Out here in Hollywood the four major studios make movies about the problem when you’ve got the wrong guy – the falsely imprisoned fellow who must be saved from the gas chamber, or in the older movies, the electric chair. Or maybe it’s Jimmy Stewart who must prove he isn’t a Soviet spy, or the classic, Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, escaped and on the run, desperately trying to find that one-armed man, the one who really killed his wife. They had the wrong guy in the first place, and the whole plot – which is basic screenwriting 101 – is propelled by those who chose the wrong guy persisting in doing what they can to confirm and finalize their initial judgment, time and time again, while the wrong guy counters them, again and again, showing the audience, and then finally his pursuers, everyone has made all the wrong assumptions, or had unthinkingly just gone along with the crowd, like sheep. You can get a two-hour movie out of that. The script practically writes itself. The trick is to find a fresh way to show the foolishness of those who persist in thinking they had the right man in the first place – you can pile on the irony and the pathos, and throw in a few truckloads of grim humor too. And it helps if you have Tommy Lee Jones pursuing Harrison Ford – driven and obsessive, but deeply ironic about it, and willing to admit he was full of crap in the first place, but he knows better now. Or maybe he always knew. Tommy Lee Jones was Al Gore’s roommate back in college. Maybe he saw the danger in being so very sure of what you know you know.
That’s the Republican problem now, and we all get to watch the irony and pathos and grim humor as they slowly come to realize they chose the wrong guy this time. They chose Mitt Romney to run against Obama, somewhat by default – but they were not going to nominate Donald Trump, or Michele Bachmann, or Rick Perry after his goofy multiple meltdowns, or Herman Cain with the sexual harassment issues, or wild Newt Gingrich, or prissy Rick Santorum. Many on the left have long considered Republicans quite crazy, but they’re not that crazy. They want to win, so they knew that they needed someone who was relatively normal, to run against the cool and stable and smart Barack Obama, with his absurdly perfect family and his instinctive relaxed graciousness. Only Romney could approximate that – the rest of them were shrill and angry and on fire with odd ideas. And Gingrich was on his third wife – or maybe his fourth – it was hard to keep them all straight. So Romney was the right guy.
No, he wasn’t – at least that’s the thinking now. Newt Gingrich had called Romney a liar, and Rick Santorum had said Romney was the last guy the Republicans should run against Obama, as Romney’s big achievement when he was governor of Massachusetts was a highly successful healthcare plan, offering near-universal coverage, which included an individual mandate, enforced with a tax penalty – the exact model for the dreaded Obamacare, now the law of the land. Romney could argue that this new Affordable Care Act was pure evil and must be repealed, but would look foolish, or perhaps deluded. There’s virtually no difference between Romney’s signature achievement and Obamacare. Santorum was exasperated – and then he returned to talking about the evils of birth control and family planning, and sex just for the fun of it, and the evils of universities and all the rest. And the rest is history. Romney had the nomination. He would do.
After all, Mitt Romney had been a wildly successful businessman, even if he ran a venture capital firm, gobbling up companies, loading them up with debt and shutting down what could be shut down. Yes, many of them collapsed in bankruptcy, gone forever, throwing thousands out of work, without the pension they had earned, which had been stripped out in all the restructuring – and many jobs had been outsourced to China or India or whatever. But a reasonable number of these companies reemerged to become successful. You could sell that to the American people – this guy knows how things work in the real world and knows what makes business thrive. Newt Gingrich had called him a “vulture capitalist” – but Newt was told to tone it down, and he did. The Republicans were selling a general idea, not the specific details.
This should have worked, but it seems they did have the wrong guy. The profits were the problem, or specifically where they were parked. If you’re rich beyond the dreams of avarice – a phrase coined by Samuel Johnson (former English teachers know such things) – you put your millions in a Swiss bank account. No one will know what you have – the Swiss report nothing to anyone. Yes, third-world despots and drug lords do the same, but it’s still not a bad idea. And there are tax havens like the Cayman Islands or Bermuda. You can park many millions there too. And you can set up special tax-exempt or tax-deferred trusts, so you can pass all your accumulated wealth, pretty much completely intact, on to your children. It’s all quite legal, and perhaps wise. But all that money isn’t exactly plowed back into the American economy, and while most Americans might begrudgingly concede you really are one smart guy to do all this, hardly anyone even knows anyone rich enough to use these strategies. As they say, it’s hard to relate – and that’s fatal to a fellow who wants the common man to vote for him.
This first came to light in a long exposé in Vanity Fair:
A person who worked for Mitt Romney at the consulting firm Bain and Co. in 1977 remembers him with mixed feelings. “Mitt was … a really wonderful boss,” the former employee says. “He was nice, he was fair, he was logical, he said what he wanted … he was really encouraging.” But Bain and Co., the person recalls, pushed employees to find out secret revenue and sales data on its clients’ competitors. Romney, the person says, suggested “falsifying” who they were to get such information, by pretending to be a graduate student working on a project at Harvard. (The person, in fact, was a Harvard student, at Bain for the summer, but not working on any such projects.) “Mitt said to me something like ‘We won’t ask you to lie. I am not going to tell you to do this, but [it is] a really good way to get the information.’ … I would not have had anything in my analysis if I had not pretended.”
“It was a strange atmosphere. It did leave a bad taste in your mouth,” the former employee recalls.
This unsettling account suggests the young Romney – at that point only two years out of Harvard Business School – was willing to push into gray areas when it came to business. More than three decades later, as he tried to nail down the Republican nomination for president of the United States, Romney’s gray areas were again an issue when he repeatedly resisted calls to release more details of his net worth, his tax returns, and the large investments and assets held by him and his wife, Ann. Finally the other Republican candidates forced him to do so, but only highly selective disclosures were forthcoming.
There’s the problem, all the offshore accounts:
As Newt Gingrich put it during the primary season, “I don’t know of any American president who has had a Swiss bank account.” But Romney has, as well as other interests in such tax havens as Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.
To give but one example, there is a Bermuda-based entity called Sankaty High Yield Asset Investors Ltd., which has been described in securities filings as “a Bermuda corporation wholly owned by W. Mitt Romney.” It could be that Sankaty is an old vehicle with little importance, but Romney appears to have treated it rather carefully. He set it up in 1997, and then transferred it to his wife’s newly created blind trust on January 1, 2003, the day before he was inaugurated as Massachusetts’s governor. The director and president of this entity is R. Bradford Malt, the trustee of the blind trust and Romney’s personal lawyer. Romney failed to list this entity on several financial disclosures, even though such a closely held entity would not qualify as an “excepted investment fund” that would not need to be on his disclosure forms. He finally included it on his 2010 tax return. Even after examining that return, we have no idea what is in this company, but it could be valuable, meaning that it is possible Romney’s wealth is even greater than previous estimates. While the Romneys’ spokespeople insist that the couple has paid all the taxes required by law, investments in tax havens such as Bermuda raise many questions, because they are in “jurisdictions where there is virtually no tax and virtually no compliance,” as one Miami-based offshore lawyer put it.
Of course that’s not the only money Romney has in tax havens, and you can read all about those. It’s another world – not your world. And Alex Seitz-Wald comments:
Romney has always insisted, “I pay all the taxes that are legally required, not a dollar more.” And that seems accurate as it implies that he takes advantage of every possible loophole and shelter to avoid paying a dollar more in taxes that he absolutely has to. That may be fine for a businessman, but most Americans don’t have the wherewithal or resources to aggressively dodge taxes whenever possible. “When you are running for president, you might want to err on the side of overpaying your taxes, and not chase every tax gimmick that comes down the pike,” says Lee Sheppard, a contributing editor at the trade publication Tax Notes. “It kind of looks tacky.”
And it looks evasive:
The paucity of what Romney has revealed and the disclosures’ opaqueness also hides details about offshore tax havens. Bain has at least 138 funds organized in the Cayman Islands, and Romney himself has personal interests in at least 12, worth up to $30 million, but they’re hidden behind confidentiality laws, so we can’t know for sure. The Romneys’ retirement accounts have also been earning profit from Cayman-based Bain funds established long after he left the company in 1999, and could continue to earn profits well into the future, which experts say is unusual.
And there is the matter of Sankaty High Yield Asset Investors – owned by Romney. He failed to list that on several personal financial disclosures:
This one company alone could make Romney far wealthier than is apparent from existing documents, but we can’t know because its contents are hidden.
And there’s more:
There’s also a question about whether the Romneys have used a so-called blocker company – essentially an offshore shell corporation to dodge taxes on retirement accounts. The Romney campaign has maintained that the fact that some of Romney’s investments are based in the Caymans has no impact on the tax burden the Romneys pay. But the use of a blocker company would indeed affect tax rates. Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul “did not respond to questions on whether his I.R.A. had used blockers or avoided taxes by investing via tax havens.”
Seitz-Wald sees all this as part of a pattern:
When he left the governor’s mansion, Romney staffers made a concerted effort to eradicate digital data by removing hard drives and deleting emails, despite the state’s public record laws. Romney is also the first major presidential candidate in almost 15 years who has refused to reveal his bundlers, the mega-donors who help fundraise for campaigns. Altogether, it’s made him one of the most secretive presidential candidates in modern history, leading Democrats to argue that he must be hiding something.
Maybe the Republicans chose the wrong guy. There was that item from The Associated Press questioning why that Bermuda outfit was not listed on any of Romney’s state or federal financial reports, and the Obama people lost no time:
President Obama’s campaign is hitting Mitt Romney hard over what it characterizes as his questionable finances.
The campaign released a new Web video on Thursday featuring man-on-the-street interviews where people were asked, “Do you have an offshore bank account?”
The video has a double purpose: highlighting Romney’s personal wealth and seeking to raise questions about whether he is hiding something about his finances from the American people.
“I don’t have a problem with people making tons of money, but there are questions that are raised by why are you keeping your money offshore, right?” says one woman interviewed. “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, right?”
The video claims to be “in honor of Independence Day.”
And Greg Sargent notes the silence:
Where’s the pushback from the Romney campaign? I don’t mean statements from the campaign or the candidate. The Romney camp regularly counters with releases hitting Obama for trying to distract the nation from the economy. Romney himself regularly slams Obama for supposedly attacking free enterprise itself. I mean in terms of major ad expenditures, which is how these attacks would need to be countered.
Where are the Romney ads featuring the fact-checks that have accused the Obama camp of overreaching? Where are the Romney ads starring workers at companies claiming to have been turned around by Bain?
And there’s Josh Marshall:
I’ll just say it: I don’t think the political pundit class understands just how toxic the Swiss/Caymans/Bermuda accounts issue is for Romney. Not that they don’t know it’s a liability at all. But I don’t think they realize the extent of it….
Whatever harsh message you’re trying to prove – out of touch with lives of ordinary Americans, plays by a different set of rules, isn’t focused on America and American workers – it fits right in.
Set aside all questions of legality. And I think Romney’s probably too smart and close to the vest to break any laws. But how do you explain it? What’s the good explanation?
Once the Dems have saturated the public with the offshore tax haven story, Romney is going to be really, really hard pressed not to release a lot more of his tax returns. A lot.
Ed Kilgore sees the specific problem here:
This is the sort of attack-line that will work better in some parts of the country than others. But where it will work best is in the Midwest, and Mitt can scarce afford getting skunked in that entire region.
This is a mess, and it’s metastasizing:
The Romney campaign is grappling with an unexpected swell of Republican complaints about the former Massachusetts governor’s political operation, at least temporarily disrupting the legendarily disciplined message of the presumptive GOP nominee.
What began over the weekend with a few stray tweets from Fox News media baron Rupert Murdoch has grown into a larger chorus of criticism from the right over the deftness (or lack thereof) of Romney’s team.
On Thursday, Romney’s team put out word of a massive $100 million fundraising haul – but its skill in attracting donors has done little to tamp down longstanding concerns within the GOP about the insularity and rigidness of the Romney camp. Those gripes are now being aired in public, as center-right staples from The Wall Street Journal editorial page to conservative radio host Laura Ingraham lament what they view as an uninspired, passive campaign. Romney’s general-election approach has resembled the strategy he used during the GOP primaries, a keep-your-head-down, minimalist effort aimed at keeping the focus on his opponent. That’s been a greater challenge for Romney as he faces President Barack Obama instead of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.
And these details are telling:
Murdoch set the second-guessing in motion when he wrote on Twitter that he met Romney last week and concluded that Obama “will be hard to beat unless [Romney] drops old friends from team and hires some real pros.”
Soon, Murdoch had company from another prominent GOP business titan. “Hope Mitt Romney is listening to Murdoch advice,” tweeted former General Electric CEO Jack Welch. “Playing in league with Chicago pols. No room for amateurs.”
But the key detail is from a “Republican insider” (not named):
I mean, what the hell does Mitt care about? What does he want to do? I don’t know.
They got the wrong guy. Even the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol thinks so:
The economy is of course important. But voters want to hear what Romney is going to DO about the economy. He can “speak about” how bad the economy is all he wants – though Americans are already well aware of the economy’s problems – but doesn’t the content of what Romney has to say matter? What is his economic growth agenda? His deficit reform agenda? His health care reform agenda? His tax reform agenda? His replacement for Dodd-Frank? No need for any of that, I suppose the Romney campaign believes. Just need to keep on “speaking about the economy.”
The Romney campaign will answer that they’re imitating Bill Clinton in 1992. He famously focused on “the economy, stupid.” But Bill Clinton was a full spectrum presidential candidate, with detailed policy proposals on welfare reform, health care, education, and foreign policy.
Kristol goes on to compare Romney with Dukakis and Kerry, two hapless Democrats, two real losers. That’s the kiss of death, and Ed Kilgore thinks he sees the problem:
The motives for the drumbeat on the Right demanding that Mitt Romney get “more specific,” which shows steady signs of getting louder, aren’t necessarily that easy to divine. There are without a doubt many conservatives who truly believe this is a “center-right country” looking for a sharply more conservative direction; that swing voters are mostly conservatives; and/or that the margin between victory or defeat for the GOP will come from the relative temperature level of “the base.” In their endless diatribes on the anger of “the people” towards Obama and “socialism” and “elites” and all that, many have probably bought their own spin. And there is obviously some mass base out there for the Palin/Breitbart proposition that the only way conservatives can conceivably lose any election is by displaying insufficient hatred of the opposition, and an insufficient zest for projecting conspiracy theories and outright fabrications into the overheated air.
But this is just replaying the Republican primaries:
Romney is going to have to spend his time between now and Election Day not only trying to beat Barack Obama, but proving himself over and over again to “the base,” running a primary as well as a general election campaign. If I wasn’t so aware of how he’s put himself into this situation throughout a career of serial pandering to anyone he needed to fulfill his ambitions, I’d almost feel sorry for him.
Jonathan Chait argues here that Romney should “ignore conservative caterwauling” about this and that:
Conservatives say they want Romney to change his staff or alter his campaign tactics. But what they really want is a different candidate and a different electorate. They want to believe that the American people are hungering for detailed endorsements of Republican plans to cut entitlement spending and taxes for the rich and launch a philosophical assault on the welfare state. But that’s not what the public wants and Romney knows it.
Romney may be a serial panderer, but as with all the off-shore tax havens, he’s no fool.
Still, it seems the Republicans are beginning to realize they chose the wrong guy. Maybe they need to hire Tommy Lee Jones as a consultant, to teach them how to accept they’ve been wrong all along, with ironic self-deprecating grace. They got the wrong guy. Hell, they’re even in the wrong movie.