The explanations in each case are slightly different, but point less to the operatives around Romney—who are neither dumb nor blind—than to their boss. Regarding Bain, the candidate has apparently been in some state of denial about the degree of vulnerability his record there presents. To him, the equation is dead simple: private sector = good. (And the campaign has further been hampered by the press-shy executives now running Bain, whose allergy to the spotlight, as Mark Halperin pointed out recently in Time, has ironically only increased the glare.) Regarding his taxes, Romney has been at once less helpful and more adamant with his advisers—and more clueless about the potential fallout. Those around him say that, even with the shitstorm his position has unleashed, he remains unyielding in his insistence that two years of returns are all he’s willing to make public.
The depth to which Romney has dug in his heels has naturally provoked a welter of speculation about what in God’s name is in the returns—and just how bad it could be. That the levels of income will be stratospherically (some would say obscenely) high is taken as a given. That there are some years in which Romney paid an extremely low effective tax rate—lower, maybe much lower, than the 13.9 percent rate he paid in 2010—is quite likely. And then there is the most problematic possibility: that the Swiss and Cayman accounts that we already know about are just the tip of an iceberg, one that would suggest an aggressive, arguably unpatriotic pattern of tax-avoidance.
My own guess, however, is that apart from one or more of these elements, what the Romney tax returns would lay bare is the extent of his donations to his church. In this case and all others, charitable donations are something to be proud of, an entirely honorable thing. But for a candidate who has taken extravagant pains to avoid discussion of his supremely prominent role in contemporary Mormonism, the idea of a wave of news stories detailing the tens of millions of dollars that he has given to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—surely making him among its most generous funders in the modern era—must be a kind of nightmare. The kind that would open a can of worms that has little to do with money and everything to do with an aspect of his life that might humanize him and be reassuring or even inspiring to millions of Americans, but that he evidently regards as a strict no-go zone.
One sign that this issue is weighing on Romney’s mind was the performance that his wife, Ann, turned in on Good Morning America last week. In an uncomfortable exchange with Robin Roberts about her husband’s position on the tax returns, Mrs. Romney said, “You should really look at where Mitt has led his life and where he’s been financially. He’s been a very generous person. We give 10 percent of our income to our church every year. Do you think that is the kind of person that is trying to hide things?”
The rhetorical question at the end of that quote is, of course, a non sequitur. And along with Mrs. Romney’s unusually agitated demeanor on the show—she is typically the best and most effective surrogate the campaign has on its side—it suggested that, far more than Bain, the question of the tax returns is getting under the Romneys’ collective skin. That is certainly how it was seen in Chicago. And that is why, though some combination of Team Romney’s attacks on Obama, the Olympics, and the nominee’s selection of his running mate may have the effect of shifting the subject, the effect will only be temporary. For beyond what Chicago is gleaning from its polling and focus groups, the president’s people see in the issue of the tax returns a way to get inside his head.
“One of the things we learned during the Republican primaries is that you can rattle Romney more easily than people think,” says a senior Obama strategist. “And when he’s rattled is when he makes mistakes.” The members of the Romney campaign are perfectly familiar with the tactic of messing with a rival’s mind; they did it to Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum in succession, all to no small effect. To survive what’s coming will require of them a kind of nimbleness notably absent in the past two weeks. But more than that, it will require a recognition that the tactics being used against them are as much psy-ops as class warfare. This story appeared in the July, 30, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.