It’s the silly season. NBC and its various dedicated cable networks are showing almost every Olympic event from London – from sports you know well, like basketball and soccer and tennis, and all the track and field stuff and gymnastics and boxing, to sports you know about but don’t really follow, like water polo and archery and that subset of fencing, saber, to sports that are wholly mysterious. There’s team handball, where teams of seven pass and bounce and throw a small ball at a sort of lacrosse goal, using any body part above the knee. And players can hold the ball for up to three seconds and take up to three steps, but no more. That’s odd – but then there’s sailing and badminton too, and as always, Greco-Roman wrestling, with events for men not only in seven weight categories but in the freestyle, seven categories for men and four for women. Right – it’s sweaty spandex time. But there’s always synchronized swimming, which is rather surreal but amusing, and women’s beach volleyball, which is aggressively sexy. And there’s dressage – slow and formal horse dancing, with the exquisitely poised riders in top hat and tails. That’s big this year – Ann Romney has a horse in the competition, and she and Mitt managed a seventy-seven thousand dollar tax deduction to offset the expenses involved in doing this to represent the United States. That man certainly knows his tax code.
NBC is covering it all, on the assumption that Americans love it when our folks win, showing the rest of the world that we’re the best and everyone else is scum – as it always has been and always will be. You’ve heard the USA-USA-USA chants. It’s just that it’s hard to work up the appropriate level of nationalistic jingoism for competitive skeet shooting, or for large folks rowing tiny little ideas of boats down the river as fast as they possibly can. That’s a bit boring, and much of the rest is simply silly. But maybe all sports are. The late Howard Cosell put it nicely. Sports really are the toy department of human life.
Politics isn’t like that. Politics are supposed to matter – those who we elect can take us to war, where real people die, or tank the economy, or save it, by refusing to enforce certain laws already on the books, or save the economy through subtle changes in tax policy and spending priorities, or ruin it doing the same thing. And there’s the current dispute over healthcare – over who deserves to be insured and who really doesn’t. That’s life and death for many people. This is not the toy department.
But that doesn’t mean politics isn’t silly at times. Running for office is a competition after all, generating endless discussion of who seems to be winning at the moment, and who is just off their game and will probably lose. We do call it a “race” after all – and it’s probably inevitable that policy matters seem to drop away as pundits and pollsters and statisticians handicap the field and give us the odds, so we can place our bets. The race itself seems to fascinate us, not anyone’s boring policy positions. It’s like watching team handball – you’re not quite sure what’s going on, as the rules do seem absurd, but you certainly want your side to win.
That’s what’s happening with the big Mormon versus Mormon face-off of August 2012 – being played out as the London Olympics rumble pleasantly along in the other side of the pond. It’s Harry Reid versus Mitt Romney – the Senate Majority Leader, from Nevada, from Las Vegas if you will, as the rest of Nevada is pretty much empty nothing, versus the straight-arrow guy from Salt Lake City, the Valley of the Saints. Reid was an amateur boxer as a young lad, and even with his JD and all his political experience, he’s a bit of a brawler still, who also knows what everyone knows in Vegas – how to bluff and play the game at hand. Think of him as a card-shark. By contrast, Romney seems prissy and plodding, with never a hair on his head ever out of place, and often a bit clueless, wondering how what he just said could have gone so wrong. It’s a classic match-up.
Let’s join the game in progress:
Republicans called Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. a “liar” Sunday for remarks made on the Senate floor regarding Mitt Romney’s taxes.
Reid last week said he had “heard” Romney paid no federal income taxes for a decade. Romney, the presumed GOP presidential nominee, released his 2010 tax returns and promised to release 2011 but has declined going further back.
Speculation has been swirling for weeks about how much he has paid in taxes and Reid said Thursday: “When it comes to answering the legitimate questions the American people have about whether he avoided paying his fair share in taxes or why he opened a Swiss bank account, Romney has shut up. But as a presidential candidate, it’s his obligation to put up, and release several years’ worth of tax returns just like nominees of both parties have done for decades.”
It’s put up or shut up. Reid is calling his bluff, with a bluff of his own – he said he got the information from an investor at Bain Capital, but he wouldn’t say who, and he wasn’t even sure it was true. It was just something he had heard. It’s just that Romney had said he paid all his taxes – tons of taxes, as he put it – but has been refusing to release his tax returns, except for last year’s which aren’t quite complete but close, and this year’s, which are still in progress. His father released twelve years of returns when he ran for president. Everyone else running for president has always released seven to ten years of returns so people can see how they’ve conducted themselves, and to show how they’ve dealt with the tax codes, which they would have the opportunity to modify. Reid heard something interesting, which might or might not be true. He was just wondering about that, and he said so on the floor of the Senate.
Lindsey Graham popped up on CNN’s State of the Union and called Reid a liar – and Reid smiled and doubled-down. He didn’t care that Graham had said this:
I’ve been around this town for a while. I actually like Harry. But what he did on the floor of the Senate is so out of bounds. I think he’s lying about his statement of knowing something about Romney. So this is what’s wrong with America… I think he has created an issue here. I think he’s making things up – and at a time when the country is just about to fall apart. … I just cannot believe that the majority leader of the United States Senate would take the floor twice, make accusations that are absolutely unfounded, in my view, and quite frankly making things up to divert the campaign away from the real issues.
Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus also called Reid a liar, which was the theme of the day – he just made this up. Reid’s position was clear. So, prove me wrong.
Reid jammed Romney, who, along with his surrogates, was forced to say look, I certainly can prove you wrong, but I choose not to, and I don’t have to. It was, oddly, like poker in Vegas, with Romney saying he really was holding four aces and a king – but he’d be damned if he’d show anyone his cards. You had to trust him on that – and it was insulting to be called a liar. He was holding the winning hand, really. And he didn’t like being called a liar. Reid called his hand.
The press has generally sided with Romney on this. See the New York Times’ Frank Bruni:
For the dwindling few out there who still believe that big accusations require a little foundation and that truth – as opposed to conjecture – matters, here’s an update:
As last week drew to a close, Harry Reid, the Senate’s Democratic majority leader, had backed up his claim that Mitt Romney didn’t pay taxes for a 10-year period with absolutely nothing more than some vague reference to some unnamed guy who said something of the sort to Reid during some phone conversation some time ago.
That’s it. That’s all. But for Reid, it was enough not only to level his charge but also, as the days pressed on, to double and triple down on it, his language and manner growing more righteous even as his evidence grew no more detailed or persuasive. …
Reid took a wholly legitimate source of concern – that Romney owes voters more candor and transparency than he has been willing to furnish – and undermined it by going too far and too farcical.
When a candidate says something is true, but that there’s really no need for anyone to see the evidence that it’s true, you just have to trust him, then of course you trust him. That’s the decent thing to do and the alternative is unthinkable. You certainly don’t mention odd things you have heard.
Reid had been irresponsible, but Joe Conason differs:
Harry Reid has provoked outrage among liberals as well as conservatives, who seem to believe he has violated propriety by repeating gossip about Mitt Romney’s taxes. The Senate leader says someone connected with Romney told him that the Republican candidate paid no income taxes for a period of ten years. Offended by Reid’s audacity, commentators on the right have indicted him for “McCarthyism” while others on the left have accused him of inventing the whole story.
Evidently the chief complaint against Reid – aside from aggressiveness unbecoming a Democrat – is that he cited “an extremely credible source” who he has so far declined to name. Some journalists have gone so far as to suggest that Reid must be lying because he won’t identify the source.
But no one knows if Reid is lying, and that’s the point:
Many of Reid’s critics work for news outlets that rely on unnamed sources every day, of course, publishing assertions that range from the mundane to the outlandish. It is hard to see why an unnamed source quoted by a daily newspaper or a monthly magazine – or hidden behind a screen in a TV studio – is more credible than a person whispering in the ear of a United States Senator.
Indeed, several of the news outlets now barking at Reid have suffered their own episodes of scandalous embarrassment due to the exposure of invented sources and quotes (see Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, etc. etc. etc.). Yet they nevertheless continue to publish quotes from such unnamed individuals. After all, where else would Reid have learned that this is acceptable conduct?
Maybe it’s time to stop thinking about Harry Reid and start thinking about sources more carefully:
As Reid has pointed out, only the former Bain executive can demonstrate conclusively that suspicions about his tax history are unfounded. Although the irritated Romney retorts that he has “paid a lot of taxes,” his denial won’t suffice as proof either. He could have paid hefty real estate taxes on his various homes and sales taxes on his purchases of cars, car elevators, powerboats, and other luxury goods, among other levies, while paying little or no federal income tax.
This is a mess for Romney:
Obviously it would be simple for Romney to disprove Reid’s statement, which is unlike McCarthyite accusations that involve someone’s personal associations or state of mind. The necessary evidence is not only within Romney’s possession, but is material that candidates in his position normally release to the public and that the public expects to see. It is material that he previously surrendered to Senator John McCain’s campaign staff in 2008, when they were vetting him for a possible vice presidential nomination. (For now, they are conspicuously silent on the Reid controversy.)
Conason then cites legal doctrine that applies to Romney’s current stance from Indiana attorney John Sullivan:
At law, if a person in control of evidence refuses to produce the evidence, then the jury is instructed that there is a presumption that the evidence would be against the party failing to produce. It is called the “Missing Evidence” instruction.
Conason argues that the burden of proof is not on Harry Reid, but on Romney:
The missing evidence is in Romney’s grasp, yet he insists that he will never produce it. Does anyone need instruction from a judge to make the correct inference?
John Sullivan is not impressed with Romney:
Obviously, Romney will not produce his tax returns because he knows what’s in them is more damaging that the static he will take for not releasing them. …
What is silliest for Romney is that he and his aides continue to talk about Harry Reid. One aide compared Reid’s actions to McCarthyism. Reid has not accused Romney of any wrongdoing. McCarthy called Americans traitors and ruined their careers.
Romney’s failure to disclose on his tax returns is consistent with his lifelong secrecy. After a motor vehicle accident in France in which a passenger in Romney’s car is said to have been killed, he allegedly swore everyone to secrecy. No one knows why Mitt Romney got a rare missionary deferment during the Vietnam War – a deferment in which he lived in a palace and converted no one.
The records from the Salt Lake City Olympics are unavailable. Mitt bought new computers at the end of his term as governor in Massachusetts. The computers and their memories of his term as governor are gone.
There is a pattern of secrecy. It is consistent with his fundamental intellectual dishonesty. He reminds me of Richard Nixon.
Of course, but also note this at the end of the Sullivan item:
John Sullivan is an Indianapolis attorney who has been active in politics since 1968. He is a former Chairperson of the Indiana Recount Commission and Vice President of the Marion County Convention Center and Recreational Facilities Commission. He was the Democratic nominee for Mayor of Indianapolis and has run the Indiana presidential campaigns for a number of Democratic candidates. He has also been elected delegate to several Democratic National Conventions since 1984.
Sullivan has an axe to grind, even if he’s right about the law, and that would be the Illinois law:
5.01 Failure to Produce Evidence or a Witness
If a party to this case has failed [to offer evidence] [to produce a witness] within his power to produce, you may infer that the [evidence] [testimony of the witness] would be adverse to that party if you believe each of the following elements:
1. The [evidence] [witness] was under the control of the party and could have been produced by the exercise of reasonable diligence.
2. The [evidence] [witness] was not equally available to an adverse party.
3. A reasonably prudent person under the same or similar circumstances would have [offered the evidence] [produced the witness] if he believed [it to be] [the testimony would be] favorable to him.
4. No reasonable excuse for the failure has been shown. IPI Civil (Supp. 2003) No. 5.01.
Digby (Heather Parton) dug that up and adds this:
No reasonable excuse for the failure has been shown. These are documents that presidential candidates routinely provide and there’s nothing stopping him from doing it. But for the first time in history, the press and many commentators have decided that it’s indelicate to cite an anonymous source who claims to know why they are not being released.
That is odd, but Reid is fine with it all:
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants no sympathy for the heat he’s taking over his unproven accusation about Mitt Romney’s taxes.
“No one should feel sorry for me,” Reid said in Las Vegas on Monday afternoon during a preview of a clean energy summit he’s hosting there Tuesday, even as his incendiary remarks about Romney have turned the GOP magnifying glass onto himself.
“The issue that I raised has nothing to do with me,” Reid told reporters. “It has everything to do with the first presidential candidate in more than 30 years who refuses to show the American people his income tax returns.”
Reid wouldn’t provide any further details on the source of his claim that Romney didn’t pay taxes for a decade, or say whether his source will go public.
“I made my statement. The burden is not on me. It’s on Romney to produce his income tax returns,” Reid told reporters, adding: “This man is running for president. We should know more about him.”
“Listen, Romney can solve this problem very quickly: Produce the tax returns.”
The man from Vegas knows how to play high-stakes poker. The man from Salt Lake City never gambled before, and Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake have an interesting take on this, that the problem for Romney on this matter is that he and Reid are simply not playing by the same set of rules:
1. Reid isn’t up for re-election until 2016 (if he even decides to run again, since he will be 76 years old that year). 2. His allegation against Romney only strengthens his hand among his Democratic colleagues – in and out of the Senate. 3. He’s not running for president and, therefore, isn’t subject to the same sort of transparency demands that Romney is. 4. He’s far less well-known than Romney, meaning that by engaging Reid, the Republican presidential nominee is punching down in a big way.
“He’s fearless and shameless,” said Jon Ralston, the leading political journalist in the state of Nevada and a man who has watched Reid’s career closely. “The most dangerous man is one who does not care.”
It works that way in sports too – you always lose to someone who has nothing to lose, playing like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t. You cannot do harm to Reid’s political career – he’s retiring anyway. You cannot shame him – he laughs in your face. And this is critical – “In politics, a charge unanswered is a charge believed.”
That’s the killer here:
“I just believe that this hurts Romney more,” said one senior Republican strategist who follows Nevada politics closely. “If he doesn’t produce his tax returns, this will probably continue. If he finally relents, then Reid just says ‘thank you.’”
Reid is among the most Machiavellian politicians operating today (or ever). He picked this fight with Romney on purpose, knowing that the Republican nominee was – due to the rules of politics – fighting with at least one hand tied behind his back.
And it’s why, whether you like what Reid is doing or not, he’s created a problem that Romney and the Republican Party have to figure out how to handle – and quickly.
Don’t count on it. Players can hold the ball for up to three seconds and take up to three steps, but no more. You need to be nimble and you need to be quick.
No wait – that’s team handball. This is another game, but it’s still one where Reid knows the rules better than Romney, if Romney knows the rules at all.
Perhaps Romney is playing by the Sarah Palin Rules – explain nothing and sneer at those who expect you to explain anything at all. She learned that with the Charlie Gibson interview, where she had no idea what the Bush Doctrine was and felt Gibson had been out to get her by asking her about it, the arrogant bastard. It was the same with Katie Couric, where she was ambushed by that trick question, the one about which magazines and newspapers she liked to read. Couric obviously had it out for her too, the bitch. Then Tina Fey made fun of her on Saturday Night Live, week after week after week. So the rule became to never explain – ever. You only end up looking bad.
Perhaps you can draw a direct line from all that to Mitt Romney not releasing his tax returns, even if everyone else always does. He wants the votes of those who felt that Sarah Palin was right all along. No one has any right to ask anything about you. They trust you or they don’t. And if they don’t trust you, you didn’t want their damned vote anyway.
That’s one theory. The other theory is that Mitt Romney just doesn’t know how to play the game – if it’s game. There’s still the possibility that what he might do as president is more important than any of this. Maybe we’ll get around to thinking about that later, or maybe not. Right now it’s time to watch a little more of women’s beach volleyball. It’ll do. Sports really are the toy department of human life, like politics at the moment.