It took me a while to get interested in Mitt Romney's adamant refusal to release past years' tax returns.
We all are a little skittish about talking about our personal money matters; it's easier for some Americans to talk about sex than how much they earn. I figured Romney eventually would lay it all out; we'd titter for a few days at the immense figures and then go on to something else.
But having released his 2010 return and an estimate of his 2011 return, Romney insists he won't release any more. His people say Democrats would make such hay of what the returns would reveal that it wouldn't be worth ending the controversy over why he won't release them. Now, that's interesting.
We are told that Romney declared a $77,000 passive activity business-expense loss in 2010 for Rafalca, the beautiful dancing horse of Olympic Games dressage renown that Ann Romney co-owns with two other women. Do you suppose he took a tax deduction for Seamus, the Romney family pet who famously rode on the roof of a station wagon on a vacation to Canada?
Really rich people such as Romney resent being questioned about their money and how they spend it. They think it is gauche to talk about money, so they don't. But the responsibilities of running to be president as a businessman qualified to fiddle with the national economy are not the same as a gentleman sipping gin and tonic while sitting comfortably in a yacht club pondering the dinner menu.
The example of Romney's father George releasing 12 years' worth of tax returns when he was running for president, setting an admirable precedent for future candidates, seems to be irrelevant to Romney. So is criticism from fellow Republicans such as former Mississippi governor and rainmaker Haley Barbour on Romney's refusal to disclose tax information. Barbour said Romney has created a needless distraction.
We know from Romney's 2010 return that he pays a lower percentage of his income than many middle-income Americans, but he still paid a lot in taxes ($3 million on gross income of $21.7 million). Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who reviewed 23 years' worth of Romney's tax returns when he was considering whom to choose as his running mate in 2008, says he saw nothing that would disqualify Romney from being president. Asked if returns show that in some years Romney paid no federal taxes, McCain said he was not at liberty to discuss details.
The returns would definitely show the Romneys contribute a lot to charity, including tithing to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Lack of generosity can't be the issue.
But Romney's refusal to release his tax returns points to a seriously worrisome problem: He is instinctively unforthcoming. A Romney administration would be unresponsive to demands for openness. We already have seen how Romney refuses to hold regular press conferences and shuns interviews. This authoritarian, I-know-best attitude is troubling. Clearly, he figures the less specific he is, the bigger chance he has of being elected.
The Center on Tax Policy, a nonpartisan think tank, analyzed Romney's proposal to slash tax rates by 20 percent. It concluded wealthy Americans would save an average of $87,000 a year but taxpayers earning $50,000 to $75,000 would pay an average of $2,000 more. That's because avoiding raising the budget deficit would mean ending such popular tax deductions as mortgage interest and state and local taxes and raising taxes on employer-provided health insurance. (There was no analysis of potential budget cuts, which Romney has not specified.)
Such a proposal in this shaky economic climate from a candidate who owns homes from coast to coast, has a Swiss banking account and is accused of having sent American jobs overseas seems incredible.
Polls in such swing states as Ohio and Florida indicate Americans are beginning to wonder about this man who claims he would do wonders for the economy, as long as we don't ask him how.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.)