates the President can say he was able to accomplish most of his economic policy objectives before the election. What was once enough for Romney to run a substantive campaign without making controversial policy commitments is now just the insufficiently-developed persona that he seems to be hiding behind. But he’s running for President; he can’t afford to ignore a plausible attack. The President has called his basic inclination to do what’s good for the country into question, and surprisingly his challenger has very little to say about that.