Obama vs Romney Tax Returns: What the Records Show

Mitt Romney’s biggest hurdle has consistently been connecting with a voter base that is struggling through a monumentally slow economic recovery, and his attempt to remove the poor connotation surrounding his time at Bain Capital and his personal investments has been clumsy at best.

Following pressure during the primary race earlier this year to reveal his financial history, parts of Romney’s 2010 tax returns were released for public scrutiny. Disclosed were highly selective financial statements that revealed offshore accounts in Switzerland, the Bahamas, and the Cayman Islands, as well as a few even more controversial entities like a corporation owned entirely by the former governor that holds an undisclosed amount and that wasn’t even declared on any tax returns until 2010. Romney saw an effect in the polls after the release, but it never became significant because the Republican field was too weak and unorganized to make something of the new revelations. Now, as the presumptive Republican nominee, the stakes have changed.

When it was discovered recently that Romney was still on the Bain Capital letterhead as CEO three years later than he had previously claimed, the Obama campaign jumped at the opportunity, calling for Romney to finally release the tax returns and statements he has been so adamant about keeping private. In question, most specifically, is the time between 1999, when he claimed to have left the company to run the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, to 2002, when he finally reached an agreement on a 10-year severance package of an undisclosed amount that was retroactive to 1999. As most of his earnings from those years were not from salary, it’s projected that he paid an extraordinarily low tax rate, if any.

The Obama campaign is betting that Romney will try to weather the speculation rather than just reveal the actual records; and this traps the Romney campaign into a catch-22. Assuming the statements in question do contain information that could frame Romney as even wealthier, and a tax evader, Romney stands to lose in the polls. By not releasing the documents, however, Romney will be the subject of intense speculation as to why he would be so protective of records that reflect the earnings and tactics he employed during his experience in the private sector, a time he is always quick to mention at campaign stops.

Romney hasn’t deviated from his strategy of keeping his financial records private, but by doing so, Romney is pushing the issue at the forefront of the Democratic talking points, an outcome his campaign should be fighting at all costs. No matter how negative the Romney campaign imagines the public response to these documents will be, it can't be any worse than the worst-case-scenario the Democrats are conjuring up for voters. Romney would be smart to release at least selective portions of his tax documents from previous years and frame whatever they detail as proof of a mastery of finance, something essential in a leader during these economically volatile times.

The bizarre reaction that this controversy has yielded from the Romney campaign instead, however, has been a vague, half-hearted defense of his private-sector experience while insisting that financial records from his years at Bain Capital are irrelevant to the campaign. The same experience he's delivered as the centerpiece of their message, it seems, has become the same experience he doesn't wish to elaborate on. And while the emphasis on his years in the private sector isn’t anything new for  the Romney camp – Romney has made an extraordinary effort to avoid mention of his years of experience as the governor of Massachusetts – the fact that he’s reluctant to show how his investments have fared puts the Republican candidate in shady light.

Romney has a history of the pragmatism and professionalism that could make him a formidable opponent of Obama this November. But by choosing the narrative he has chosen and then defending it in the way that he has, Romney will have voters wondering exactly what the Republican ticket intends to bring to the table.