In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, it was clear that Mitt Romney believed his tax returns had the potential to be problematic. No one alleged or even believed that Romney had committed any illegal acts but it was likely that he had aggressively avoided taxes, something that wasn’t going to play well with beleaguered middle class voters who still hadn’t recovered from the damage guys like Romney had done to the economy while fellow scion George Bush was president.
Years earlier, Romney’s father was running for president and pointed out that a narrowly drawn snapshot of a candidate’s taxes could be a “fluke.” In an effort to be as transparent as possible, he released 12 years of his own returns. George Romney’s analysis was clearly correct but 44 years later his son obviously felt that he wasn’t in a position to follow in his father’s footsteps. Mitt’s solution was simplicity itself: He declared that two years’ worth of returns were “what we’re going to put out…those are the two years that people are going to have.” Period. (Breaking with modern precedent, John McCain—the guy who owned so many houses that he couldn’t remember exactly how many—had taken the same tack four years earlier.)
Both candidates basically decided that their message to voters was: Fuck you, it’s none of your business. And although McCain and Romney lost their respective elections, there’s no evidence that either paid a price for their lack of transparency or intransigence.
The lesson that stonewalling is a viable strategy was clearly not lost on Hillary Clinton. Consistent with her longstanding tendency to emulate the worst behaviors of her GOP counterparts, Hillary has settled on a message to voters who want her to come clean about her handsomely compensated speeches to all those Masters of the Universe on Wall Street: Fuck you, it’s none of your business.
Borrowing a tactic from the standard GOP playbook, Hillary pretends that she’s really the victim of a double standard here. In fact, she’s in precisely the situation she anticipated and one for which she prepared meticulously. In her standard speaking agreement, Hillary required her
bosses clients to not only provide stenographers at her events but to also stipulate that she, not they, would own those transcripts. All the transcripts exist, then, and there’s nothing preventing her from releasing them other than her own unwillingness to do so.
The Clinton years in the White House were characterized by a willingness to be too cute by half when it came to truth-telling and transparency. It was only Republican overreach that shored up the administration’s approval ratings during the second term. Hillary’s first campaign for president eight years ago exhibited the same casual relationship with the truth and the same barely disguised contempt for anyone those who’d question her.
In 2016, Hillary’s approach to politics once again reveals a candidate who shares with Republicans a disdain for anyone who wants answers about how she’s conducted herself in the years before she officially became a candidate for the highest office in the land. Her boundaries seem to have been defined by asking, “How much can we get way with?” and, like the Republican stonewallers she emulates, there’s no reason to believe that she’s going to pay a political price for this behavior. At least, not in the primaries. But by the time she gets to the general election, it will be too late for Democrats to do anything about it.
Update: In a masterful and ironic bit of trolling, Mitt Romney is now chiding Donald Trump about releasing his tax returns.