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May 24, 2015

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Politics:

Line of Attack: What is Mitt Romney hiding?

Editor’s note: Line of Attack is a feature that will run each week until the Nov. 6 election. In Line of Attack, we will parse a political attack, looking at the strategy behind it, how the campaign is delivering it and what facts support or refute it. We’ll assign it a rating on the fairness meter: Legit, Eye Roll, Guffaw, Laughable or Outrageous.

Attack:Mitt Romney has refused to release his tax returns from any year before 2010. What does he have to hide?

Method of delivery: An ominous voice speaks over your standard cop-drama background music, and Romney’s face appears over IRS forms and a coastline that looks like it belongs on Grand Cayman. The narrator reminds viewers of Romney’s offshore accounts (no president has ever had one before), sky-high income, low-low income tax rate and his secrecy about his financial past, all as prologue to the kicker question: “What is Mitt Romney hiding?”

Strategy: Ever since Romney announced his bid, the Obama campaign has been trying to paint him as a rich elitist who operates by his own set of rules. How perfect, then, that this scuffle over his tax returns fell into their lap. Democrats and Republicans from the furthest ends of the political spectrum have been calling on Romney to make more of his tax returns public. Obama’s ad taps into that but with a tone meant to make the viewer suspect something shady is going on — like maybe Romney’s paying no taxes at all.

Fairness meter: Through the power of really obvious suggestion, the Obama ad comes as close as you can get to accusing Romney of being a tax cheat without actually saying, “Hey! That guy’s a tax cheat.” On its own, the worst-case scenario the ad lays out — that Romney may have paid no taxes at all in past years — elicits eye rolls and guffaws. It’s pretty hard, even for corporate filers with several loopholes at their disposal, to get a tax rate down to absolute zero (single digits, however, are totally possible; even Nevada Sen. Dean Heller managed that), and the IRS has never charged him with untoward activity.

But Obama didn’t invent the idea that presidential candidates should release their tax returns. Romney’s father, George, did, by turning over 12 years of his tax returns to a reporter when he ran for president 35 years ago. (Obama has, not uncoincidentally, released 12 years of returns.) Like his father, Romney’s presidential bid is based largely on his record as a businessman, and he’s getting regularly rammed with questions about his corporate history that might be cleared up by whatever is in those returns. Although Romney has a right to his privacy, he can’t expect people not to speculate about his secrecy, because as that iconic philosopher of our time, Dr. Phil, put it, “People who have nothing to hide, hide nothing.”

That is why the ad as a whole is legit.

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