In this post I pondered the weirdness of Mitt Romney not planning his taxes in such a way that he could release his returns just like every other candidate and head off the inevitable suggestion that he was hiding something. How could a smart guy who has been running for political office for 20 years not take care of this?
Now the next stage of the taxes drama is playing out, with Harry Reid suggesting that Romney didn’t pay any taxes at all for the past 10 years. This is a pretty ballsy move coming from a prominent Democrat; here‘s a pretty funny summary of the state of play. Is Reid simply lying? Irresponsibly repeating an unsubstantiated rumor? Dunno. But it keeps the issue in play for at least a few more days. And any politician with half a brain would know that something like this would happen. Romney can fulminate all he wants about how this is undignified and unfair, but the response is obvious: Release the returns, like everyone else, and prove Reid wrong.
Will this have an effect on the election? Dunno. I wouldn’t have expected the Swiftboat attacks against Kerry to have any traction in 2004–and neither did Kerry. But they did. And this issue obviously helps the Democrats define Romney, and keeps him on the defensive. It’s hard to see a downside.
So how did Romney get himself into this fix? Before, I attributed it to a failure of imagination on Romney’s part. To take that a little further: It seems to me that what Romney knows, what he is good at, and (most important) what makes him happy is pretty simple: making money.
The political thing–that comes out of a sense of obligation: to his religion, to his family, maybe even to some deeply held principles (although that seems like quite a stretch). He has been spectacularly successful at making money, but so far has been only moderately successful as a politician. And that’s because politics calls on a bunch of skills and traits that he doesn’t really possess. (His recent trip to the UK highlighted some of those problems.)
I spent a long time pondering what makes politicians tick when I was writing Senator. The best nonfiction book I have read about this is What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer, which I devoured when it came out in 1992. It was a flop at the time, but has apparently managed to become a classic since then. And deservedly so! Cramer got inside the heads of the people who were running for president in 1988 in a way that I found engrossing and somehow even thrilling. What remains with me is the randomness of the motivations that got them to where they were. In particular, I remember his portrait of Dukakis. Someone once said that Michael Dukakis was born to be governor of Massachusetts. But here he was running for president. Why was he doing that, when he already had the only job he had ever wanted? It turned out that he didn’t really know himself. There was a kind of logic to it, as presented to him by his aide John Sasso, that he was simply unable to resist. The logic brought him the nomination and, if he had been a slightly better campaigner, slightly different from who he really was, it might have brought him the presidency. But ultimately he didn’t quite have what it took.
Romney is starting to remind me of Dukakis. There is a logic to his campaign that is going to bring him the nomination, and it might even bring him the presidency. But if he loses, it will be because he too doesn’t quite have what it takes–as a politician, and as a human being. Running for president doesn’t come naturally to him, and that’s why he keeps getting tripped up–by his taxes, by his tenure at Bain, by his comments on the London Olympics. He must find it frustrating–the way Dukakis must have been frustrated by the Willie Horton attacks and the response to his debate response about the death penalty. But that’s life at the top.