The still-hidden tax returns

Updated
 

Reader Dan Sachar asked me via Twitter yesterday to tackle a good question: “Question for you to explore: Romney digs in on tax returns. Will press keep asking him or get bored and move on?”

The latter possibility seems plausible, doesn’t it? Whereas Mitt Romney’s hidden tax returns were a major topic of conversation for a short while, the political world invariably shifts its focus as new stories come to light, and the drum beat has obviously grown quieter.

That said, as NBC’s Brian Williams demonstrated last night, the issue hasn’t completely disappeared, at least not yet.

Given Romney’s response, it doesn’t seem like he’s even considering more disclosure. The polls show Americans want and expect more transparency, but the Republican candidate, at this point, doesn’t seem to care.

Also, note how unpersuasive the explanation is: Romney won’t disclose more information because “Democrat [sic] operatives” will “twist and distort” the information.

Dahlia Lithwick and Raymond Vasvari recently had a terrific take on this argument: “[Romney] isn’t actually claiming that his opponents will lie. He’s claiming he’s entitled to hide the truth because it could be used against him…. These are tax returns. Factual documents. No different than, say, a birth certificate. But the GOP’s argument that inconvenient facts can be withheld from public scrutiny simply because they can be used for mean purposes is a radical idea in a democracy.”

But what about Sachar’s question: will this keep dogging Romney or not? If I had to guess, regrettably, I’d say no.

We’re clearly not yet at the point at which news organizations have given up. Williams was right to press Romney on this last night, and today, the Union Leader newspaper in Manchester, N.H., run by a very conservative editorial board, hit Romney pretty hard over his secrecy.

“Surely he could not have arrogantly believed that he could withstand any storm that developed by bluffing his way through it? If so, it hasn’t worked,” the editors wrote.

But hasn’t it? Romney and his team have buckled down, refused all requests for transparency, and fully expect to hear fewer questions on the matter going forward – and sure enough, the questions are starting to fade.

Paul Waldman had a good take on this the other day.

Any time a politician faces pressure to do something he doesn’t want to do, there’s a calculation involved about the arc of the story and the cumulative effect of the two courses he could take. I can take the slings and arrows of the moment and hold out, in the hopes that the story will go away, or I can succumb and hope that by getting the pain over quickly, the damage will be minimized.

The conventional wisdom has become that any time there’s damaging information about you, you have to get it all out as soon as possible, and there are certainly plenty of cases in which a politician didn’t do so and ended up suffering both from the information itself and his initial stonewalling against releasing it. But that need not always be the case. Mitt Romney may just have bet correctly that he could stand firm against releasing his tax forms from any year before 2010 and get away with it.

I suspect Team Romney believes they’re taking some minor hits in July, but by the fall, the conversation will have moved on. And for the record, I don’t necessarily even blame news organizations for shifting their attention – there’s only so many times a media outlet can say, “Another day, still no tax returns from Gov. Romney.”

If the polls show Americans turning on Romney in significant numbers based on his secrecy and lack of disclosure, I imagine the Republican candidate will reconsider. But so long as Romney isn’t really feeling any meaningful consequences from his refusals, I’d be quite surprised if we see any additional tax returns.

Mitt Romney

The still-hidden tax returns

Updated