Frank Rich on the National Circus: Romney Has a Tax and Koch Problem

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Photo: Joe Raedle/2012 Getty Images

On Monday, President Obama proposed extending the Bush tax cuts for another year, except on income over $250,000. The Republicans, of course, howled, and the proposal is dead on arrival in the House. Was this useful political theater?
Yes. Even though it’s doomed as legislation, polls consistently show that voters side with the president on ending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. But as political theater, Obama’s proposal also serves to keep the taxes of a single wealthy person — Romney — center stage. Romney’s refusal to release more than a single year’s return keeps haunting him; after all, he gave 23 years' worth to the McCain campaign when it was vetting him for vice-president in 2008. During the primary debates this year, Romney fumbled badly when asked about his tax evasiveness, and unless and until he comes clean, the issue will keep metastasizing. No doubt he’ll try to finesse it next by releasing dribs and drabs of financial information, but any incremental approach will only raise more questions and send more reporters digging. Lucky as it is for the Obama campaign that Romney keeps stalling on this issue, it will be luckier still if the stalling continues into the fall, when the whole country, and debate audiences, will be riveted.

Some Democrats in tough Congressional races pushed back against the president, saying they wanted the tax-cut limit to be higher than $250,000. Do they have a point here? And is that point just to show the electorate that they're willing to buck the President, if only slightly?
With the exception of Chuck Schumer, who has already recanted his deviation from the White House line, these are mainly Democrats in red states, most of them up for reelection. Though they will keep grabbing at any distinction they can find to show their “independence” from Obama, it’s hard to imagine that voters of any persuasion will be bamboozled by such patent election-year disingenuousness.

At a campaign event in Iowa yesterday, Mitt Romney fought back against the attack that he's the "outsourcer-in-chief" by saying, "If there’s an outsourcer in chief, it’s the president of the United States, not the guy that’s running to replace him.” Is anyone going to buy that claim? And if not, why is he even bothering to make it?
With a few calls to the companies fingered by Romney as Obama-abetted “outsourcers” — generally companies that received federal stimulus money — the Times has already dismantled the claim. The fact remains that nearly two decades after Romney first had to face charges about Bain Capital’s downsizing and outsourcing of American jobs, back in his failed 1994 Senate race against Ted Kennedy, he still has not come up with an effective defense. This tit-for-tat diversionary tactic won’t fly either.  

Speaking of Mitt's outsourcing, Vanity Fair published a deep-dive investigation this month into Mitt's offshore finances. The author, Nicholas Shaxson, finds that while "the assertion that he broke no laws is widely accepted," the truth, "in fact, isn’t straightforward." How much, if at all, will this piece damage Romney?
The Associated Press has also been on this case, and others will surely follow. Like the non-disclosure of his tax returns, Mitt’s opaque foreign investments and bank accounts make you wonder what he is hiding, not just about money but other aspects of his life and career, including his yet-to-be-detailed years as a lay official of his church. Voters like to feel they know the person they are voting for, and every Mitt secret on any subject plays into the trope of Mitt the Mystery Man. And, as with his tax returns, Romney doesn’t have a good answer to the questions raised about his offshore holdings. Speaking of his investments a few days ago, he came up with this: “I don’t manage them. I don’t even know where they are.” Which prompted Romney’s persistent critic David Letterman to counter: “He does not manage his own finances and he doesn’t know where his money is — This is the guy to fix the economy!”

House Speaker John Boehner told supporters at a West Virginia fund-raiser that hating Obama is enough reason to go to the polls and conceded that "Americans aren't going to fall in love with Mitt Romney." (The latest Washington Post/ABC poll backs him up.) Can people really vote for Romney in spite of him?
In the television era, only one hopelessly stiff, awkward, and socially inept candidate has ever been elected to the presidency, Richard Nixon. What he also had in common with Romney was a rogue’s gallery of secret fat-cat donors who would only become known after Election Day, thanks to Watergate.

Last Sunday, Mitt proudly strutted his rich-guy stuff in front of the only crowd that seems to genuinely love him — wealthy conservative elites. At David Koch's vast Hamptons estate, Romney admitted that he had a "Koch problem" (get it!?!), but then said, "I don’t look at it as a problem; I look at it as an asset.” True words?
Are we really sure Romney got the pun? In any case, he was speaking the truth as he sees it. If corporations are people, then billionaire backers like Koch are assets, if not deities.

This coming Sunday, USA will air the first episode of its miniseries Political Animals, in which Sigourney Weaver plays a Hillary Clinton–esque secretary of State. This seems to be an incredibly fertile year (more so than 2004 or 2008) for political fictions on TV (you’re an executive producer of one of them, HBO's Veep). Any thought on why that's the case?
There’s also Scandal and the forthcoming 1600 Penn. Each has a different personality as far as I can tell, and none of them has a rosy view of Washington. Clearly there’s a growth market in trying to mine entertainment from our political dysfunction. We might as well get something of value, including laughs, out of the mess we’re in. 

Speaking of political comedy, intentional or not, what do you make of the latest Romney fund-raising gimmick, the new “Vintage Collection”? It’s an array of tchotchkes being marketed online by Mitt’s son Tagg as a tribute to “my late grandfather's legacy as a governor and a presidential candidate.”  
The cheapest item, at $3, is a “Mitt & George Button.” (The “Vintage Romney Three-Quarter Sleeve Henley” will set you back $35.) It shows a serious young Mitt in shirt and tie listening intently as his father grabs his arm, seemingly to impart a pressing piece of wisdom. Perhaps George is telling Mitt how important it is to release your tax returns when seeking to be president. As the Obama campaign now reminds us almost hourly, the elder Romney released twelve years of his during his run in 1968.