What makes Mitt Romney happy?

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.

Life is stupider than fiction: Mitt Romney and his tax returns

It seems clear that Mitt Romney’s refusal to release more than two years of his tax returns will be something of a political liability.  Here’s the kind of hit he is taking, even from Republicans.

Democrats, led by Obama’s campaign, have pushed for Romney to release more years of returns. On Sunday, Bill Kristol had a similar message, saying Romney is “crazy” not to release more tax returns as soon as possible.

“He should release the tax returns tomorrow. It’s crazy,” Kristol said on “Fox News Sunday.” “You gotta release six, eight, 10 years of back tax returns. Take the hit for a day or two.”

One plausible theory I’ve come across (see here, for example) is that if he releases his 2009 returns, he might show even more income than on his 2010 returns, but with no tax liability at all.  The blogger says:

Still, willingness to do extremely aggressive tax sheltering (such as through loss generation from circular flows of cash) in 2009 would not come as a huge surprise, even though it seems like a dumb idea if you are preparing to run for president again.  I wonder if the very fact that he was running for president might have led him to figure that he was audit-proof, on the ground that the IRS would look too political if it started challenging things.

I would like to second the “dumb idea” remark.  I just don’t get it.  Mitt Romney is a smart guy, and apparently he has wanted to be president all his life.  He’s been running for elective office since 1994.  He is clearly willing to forego vast gobs of money that he could be making in the private equity world.  Couldn’t he see this coming?  If I were Mitt Romney in 2004 or so, and I was making the decision to run for the presidency, I’d start cleaning everything up.  What’s a few million dollars in taxes, compared to achieving your lifelong ambition of being the most powerful man in the world?

In a way, I find this more baffling than the record-shattering stupidity of John Edwards.  People do stupid things when they fall in love.  But people fall in love with people; they don’t fall in love with aggressive tax shelters.  Or maybe I’m just suffering a failure of imagination.

If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s Romney who suffered a failure of imagination.  To him, using aggressive tax shelters is as natural as breathing.  If you have vast gobs of income, of course that’s what you do.  Doesn’t everyone?  Living in Massachusetts, I’ve seen enough of Romney to know that he’s not a natural politician.  He’s smart enough to understand the game intellectually, but he doesn’t have good instincts.  If you’ve been wildly successful at everything you’ve tried your entire life, maybe you start thinking the game will be easier than it really is.  And that leads you to unforced errors like this one.

Or maybe he’s just an idiot.