Late last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) claimed he'd heard from a Bain Capital investor that Mitt Romney hadn't paid income taxes for 10 years. Republicans were livid -- Reid wouldn't identify a source, admitted he couldn't substantiate the claim; and wouldn't even say if he knew the rumor to be true.
On the Sunday shows, the discussion focused on little else. For Romney, this wasn't necessarily good news.
On the one hand, GOP voices were on the offensive, condemning Reid for passing along second-hand innuendo. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus went so far as to call the Senate Majority Leader a "dirty liar."
And on the other hand, we saw Democrats also on the offensive, asking why Romney doesn't just release his tax returns.
In this clip, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) told CBS, "Mr. Romney could give us the proof that he has paid taxes consistently. The fact is, Bob, Mitt Romney wants the American people to trust him with the presidency, but he won't trust us with his tax returns. All he has to do is release his tax returns. The question that I think is this: why is Mitt Romney refusing to give us his tax returns? The people want to know why he has his tax returns, Bob, he gave them to John McCain for, I think, 23 years. Why is he now, since he's seeking the presidency, saying to the American people, 'you don't deserve to see my tax returns'? That's a legitimate question in the minds of the American people."
Strickland was one of many to make the same case. Indeed, it wasn't just Democrats -- former Reagan/Bush campaign chairman and Republican strategist Ed Rollins told Fox Romney should disclose more. "Two years is not enough, obviously," Rollins said.
I continue to think the right's underlying point about Reid has merit, even if they cede the high ground with ridiculous rhetoric like Priebus'. Whether I like the candidate in question or not, expecting presidential hopefuls to respond to every unsubstantiated rumor just isn't fair. (If Mitch McConnell announced this morning, "I heard from a secret source that Barack Obama once shot a man in Reno just to watch him die," I don't think the president would have a responsibility to prove otherwise.)
But I also think Romney has to release his tax returns.
The underlying GOP strategy here, at least at face value, makes some tactical sense -- if they can discredit Reid's accusation, they hope it will effectively end the demands for more disclosure. But the effort is ultimately silly. The need for scrutiny of Romney's tax returns was obvious long before Reid piped up last week, and is based on a series of legitimate questions, including controversies surrounding Romney's Bain background, offshore finances, controversial investments, unanswered questions about his individual retirement account that somehow ended up with more than $100 million, and claims about his business that contradict SEC filings.
What's more, we know the Republican candidate was willing to turn over 23 years of tax returns to John McCain's campaign team four years ago, but for reasons he won't explain, Romney doesn't want American voters to see what McCain saw.
And taking a step back, by even engaging Reid, and watching Romney punch down at the senator, Republicans are only helping keep the larger story alive -- Romney's secret tax returns remain the campaign story on the front burner, taking the focus away from everything else the GOP wants to talk about.
Put it this way: both sides were on the offensive over the weekend, but only one side is smiling.