In the news business they’re known as the Friday Night Follies. Say you’re a politician who has something that needs to be made public but will cause no end of trouble – you announce it late in the afternoon, Eastern Time, on a Friday. As a rule, you manage the news by keeping the startling stuff under wraps until it’s too late to do anything about it, and that would be late Friday afternoon. The national broadcast news shows for the day have by then been set in stone – timed and rehearsed for the twenty-two available minutes in the half-hour. The nifty graphics have all been worked out and all the rest. You’re safe, and the cable news shows for the whole weekend have all been booked and set up – and of course the Stewart and Colbert shows don’t air on Friday night. Add to that no one really reads the newspapers Saturday morning, if anyone still reads them at all – no one will be trying to catch up on things on a day off. It’s all good. When your negative or embarrassing big story breaks there will be no media echo chamber to keep it alive. You have until Monday. The cable news folks know that most people, even if they are in on the weekend for some reason – due to rain or the flu or whatever – watch sports if they watch anything at all. They run “in-depth” backgrounders or light fare, and MSNBC runs those endless hour-long canned prison shows which no one watches anyway. Do your document-dump late in the afternoon on Friday. With any luck by Monday morning something else will have happened – a new war or perhaps a massive natural disaster with thousands dead or some juicy scandal – and that will eat up all the available new cycles for a day or two. Whatever it is that you had to reveal will be forgotten.
This was standard operating procedure in the Bush years – reversals in Iraq or, later, indications of impending economic ruin, were offered up when the big-gun reporters were heading home for a scotch and a bit of golf the next morning, when every newsroom was staffed with timid third-stringers. It was also important that the markets were closed if it was economic bad news. There was nothing anyone could do with their panic on the weekend. Maybe that queasy panic would dissipate by the time the markets opened on Monday morning. Sheer panic takes a lot of energy to maintain and even hedge fund managers get tired. And thus a new tradition was born. Politicians mastered the art of riding the news cycle, waiting for that structural pause in the flow of things, when no one would be paying attention.
It’s a fine strategy, and it’s now outdated. Now the news never stops, as newspapers have constantly updated websites and everyone glances at their computer or table or handheld all the time, and chatters back and forth on Twitter and all the rest. Even MSNBC has been cutting back on their weekend life-in-prison shows, offering news and discussion from Chris Hayes and others. The web discussion at all the sites on the left and right doesn’t stop either – it no longer drops to next to nothing on Saturdays and Sundays. Everyone is jumping in with something to say at the oddest times. There’s no longer anywhere to hide.
That doesn’t mean you can’t try, and Mitt Romney just tried:
Mitt Romney, one of the wealthiest candidates ever to seek the presidency, paid nearly $2 million in federal taxes on $13.7 million in income that he and his wife reported last year, his U.S. returns showed Friday. That came to an effective tax rate of 14.1 percent, lower than millions of middle-income Americans but actually more than he had to pay.
Most of Romney’s income was from investment returns. That is why his rate was lower than taxpayers whose income was mostly from wages, which can be taxed at higher rates.
That was the three-in-the-afternoon on a Friday document dump. Romney released his 2010 returns in January, but he will not disclose returns from previous years, like when he worked at Bain Capital. The other part of the document dump was a notarized general summary of his tax returns for those years, a letter from his accountants saying that in the prior twenty years the Romneys paid an average annual effective rate of 20.2 percent, but never lower than 13.66 percent. That’s all it said. There were no details at all. There was just one year:
Overall, the Romneys’ main tax return and separate forms for blind trusts totaled over 800 pages. The blind-trust income came from hedge funds and other complex investment vehicles. The couple also reported $3.5 million in income “from sources outside the United States,” citing “various countries.” Their forms included filings on holdings in Switzerland, Ireland, Germany and the Cayman Islands.
The Obama campaign accused Romney anew of profiting from millions invested overseas and “loopholes and tax shelters only available to those at the top.”
Maybe everyone will forget that by Monday, but this Associated Press item suggests not:
Several tax law experts said Friday that his newly released tax returns would not be much help in resolving critics’ questions about his sprawling finances – whether he used aggressive tax-deferral strategies, what might be the specifics and tax advantages of his numerous offshore investments, what was the source of his massive retirement account and what are the details behind his now-closed $3 million Swiss bank account.
Analysts said details about his investments could emerge only if Romney provided far more of his tax returns – including files dating back to his years at Bain, the private firm he left in 2001. Romney, who initially refused to disclose any tax returns, has drawn the line at providing those from the past two years.
This wasn’t even much of a document dump, but it would have to do, and the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza looks at the strategy here:
Romney’s financial life as a very wealthy person is significantly more exotic than the average person he needs to vote for him; that he made almost $14 million in 2011 (and $21 million in 2010) without drawing any salary is all the confirmation you need of that fact. So, as soon as the Romney team made the strategic decision during the Republican primary process to hold the line on releasing no more than two past years of returns prior to the general election, they knew this day would come – a day when Democrats would get a chance to sift through a window into his full financial portfolio for evidence that the caricature they have painted of him (rich, entitled businessman) was right.
All the Romney campaign could control was when that day came. They chose today – but why? Ask the campaign and, even when offered anonymity to speak candidly, top aides to Romney insist the returns were finished and signed by Romney yesterday and filed today, making today the obvious day to release them.
Cillizza isn’t buying that and suggests this happened because Romney was already having a bad week:
Romney’s “47 percent” secret video comments ensured that the Republican presidential nominee had already lost this week on the big political scoreboard. (Heck, Romney had already won the Fix’s “Worst Week in Washington” before the news of the tax return release broke this afternoon.) Political strategy 101 dictates that the best time to dump other bad new – at least in terms of political impact – is when things already are going badly so that it all gets wrapped into a single big story and you can then move on. Will Romney’s tax returns be talked about on the Sunday chat show circuit? Absolutely – but is that any worse from a political perspective than those same Sunday shows being dominated by chatter about why Romney hasn’t run a better campaign? Bad is bad. There are few gradations politically between bad and really bad.
Paul Ryan was booed and heckled at the AARP conference when he talked about his way of fixing Medicare with vouchers and folks doing intense shopping for good insurance deals in a totally unregulated free-market – people actually walked out – and Ann Romney’s plane had to make an emergency landing when the something caught fire and it filled with smoke. It was a bad Friday. Maybe it was best to get it all into one day, but Cillizza says this also might have to do with the first debate being twelve days away:
If Romney had waited to release his 2011 returns until, say, next Friday the first debate would be just 5 days away – ensuring that there would be some (extended) discussion of them in it. And that’s not what Romney wants. By releasing them today, it allows almost two weeks to pass before the debate, an amount of time that lets the GOP nominee dismiss the story as “old news” if and when Obama or one of the debate moderators brings it up.
That’s simply working the system:
The best case scenario for Romney on his tax returns (and his wealth more broadly) is that it takes up a single news cycle as people process the data in it and then move on. By dropping the 2011 return on a Friday afternoon, the Romney team is hoping that by Monday morning the political world has had its fill of the story and is back to talking about the economy and President Obama’s handling of it.
That seems unlikely. The one-page note from the accountants on all those other years is a joke, and there’s Maggie Haberman at Politico with this:
Alex Castellanos, the former Mitt Romney strategist from 2008 who has alternately been critical and praising of the current campaign, left no doubt where he stands on the decision to release a summary of the candidate’s tax rates over 20 years.
“At first I thought this was an April Fool’s joke,” said Castellanos, who tweeted something to that effect at me earlier. “But it isn’t April. I can’t imagine that David Axelrod will now say, I’m glad Mitt put this issue behind him. This will drag Mitt’s taxes back into the debate. And there’s not many days left. I just can’t imagine why they would do this. There are 40 days left and you have now made more of them about Mitt’s taxes….you don’t serve a life sentence and then confess afterward. They’ve taken their beating on this (already) … I just don’t understand how a (being) ‘little pregnant’ strategy (works).”
But Mitt Romney finally released his 2011 taxes – which is news – and he paid $1.9 million on $13.7 in income, for an effective tax rate of 14.1%. On the other hand his tax rate would have been about 9% – but he decided not to deduct all of his charitable contributions in order to get his tax rate up to that 14%. What? Well, there’s the official statement on that:
“The Romneys limited their deduction of charitable contributions to conform to the governor’s statement in August, based upon the January estimate of income, that he paid at least 13 percent in income taxes in each of the last 10 years,” said R. Bradford Malt, Mr. Romney’s trustee.
He did this specifically to makes sure what he said in August would come out true? It seems he did just that:
Campaign spokeswoman Michele Davis said in a statement that Romney “has been clear that no American need pay more than he or she owes under the law. At the same time, he was in the unique position of having made a commitment to the public that his tax rate would be above 13 percent. In order to be consistent with that statement, the Romneys limited their deduction of charitable contributions.”
Kevin Drum may speak for many:
This is… weird. Not that Romney would do this in order to avoid a single-digit tax rate that might be a political liability, but that he’d actually admit that he did it solely to avoid a single-digit tax rate that might be a political liability… But I guess he felt like had no choice. There was no subtle way of increasing his tax bill that might go unnoticed, so that left only the charitable deduction dodge, something that reporters would obviously discover within minutes of paging through his return. He could hardly claim that he had done this out of the goodness of his heart, so he had to fess up that it was a purely cynical maneuver to avoid a politically dicey 9% tax rate.
But how much good will that do him? Won’t that 9% rate (or whatever it turns out to be) still get plenty of attention? I’ll bet it will.
Poor Mitt – he’s between a rock and a hard place. He either reveals that he paid only 9% in taxes, or else he publicly acknowledges that he fiddled with his returns to avoid looking like the tax-avoiding plutocrat he is. What a choice.
Slate’s Jacob Weisberg chimes in:
As much as it reveals the absurdities of Mitt Romney, his voluntary overpayment underscores the absurdities of the current tax system. Romney owes so little because of the tax code’s favoritism toward the rich. Whereas the top rate on salary, wages, and tips is 35 percent, the top rate on interest, dividends, and long-term capital gains is only 15 percent. This is economically inefficient, because it encourages businesses and individuals to structure their affairs to take advantage of the differential. It is also instinctively unfair, because it privileges a hedge-fund manager’s carried interest over a factory worker’s wages.
Romney’s charitable contribution to the Treasury concedes this unfairness. The real reason Romney is overpaying is that it simply feels wrong to most people, if not also to him, for someone who earned $13.7 million to be paying less than 13 percent of his income in taxes when working people face a payroll tax of 15.3 percent on their first dollar of income (temporarily reduced to 13.3 percent).
By yielding to political criticism and moral pressure about how little he pays, Romney implicitly accepts that under a fairer tax system, people like him would be required to pay more.
This Friday afternoon get-it-all-out-of-the-way document dump may not work as intended. First, you actually have to dump documents, not a note from your accountant that there are lots of documents out there somewhere but no one is allowed to see them, and then you have to say the one full document you did dump is what it seems, not that you carefully doctored it to make you look better. The whole point is to get the actual bad stuff out of the way, so by the end of a few days people think any reference to it is old news and resent the press for even bringing it up – so you kind of have to produce actual bad news, not something you admit you’ve doctored, and a vague summary of other stuff no one can check. This is Politics 101 – for beginners. Mitt’s failing the course – but as many have pointed out, if he loses in November he can file an amended return, claiming the actual 2011 charitable deductions, and then get his money back. He’s a better businessman than a politician.
As for the rest of the weekend, he’s got that covered, with the major interview already in the can:
Mitt Romney says his campaign for president doesn’t need a turnaround and that he’s keeping up with President Obama in the polls, despite criticism generated by a recently revealed tape of him referring to the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay taxes. The Republican presidential candidate talked with Scott Pelley in a 60 Minutes interview to be broadcast Sunday, Sept. 23 at 7:30 p.m. ET and 7:00 p.m. PT.
Pelley’s interview with Romney is part of a 60 Minutes focus on the 2012 presidential campaign. President Obama will also appear on 60 Minutes Sunday in a separate interview with Steve Kroft.
From the transcript:
Mitt Romney: Well, actually, we’re tied in the polls. We’re all within the margin of error. We bounce around – week to week – day to day. There are some days we’re up. There are some days we’re down. We go forward with my message, that this is a time to reinvigorate the American economy, not by expanding government and raising taxes on people, but instead by making sure government encourages entrepreneurship and innovation and gets the private sector hiring again.
Scott Pelley: Governor, I appreciate your message very much. But that wasn’t precisely the question. You’re the CEO of this campaign. A lot of Republicans would like to know, a lot of your donors would like to know, how do you turn this thing around? You’ve got a little more than six weeks. What do you do?
Mitt Romney: Well, it doesn’t need a turnaround. We’ve got a campaign which is tied with an incumbent president to the United States.
That’s not what the master statistician says. See Nate Silver’s “now-cast” of what would happen if the election were held today – Obama’s chance of winning keeps rising, and then rises some more. See the NBC’s poll giving Obama fifty percent support in Colorado and Wisconsin among likely voters – with a lead over Romney of five points. In Iowa, Obama is ahead by a full eight points among likely voters. There’s no bouncing around now:
President Obama leads Mitt Romney in a new poll of 12 key swing states. Obama leads 49 percent to 44 percent in the poll from Purple Strategies.
The poll is a combined sample of likely voters in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin, and also shows good news for Obama in over-sampled results for Ohio, Virginia, Florida and Colorado. Last month’s Purple Poll showed Romney with a slight edge in swing states, 47 percent to Obama’s 46 percent.
“One important change in the latest numbers: President Obama now leads among independents,” in the states surveyed, Purple pollsters wrote. It’s the first time Obama has led independent swing-state voters in seven months, the pollsters wrote.
And it only gets stranger:
Mitt Romney took a jab at California while speaking in Las Vegas, accusing Obama of plunging America into debt and dependency.
“I’m convinced that the path Obama’s put us on is the path to Europe,” he said. “Or, I jokingly say… to California.”
Romney is traveling to San Diego on Saturday.
He can’t help himself, and Kevin Drum offers this:
I would like to take this chance to remind everyone that earlier this year Mitt Romney was pretty unanimously considered the strongest candidate in the Republican field – by a large margin. He was, without much question, the most electable of the primary bunch and the toughest opponent for Barack Obama. He was disciplined, well-funded, and had a moderate background that appealed to independents. He was, in short, the very best the Republicans had to offer in the year 2012.
This was not a fantasy, either. It was an accurate assessment. Romney was the best they had. The very best.
Let that sink in for a bit.
There’s little more to say. But there’s the weekend and things will look better Monday. That’s the general theory. Too bad it’s not true.