Vice President Joe Biden, in a speech on Tuesday, calls on Republican Presidential candidate to release his tax returns
With four months to go before the 2012 Presidential election, the latest Washington Post-ABC poll of voter intentions reveals that the contest is neck-and-neck, with both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney receiving 47% support. More importantly, the responses of those polled show that nine out of ten voters are already committed to casting their ballot for their candidate. We are, the poll indicates, in for a close and exciting contest for the next President of the United States.
That is hardly ground breaking news. Most polls taken over the last year have Romney and Obama in a virtual tie. But the poll is instructive in detailing how most in the electorate have already made up their minds. There is little that can happen in the economy, either good or bad, between now and November that will shift the support of a significant number of voters.
So in the 16-week grind for to encourage both turnout and fundraising, what might the game- changing "buzz" issue be?
On Tuesday, both candidates gave speeches in swing states. In Iowa, the President called for an extension of the Bush era tax cuts for those earning less than $250,000 a year. Romney responded in Colorado by denouncing Obama's proposal as a “kick in the guts” for job creators and small businesses, classifying it as “the sort of thing only an extreme liberal could come up with".
Neither of those speeches gained more than cursory attention in the national media; understandably as they rehashed policy differences that the American electorate know and, in the main, have resolved.
The interest in Tuesday's media reports wasthat Democrats have coalesced behind the "buzz issue" of Mitt Romney's tax returns to rally support for the President. They are laying the seeds now for what they hope will be an autumn controversy over Romney's refusal to reveal the scope of his personal investments.
During the Republican primaries, Newt Gingrich pressured Romney to publish his tax returns. The former executive of Bain Investments reluctantly agreed, and released his return from 2010 and an estimate for his 2011 tax obligations.
There was no smoking gun in those returns for Democrats to exploit. Romney paid a low rate of tax, but this was a consequence of it being investment rather than earned income, There were no suggestions that he had done anything less than legal in minimising his tax position.
The problem for Romney, the one Democrats are looking to seize on, is that his own father released 12 years of returns before running for the GOP nomination in 1968. George Romney argued then, “One year could be a fluke, perhaps done for show.”
On Tuesday in Las Vegas, Vice President Joe Biden seized on the anomaly between the two Romneys, and ended his remarks to his Hispanic audience with the line, “Mitt Romney wants you to show your papers, but he won’t show us his.”
The same day, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also praised the actions of George Romney: “He surprised everyone and gave the press 12 years of his tax returns. Mitt Romney talks about this great family he comes from, and I acknowledge it is, but why doesn’t he follow the example set by his father and release his tax returns?”
This campaign followed a line of attack that started in earnest last week over the secretive nature of Romney's investments. A Vanity Fair article opened:
For all Mitt Romney’s touting of his business record, when it comes to his own money the Republican nominee is remarkably shy about disclosing numbers and investments. Nicholas Shaxson delves into the murky world of offshore finance, revealing loopholes that allow the very wealthy to skirt tax laws, and investigating just how much of Romney’s fortune (with $30 million in Bain Capital funds in the Cayman Islands alone?) looks pretty strange for a presidential candidate.
The Obama campaign released a YouTube video, "Why is Mitt Romney Hiding the Rest of His Tax Returns?" that continued the message.
Republicans have been scathing about this interest, dismissing it as a weak attempt to distract voters from more important concerns with President Obama's disastrous economic record. Romney himself appeared on Fox News on Tuesday to blast as “unbelievable” suggestions he has tried to avoid paying his legal share of taxes.
But the campaign is missing the point of these Democratic attacks. After all, Romney's returns to are hardly going to show that he was illegally avoiding tax payments. What Democrats are looking for is an issue for Obama to embarrass Romney in October debates.
The Obama team will have watched over and over again Romney's performance in the Republican primary encounters, and they must have noticed his discomfort and indecision when Gingrich went after him over the tax returns. Romney was visibly on the defensive when Gingrich goaded him, and his response of publishing only one year's accounts has allowed Democrats to picture a similar scene in October.
Some commentators might regard this interest in Romney's tax returns as irrelevant or misguided, compared to important matters like the economy. But what both campaigns need is a surprise wedge issue. The longer Mitt Romney allows the perception to fester that he is hiding something about his wealth, the greater the chance that he will hand the Democrats the "buzz" they need to prevail on Election Day.