When you are campaigning against a famously rich guy from Massachusetts, especially a Hollywood-handsome type with a winning smile and a family name that's part of the lore of big-time politics, here's a one-two strategy that's sure to make your opponent duck and weasel. And make the ordinary folks cheer.
1. Demand that he make public his income tax returns.
2. When the ducking and weaseling commence, whisper to a reporter that you just don't understand the delay. Because, after all, you know releasing income tax records can't possibly be a problem -- as long as a person has "nothing to hide."
And as you know, that's just how it happened.
As the Boston Globe reported, back on April 19, 1994: "With the tax-filing deadline looming, Republican Senate candidate Mitt Romney yesterday challenged Sen. Edward M. Kennedy to disclose his state and federal taxes to prove he has 'nothing to hide'..."
In politics, there are no new acts; just new actors. No new sins; just new sinners.
But every now and then, along comes someone who has a special something that seems, well, hard to define. Romney's specialty seems to be, well, his political flexibility.
It is hard to think of a major policy or controversy on which he has not held positions on all sides. Abortion. Immigration. Mandated health insurance. Tax increases/decreases. Mortgage foreclosures. Waging war in Afghanistan. Winding down in Iraq. Ratcheting up in Syria. Get tough with China. Increase trade with China.
But issue stuff doesn't irk most voters as much as common-sense stuff that folks can figure out for themselves. Such as Romney's out-of-touch, rich-guy blurtations. And now, his refusal to release more than two years' worth of income tax returns.
On Monday, the Massachusetts Oracle of '94 morphed into the USA Naysayer of '12. Romney rejected calls from not just Democrats but many fellow Republicans to release more than just two years of tax returns, 2010 and 2011. No way, he said.
You know -- and Romney knows -- when candidates release many years of tax returns, it mostly produces one story and a series of yawns. As when President Barack Obama released 12 years of his tax returns and, coincidentally, when Gov. George Romney also released 12 years of tax returns when running for president in 1968 (when son Mitt was 20).
Candidates' tax returns mainly make news when candidates seem afraid to release them. Then, they make you wonder what they want to hide. (Except in Massachusetts in 1994. Kennedy wouldn't release his taxes -- but his voters had already forgiven him for lots worse. He cruised to re-election. And Romney apparently learned the wrong lesson.)
For decades, we've seen very smart people in public offices do very dumb things -- and we've figured out why: They think what they are hiding will make them look lots worse. (As when Richard Nixon handed over a Watergate tape recording with 18 1/2 minutes clumsily erased, apparently to destroy incriminating statements.)
While Romney's old tax returns surely don't plunge to such pathetic depths, they could contain a few more rich-guy revelations. Maybe he made more money from his old firm, Bain Capital, than he indicated (while Americans lost jobs due to Bain's decisions). Maybe he benefited more from legal offshore tax shelters than we think.
But no revelation in his taxes could hurt him as much as he has just hurt himself with ordinary voters. Americans are forgiving, especially of pols who genuinely repent. We also admire self-made wealth and think the skills needed to achieve it can lead us to prosper in the global economy.
That's why Romney would be wise to release his taxes (bury us under a deluge of numbers), exchange his repentance for our forgiveness -- and move on.
But no. Romney seems determined to continue presenting himself to us as a cartoonish caricature -- a Ken doll stuffed with a squishy jelly doughnut for a core.
He hasn't shown a glimmer of a sign that he has yet become even half as wise as he is rich and smart.