Romney tax returns: Harry Reid may be bluffing, but he's winning

There's no proof that Sen. Harry Reid is correct in asserting that Mitt Romney paid no taxes for 10 years. But he has succeeded in keeping the political universe focused on Romney's wealth and finances, not the struggling economy.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, (D) of Nev., speaks to reporters at the Capitol in Washington, in this July 25 photo. Reid is getting slammed by political watchdogs, Republicans, and some Democrats for asserting that Mitt Romney paid no taxes for 10 years.

Harry Reid is being slammed by political watchdogs, Republicans, and some Democrats for making an unsubstantiated assertion about the content of Mitt Romney’s unreleased tax returns.

On Monday, top Republicans continued to heap scorn on the Senate Democratic leader, calling him a liar and accusing him of trying to divert attention from the struggling economy. Democrats pounded back, saying that President Obama’s Republican challenger could solve the problem by releasing more of his taxes.

Indeed, if throwing sand in our eyes and sowing dissension among Republicans were Senator Reid’s goals, he has succeeded: Reid has kept the political world – and most important, the media – focused on speculation around the wealthy Mr. Romney’s taxes, even amid an uptick in the unemployment rate. And Republicans are continuing to say that Romney should release more than the two returns he has already put out.

"I think at this point in time it's going to dog him all the way, and he needs to get it behind him," Republican strategist Ed Rollins said Sunday on Fox News. "I think he needs to release more taxes. Absolutely."

Mr. Rollins joins conservative columnist George Will, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) in saying that Romney should release more returns.

Nearly a week after Reid claimed in an interview with the Huffington Post that an unnamed investor in Romney’s former company, Bain Capital, told him Romney didn’t pay any taxes for 10 years, the topic continues to rage in the political media.  

At best, Reid is repeating an assertion for which he has provided no backup. He has not revealed the identity of the investor in Romney’s former company, nor has he explained the specifics of what this investor has allegedly seen or how this person would have access to Romney’s personal tax information. Reid’s defense is that the investor is “an extremely credible source.”

Romney’s response has been, “Put up or shut up.” Democrats are saying, in effect, “Back at you, pal.”

In short, it’s possible that Reid is bluffing. He may know that his source can’t prove his claim. If Romney does release more returns, and is shown to have paid something in taxes, Reid will look foolish. But maybe he doesn’t care. He was reelected in 2010, and will not face voters again until 2016 – if he decides to run at all. And he will have gotten the prize the Democrats and the Obama campaign are looking for: more fodder on Romney’s finances, which include off-shore accounts that are easy to demagogue.

On Monday, The Wall Street Journal editorial page – at times critical of Romney – came out in defense of the former Massachusetts governor. The editorial noted that the paper had called on Romney long ago to release more tax returns and put the matter to rest. But it ended by taking Romney’s side.

“[W]ithout any proof, Mr. Reid's accusations are a smear from the fever swamps that say more about Mr. Reid's ethics than they do about Mr. Romney's taxes,” the piece concluded.

The editorial was entitled “Stay classy, Harry.” It could have been called “Dirty Harry.” But the one-time boxer from Nevada might have found that flattering.

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