Sometimes, it’s possible to gain and lose the moral high ground very quickly.
When reporters shout intemperate questions at a candidate near Pilsudski Square in Warsaw, the candidate has gained the high ground. When the candidate’s aide tells the reporters, “Kiss my ass” and “Shove it,” the candidate has lost the high ground.
Similarly, Mitt Romney had the high ground when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made unfounded allegations about the Republican’s tax returns. And yet, he somehow managed to cede the high ground soon after.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Reid claimed he’d heard from a Bain Capital investor that Romney hadn’t paid income taxes for 10 years. Which investor? Reid didn’t say. Why should anyone take the claim seriously? Reid couldn’t say. He heard a rumor, and he’s passing it along.
Team Romney was furious and they had a point. The discourse can’t work this way — prominent officials need to be responsible when making attacks, and not just throw around second-hand innuendo, as if presidential candidates have a responsibility to respond to every unsupported rumor.
Romney had the high ground against a cheap shot. And then he gave it away.
“It’s time for Harry to put up or shut up,” Romney said on Sean Hannity’s radio show. [...]
“Harry’s gonna have to describe who it is he spoke with because of course that’s totally and completely wrong,” Romney said Thursday in the radio interview. “It’s untrue, dishonest and inaccurate. It’s wrong. So I’m looking forward to have Harry reveal his sources and we’ll probably find out that it’s the White House.”
Is that so. Does Reid have any proof that Romney failed to pay taxes for 10 years? No, it’s just an unsubstantiated allegation that Reid carelessly pushed in the media. And does Romney have any proof that the White House is Reid’s secret source behind the attack? No, it’s just an unsubstantiated allegation that Romney carelessly pushed in the media. High ground, lost.
As for “put up or shut up,” is this really the phrase the guy who has been hiding his tax returns wants to use?
In recent weeks, Romney and his campaign spokespersons have claimed he always followed the law when paying his taxes and never paid an income tax rate of 0%. Romney also told a national television audience he’d be “happy to go back and look” to see how many years, if any, he paid a rate under 13.9%.
But these boasts are as dubious as Reid’s irresponsible claims — Romney has effectively told Americans we’re simply supposed to take his defense on faith. He could bolster his own rhetoric about his tax history with documented proof, but for reasons he can’t explain, Romney doesn’t want to.
The message: just take his word for it. And what about his willingness to happily go back and look at his paid income tax rates? Apparently, Romney intends to break this commitment just days after making it.
This is not how one keeps the moral high ground.
For Reid’s part, the Senate Majority Leader issued a statement last night that stands by the original allegations.
“There is a controversy because the Republican presidential nominee, Governor Mitt Romney, refuses to release his tax returns. As I said before, I was told by an extremely credible source that Romney has not paid taxes for ten years. People who make as much money as Mitt Romney have many tricks at their disposal to avoid paying taxes. We already know that Romney has exploited many of these loopholes, stashing his money in secret, overseas accounts in places like Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.
“Last weekend, Governor Romney promised that he would check his tax returns and let the American people know whether he ever paid a rate lower than 13.9 percent. One day later, his campaign raced to say he had no intention of putting out any further information.
“When it comes to answering the legitimate questions the American people have about whether he avoided paying his fair share in taxes or why he opened a Swiss bank account, Romney has shut up. But as a presidential candidate, it’s his obligation to put up, and release several years’ worth of tax returns just like nominees of both parties have done for decades.
“It’s clear Romney is hiding something, and the American people deserve to know what it is. 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.
“I understand Romney is concerned that many people, Democrats and Republicans, have been calling on him to release his tax returns. He has so far refused. There is only one thing he can do to clear this up, and that’s release his tax returns.”
The issue isn’t going away.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, August 3, 2012
On the issue of Mitt Romney’s tax returns, my colleague George Will put it simply: “The cost of not releasing the returns are clear. Therefore, he must have calculated that there are higher costs in releasing them.”
The question is what could be in them that would be so damaging to the Romney campaign. Right now, the most popular theory is that Romney simply didn’t pay any federal taxes at all in 2009. As Joshua Green wrote, ” It’s possible that he suffered a large enough capital loss that, carried forward and coupled with his various offshore tax havens, he wound up paying no U.S. federal taxes at all in 2009.”
But the tax experts I’ve spoken to are skeptical. “Romney had a $4.8 million capital loss carryover coming into 2010,” says Edward Kleinbard, a professor of tax law at the University of Southern California. “So that means no capital gain income in 2009. If you look on the first page [of his 2010 tax return], though, he had lots of ordinary income (interest mostly), and dividends, which are taxed at the same rate as capital gains but which cannot be sheltered from tax by capital losses. So presumably he had some positive income tax in 2009.”
Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, agrees. “It’s unlikely that his taxable income was zero or even close enough to zero that his credits would zero out his tax liability completely,” he says.
But Daniel Shaviro, a tax professor at New York University, isn’t so sure. “I think there’s an excellent chance that [Romney] didn’t pay any taxes in 2008 or 2009,” he says. But to get from a small federal tax liability to no federal tax liability, Romney would have needed to engage in incredibly aggressive tax planning. Shaviro mentions picking loser investments to get some benefits from “loss harvesting,” unusual tax shelters, and a bevy of other stuff that, frankly, I don’t totally understand.
The overriding question, though, is why would Romney do any of this. As Shaviro says, “If you were running for president and in his position, wouldn’t you think of telling your transaction people not to take you down too low in 2008 and 2009?”
When I asked whether these kinds of structures were simply too difficult to cleanly unwind over a couple of years, Shaviro was skeptical. “The Caymans structures might take some time to unwind, and there might be tax planning issues about not screwing up the unwind too badly, but come on, the guy has been in public life since 2002 and was aiming for the White House from the start. Plus, suppose he had tax shelters in 2009 that created losses. It’s not complex not to do these deals – all you have to do is…not do them.”
For what it’s worth — and, since I haven’t seen Romney’s 2009 tax return, it’s not worth much — my guess is he paid some federal taxes in 2009. The sort of tax sheltering he would have needed to get to zero would be quasi-suicidal for a presidential aspirant. But his effective federal tax rate may only have been 3 or 4 or 5 percent, which would be nearly as bad as zero. Add in a couple of shelters that Romney fears would look particularly bad, and it’s probably enough to persuade him that enduring a bit of bad press for tax decisions people think he might have made is preferable to a media feeding frenzy over tax decisions he definitely made.
The question none of this answers is why Romney didn’t clean up his taxes in 2008 and 2009. But it’s always worth remembering that the people running for office are human beings who procrastinate and make bad decisions and get distracted by other things. And given that Romney moves in a world where aggressive tax planning is the norm rather than the exception, he might simply have failed to recognize what a priority simplifying his taxes really was. My hunch is that the person spending the most time wondering why Romney didn’t get his taxes in order in 2008 is…Mitt Romney.
By: Ezra Klein, Wonkblog, The Washington Post, July 17, 2012
Mitt Romney has an identity problem. He is running for president by making promises about America’s future, but as a man who is largely without a past. Not only has Romney renounced many of his previous positions — on abortion, immigration, gun control, climate change, and the individual mandate he once championed as Massachusetts governor. He also refuses to divulge many details about what even he has said is his main qualification for the White House in a faltering economy: his successful career in “private equity” from 1984 to 1999 (or thereabouts).
What is it about the private equity world that Romney doesn’t appear eager to bring up? As I explain in an article in the current issue of National Journal, “Mystery Man,” Romney was basically what used to be known as a “barbarian at the gate.” The term “private equity” sounds respectable, but it is a euphemism for the old leveraged buyout deals we remember from the 1980s, the era of corporate raiders like T. Boone Pickens and Henry Kravis. After junk-bond king Michael Milken, who funded a lot of those takeovers, went to jail, the industry decided to rename itself in order to remove the taint.
This is Mitt Romney’s true world. As the founder of Bain Capital, Romney became a brilliant LBO buccaneer who specialized in buying up firms by taking on a lot of debt, using the target firm as collateral, and then trying to make the firm profitable — often by breaking it up or slashing jobs — to the point where Bain and its investors could load up the firm with even more debt, which Bain would then use to pay itself off. That would ensure a profit for Bain investors whether or not the companies themselves succeeded in the long run. Often, burdened by all that debt, these bought-out companies did not succeed, costing thousands of jobs as they were downsized, sold off and shuttered. Other times they did phenomenally well, as in the case of Sports Authority and Domino’s Pizza.
But job creation is irrelevant to Bain’s business model, which is all about paying back investors. Nor does the long-term fate of the companies that private-equity firms buy up matter crucially to Bain’s bottom line (though of course success is better). The only real risk for Bain is that these companies fail to make enough initial profit in order to permit Bain to pile on more debt and extract a payout, so that it can make back its investment quickly.
Though he started off dabbling in less profitable “venture capital,” Romney quickly saw the high-return, low-risk potential of LBOs in the mid-1980s and ultimately was involved in about 100 such deals, which made him a true Wall Street tycoon. He then maximized his take further by socking away his gains in offshore shelters from Bermuda to the Caymans and using capital gains tax breaks and loopholes to reduce the rate of his 2010 tax return (the only one he’s released) to 13.9 percent, a far lower rate than the one paid by middle-class Americans. Many of Wall Street’s big dealmakers do the same with their profits, employing whole teams of international tax accountants.
But none of these dealmakers has ever run for president. This is perhaps the main reason for Romney’s reticence: It’s not just that being honest about Bain’s real business pulls back the veil from the ugly heart of financial capitalism. It’s also that this may be the hardest year since 1932 for a Wall Street big-shot to make a bid for the White House: The former Masters of the Universe remain unpopular because of the historic recession they did so much to create. So it’s hardly a surprise that Romney won’t dwell on practices that his onetime GOP primary opponent, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, labeled “vulture” capitalism.
None of this is necessarily disqualifying for a presidential candidate; on the contrary. Americans have always admired business success, no matter what package it comes in. It is part of the nation’s lore going back to the rags-to-riches tales of Horatio Alger and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the storied careers of Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan. Romney is undoubtedly one of the most successful capitalists ever to run for president. Based on his record at Bain, as governor, and at the Olympics, there is little doubt that he is a numbers whiz who is handy with a budget, and America has serious budget problems. “At the end of the day, people are going to know Mitt Romney was a super-successful businessman, and they’re going to factor that in,” says Vin Weber, a senior Romney adviser. “And most people will find that attractive and not negative.”
Maybe so. But as the Obama attacks persist, even some in the Romney camp fret that they are watching a Democratic version of the attacks that permanently defined Michael Dukakis as weak in 1988 and “Swift-boated” an unresponsive John Kerry in 2004. “That worries me a little bit,” Weber admits.
The Obama attacks also may be resonating because they compound an image of aloofness, of detachment from the lives of ordinary Americans, which has dogged Romney for many years. He is hardly the first rich man to run for president, yet he lacks the populist touch of previous successful candidates. Franklin Delano Roosevelt also came from a wealthy patrician family, but by the time he ran for president as a polio victim who had suffered among the people in Warm Springs, Ga., FDR had reputation for transcending that background. So did John F. Kennedy, whose father’s vast but somewhat shady Wall Street fortune financed a rich-kid bid for Congress, the Senate, and then the presidency. But JFK’s charisma and war-hero reputation, and his ability to connect with people — for example, by famously telling a hushed crowd of mothers who had lost sons in World War II that “I think I know how you mothers feel, because my mother is a Gold Star mother too” — made him a popular figure.
Not so Romney. His record contains few such man-of-the-people moments (ironically, his best argument may be his successful health-care law in Massachusetts, another thing he doesn’t want to talk about). And his uncommon Mormon religion, about which he is also reticent, further contributes to the image of a Man Hard to Know. This is the same Romney who declared during the hard-knocking primaries that the $350,000 he earned in speaking fees wasn’t a lot of money, who said that his wife drives a “couple of Cadillacs,” who grinningly bet Rick Perry $10,000 on a whim, and who boasted that even wealthy Ted Kennedy had to “take a mortgage out” to beat him. And those are moments when Romney was trying to be one of the guys. What has become clear is that he is part of a world of super-elites who live in a universe apart from most Americans.
Romney may well make a very good president. But we should know who we’re getting.
BY: Michael Hirsh, The Atlantic, July 21, 2012
Mitt Romney wanted to have his cake and eat it, too. He wanted to make himself fabulously rich, be the captain of the financial universe, and become senator, governor and, now, president.
He wanted to do it all, without making public his financial dealings, his tax returns, his web of foreign tax shelters. That was his business, not the public’s. He should have chosen one path or the other—in his case, they don’t mix.
Mitt Romney was too cute by half. He was guaranteed payouts at Bain no matter how many bankruptcies, lost jobs, destroyed pensions. He thought parking money in off-shore Bermuda corporations, Swiss and Cayman accounts, and using fancy accounting gimmicks to create tax avoidance schemes could be either kept secret or explained away.
Now Republicans are calling for him to come clean, to release his tax returns, to untangle the web of financial dealings. But he can’t because he was up to his eyeballs in Bain when he said he wasn’t, as he continues to reap huge amounts of money from his years there.
So why all this back and forth on whether he “retired” from Bain in 1999? Simple. Ted Kennedy caught him in the Senate race in 1994 by exposing Bain and what it did to workers and companies.
When Romney saw a big opening with the takeover of the Olympics in February of 1999, he grabbed it and by 2001 he knew he had a shot at being governor of Massachusetts and maybe a great deal more.
But he also knew that Bain was a liability in another race in Massachusetts and decided that his “leave of absence” better become a “retirement.” After all, he was disengaged from the day-to-day operation of the company, even though reaping a six figure salary as an officer and many millions more because of his association as “president, CEO and sole stockholder.”
The last thing Mitt Romney wanted to do as he was planning his political future was have that Bain albatross around his neck again—no, the Olympics was his ticket.
But, now he has this very big problem—he can’t release his income taxes back 12 years as his father, George Romney, did when he ran for president. He can’t provide 23 years of tax returns as he did to the McCain campaign when he was angling for vice president and being vetted.
Tax returns will show his continued financial windfall from Bain and it will show all his off-shore shenanigans. And it will show that this is someone who was not paying his fair share of taxes according to almost anyone’s definition. That is my guess.
When Kevin Madden, his spokesman, read a statement that Romney did not put his money in foreign bank accounts and trusts to avoid taxes he was not asked the very simple question: Why did he do it, if not to avoid taxes? What was the reason for all these off-shore accounts? What was he trying to hide?
And now, Romney is in real trouble. If he is transparent about his financial dealings and taxes, he knows it would be devastating to his campaign. If he tries to stonewall, he has three and a half months of a long campaign, not three and a half weeks. That is a long time to keep trying to change the subject.
So the question for Romney is: Can he have his cake and eat it, too? Can he simply deny further requests for information and hope he can keep it secret?
While he is telling the middle class to “eat cake,” maybe he has to be careful he won’t be eating crow.
By: Peter Fenn, U. S. News and World Report, July 16, 2012
“Too much money” sounds like an oxymoron, especially when applied to American politics. But in the last week, Republicans are beginning to learn that lots of money can have its downside. Thursday’s story that Romney may have actively directed Bain Capital three years longer than he claimed – a period in which Bain Capital-managed companies experienced bankruptcies and layoffs – caps what must be the worst weekly news cycle of any modern American presidential candidate. From images of corporate raiding, to luxury speedboats, to offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands, to mega-mansions in the Hamptons, this week’s stories suggest that the candidacy of Mitt Romney – poster-boy for the symbiotic relationship between big money and the modern Republican party – is in serious trouble.
Last weekend’s photos of the Romney clan on a luxury speedboat cruising around a lake in New Hampshire, where their multimillion-dollar compound sits, were startling in their tone-deafness. And just to make sure the sentiment wasn’t lost on anyone, at a campaign event the same week, Obama recounted childhood memories of touring the US with his grandmother by Greyhound bus, even the thrill of staying at a Howard Johnson motel. In a smart political calculation, the Obamas chose to forgo their annual summer vacation in Cape Cod (a nice upper-middle class vacation spot, mind you, but nowhere near the same league as the Romney estate). Instead, Obama was photographed visiting a senior citizens’ home in the battleground state of Ohio.
And the hits kept coming. Next, Vanity Fair published an article listing the Romneys’ various offshore investment accounts worth potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in the secretive tax havens of Cayman Islands and Bermuda, as well as a since-closed Swiss bank account. Democrats stoked the predictable outrage from the revelations. On the Sunday ABC news program “This Week”, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley thundered:
“Mitt Romney bets against America. He bet against America when he put his money in Swiss bank accounts and tax havens and shelters.”
On the same program, Bobbie Jindal, Republican governor of Louisiana, could only lamely respond:
“In terms of Governor Romney’s financial success, I’m happy that he’s a successful businessman.”
While there is no evidence that the Romneys illegally evaded taxes through their various offshore accounts (their secretiveness making it impossible to tell), the reek of entitlement became overwhelming when it was revealed that the Romneys had accumulated somewhere between $20m and $101m in an “IRA”, a tax-advantaged retirement account designed for middle-class savers, limited to a few thousand dollars a year contribution. As one commenter parried, “I may be stupid, but I ain’t no fool.” In other words, we might be too stupid to understand how Romney was able to obtain all these tax breaks legally, but we aren’t fooled about unfairness of it all.
Well, at this point, you might think that the next sighting of Romney would be of him clothed in ash-cloth ladling out soup at an inner-city soup kitchen. But no. Next, we were regaled with the New York Times story of a lavish fundraiser in the Hamptons hosted by the infamous David Koch, the billionaire benefactor of conservative causes. The optics were worse than bad, as the Times recounted how one woman in a Range Rover, idling in a 30-deep line of cars waiting for entry, yelled to a Romney aide, “Is there a VIP entrance? We are VIP.”
Romney was expected to haul in several million dollars from his trip to wine and dine with the billionaires of the Hamptons. But why risk confirming the very message that Democrats have been hammering upon: that Romney is a super-wealthy elitist whose objective is to further the interests of the 0.01%?
Certainly, billionaires for Romney would have given him those millions without the face-time and the photo-ops, the chance to dress up and be seen. And to be heckled by Occupy Wall Street protesters and parodied by reporters. What is so very puzzling about the whole episode is the sheer in-your-face-ness of it.
Yet, perhaps that is the point. As a very perceptive article in the New York Magazine, Lisa Miller describes how new psychological research indicates that wealth erodes empathy with others. In the “Money-Empathy Gap”, Miller cites one researcher who says that:
“The rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.”
Researchers found a consistent correlation between higher income, management responsibility and disagreeableness. One researcher interpreted her findings to imply that money makes people disinterested in the welfare of others. “It’s not a bad analogy to think of them as a little autistic” says Kathleen Vos, a professor at the University of Minnesota.
If this research is accurate (as it seems to be, replicated in various ways by several researches), the synergies between it, the increasing concentration of wealth and the Citizens United ruling, have striking implications for the future of the Republican party. As Newt Gingrich, the uber-southern politician, plaintively explained how he lost the Republican primary: “Romney had 16 billionaires. I had only one.” The domination by the super-wealthy means that Republicans not only have no interest in the welfare of the rest of the 99.9%, they have no understanding of why this is a problem. The noblesse oblige days of the old money, such as the Bushes, the Kennedys and the Roosevelts are long gone, replaced by the new mega-money of hedge funds, corporate raiders and global industrialists.
How else can one explain the allegiance of the Republican party to the profoundly unpopular Ryan tax plan, which would eviscerate Medicare and Medicaid while delivering more tax cuts to the rich? What is the future of a party in a democracy when the powers-that-be can no longer even understand, much less address, the welfare of the vast majority of its citizens?
Taking the hint, the Obama administration is finally positioning itself firmly on the side of progressives, attacking income inequality and holding Republicans accountable for their assaults on the middle and working classes. How ironic it would be if, after all, the other side’s big money is the answer to the Democrats’ prayers.
By: Robin Wells, The Guardian, July 12, 2012