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Romney tax returns: Could Reid’s unsubstantiated attack hurt Democrats?

Harry Reid, the Senate's top Democrat, says Mitt Romney paid no income tax for 10 years. His source, he says, is a Bain Capital investor. But he won't say who. The tactic could backfire.

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Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid is unabashed as he makes a serious, unsubstantiated claim about Mitt Romney: that the Republican candidate for president did not pay any taxes for 10 years. That, the Nevada senator says, is why Mr. Romney will not release tax returns beyond those he has already made public, his 2010 return and an estimate for 2011.

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Senator Reid, in fact, is so certain he’s doing the right thing that he repeated his charge on the floor of the Senate Thursday night, and put it out in a statement. Reid’s assertion first appeared in a Huffington Post interview published on July 31. He said that about a month ago, he got a call from an investor in Romney’s former company, Bain Capital, who claimed that Romney did not pay taxes for 10 years.

“Now, do I know that that’s true? Well, I’m not certain,” Reid told HuffPo. “But obviously he can’t release those tax returns. How would it look?”

In his Thursday evening statement, Reid repeated his charge, citing “an extremely credible source,” but again did not name the source.  

To anyone concerned about the state of political discourse, Reid’s charge is cause for alarm.

“It’s another example of our political leaders not backing up allegations about the opposite party or another candidate with the facts,” says Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “The American public is really disgusted, and from some polls we’ve done, even ashamed of our national leaders’ inability to solve problems.”

And it’s not that Republicans are angels. “We could easily be having this conversation about some statement from a leader in the other party tearing down [President] Obama,” Ms. Lukensmeyer says.

The likely upshot, she says, is that Americans become further alienated from the political process and just don’t vote.

But the campaigns are not in the business of driving up turnout in the name of civic participation. They just want one more vote than the opposition. If Reid’s tactic is perceived to be successful – Romney’s image remains poor and he loses in November – then chances are voters will be treated to more of same in the future.

Still, political analysts warn that Reid and the Democrats have to be cautious.

“People like a fair game in certain ways,” says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public policy at Princeton University. “If there’s a perception that this is about innuendo, rumor, and character assassination, it can backfire.”

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