This week, Americans around the country are finishing up their taxes for the year. But tax season is just beginning for Mitt Romney, as Democrats put his personal finances front and center in their general election campaign.
Romney hit arguably the low point of his presidential campaign when he told Republican voters in South Carolina that he wouldn’t release his tax returns yet out of fear the Obama campaign would pick them apart. GOP voters weren’t happy with his explanation and dealt him a devastating primary loss days later. Romney backtracked and released his 2010 return and 2011 estimate shortly afterward.
Now as the nomination seems close, Romney’s prediction has come true. The Obama campaign is launching a multi-pronged effort to highlight Romney’s low 13.9 percent tax rate, demand close to two dozen years of additional returns and request more information about his foreign assets.
On Monday, the Obama campaign went after Romney on a conference call for all of these things and more, starting with a renewed push to get the Republican frontrunner to release more of his taxes.
“Our message to Mitt is simple: If you don’t have anything to hide, release your taxes just like every other candidate for president does,” campaign manager Jim Messina told reporters. He highlighted Romney’s use of a Swiss bank account and Cayman Islands investment fund as particular areas of concern.
Messina noted that Romney reportedly turned over 23 years of tax returns to John McCain’s campaign when he was being considered as a running mate in 2008 and suggested he do the same for the public. When pressed on whether that meant Obama would do the same, Messina demurred, noting only that Obama has released his records going back to 2000.
Romney has denied deriving any tax benefit by using foreign funds and accounts and nothing has come out to suggest otherwise. But the lack of information gives the Obama camp a chance to, if nothing else, repeatedly tie Romney to offshore accounts best known in the popular consciousness as a means for the ultra-rich to exploit loopholes.
Romney has tried to deflect the underlying charge that he’s a rich guy primarily concerned with other rich guys in part by accusing Obama of being “out of touch” with average Americans. Recently, he suggested that “years of flying around on Air Force One” have left Obama disconnected from the public. In a Pennsylvania speech, Romney also said that Obama “spent too much time at Harvard,” despite holding multiple degrees from the school himself.
Messina insisted to TPM that the “elitist” charge wouldn’t stick given Romney’s own background.
“Simply hypocrisy,” he said. “I mean, come on. Romney’s also a Harvard graduate.”
Calling Romney the “beneficiary of a broken tax system,” Messina said, “Any time Romney is trying to say someone’s out of touch is a little difficult when he’s shopping for car elevators.”
Romney’s taxes are treasure trove for Obama as he campaigns on a proposal to require ultra-wealthy Americans who benefit from lower rates on investment income to pay more to make up the difference with middle-income Americans who pay a higher tax rate on their income. Romney, whose wealth stems mostly from his career as a private equity investor, is one of those ultra-wealthy Americans, and is running on lowering taxes 20 percent across all income brackets while keeping in place the capital gains rates in question. And the Obama campaign wants everyone to know the difference.
“People think the system is rigged against them,” Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) said on the call in reference to Romney’s 13.9 percent tax rate in 2010. “It’s like there’s two systems, one for them and one for the very wealthiest and best-connected, and they want to see fairness.”
Romney’s campaign spokeswoman, Gail Gitcho, preempted the call with a statement attacking Obama’s plan to raise taxes on the wealthy.
“President Obama is the first president in history to openly campaign for re-election on a platform of higher taxes,” Gitcho said. “He has already raised taxes on millions of Americans, but he won’t stop there. He wants to raise taxes on millions more by taxing small businesses and job creators. We appreciate the Obama campaign reinforcing Mitt Romney’s platform of lowering tax rates across the board in order to jump-start this bad Obama economy.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.