Harry Reid's dirty work

The Senate majority leader lowers himself by trafficking in hearsay. But maybe he doesn’t care

Published August 3, 2012 11:44AM (EDT)

There are two possible explanations for Harry Reid’s repeated and emphatic insistence that Mitt Romney paid nothing in taxes for 10 years: Either he really thinks he knows something or he’s far more devious than anyone realized.

Reid attracted attention -- and widespread derision -- when he made the claim on Tuesday in an interview with the Huffington Post, citing a conversation he supposedly had with a Bain Capital investor.

"He didn't pay taxes for 10 years! Now, do I know that that's true? Well, I'm not certain. But obviously he can't release those tax returns. How would it look?” Reid asked.

Relying on hearsay to level a serious and highly specific accusation against a presidential candidate is, to put it mildly, not standard practice for someone of Reid’s stature. His comments were immediately ridiculed on Twitter and Jon Stewart devoted a “Daily Show” segment to skewering him for taking a “bullshit shot” at Romney. At that point, it might have been logical to assume Reid had gotten away from himself in the interview and that, chastened, he’d back off.

But that’s not what’s happened. Instead, the majority leader has spent the week making the same assertion over and over.

“I am not basing this on some figment of my imagination,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “I have had a number of people tell me that.”

And last night, after Romney told Sean Hannity that “it’s time for Harry to put up or shut up,” Reid fought back on the Senate floor, maintaining that “I was told by an extremely credible source that Romney has not paid taxes for 10 years.”

“It’s clear Romney is hiding something, and the American people deserve to know what it is,” Reid said. “Whatever Romney’s hiding probably speaks volumes about how he would approach issues that directly impact middle-class families, like tax reform and the economy. When you are running for president, you should be an open book.”

It’s obvious what Reid is trying to accomplish here. Romney has so far released tax records for 2010 and an estimate for 2011, with a promise to put out the entire ’11 return when it’s finalized. He released the information back in January after a shaming campaign by the media and his Republican presidential rivals, and it included some politically damaging revelations involving Swiss bank accounts, offshore investments and an effective federal tax rate of just under 14 percent.

In the past month, pressure – even from some Republicans – has built on Romney to release more. His willingness to turn over 23 years of records to John McCain's vice presidential search committee in 2008 and the example of his own father, who set a new precedent in presidential politics by putting out 12 years of returns before his 1968 campaign, are regularly invoked by those who say Romney owes the public more.

But Romney has steadfastly refused, giving rise to speculation that there are even more embarrassing revelations in some or all of his pre-2010 returns. The possibility that loopholes and the fact that most of his income comes from investments might have allowed Romney to pay close to nothing or nothing in federal taxes is one that particularly titillates Democrats. After all, their strategy is to paint the GOP as a servant of a pampered, super-affluent class that’s been insulated from the economic pain that the rest of America is feeling. To be able to point to the Republican presidential nominee as the living, breathing embodiment of his party’s protect-the-rich policies would be a dream come true for them.

For whatever reason, Romney clearly doesn’t want to release any more records. His hope is that with the passage of time, the media will let up and move on to other subjects, like his vice presidential selection, the party conventions, and the fall debates. Reid’s accusation therefore represents an attempt to keep the questions about Romney alive and to keep him squirming.

The question is whether Reid really does have any inside information. It seems doubtful, mainly because if Reid had anything more than hearsay, we’d almost certainly know about it by now.

A more likely scenario is that Reid has made a conscious decision to take one for the team – to invite all of the scorn and ridicule that’s been heaped on him this week knowing that it will also achieve the Democrats’ goal of keeping the story alive. Reid himself doesn’t look very good in all of this, but maybe he doesn’t care. Since winning a reelection race in 2010 that he had no business winning, he’s essentially been playing with House money. He seems unlikely to run again in 2016, when he’ll be 77 years old, and he doesn’t need broad public popularity to do his job as majority leader. But that job does come with a national platform, which makes him the perfect guy to do his party’s dirty work.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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