Frank Rich on the National Circus: Mitt Can’t Wait Out His Tax Storm

Mitt Romney’s taxes, tax avoidance, and tax returns have become one of the central issues of this campaign. A growing chorus of Republicans, among them Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and the editors of National Review, have called on Mitt to release more returns. Would that be smart politics? Or can he wait out this storm?

Is there any major Republican, from George Will to Bill Kristol to Haley Barbour, who has not called for Romney to release more returns? Surely Romney himself is asking for more than two years of returns from the veep prospects he’s vetting. What Mitt doesn’t seem to realize is that whatever embarrassments are in his tax returns, the bigger problem is that his secrecy keeps accentuating all the mysteries in his resume: the erased hard drives he left behind when leaving office as Massachusetts governor; what exactly he did as a longtime lay official in the Mormon church; and, of course, what exactly he did and didn’t do at Bain and, for that matter, when he was there and not there. If he keeps trying to wait out the tax storm, it will keep growing — hitting a new peak when he finally releases the one additional year of tax returns he has agreed to disclose, and another when his veep pick is asked to release his or her tax returns.

One man who has famously seen 23 years of Romney’s tax returns, John McCain, said it was “outrageous” that people would speculate that Mitt’s IRS filings had disqualified him from the VP slot. Palin was just the “better candidate,” McCain said. Do you believe him?

What I certainly believe is that McCain is so full of himself that he would defend his own politically disastrous choice of Palin even if that means insulting Romney by declaring him inferior to her. Between McCain, Ed Gillespie (who coined the phrase “retroactively retired” to spin Mitt’s Bain elusive employment timeline) and John Sununu (who slurred the president as un-American), a foot-in-mouth Obama surrogate like Cory Booker is starting to look relatively good. One Romney campaign flack, Gail Gitcho, was so incompetent at fielding questions on MSNBC one morning this week you’d think she was being interviewed by Mike Wallace in full prosecutorial mode rather than by the respectful Luke Russert. 

Mitt seems much more enthusiastic talking about his VP pick, or rather talking about how he’s going to make a VP pick sometime soon. Is all this VP hype an effective distraction technique? And is there any way the actual VP choice isn’t going to be a letdown after this hype?

None too effective as a distraction, given that everyone is still talking about Bain and Romney’s tax returns. A letdown is assured unless it’s, say, Condi Rice or Mike Huckabee or Kid Rock. The truth is that Romney isn’t really good about talking about anything, trivial or substantive. The five television interviews he gave last Friday to clarify his Bain record — instigated by his own campaign — were so tongue-tied, disingenuous and laced with corporate jargon (“entities” and whatnot) that they ended up doing more harm than good. Americans still don’t understand how he could have been CEO (among other titles) at Bain, collect a six-figure salary (at least), and not be responsible for anything. Mitt also prissily whined that Obama should “apologize” to him — even though Romney’s own campaign book is titled No Apology — and in a fawning interview conducted by Fox & Friends, he defended his tax disclosure record by comparing himself to, of all people, Teresa Heinz Kerry. His strategy on NBC — to duck questions about his offshore finances by hiding once more behind his “blind trust” — was easily demolished. Just 72 hours later, Jon Stewart ran the 1994 clip in which Romney, then running against Ted Kennedy, dismissed a blind trust as “an age-old ruse” that can easily be manipulated by its beneficiary.

This is our last Circus until early August. In the unlikely event Mitt names his pick before we return, care to take a shot at naming Romney’s VP choice, just for fun?

All the betting seems to be on Tim Pawlenty, and with good reason because he’s Romney’s idea of a diversity pick: He may be another boring white guy, but TPaw (has there ever been a guy less suited to this kind of nickname?) wasn’t born into wealth and comes from Minnesota, not Michigan, and thus enlivens the ticket with a slightly different variety of Midwestern accent. 

The Times ran a long story on Sunday on Obama’s former finance chairwoman Penny Pritzker and her reluctance to get into this campaign. Meanwhile, the Romney money machine keeps on chugging. Will big Democratic donors jump in to do battle with Sheldon Adelson, Harold Simmons, and Bob Perry, or will the fund-raising gap keep growing?

What the Times was picking up on was the fact that Obama is regarded by a wide swath of establishment Democrats, from some big donors to members of his own cabinet, as an isolated cold fish who doesn’t suffer schmoozers gladly. There may well be a continued money gap, particularly when you factor in the Obama hatred and unlimited bank rolls of the billionaire sugar daddies feeding the GOP super-PACs. 

Politico ran a story yesterday saying the GOP was desperately trying to avoid a government shutdown in September, recognizing that it might kill their election chances. Will the GOP establishment be able to wrangle its Tea Party wing into that kind of compromise? And is avoiding a shutdown smart politics for them?

Avoiding a shutdown would be smart politics for the GOP. And it’s not inconceivable the Tea Party would go along in avoiding such a train wreck. Dick Armey, now a leader of the Tea Party organization FreedomWorks, was in the GOP leadership during the Gingrich shutdown circus of 1995–96,  and later publicly acknowledged that it was “a public-relations catastrophe” for his own party. Armey also has shrewdly observed that Republicans, not a Democratic president, will always be blamed for shutdowns because “it’s counter-intuitive that Democrats who love government would shut it down.” So he and others like him may try to dissuade the hotheads from igniting a Washington apocalypse in the weeks before the election.

Dick Cheney reemerged from the dank Wyoming cave system in which he spends the daylight hours to tell Republican Congressman not to cut defense spending. Is anyone, Republican or Democrat, happy to see Cheney back in Washington? 

I doubt it. No one cares about yesterday’s Darth Vader. Besides, there’s a new Hollywood blockbuster villain on the block to hiss. As has not been lost on Rush Limbaugh — who has already whipped himself into a tizzy about it — Batman’s vicious nemesis in this weekend’s much awaited Hollywood arrival, The Dark Knight Rises, goes by the name Bane.  

Frank Rich: Mitt Can’t Wait Out His Tax Storm