Keeping the focus on Romney’s tax returns

Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry expressed some interest in Mitt Romney’s elusive tax returns last week, and the Democratic National Committee is trying to keep the story going this week.

For those who can’t watch clips online, it’s a 40-second video noting that every major Republican presidential candidate in the post-Watergate era — and if we go back a little further, this includes George Romney in 1968 — has released their tax records. Mitt Romney, at least for now, refuses.

In releasing the video, DNC National Press Secretary Melanie Roussell explained the likely rationale for Romney’s reluctance: “It would show that on the millions of dollars in income he enjoys each year, Mitt Romney pays a lower tax rate than teachers, fire fighters, police officers or other middle class wage earners. Mitt Romney will tell you that it’s not required by the law that he release his returns but when he’s advocating for policies that benefit the wealthy and the well-heeled, voters have a right to know what conflicts he might have with his own finances.”

Romney has, in fact, repeatedly told interviewers that he’s not “required by law” to release his returns. That’s true. The problem for Romney, though, is that every nominee from both parties did it anyway, not because it’s mandatory, but because they thought it was the right thing to do.

We can only speculate as to exactly why the former one-term governor is so reluctant, but it’s a pretty safe bet that Romney doesn’t want the public to know he pays a lower tax rate than middle-class workers. Because Romney still collects seven-figure checks from his vulture-capitalist firm, he benefits from the “carried interest” loophole, which taxes private equity and venture capital income at a lower, 15% rate, as compared to 35% on ordinary income.

As we discussed the other day, it creates a dynamic that Romney would prefer to downplay:

1. Mitt Romney is worth $250 million.

2. He got rich by laying off American workers.

3. He pays a lower tax rate than you and the rest of the middle class.

4. He wants to be president so he can keep it this way.

For what it’s worth, some in the media are beginning to find this interesting. (When presidential candidates start hiding things, it’s inevitable that reporters will get at least a little curious.) Yesterday Romney sat down with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and, in response to several questions, said he’d “consider” releasing his tax returns “if I become president.” In other words, after the election Romney might do what every other modern candidate has done before the election.

Whether Romney’s preference for secrecy proves untenable remains to be seen, but my hunch is the longer he drags this out, the bigger the problem will become.