Why Romney's Signature Matters -- Even on a Break-Up Note

07/16/2012 10:27 am ET | Updated Sep 15, 2012

The swirling maelstrom of when Bain Capital and Mitt Romney broke up is worthy of a cliffhanger episode of Gossip Girl. Did he start going steady with the Olympics in 1999 while keeping a few billion in other interests on the side? Or did he leave a Post-It Note on the bedside table a la Sex in the City, and Bain forgot to read it until 2002? Either way, the melodrama skates around a legitimate legal issue that is at the core of a far more disturbing Sturm und Drang that reputable media seem to be ignoring. Signing your name on a federal document should matter.

Just a decade ago, this nation began to dig itself out from the Enron fall-out. At the core of Enron and the impetus behind the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 was the importance of knowing who's in charge and who's making the decisions. Provisions demand individual responsibility from senior executives regarding the work of their companies. If a person can claim to be CEO, President and sole shareholder and simultaneously disavowing all knowledge of the company's activities, then who can the public hold responsible when inevitably something goes wrong?

We are a nation of rules not to hurt free enterprise but because we love free enterprise. We understand the importance of capital in our system and the necessity of sharp-elbowed financial decision making. But as Americans, we also understand that no one is above the law or beyond the rules. We respect wealth; however, the creation of that wealth comes with responsibilities. You can have what you can make, but you can't break the rules to get there -- especially the basic rule of who's in charge. Whether it is politics or football or venture capital, we understand that anyone can play, still there has to be structure. The Securities and Exchange Commission filing is one way companies tell the American people what is being done with private capital and public investments.

The law is not happenstance, nor is it an inconvenience to be dismissed as a mere formality. Our nation has endured presidents who treat our legal framework as a labyrinth to escape. It is not. The rule of law is a lodestar for democracies and a check on the rampage of power that has assailed countries we oppose. Casual refusal to adhere to our laws must be treated with gravity rather than sloughed off as a meaningless mistake. Law matters.

Mitt Romney owes the nation an explanation of when he quit on Bain because we deserve to know if he can follow the rules. If he can, then he is qualified to be a contender for our nation's top job. But if he thinks the rules don't apply, or worse, if he simply doesn't believe they apply to him, then how will we know which other rules he'll ignore.

Hiring a president should be more complicated than a daytime drama, and the questions we ask should have more intellectual heft than a good break-up song. However, until Governor Romney comes clean about Bain Capital, we might want to start checking his texts and his homework.