By Ken Feltman
Years ago, I told a candidate who did not want to release his tax returns that, in that case, he should release them the next time there was another big political story dominating the news. He looked at me as if to say, “You idiot, didn’t you hear me?”
Frowning, he spit out his words: “I just told you that I do not want to show my tax records. What’s wrong with you?” I responded, “The second our opponent or the press realize that you don’t want to release your taxes, they will be all over you like bears to honey. You will look as if you are hiding something and even your friends will become suspicious. ‘What’s he hiding?’ So in the end, you will release your records or lose a lot of support, maybe even the election.” He softened his glare.
The meaning of ‘I have nothing to hide’
“I have nothing to hide,” he said. Later, he admitted: “I have things that could be hard to explain to an unsophisticated person, you know, business investments. They could take them the wrong way, but nothing illegal. I paid every dime, but, you know, people who don’t have the business opportunities that I have had might not understand.”
With that red flag waving, I realized that we needed to get everything out there as soon as possible, to avoid the “ah ha!” that would come when the candidate was forced to end the drip, drip drip of attacks and eventually release the returns.
“That’s why you need to release things quickly, to get it behind so it does not become an open sore. Take the hit and it will heal quickly. Meet with your accountant and get one true and believable version of anything that might be questioned. Then get it out there and it will have a shorter life. If you delay, they will pick, pick, pick away at the scab and you may bleed to death,” I concluded.
The story will come out, but how?
He grumbled but agreed to a three-way meeting with his accountant. The accountant said that several business deals and deductions were “questionable” and “complex” and needed footnotes or explanations so people could understand.
I was cautious: If we called attention to items in the returns, then the media was sure to pick away at those items. We discussed the items and how much explaining would be required. Soon, we agreed that the explanations could just increase scrutiny. But the discussion had moved from whether to release the taxes to how. We released the returns without comments.
The candidate changed his mind and continued to hope that the questions about tax returns would go away. His opponent made sure they did not. Still, the candidate delayed and delayed and the pick, pick, picking at the scab got worse. When our opponent released his returns for the last three years, a few questionable items in his returns were not even mentioned in the articles in the local media. The story was that my candidate refused to release his returns.
Release and attack the other guy?
Finally, after six more weeks of pick, pick, picking by one newspaper and the opposing candidate, my candidate agreed to release his tax returns. The initial refusal and the suspicion it created meant that several media outlets examined the returns with a fine tooth comb. But we caught a break: The deals that my candidate wanted to keep hidden were indeed complex, so complex that the media glossed over them and simply reported the gross and net income figures and a few other items.
Our opponent, of course, started to attack the web of real estate trusts mentioned in the returns. We counter-attacked: Our opponent’s most recent return showed that he had received unemployment insurance twice that year. Apparently, he had lost his job early in the year, got a new job after about four months, then lost that job later in the year and received unemployment compensation again.
“He needs a steady job,” we said. “Is that why he’s running?” Our opponent did not handle the attack well, descending into an attack on one former boss and claiming he had a right to unemployment payments because he had “paid his taxes.” That was an easier story for the media to report and they did.
Mitt Romney and his campaign team should have anticipated this controversy months ago. They should have been prepared to whack it out of the park. Instead, they just sat there. They should have prepared attacks on the controversial aspects of President Obama’s tax returns. Instead, they acted like Romney is a first-time candidate with something to hide.
One rule of politics is to end the suspicion as early as possible and on the most favorable basis. What we have, again, is the appearance of a candidate who might come to be called “Romney the unready.”
Uncommitted voters are bothered by the controversy and the possibility that Romney really has something to hide. More than that, they are wondering why he and his team seem unprepared. They wonder: Is it incompetence?