Mitt Romney has captured the Republican presidential nomination in all but name, and is running strong in the polls in his quest to become the next president of the United States. He has done so, largely, on his promise and his promises of doing a better job of managing the American economy than has the incumbent.
Thus his refusal to release more than one or two years of his tax returns, along with the continuing confusion of when he really gave up control of the Bain Capital investment firm, strikes even many Republicans as troubling. In recent days, such conservative stalwarts as columnist George Will and the editors of The National Review have been among those tearing their hair over the What-does-he-have-to-hide? message that was being sent by Romney's stonewalling.
Romney has released his returns for the tax year 2010, which showed that he paid an effective tax rate of 13.9 percent on $21.6 million in income. That rate (you know, lower than that paid by Warren Buffett's secretary) is possible because much of the Romney family income is taxed at the lower capital-gains rate and because of other legitimate tax shelters. The Romney campaign says it plans to also release the candidate's 2011 tax returns, which aren't final because the Romneys filed for a routine legal extension.
But much has been made of the fact that, when the candidate's father, George Romney, ran for president in 1968, he released 12 years worth of his 1040s because, as he said at the time, "One year could be a fluke, or done for show."
Romney has resisted the call to release more of his returns because he doesn't want to serve up details for the Obama campaign to distort. But, without those details, speculation runs amok. And the speculation now is focusing on the theory that Romney's returns from before 2010 might show an even more aggressive pattern of tax sheltering and off-shoring of assets that, even if totally legal, might not be the picture any candidate would want to draw of himself in a nation still pulling itself out from a major recession.
Meanwhile, Romney's claim that he gave up management of Bain Capital in 1999 when he came to Utah to manage the Winter Olympics, while corporate documents show him as CEO and sole stockholder of that company through at least 2001, only feeds an image of Romney as someone who bends the rules, and reality, to suit his needs.
The release of a presidential candidate's tax returns is a general gesture toward transparency. And, in this case, it could specifically help untangle the Bain mess. Romney's returns should be released. For his benefit, and for the voters'.