Romney’s old tax returns — should he or shouldn’t he?

Mitt Romney is being urged by some of his supporters to release his old tax returns. Apparently, certain members of his inner campaign circle are also advocating that course.

Romney reportedly turned over 20 years’ worth of returns to John McCain’s campaign when McCain was vetting him as a possible VP candidate in 2008. McCain says that there was absolutely nothing problematic in the returns.

This raises an obvious question: if there’s nothing problematic, why not release 20 years of returns in this election, in which Romney seeks even higher office?

The defect with this logic, I think, is that McCain’s staff presumably provided only the ordinary, rational scrutiny one would apply under the then-prevailing consensus about what constitutes a problem on a politician’s tax returns. They did not apply the irrational, demagogic “Chicago-style” standards that Barack Obama has injected into our politics.

Under the Obama standard, Romney’s every investment will be the potential subject of a new attack. Each attack will be more ridiculous than its predecessor. If Romney invested in a company owned by someone whose grandfather’s cousin once closed a big plant in Ohio, then expect the voters of that state quickly to learn about it.

Unfortunately, in this campaign there appears to be no barrier to such attacks. To its credit, portions of the MSM have tried to call foul on Obama. But there’s always an outlet like the Boston Globe willing to serve as Obama’s accomplice by fanning the flames. If Romney releases more returns, he might well find himself putting out fires for weeks.

Thus, the question of whether Romney should release more returns cannot be resolved based on the adage, if he’s got nothing to hide then he shouldn’t hide anything. The campaign needs to weigh the potential damage of no further disclosure against the damage Team Obama can inflict if it obtains more returns.

Those of us on the outside can’t help the Romney camp make this assessment. But we can warn that, in estimating the damage Obama can inflict, the Romney camp must be mindful that Obama doesn’t play by, and isn’t held to, the normal rules.

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