On Friday, the Romney campaign delivered a WikiLeaks style data dump of financial and health information. Designed to shift the conversation away from Romney's callous remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who do not pay federal income tax, this gamble is likely to have the opposite effect. By re-introducing the topic of his own taxes, an oblivious Romney appears to double down on his earlier critique of those who do not pay income tax by drawing attention to his status as a taxpayer, his extraordinary income, and his relatively low income tax rate.
This move follows a relentlessly brutal media lashing for Romney's leaked videotaped comments made at a fundraiser in May 2012. In the video, Romney characterizes 47 percent of Americans as Obama-loving freeloaders unwilling to "take personal responsibility and care for their lives." The blogosphere burst into action to dismantle Romney's assertions. Joshua Green explained that many of the 47 percent "paid a higher percentage of their income than Romney did" in Social Security, sales, payroll, and property taxes. Mother Jones piled on with an analysis that revealed that the 47 percent is largely comprised of the elderly, college students, military service members, and corporations. Mitt Romney desperately needed to change the topic.
A little over a month ago, Mitt Romney's tax returns were the issue du jour. The campaign adamantly refused to release more than a single year of income tax returns. Facing unfounded charges that he paid no income tax, Mitt Romney beat back these claims by attesting that he "never paid less than 13 percent in federal income tax." Supporting her husband, Ann Romney explained that releasing additional tax returns would only provide "more ammunition" for the Obama campaign. This principled and unified stance largely satisfied the American public.
Then, unexpectedly, the Romney campaign flip-flopped and unveiled its "disclosure" webpage. It is cleanly designed with a sterile, light gray, linen background. At the top of the page is a Romney-Ryan logo that resembles the cover of Steely Dan's 1977 masterpiece, Aja. Along the right side of the page, bold, gray rectangles are linked to personal statements from various financial advisors: "Note from TRUSTEE BRAD MALT," "Letter from PRICEWATERHOUSECOOPERS," and a "Statement by FRED GOLDBERG," a former IRS commissioner. The center of the page bears the headline, "Public Disclosure," in an excessively spaced font. Below the headline, over 300 words are employed to describe how extensive this release of information is and how generous and law abiding the Romney family is.
But, like a tattoo parlor with a sign that reads, "We use clean needles," the Romney campaign raises an issue that most would like to take for granted: his wealth. After his convention appearance, the public had forgotten about his car elevator in La Jolla; they had moved beyond questions about his Cayman Island tax shelters; they appeared unconcerned about the low tax rate he pays on his investment income. The public was actually becoming interested in how Mitt Romney would govern.
But rather than deliver a bold foreign policy vision or name a single tax loophole he would close, Romney instead handed the American people written testimonials from a former IRS official and some miscellaneous financial advisors. These testimonials are meant to "prove" that last week's cold, callous Mitt Romney is simply an aberration. They attest that Mitt Romney is law abiding and generous and not the Dickensian dolt he appears to be in the leaked video.
However, public concern has always focused on Mitt Romney's political opportunism and his inability to empathize with American's dire economic struggles more than on his adherence to laws or his generosity. Furthermore, most American's do not measure generosity with signed affidavits of charitable giving. Generosity is measured in the warmth of human connection, not in the cold calculation of properly documented tax deductions.
Romney's tax disclosure only makes him more alien.
Mitt Romney's tax returns raise new questions about his capacity to empathize. His adjusted gross income for 2010 and 2011 totaled $35.3 million dollars. Each year, American tax payers stare at this exact line on their own 1040s and hope that their aching bodies and tireless commitment has made this number slightly larger than it was the year before. Sadly, for too many it remains unchanged or has plummeted.
Unlike Romney, average Americans do not have officials from PricewaterhouseCoopers or former IRS commissioners to attest to their hard work and benevolence. For two decades, their median American income has been stagnant, their financial futures uncertain. They face salary freezes, extended layoffs, eroded equity, soaring fuel costs, and staggering debt. How will Mitt Romney -- earning millions without lifting a finger -- possibly understand their lives?