Monthly Archives: August 2012
This got posted up while I was on vacation in San Francisco, so I missed it. Luckily, someone in my Twitter stream was still posting it up today, so it didn’t completely pass me by. It’s a graph from Pew Social Trends Report by way of The Atlantic, of the last sixty years of economic activity in America.
All of it.
Of course, any graph that tries to represent such an incredibly large amount of data is going to be pretty broad-brush. There’d be no comprehensible way to really do a thorough, deep dive on every facet of all the economic activity since the end of WWII until now — there’s just too much to say about it. But oftentimes, graphs which purport to cover very big-picture views of, well, anything, tend to not just use broad brushstrokes of necessity, but are also insufficiently focused in what they do try to represent as to be nearly-useless.
This one isn’t (click for larger version at Atlantic web site):
As the article at The Atlantic puts it:
Here’s the arc it captures: In the immediate postwar period, America’s rapid growth favored the middle and lower classes. The poorest fifth of all households, in fact, fared best. Then, in the 1970s, amid two oil crises and awful inflation, things ground to a halt. The country backed off the postwar, center-left consensus — captured by Richard Nixon’s comment that “we’re all Keynesians now” — and tried Reaganism instead. We cut taxes. Technology and competition from abroad started whittling away at blue collar jobs and pay. The stock market took off. And so when growth returned, it favored the investment class — the top 20 percent, and especially the top 5 percent (and, though it’s not on this chart, the top 1 percent more than anybody).
They ruefully conclude: “And then it all fell apart. The aughts were a lost decade for families, and it’s not clear how much better they’ll fare in the next.”
And that’s exactly it. This is what we’re up against, those of us who favor the immediate-postwar pattern of continued prosperity for all hardworking Americans, not just the richest and/or luckiest of us. This is what’s been lost, and what must be rebuilt.
I don’t belong to an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.
- Will Rogers
Sometimes, I do get weary. Heh.
The quoted text following this paragraph is an excerpt from the text of a very earnest and serious email sent to me today from MoveOn’s email blast servers. I subscribe to these email blasts from MoveOn, just like I do from several other lefty-activist groups (as well as, clandestinely, a few wingnut organizations – hey, gotta keep tabs on what the competition is doing, especially when the competition is bug-fuck insane, as is today’s Republican party). So I see a pretty broad spectrum of what’s motivating the activist community to action at any given time. Here’s the one that landed in my inbox today:
Victims of “legitimate rape” can’t get pregnant because a woman’s body will shut down and prevent the pregnancy. Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) actually said that—in other words, he’s saying that if a woman does get pregnant, she must not have been raped. Even scarier? He’s running—and leading—in the race for Missouri’s senate seat.
What he said was bad, but it was hardly a gaffe or poor choice of words. In 2011 he and Rep. Paul Ryan led the push in the House of Representatives to redefine rape as “forcible rape” in order to further restrict rape survivors’ access to abortions. As a state senator, Akin questioned whether anti-marital rape laws would be abused by women in messy divorces.
Anyone who doesn’t understand basic biology and tries to create more hurdles for rape survivors seeking justice doesn’t belong in the United States Congress.
Well, obviously, Ms. Kat Barr (the name associated with this petition on MoveOn’s email blast): Akin doesn’t belong in the United States Senate. For my money, he doesn’t belong anywhere near anything that affects policy regarding women. I’m with you that far. But let’s talk tactics here for a moment. Instead of signing Ms. Barr’s petition, this is the reply I sent to the MoveOn mail server. Not because I’m a crank who sends reply emails to anonymous, automated bot servers out of frustration (who, me??), but because, well…here:
Have you lost your minds? Todd Akin is the best thing that could have happened to Clare McCaskill! Don’t believe me? Ask her. McCaskill is THRILLED that, in very purple Missouri, the GOP primary electorate – in their wisdom – chose Akin instead of one of the far more eminently reasonable (read: less extreme) candidates they COULD have chosen on the recent primary ballot. Akin represents McCaskill’s best comparative chance at retaining her Senate seat. So, while I agree that Todd Akin must go, let’s remember that he hasn’t actually arrived yet, and thus calls for him to “go” are premature. Right now, there’s every likelihood that he will “go” all on his own, through the already-existing mechanism we call “November’s election.” Let’s not spoil that by trying to remove him prematurely from the ballot, which would only result in McCaskill facing a tougher opponent this November.
That’s why I sometimes despair of the left: of COURSE Akin should no more be allowed near the levers of power – based on the strength of this lone, thuddingly awful, retrograde comment itself – than Wile. E. Coyote should be hired as a security guard at the Roadrunner Motel. But trying to have Akin thrown off the ballot or otherwise disqualified NOW, with the election that would determine his fate anyway coming up in less than three months, strikes me as misguided at best. Missouri is a deeply divided (“purple”) state. It’s home to both Harry Truman and current darling of the wingnut blogosphere, Jim Hoft (Gateway Pundit — too stupid for me to waste a link on). Had McCaskill drawn any of the other, less insane opponents out of the GOP primary, she would currently be in a much tougher race than she already is. As of the end of July, McCaskill trails Todd Akin by five points. These neanderthal comments by Akin will certainly have a negative effect on his poll numbers against McCaskill, especially among Republican women who might otherwise prefer the daddy-figure in this year’s Senate race, but who perhaps have daughters and/or a personal history with unplanned pregnancy, and who will conclude, after Akin’s disastrous remarks, that a woman like McCaskill is preferable to a troglodyte like Akin who understands literally nothing about them.
All of which means that to do anything to preemptively remove Todd Akin from the Missouri Senate ballot for November is to ensure that Claire McCaskill faces a more difficult-to-beat opponent this fall. And that’s the last thing we want to do. Claire McCaskill may have her faults, but right now it’s either her or whoever the Republican party of Missouri coughs up like a cat with a hairball. I’ll take McCaskill any day, warts and all.
Dear media, centrist politicians of all stripes, onlookers, pundits, and anyone else who’s tempted by the easy and shiny but false equivalency of “both sides do ____” (behavior X in politics):
No. They don’t.
Oh, there are certainly behaviors that all politicians and partisans engage in. Most politicians will portray every situation to their advantage. Most will puff up their own experience and denigrate their opponents, and similar behavior. If you find that sort of behavior reprehensible, then perhaps following politics isn’t for you, because that’s called “campaigning,” and yes, virtually all of them do it. That’s not what I’m talking about. Continue reading
It must be refuted and then roundly laughed out of the room, each and every time it rears its cro-magnon head. Holy cow:
And by “defines,” of course, I mean “embodies”:
Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights organization, posted an alert on its blog Tuesday: “Paul Ryan Speaking at Hate Group’s Annual Conference.”
The “hate group” that the Republicans’ vice presidential candidate would be addressing? The Family Research Council, a mainstream conservative think tank founded by James Dobson and run for many years by Gary Bauer.
The day after the gay rights group’s alert went out, 28-year-old Floyd Lee Corkins II walked into the Family Research Council’s Washington headquarters and, according to an FBI affidavit, proclaimed words to the effect of “I don’t like your politics” — and shot the security guard.
Oy. You see where this is going, don’t you? To borrow a phrase from Berkeley Economics professor Brad DeLong: why, oh why, can’t we have a better press corps?
Of course it’s terrible this security guard was shot. Anytime a mass (or, as in this case, even a single) shooting happens, it’s awful. And looking for the larger causes, if any (beyond madness), of such shootings is always a worthwhile pursuit of law enforcement. Was this an isolated incident? Was it a terrorist attack? Will there likely be more? These are basic questions that should be – and are – asked by the public servants tasked with responding to such crimes.
However, because this particular case is unusual in that it was both explicitly political in origin and specifically from a traditionally liberal source (gay rights supporter) against a traditionally right wing target (homophobic Christian dominionists), Lord, how the media’s solons of liberal rectitude rush forth to show their “reasonable” bona fides by being first in line to condemn not just the shooting itself, but the “unjustifiable” actions (Milbank’s words) of the Human Rights Campaign and the Southern Poverty Law Center – the groups which labeled the Family Research Council a hate group.
After briefly glossing over the empirically demonstrable fact that “much of the political anger in America today lies on the right,” Milbank reminds us (by which he means: everyone not on the right) that “there are unbalanced and potentially violent people of all political persuasions” (in other words: all sides do it. See? Balance!) Milbank ends with what I’m sure he imagines is a solemn reminder to “[t]he rest of us” that we “need to be careful about hurling accusations that can stir up the crazies” (because really, people, liberals are just as guilty as conservatives here, and that’s what’s important…or, rather, what’s important is that I, Dana Milbank, be publicly seen saying that, so I can keep my “fair and balanced” club-card). Milbank also goes to great lengths to remind the reader of how he took Glenn Beck to task when Beck still had a show on FOX for whipping up hate and fear (see? I do it to conservatives, too! I’m just being fair here, people!), and he makes sure to point out that (just like you, faithful liberal!) he also “disagree[s] with the Family Research Council’s views on gays and lesbians.” Finally, Pope Dana I condescendingly absolves both HRC and the SPLC of any responsibility for the shooting at the Family Research Council (I’m sure they’re relieved that the heat’s off). That’s a whole lot of prevarication and credential-establishing in setup just to drive home Milbank’s main point, which is that really, liberals are stirring up violence too, and they should just watch it with their criticisms and not call hateful, homophobic speech by its right name, lest the hordes of armed, crazed liberals start shooting up the place.
Milbank’s argument becomes internally inconsistent – even incoherent – because his real goal is: he desperately wants to tut-tut liberals and liberal groups and make the false equivalence between them and the constant churning of gun-rights absolutism, paranoia and various hatreds of much of the right. So Milbank chides the SPLC and HRC for labeling FRC a hate group (although he insulates himself by insisting that neither liberal group is actually responsible for the shooting at FRC), implying that HRC and SPLC should censor what they say in order to minimize the chance of any such violent liberal rampages. Huh? Uh, Dana? If the speech and activities of both those groups aren’t responsible for the shooting at FRC, why, exactly, should they self-censor it?
Where the bankruptcy of Milbank’s argument can really be seen, though, is in the distinction he tries to draw between right-wing groups in order to justify telling HRC and SPLC (and the rest of us) to watch what we say about some right-wing groups and activities. After re-re-establishing his bona fides by reminding us he disagrees with FRC about gays, Milbank pronounces FRC “offensive, certainly,” but not “in the same category as the KKK.”
Stop for a moment and think about that.
The problem with Dana’s distinction here between groups that are “offensive, certainly” (but aren’t real hate groups), and the real thing (by Milbank’s definition: the KKK, Stormfront.org, Westboro Baptist Church, and a few others) is immediately obvious. The same point Milbank makes about watching what we (or the SPLC or HRC) say could easily be extended to even those groups Milbank admits are genuine hate groups. Is Milbank, by saying that the FRC is no KKK, truly suggesting he would have been happy (or at least not upset) if Mr. Corkins, the FRC shooter, had instead visited a Klan office, or some mailing address for Stormfront, and begun shooting? I’ll throw Dana a lifeline, here: I do not believe he would consider such violence justified if it had been carried out at the KKK instead of the FRC. Yet if you try to follow the tortuous internal logic of Milbank’s arguments here, that’s exactly what he implies: liberals and especially groups like the FRC and SPLC should watch what they say about groups like FRC because a) it might incite “the crazies” to violence and b) FRC is no KKK.
Of course, the reason for Milbank’s otherwise-inexplicable distinction is that he can’t simply tell the SPLC or HRC to just shut up, period. He’s trying to shame them into censoring some of their statements, yes…but he’s aware that he has to give a plausible-sounding reason for why these liberal groups ought to alter what they say. And so the distinction is born between “real” hate groups (ones that Milbank judges most “reasonable” people would agree are hate groups) and non-hate groups like FRC, against whom liberals should restrain their speech, lest they incite violence…for which they wouldn’t be responsible. Or something.
Why, oh why, can’t we have better “liberal” punditry?
If you’ve read or watched the news today, other than the usual chatter about the various facets of the Presidential race, the one story you won’t have been able to escape is the almost spy novel-like drama surrounding Julian Assange and the Ecuadorian embassy. In the end, Ecuador turned out to really not enjoy being bullied and threatened, even in that inimitable, jolly-good sort of inoffensive manner in which the Brits did so, and ultimately offered Assange asylum. The high-handed and imperious tone taken by the British government, along with the serious violations of international diplomatic convention they both committed and implied they were willing to commit, got me to thinking.
I have no idea whether Julian Assange is guilty of the charges of sexual assault and rape that have been leveled against him. It’s not my intention to try to dig up what feels like the bones of those arguments (because they are now almost two years old, despite the issue not having been actually resolved yet), and certainly not my intention to draw charges of complicity with rape culture or making excuses for yet another entitled-ish white man. It’s undeniable, though, that the evidence has been steadily amassing that several governments really, REALLY want to get their hands on Assange, for reasons having nothing at all to do with any sexual crimes Assange may have committed in Sweden. Several in our own government have said, flat-out, they want to apprehend/prosecute him for his work with WikiLeaks.
Today’s Ecuador/Britain dust-up over Assange and the larger issues of diplomacy and sovereignty was a clear demonstration of the lengths to which the Brits at least are willing to go to apprehend Assange — and it’s far outside what they would ordinarily do or have done in similar cases where the only charges against a person are sexual in nature. Rape is a serious thing, no question…but charges of rape are not typically something that functions on the level of geopolitics, unless it’s something like the systemic rape of a whole population by invading armies or occupying forces. Criminal charges against one person for rape, though? You just don’t see a country as old and civilized as Britain – one of the founders of modern diplomacy and national dialogue – threatening to, without warning or precedent, summarily void the ambassadorial privileges of another sovereign nation that has long had an embassy on British soil. Hell, with Assad in Syria desperately and despicably turning his guns recently on his own people indiscriminately, Britain’s reaction was merely to formally expel the top Syrian diplomat (a measured, proportional response). They didn’t threaten to summarily alter the relationship between the countries in a hostile manner.
Yet when the subject turns to one lone man wanted for questioning in two separate rape/sexual assault cases (and not even in Britain!)…all bets are suddenly off, and the representatives of the empire on which the sun shall never set are suddenly behaving like tin-pot third world dictators of yore. That made me revisit the charges against Assange already in place. Again, and for the record, I have no idea if the charges Assange stands accused of by the Swedish women are accurate. If they are, he should be punished according to Swedish law. But I couldn’t help thinking that if I really wanted to ruin a political actor like Assange, not just on a personal level, but to sideline him, destroy his credibility and make all aspects of his continued work, from fundraising to press interviews to acquiring new sources and being seen as a credible, trustworthy outlet, I would do EXACTLY what has been done to Julian Assange. You don’t attack a man like Assange by calling him a terrorist or a criminal for his work with Wikileaks – that just increases his cachet and makes the alternate story his supporters tell – that Assange is a fearless whistleblower/truth-teller – all the easier to tell and easier to swallow. Instead, you destroy him on a personal level: make him seem sleazy, untrustworthy, dirty – above all, base. A pervert. A rapist. Perhaps even more than charges of Dahmer-type serial murder/cannibalism, these are the types of charges that will well and truly ruin the ability of a man like Julian Assange to do what he’s been doing for the past several years.
And it’s worked, in large part: WikiLeaks continues to operate, but Assange has spent the better part of the last two years in hiding, fighting an opaque and somewhat dull, private fight against legal maneuverings, instead of continuing with the ascendancy into changing the way we think about and maybe even practice journalism in the twenty first century. His star is tarnished by clouds of doubt, even in the minds of people who have and would otherwise support him. Uncertainty has been created. And if Assange did all this to himself by actually having committed the crimes he stands accused of, then he deserves every bit of the fall from grace as well as the actual criminal punishment. But, for the governments of Britain and the United States and other countries who desperately would like to shut WikiLeaks up, it’s awfully convenient that just raising this issue and these charges has had the effect it already has had on Assange.
Britain’s behavior today shows just how far at least one of these governments is willing to go outside the bounds of what would normally be expected in such a case, because this is NOT a normal case. This is Julian Assange, founder and principal of WikiLeaks. If one of the world’s oldest and most civilized governments was ready, on literally a moment’s notice, to summarily void their diplomatic ties with an entire country in pursuit of Julian Assange, is it really so unlikely that one or more interested actors might fabricate or embellish charges of a sexual nature against him?
Most of us heard this old cliché for the first time when we were children. The rest of us heard it at some point along the line. I’d venture a guess virtually all of us of voting age have heard it by now; it’s long been a bit of Americana. Well-known songs have been written about it:
The point is, the phrase “pants on fire” quite clearly is understood generally to refer to lying, even gross, flagrant lying. So until very recently, I had assumed that PolitiFact’s rating of the same name, “Pants on Fire,” was thusly named to indicate PolitiFact judged any claim they slapped with that label to be not merely inaccurate or false, but of having been uttered knowingly; in short: that the person making the claim was lying.
Boy, was I wrong.
Even if you’ve been watching nothing but Olympics coverage for the past week-plus, if you read this blog, you know that on July 31, Harry Reid gave an interview to the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein and Ryan Grim in which he said that a Bain investor had told him Mitt Romney had paid no taxes for ten years. I’ve already had my say on the advisability of the politics surrounding this claim by Reid, but needless to say, such a prominent Democratic leader saying such an inflammatory thing in the midst of a heated Presidential election caused quite a stir (and continues to do so). More than a week later, the story – if anything – appears to be gaining steam, rather than losing it.
This may, in fact, be exactly what Harry Reid and/or the Obama campaign wanted: for continued focus to remain on the startling fact that Mitt Romney, in sharp contrast to most other modern Presidential candidates, has refused to release more than two years of his tax returns; the two most recent years, when he knew he was running for President. Regardless of the strategy, though, this story has undoubtedly been, behind the Olympics and the recent abominable massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, the biggest story around, for more than a week now.
You know what that means, readers! Yup, like a moth to a flame, it meant it wouldn’t be long until that unique specimen of the new breed of self-appointed, independent fact-checkers-for-the-people, PolitiFact, would be weighing in with their verdict on this issue. Well, the wait is over, folks: PolitiFact has rendered their verdict: Harry Reid’s statement earns the coveted “Pants on Fire!” And it is because of this that I learned I’d been making an incorrect assumption about the nature of the “Pants on Fire” designation.
How, I wondered, could Reid’s statement possibly have qualified for “Pants on Fire” status? Did Harry Reid lie? Well, what was his actual claim? It’s important to remember that Reid did not himself claim – as some of the more pugnacious and less careful right-wing outlets have asserted – that Romney had paid no taxes. Instead, Reid’s claim is that a Bain investor told him so. Now, is it possible that Reid is lying when he says a Bain investor told him that information? Of course it is! To date, Reid has refused to name his source for the information he says he received. Also – let’s face it – politicians, especially in election seasons, have been known to lie. Heck, if they didn’t, there’d hardly be a need for an organization like PolitiFact, would there?
If Harry Reid were willing to disclose the name of the person who he says gave him this information, PolitiFact’s job would be straightforward: call Reid’s source and verify that he or she really did tell Harry Reid that Romney paid no taxes for ten years.
Period. That’s it.
Even in such a case, it’s critical to realize that it would NOT be PolitiFact’s job – at least, not as far as Harry Reid’s claim is concerned – to try to determine whether the Bain investor’s claim about Romney was true, because that’s a separate claim. It’s completely possible for it to be true that a Bain investor told Harry Reid that Romney paid no taxes for ten years and ALSO for it to simultaneously be false that Mitt Romney paid no taxes for ten years, if the Bain investor who was Reid’s source was lying or mistaken. In such a case, even though the Bain investor’s claim would be false (or possibly even a lie), Harry Reid’s claim (that the investor told him this information) would still be 100% true.
In reality, however, since Reid continues to refuse to name his source – and it isn’t hard to think of perfectly legitimate reasons for Reid not to name the source, reporters do this all the time to protect sources – Reid’s claim is unverifiable*. So, why did PolitiFact even weigh in on Reid’s claim, let alone assign it their most-notorious “Pants on Fire” rating? WAS Harry Reid lying? There’s no way to know, I thought! Confused and annoyed, I finally got around to looking up PolitiFact’s “Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter” page, which describes how and why they make the calls the way they do. Although the section that describes the ratings themselves is quite brief, it was there I discovered I’d incorrectly been assuming “Pants on Fire” meant “lying.” PolitiFact’s definition of “False” is essentially what most dictionaries’ is: “The statement is not accurate.” But “Pants on Fire” is defined by PolitiFact as: “The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.”
In other words, the only difference, for PolitiFact, between a false statement and a “Pants on Fire” statement is that the latter, in addition to being inaccurate, is also “ridiculous.” Not “said with malicious intent to deceive” or “knowingly false” (in other words: a lie), just “ridiculous.”
Now, it’s quite true, as any lawyer will tell you: proving someone is lying can be very difficult, because one must prove intent. You have to prove the person accused of lying KNEW their statement was false at the time they made it, and employed their false statement with intent to deceive. Although this can be difficult, it’s not impossible: in some cases, enough facts exist that it can be done. By contrast, however, proving that something is “ridiculous” is literally impossible, because what is “ridiculous” is a matter of personal interpretation, just like what is “tasty” or “loud” or “annoying” is a matter of personal interpretation.
That’s what’s so startling about PolitiFact’s definition of “Pants on Fire” – it’s not just that PolitiFact uses a different definition than what virtually everyone understands “pants on fire” to mean, it’s that the definition PolitiFact uses relies upon a subjective assessment. Stated more succinctly, PolitiFact’s assessment of “Pants on Fire” requires an opinion.
And that, folks, is why PolitiFact should be shunned for all serious fact-checking. They may continue to make the correct call in certain cases. But just as last year’s “Lie of the Year” fiasco showed, this most-recent foray on the part of PolitiFact from the safe and respectable waters of fact-checker into the much murkier territory of opinion-holder and shaper serves to show that PolitiFact has abandoned the role of neutral umpire: a “Pants on Fire” claim need be not just false, but deemed ridiculous in the opinion of the PolitiFact staff.
It may pain PolitiFact to hear this, and I would certainly agree that PolitiOpinion is both more unwieldy as a phrase and less compelling as a source for facts than “PolitiFact,” but (sadly) the former much more accurately describes what PolitiFact too often does: offer opinions on the political statements of the day. That makes them literally nothing more than glorified bloggers. If anything, it makes PolitiFact less honest and worthwhile than most political bloggers, because partisan bloggers don’t typically make an attempt to cloak themselves in the garb of neutrality as PolitiFact does. I’m not suggesting PolitiFact has particular political leanings, but it’s clear they moved some time ago from simply doing their best to determine the facts of a claim, into the realm of offering their opinion about the claim, as well.
They should stop pretending otherwise.
* I use the phrase “unverifiable” not just because it’s accurate, but because it matches additional specific language on PolitiFact’s Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter page:
In deciding which statements to check, we ask ourselves these questions:
• Is the statement rooted in a fact that is verifiable?
By PolitiFact’s own standards, then, they should never have attempted to fact-check this claim. Because, while it’s quite possible that (as a later portion of the same section states) “a typical person [might] hear or read the statement and wonder: is that true,” it’s also undeniable that Reid’s claim cannot be verified. Which, if PolitiFact were following their own guidelines, should render the claim, however juicy and tempting it might be for PolitiFact’s editors, off-limits.
I don’t mention this last bit merely to be didactic or score further points on PolitiFact. I mention it because I think any organization which was genuinely committed to pure fact-checking would have only three – at most, four – “findings” they could bestow on any claim: true (or accurate), false (or inaccurate) and unverifiable, for claims for which the facts are impossible to determine. The fourth potential finding could be “partly true” or “needs context.” This finding could be used in cases where the claim is technically true, but without additional context might convey an overall impression that is false.
It’s instructive to note that this is essentially the rating system utilized by one of the Internet’s oldest fact-checking outfits, snopes.com. Although Snopes has some political entries, they don’t confine themselves to the political realm (in fact, Snopes was started to debunk Internet urban legends, like the kidney-theft-ring). But since their inception, Snopes has stayed remarkably true to this spare, no-nonsense ratings system. By contrast, PolitiFact has a cumbersome at best system of six different ratings: true, mostly true, half-true, barely true, false and the infamous “Pants on Fire.”
It’s beyond my pay grade (and frankly, my interest level) to try to determine whether PolitiFact’s drift in mission from checking facts to weighing in with their own opinions is a result of their confused, bloated ratings system, or whether the ratings were specifically devised to allow PolitiFact editors to subtly inject their own opinions into the political dialogue under the guise of neutral fact-checking. What’s not subject to debate is how committed to pure fact-checking PolitiFact is. The evidence, both here and in previous cases, speaks for itself on that question.
So lately, as everyone who reads blogs or watches left-ish TV pundits knows, much hay has been made about Mitt Romney’s seemingly-inexplicable refusal to release more than two years worth of his tax returns – the last two, when he knew for certain he was already running for President in 2012. Actually, Romney hasn’t even fully released all of those two years, but close enough. Speculation has focused on the previous, well, all of the years between the time Romney left the protective umbrella of his dad’s finances and forged out into the world on his own and the present. Many a commentator, up to and including President Obama’s oppo-research team, have speculated – not without reason – about why Romney continues to refuse to disclose tax returns from years prior to 2010.
Speculation has focused specifically on the notion that perhaps Romney may have paid no taxes at all in some years. The Obama campaign released an ad to that effect not long ago, to great fanfare and speculation on the left (as well as some deflection and outrage on the right). More recently, Senate majority leader Harry Reid dropped the bombshell that a former Bain investor with knowledge of the matter told him directly that in some prior years, Romney indeed paid no taxes whatsoever.
If these allegations are true, they are indeed a bombshell, for exactly the reasons Romney would be wise to keep such news private if he possibly can: because although the American electorate tends not to begrudge people wealth – even great wealth – we also have a stubbornly persistent anti-elitist streak, as well as an enduring sense of fair play. In short: while few voters will look upon the simple fact of Romney’s enormous wealth as a detriment (indeed, it may even be seen as an asset by many, on its own), those feelings would almost certainly change for many voters if it was revealed that Romney’s millions were accumulated at the expense of fellow Americans (hence the offshoring ads), or that Romney utilized strategies available only to the wealthy to avoid paying his fair share of taxes like most of the rest of us must. And if it were revealed specifically that Romney really did pay NO taxes whatsoever during some of the years he was raking in his millions – even only one or two years – such a revelation would be a candidacy-ending event. Mitt Romney would not be able to be elected dogcatcher in the wake of such a disclosure.
This dynamic is already well-understood by political observers, both professional and amateur. Certainly, both campaigns are aware that would be the case. And indeed, the Romney campaign’s continued stonewalling on the issue of the candidate’s pre-2010 taxes does lend itself to ever-wilder speculation along these very lines. Unfortunately, that’s exactly where the Democrats, the Obama campaign and progressive commentators may be making a serious tactical political blunder.
Let me be clear: if someone on the Democratic side knows for a fact the most-severe of the allegations about Romney’s taxes are true (not just suspects they might be true), then full speed ahead: up the pressure on the tax issue until Romney has no choice but to release the returns. That would be the equivalent of holding four aces for the Obama campaign, and it would be difficult to overplay or blow such a great hand.
But here’s the thing: if no one except the IRS and Mitt Romney (and, I suppose, John McCain) know what’s really in Romney’s previous-year tax returns – in other words, if Reid isn’t certain of his source and/or the Obama campaign is just speculating for political effect, then publicly and repeatedly speculating about a worst-case scenario such as Romney having paid no taxes at all may very well work against Obama and Democrats.
Why? Because although the pressure applied is the same, the end result almost certainly would not be. One of the lines of reasoning most often given (to fairly good effect) to explain Romney’s continued refusal to release any more of his taxes is that it must mean whatever’s in those tax returns would be so politically damaging to Romney that it’s better to take whatever damage comes from not releasing them, compared to the damage that would be incurred from disclosure.
If Romney really did pay no taxes, then that suspicion would be correct. But what if the Romney campaign’s refusal to release other tax years’ returns is nothing more than the stiff-necked authoritarianism and “you people” dismissiveness of a man not used to having to answer to anyone? What if those old tax returns show some chicanery, but not much worse than the 13.9% rate he’s already disclosed for the 2010/11 years, and nothing close to the bombshell of having paid no taxes at all?
In that case, ratcheting up the pressure on Romney to intolerable levels may very well backfire. If the Obama campaign and liberal commentators and journalists make the Romney team believe that the political cost of remaining silent has exceeded the likely damage of disclosure, the result could easily be that the public’s reaction to the actual revelations (having been set SO high by loose – and, it turns out, unsubstantiated – claims of total tax avoidance by Romney) is a big yawn. After such a build-up, moderate tax-avoidance may well seem like no big deal, at least in comparison.
Worse, Democrats, journalists and the Obama campaign will appear to have been embarrassingly hyperventilating in their accusations (not to mention wrong), and Mitt Romney will be easily portrayed by any competent campaign staffer as the aggrieved, unjustly-accused party, even though there may be issues the voters would otherwise care about in what Romney revealed.
Obviously, I have no idea either what might be lurking in Mitt Romney’s tax returns from, say, the Bain years or why his campaign is declining to release more than two years of returns even in the face of mounting pressure to do so. So I’ll repeat: if someone in the Obama’s oppo team or elsewhere in the Democratic establishment really does have the goods regarding what’s in Mitt’s old tax returns that’s making him so apprehensive about releasing them, and if that reason really IS that Mitt Romney paid no taxes in at least one year, then the current, wildly speculative strategy is exactly the right strategy.
But if this is all just guesswork on the part of the Obama campaign, Reid and lefty pundits, and an attempt to score points against an opponent’s seemingly-inexplicable refusal to disclose past tax data, then it might be worth trying to avoid overshooting the target with all that speculative outrage, and risking a let-down in reality. The stakes are too high for this kind of a bet if you’re not actually holding those four aces.