Nothing is certain but death and taxes.
We’re all familiar with that little aphorism. Drawn from a letter Benjamin Franklin wrote to Jean-Baptiste Leroy in 1789 (itself derived, most likely, from Daniel Defoe’s Political History of the Devil, penned in 1726), the sardonic phrase draws an emotional response both wistful and painful, reminding us—as if we needed reminding—of what the government needs and takes from us.
Still, when I notice the brouhaha surrounding the will-he/wont-he conversations about Mitt Romney and his tax returns, I wonder if what Ben really meant was this: Try as we might, we will never get through an election cycle without a battle over tax return revelations.
I did a quick Google search for the phrase “Mitt Romney Tax Return” and my instant reward was a plethora of links: 744,000 plus or minus. Example headlines included “Mitt Romney’s Tax Return Problem,” and “101 Tax Return Questions Mitt Romney Must Answer Before This PR Nightmare Goes Away for Him.” (The latter, from an awkwardly titled Forbes article, seems telling in the way it’s phrased, sounding rather like a cross between a Disney film and a Cosmopolitan article, something targeted at our curiosity and our propensity to love items, listed.)
Mitt’s returns are something we’re talking about. A lot. If we look at recent history, though, it seems we are asking more of Mitt than we have of others. I’ve heard calls for his campaign to release twelve years of returns, the number apparently anchored by the mistaken belief that his father, George Romney, released exactly that much information back when he announced his presidential candidacy in November of 1967. Still, even if it were true that Mitt’s dad had released that much info, why use that as an anchor for Mitt’s supposed responsibilities? Why not use the last GOP candidate, John McCain, as a reference point instead? McCain himself wondered about that in a recent appearance on Piers Morgan’s show, when he told us that he had only released two years of returns. And, he pointed out, John Kerry never released any of his wife’s returns, she of the Heinz fortune.
I’ve heard a number of justifications for why we should dig further into Mitt’s numbers. Mitt has offshore accounts and tax havens, blind trusts and capital gains advantages. He’s made a ton of money, more in a single year than many of us will make in a lifetime. He’s no member of mainstream America, that’s for sure, and the Vegas money would likely lay odds that he (or his accountants) took advantage of every loophole out there in an effort to do what—let’s admit it—we all want to do, and that’s reduce our tax burden to the single lowest possible (legal) number we can get away with it.
But ask yourself these very basic questions: If Romney were to release more information, is there any pundit on the left or right that wouldn’t line up to either condemn or defend Romney exactly as you would expect? More importantly, if you’ve already formed an opinion about Mitt Romney and his financial history, can you honestly say that releasing more information is going to change your mind? If not, what difference does it really make?
Perhaps this is the difference it makes: It keeps us from talking about other things. As it is with nearly all political conversation, true power resides in controlling the narrative—what we, the public, talk about, think about, and argue about. For now the Democratic machinery has successfully managed to wrest that control away from others who would rather focus the conversations elsewhere. Like a schoolyard victim that has finally learned the bully’s techniques, the Democratic machinery, led by the DNC, continues to pound the issue, most recently in an ad that accuses Romney of “dancing around” the controversy.
The Democrats, I’m convinced, know that this race is going to be tight, and that President Obama is vulnerable—despite some achievements—on economic issues, on health care, and on financial reforms, topics that have angered the opposition and frustrated his base. So by using the narrative equivalent of a magician’s misdirection, they have managed to keep us talking about what is essentially a settled issue: our opinions of Mitt Romney and whether or not he’s an out-of-touch, loophole-loving rich guy.
But I ask you to think about a few other questions instead. What would President Romney do in Syria? How would President Romney respond to Michele Bachmann’s outrageous accusations regarding Huma Abedin? What would President Romney propose as an energy policy? Or an education policy? How would he react, as Commander in Chief, to another Rwanda or Kosovo? What would he do, specifically, regarding the Federal Reserve, or the continued riskiness of our banking practices?
These are things I’d like to know, things I’d like to talk about. I believe, too, that you may very well share my curiosity. I hope we have that chance before Election Day. But time seems to be running out, and we’re all very, very busy with other things. There are those 101 Tax Return Questions to review, along with today’s crop of 1,130 new articles about Mitt’s little tax controversy…
 Come to think of it, maybe Mitt is just like you and me!
 The ad is actually a brilliant two-fer; it also ties in the Ann Romney/dressage story.