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Tax Day: Will Romney Make April Fools of Republicans

A Commentary by Joe Conason

Friday, January 20, 2012

Mitt Romney's latest flip-flop is almost complete. Having vowed a month ago not to release his federal income tax returns, the Republican presidential front-runner conceded during Saturday night's debate that he would "probably" release his returns, and then on Tuesday afternoon finally said he will do so -- in April, long after he is likely to have secured his party's nomination. With characteristic arrogance, he excused the delay by suggesting that April 15 is the traditional date when public officials supply this information, which is certainly true if you're already president.

Even more galling was Romney's suggestion that he will reveal only his 2011 return, which would allow him to control the narrative, of course, by paying a higher rate this year than in years past. Having admitted that he pays as little as 15 percent -- or around the same effective rate as a family earning $60,000 a year.

Who does Romney think he is fooling with this charade? Republicans are rightly concerned that his sense of entitlement, symbolized by the tax question, will damage their party's chances next fall. Determined though he is now to withhold his tax history, Romney is likely to be forced to surrender all of the financial information that President Obama disclosed long ago. Perhaps someone ought to remind him now that when Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, he and his wife released all of their tax returns dating back to 1980. (And when Hillary Rodham Clinton resisted releasing their returns during the 2008 presidential primaries, the Wall Street Journal editorial page excoriated her, demanding immediate full disclosure.)

As recently as Dec. 21, Romney seemed to believe that he could evade the release of his personal tax information. Asked by MSNBC's Chuck Todd whether he will release his returns, the former Massachusetts governor replied: "I don't intend to release the tax returns. I don't." Luckily for him, Todd didn't air that portion of the interview on "The Daily Rundown," his widely followed political broadcast. Romney's remarks were picked up from the transcript in a New York Times blog post, but the issue didn't blow up until after New Hampshire. Under increasing pressure from his opponents and the media -- and swiftly turning into a parody of buccaneering late capitalism -- Romney is now trying to quell the problem without solving it.

When Romney said that his effective tax rate is "probably" around 15 percent, he could have been gaming media expectations. Playing the expectations game would also be served by restricting disclosure to his 2011 return next April, since that document can easily be manipulated over the next few months to let him pay a higher rate. What he may well fear, if politics eventually requires him to give up his tax returns from the past decade or so, is the public's discovery that he used offshore investments, trusts and other accounting tricks to pay even less (like the 7,000 millionaires who paid zero income tax last year). The more he resists disclosure, the more voters will suspect him of such elite chicanery.

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com.

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