It’s August, many people are on vacation and the rest are watching the Olympics — or maybe Newsroom.
Into this information vacuum rushes a story that won’t go away: Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s tax returns.
Past presidential candidates released many relevant years’ worth. Romney released one year. This leads to questions of what he’s hiding. Is it a massive income? Is it tax dodges and overseas accounts? Is it something as simple as taking advantage of tax deductions and options available to the rich, but not the rest of us?
As Jon Carroll wrote so precisely in the San Francisco Chronicle:
“The phrase ‘Cayman Islands’ leaps to mind. I don’t know, of course, but Romney has created the sort of vacuum that speculation rushes to fill.”
What’s a capitalist candidate to do?
Since option No. 1 is “facts first,” and “be transparent,” that’s already off the table. Oops, too late. Or is it. [We’ll come back to that.]
In fact, it appears that the first few tendrils of a coverup are emerging on the horizon, always a heart-stopping event for a crisis manager. As Eugene Robinson reported in The Washington Post:
“Asked last week whether there had been years when he paid less than 13.9 percent, Romney said he would be ‘happy to go back and look’ at his records. So far, however, the campaign has declined to provide an answer. Romney must still be looking.”
Seriously? Your father ran for president. You’ve been eyeing the White House since you wrote your first resume as a teen-ager. You’re a Harvard-educated Morman. And yet you have so few clues about your income tax trends over the last 10 years that you have to go back and look? Surely a former investment banker and governor worth $250 million has a better grasp than that on his finances.
And did you say you knew how to fix the federal budget and deficit?
Again, no taking sides here on whether Romney’s decision is appropriate, or whether he should release five years’ worth of returns, 10, or none. But he bleeds credibility each time he opens his mouth. Americans will forgive mistakes, but don’t lie. As Eliott Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, John Edwards, Mark Sanford and Arnold Schwarzenegger learned first hand.
Do his handlers really think the American people will be shocked that people in the top 1 percent of income don’t have advantages that the waitress or cop can’t access? And is the Republican base going to reject Romney overnight for not paying any taxes? Heck, not paying taxes is as American as the Second Amendment and Batman movies.
The smart play would be to release the returns, take the hit, defend it as legal and move on. Speculation is often far worse than facts.
But what would be worst by far is hiding the returns and then someone leaking them to the media.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.