An offer Mitt will definitely refuse

The Obama campaign devises a new ploy to keep the never-ending drama surrounding Romney's returns in the news

Published August 17, 2012 12:03PM (EDT)

The Obama campaign has come up with a new ploy to keep questions about Mitt Romney’s taxes in the news: a publicly released challenge to release three more years of returns in exchange for a promise to let the matter go there.

In a publicly released letter to his Romney campaign counterpart, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina promises that if Romney complies “we will not criticize him for not releasing more–neither in ads nor in other public communications or commentary for the rest of the campaign.”

So far, Romney has released records for just one year – 2010 – along with an estimate for 2011 and a pledge to make that year’s full return public when it becomes available. The politically damaging details contained in those documents aroused suspicions that earlier returns include equally (if not more) toxic revelations, and Romney’s steadfast refusal to release anything else has only fanned the flames.

There’s really no reason to think he’ll take the Obama team up on its challenge. For whatever reason, Romney and his team have obviously calculated that they’re better served taking grief from their opponents and the press than to put out any more information.  So this amounts to a political stunt by Obama’s camp – and probably an effective one.

And that’s really the point here: It’s proving to be rather easy for Democrats to keep this story alive.

Just consider what’s happened this week, which began after a brief lull in the Romney tax drama. This was the result of his surprise selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate last weekend, which temporarily distracted the political world from just about everything else. But not for long.

On Wednesday, Ann Romney was put on the spot in an interview for NBC’s “Rock Center.” The question was phrased delicately -- “I know it’s not a question that is welcomed, but must be asked. Why not be transparent and release more than the 2010 and the estimates for 2011?” – but Ann Romney was able to offer little more than an assurance that her husband is “honest. His integrity is just golden.”

“We have been transparent to what’s legally required of us,” she said. “But the more we release, the more we get attacked, the more we get questions, the more we get pushed. We have done what’s legally required, and there’s going to be no more tax releases given. And there’s a reason for that. And that’s because of … what happens as soon as we release anything. Mitt’s financial disclosures when he was governor were huge.”

Then on Thursday, at an event that was supposed to be dedicated to Medicare, Mitt Romney was asked by a reporter about his recent promise to ABC News that he would go back and review his tax records for the last decade to figure out what effective rate he’d paid.

"I did go back and look at my taxes and over the past 10 years,” Romney replied. “I never paid less than 13 percent," he said. "I think the most recent years is 13.6 percent or something like that. So I paid taxes every single year.”

There are a whole bunch of problems here for the Romney campaign. One is that Romney’s answer created a major story on Thursday, drawing attention away from the issue he’d hoped to focus on. The second is that his response, even if true, is problematic: How many voters will be satisfied to learn that a fantastically rich presidential candidate paid somewhere around 14 percent in federal taxes? And, of course, there’s the more basic fact that no one in the press is inclined to take Romney at his word on this; to reporters, the questions about what’s in Romney’s old returns are still unresolved.

And now the Obama campaign is giving the media another reason to ask Romney even more questions. And short of just releasing his returns (and dealing with whatever new questions the details of those returns raise), there’s nothing that Romney can say or do that will make reporters say, “OK, we’ve exhausted this one. There’s nothing more to this story.” To the press, Romney’s refusal to release any more information is genuinely suspicious. There’s got to be something in there that he’s embarrassed about. And his attempts at evasion leave reporters feeling as if they’re being played. Thus, it doesn’t take much for the story to flare up, again and again.

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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