The Real Goal of Swift-Yachting: Mitt Romney's Tax Returns

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 12 2012 4:43 PM

The Real Goal of Swift-Yachting: Mitt Romney's Tax Returns

Swift-Yaching (v) - To make accusations about the way a candidate acquired vast wealth. See also Bain-boating.

It was the rare moment when Newt Gingrich didn't dream big. In the waning days of the South Carolina primary, Gingrich -- gaining ground by portraying Romney as a job-killing elitist -- demanded his opponent's tax returns. "He ought to release his tax records," he said, "because how do we know what he paid? All you’ve got now is his consultants' spin."

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The Gingrich attack was very simple: Romney wasn't like you, he didn't pay his fair share of taxes, and his tax plan would benefit people like him.

Romney eventually (ahead of schedule) released his 2010 tax returns, and the press enjoyed a few days of check-out-how-much-he-owns. Romney's effective tax rate was low (13.1 percent), and that made for a few strong attacks, but that was it.

The Obama campaign's nails-dug-in focus on Bain Capital strikes me as a longer, smarter play about Romney's taxes. What's actually new about Bain Capital's 2001 and 2002 filings? Nothing. We know that Romney had taken a leave of absence from Bain -- he hadn't quit it. We know he only declared $100,000 of income from Bain in 2002, money paid to him as a founder out on leave, not as an executive. How can you figure out whether he was intimately involved with the decisions that the Obama campaign is attacking -- KB Toys, ModusMedia, etc? One way is to see his taxes from the Olympics years, and see what income he got from the company.

I'll repeat: Learning that Romney was listed in Bain Capital's 2000 or 2001 SEC filings doesn't contravene what reporters heard from Romney in 2002. When the Obama campaign says Romney might have committed a "felony," it has almost no ground to stand on. What would debunk the Obamanians? Why, the tax returns would. And the tax returns would let them ask all manner of wealth-baiting questions... like, why is it an excuse that the guy made $100,000, more than double the national per capita income when he wasn't even at Bain Capital?

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.