To earn the public’s trust, Mitt Romney must demonstrate a commitment to openness. Between his efforts to keep records from his time as governor secret and his wishy-washy and flip-floppy statements on releasing tax returns, he hasn’t done it yet.
Staffers personally bought the old hard drives to get them out of public hands. They also had e-mails and other electronic communications wiped from state servers – something that was unusual in Massachusetts and might be illegal in New Mexico.
I was shocked when I learned about that situation in December. It’s much worse than what former N.M. Gov. Bill Richardson did when he left office – passing his office’s records to the state archives center in a failed attempt to keep them secret.
Now come the GOP presidential nomination frontrunner’s wishy-washy and flip-floppy statements on whether he will release his tax returns. He currently says he will release his 2010 return and a 2011 estimate on Tuesday.
The Chicago Tribune has published a list of Romney’s past statements about whether he would release his returns. It started with “We’ll take a look at the question” on October 25, moved to “I don’t intend to release the tax returns” on December 21 (with a “but never say never” the next day), to “And if I become our nominee, and what’s happened in history is people have released them in about April of the coming year, and that’s probably what I would do” last week.
Then on Sunday, the day after he lost the South Carolina primary, Romney changed course again in agreeing to release the 2010 and 2011 information, but said he has no plans to release past returns. He played down the fact that he once said he didn’t plan to release his returns at all.
“We just made a mistake in holding off as long as we did,” Romney said on Fox News. “It just was a distraction.”
But his past statements are on the record, and the progression has been stunning: He went from – my words, not his – “I don’t plan to do it,” to “I’ll do it, but not until I have the GOP nomination in the bag.” Then, only after a victory by another GOP primary candidate became conceivable, did he agree to be transparent.
This from a guy who made sure the public could never see his office’s records when he left his job as governor of Massachusetts. What does he not want the public to know?
Romney’s father set precedent of openness
This comment Romney made during Thursday’s debate about releasing returns in April – which came before he lost South Carolina – is most concerning (you’ll see another bit of a flop in it, because he has whittled “multiple years” down to one plus an estimate for another):
“I’ll release multiple years, I don’t know how many years. But I’ll be happy to do that. I know there are some who are anxious to see if they can make it difficult for a campaign to be successful. I know the Democrats want to go after my being successful. I’m not going to apologize for being successful.”
This isn’t about whether Romney is successful. He shouldn’t apologize for that. It’s about the public understanding how he makes his money and what he does with it so people can know about his potential conflicts of interest.
It’s about the public being able to scrutinize Romney’s financial ties before deciding whether to make him the most powerful public official in the world at a time when money has so much influence over Washington.
It’s about demonstrating to the American people that he intends to be open and honest with them and worthy of their trust, as every president has done since Nixon (and FDR did almost a century ago).
It’s something that many nominees and other presidential candidates have done, including Romney’s father when he ran for president. In fact, according to this article, George Romney’s release of 12 years of returns in 1967 was “a move believed to be without precedent in American politics.” He set a new bar for openness that continues today.
You can find all of President Barack Obama’s tax returns since 2000 here. You’ll also find Vice President Joe Biden’s since 1998, and tax returns for McCain, Palin, Bush the younger, Cheney, Clinton, Bush the elder, Reagan, Carter, Nixon and FDR by clicking on that link.
Those presidents and candidates all sent the message that they would be open, honest, and worthy of Americans’ trust. Certainly, some of them didn’t live up to that pledge (with Nixon probably being the worst). But at least they started off by setting the right tone. That’s a positive step.
Romney hasn’t sent that message, and his reluctant release on Tuesday of fewer than the “multiple” years he promised days ago isn’t going to change that. He needs to match Obama’s release of tax returns going back to 2000. And he needs to publicly apologize for the hiding of records from his tenure as governor (of course, to be convincing, he would need to be sincerely sorry he did that, and I’ve seen no evidence of remorse).
Not an endorsement of any of the others
My criticism of Romney shouldn’t be interpreted as a statement of support for any of the other guys. Obama has his own issues, among them that he hasn’t run as transparent an administration as he promised (see here, here and here). There are plenty of reasons to criticize the other GOP hopefuls as well.
But regular readers of this site know about my passion for transparency – an issue I view as nonpartisan, and one that’s at the core of government serving the people. Someone who wants to be president, and has a serious shot at getting the job, needs to demonstrate to the American people that he understands the importance of openness.
If there’s nothing the American people might find concerning – conflicts of interest, questions about how a presidential candidate earned his money, lenders to which he is financially beholden (the last isn’t likely an issue for Romney), then releasing returns will make that clear. If there are things the public might find concerning, being open about them and taking the time to explain them is the best way to earn the public’s trust.
Romney shouldn’t have to apologize for being one of the wealthiest people in America. But if he wants to be the most powerful elected official in the world, he should have to fully disclose the extent of his wealth, how he made it, and where he invests it.
If he doesn’t do that, there’s no reason to trust him.