It doesn't matter if Mitt Romney wins the Iowa caucuses tonight or not. He is about to experience a severe political hemorrhage over his refusal to disclose his tax returns.
Full disclosure: I am supporting President Obama for reelection because I agree almost entirely with his policies and I disagree with every Republican candidate on the fundamental issues I care about most.
But I must say I have admired Mitt Romney for a long time -- his business and political career, and especially as a father. I met two of his sons on different occasions in the "green room" (holding hospitality room) at Fox News, where I am a contributor. And I remember thinking, "Whatever I like or dislike about Mitt Romney's politics, he must be a great man to inspire such love and loyalty by two sons."
I also have many Republican friends who are strong Romney supporters, and whom I greatly respect, such as Mark DeMoss, a conservative Republican media specialist representing many Christian evangelical organizations, who has become a good friend.
I became increasingly critical of Mr. Romney's presidential campaign when he flip-flopped on some core issues that meant a lot to me -- such as opposing Newt Gingrich's position that an illegal immigrant who has been in the country for 25 years, with a job, family, and history of paying taxes and being a good citizen, should be forced to go back to his country of origin without a system for allowing him to earn his way into U.S. citizenship. George Bush, John McCain, and most decent people I know, support this position. Why would Romney, a moderate conservative and great dad with a heart big enough to inspire such love and devotion from his children possibly oppose that position?
No reason, except pure pandering. Which didn't shock me, just disappointed me.
So getting to the topic at hand: Whatever happens tonight in the Iowa caucuses -- by the way, I predict Rick Santorum will eke out a victory over Romney, with Ron Paul in a virtual dead heat with Romney (there, I didn't wimp out and say "too close to call") -- I predict that Romney is about to head down in the polls, and that he will be wounded and will keep bleeding to the point of hemorrhaging starting tomorrow morning.
The conventional wisdom could already predict this because Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and, if they stay in the race, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, will all start hammering on Romney as the front-runner for some of his "liberal" positions, such as on choice and on "Romneycare."
But I don't agree that this normal phenomenon of bashing the front-runner is going to be the key factor that puts Romney in great political danger.
I think it will be the issue of his refusal to release his tax returns, which will bring to critical mass Romney's biggest vulnerability as a candidate: the image that he lacks candor and authenticity.
There will be many voters who will see his refusal to release his tax return as exactly what it is -- not wanting people to know how wealthy he is, or perhaps (certainly this will be the suspicion) his embarrassment for people to know how little of his total income on which he pays taxes.
If that isn't bad enough, Romney will undoubtedly compound the problem geometrically by denying that this obvious reason is the reason. Instead he will talk about the right to privacy, etc. -- and no one will believe him because everyone will know the real reason. Which is to say, he will be reinforcing his image as the plastic man who can't tell it straight (already reinforced by his recent failure to take personal responsibility for the super PAC ads attacking Newt Gingrich).
Finally, Romney's insistence on not disclosing his tax returns will exemplify the fact that he lacks the political savvy to understand the fundamental rule of crisis management, which he should know by now: If the truth is coming out some day anyway, "Tell it all, tell it early, tell it yourself" -- rather than delaying, delaying, delaying the inevitable.
Richard Nixon should have cemented the consequences of violating this fundamental rule during Watergate.
Mark my words: at some point, one month, two months, four months -- if he is the nominee, for sure some time in October -- Romney will be forced to disclose his tax returns. And then it will be a huge story, not because we find out what we already know now -- that he is a wealthy man who pays a relatively small percent of his income in taxes. No. By resisting and resisting the disclosure that is inevitable, he will be making the disclosure even more newsworthy that it would ordinarily be.
Sorry, Mr. Romney -- even as a Democrat and an Obama supporter, I take no pleasure in the pain and humiliation you appear to be intent on putting yourself through.
But unless you release your tax returns right away, say, tomorrow or next week or sooner rather than later, taking the hit -- whatever it is -- the crisis mismanagement script I have written is virtually unavoidable.
And if you persist, you will doom your chances to defeat President Obama -- that is, if you are the Republican nominee.
Mr. Davis, a Washington attorney who specializes in legal crisis management, served as special counsel to President Clinton in 1996-98 and as a member of the Civil Liberties and Privacy Oversight Board in 2006-07. He is the author of a forthcoming book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Scandal in Business, Politics, and Life, to be published by Simon and Schuster in early spring 2012.