Romney’s delay in releasing this year’s tax return, so bothersome to Thiessen, is in fact a relatively trivial instance of his aversion to financial disclosure. Romney still refuses to release the 23 years of tax returns he made available to the McCain campaign when it was vetting him for vice-president in 2008. (What did the McCain campaign see that made Sarah Palin a more desirable alternative?) Though the Romney campaign has disclosed the name of major campaign-contribution bundlers who are lobbyists—as required by law—it has not voluntarily identified its bundlers who are not lobbyists. Nor have Romney’s financial-disclosure forms identified the underlying assets of his 48 accounts from Bain Capital. The couple that have seeped out in public records despite his stonewalling include a company that has outsourced jobs to China.
None of this is illegal. Nor is it illegal to keep many of your policy plans secret—which is the case with Romney’s immigration policy, his tax plan, his stand on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and the names of the government agencies he has promised to eliminate. The campaign’s strategy when asked about these matters is to refer questioners to its website, which is stuffed with weightless platitudes that are the verbal equivalent of Styrofoam pellets (a 59-point economic plan, for instance). That Romney is “a man without an ideological core” (in the words of another conservative critic, John Podhoretz) only adds to his weightlessness. That he so strenuously avoids talking about the state he governed and the religion that has informed him since childhood makes him seem stateless and rootless—a Man From Nowhere, or perhaps a Twilight Zone. Does anyone know whether Romney spends most of his time in Massachusetts—or New Hampshire—or La Jolla—or in other clandestine spreads as yet unidentified?
Whatever else Americans may want in a president in scary times, whether in the nuclear anxiety of 1964 or the economic anxiety of 2012, they prefer a known quantity and, at a minimum, a leader they find human, whatever their political differences. Despite the right’s impressive efforts to portray Barack Obama as an alien from another planet (or at least continent) over the past four years, people now know who the guy in the White House is, for better and worse. Romney is still a stranger, a blank, an enigma to his fellow citizens. No less a GOP partisan than William Kristol acknowledged as much this month when he mused, “I worry that the default will be for the devil you know over the devil you don’t.” Like Thiessen, Kristol knows there is much here for a present-day Bill Bernbach to work with.
But, as Bernbach fretted about Goldwater in 1964, Romney could yet succeed in “creating a new character for himself” before the Democrats create a frightening one for him. The task for the Obama campaign, not nearly as easy as the “Daisy” ad makes it look, is to nuke him first in 60 seconds of gut-wrenching and—dare one say it?—nauseating TV.