WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney has every right to cloak his personal and professional finances in secrecy -- and voters have every right to assume he has something embarrassing to hide. If this seems unfair, Romney has only himself to blame.
Through a series of miscalculations, Romney has managed to turn what should have been a minor hiccup into what may be a defining moment, and not in a good way. Attacks by President Obama's campaign serve mainly to draw attention to the train wreck.
On the Sunday morning talk shows, even Republicans urged Romney to release more tax returns while wondering what secrets he's trying to keep. And the campaign's latest attempt to explain how and when Romney left Bain Capital -- he's supposed to have "retired retroactively" at some unspecified date -- became an instant punch line.
If Romney really does have the power to bend time and space, he might want to retroactively clean up the mess he's made.
The only reason anyone cares when Romney left Bain Capital, the private equity firm he founded and ran, is because Romney made a totally unreasonable claim: When Democrats pointed to outsourcing and job cuts at companies Bain owned or controlled, Romney denied any responsibility since these unfortunate developments took place after he left to run the Winter Olympics in 1999.
This was an absurd position to take. Romney has boasted of his prowess at creating jobs by pointing to successful companies in which Bain invested, such as Staples, the office-supply chain that went on to expand and hire tens of thousands of employees. But much of this growth took place after 1999. Romney was trying to take credit for post-departure successes but not for failures.
On such shaky ground, Romney planted his flag. He then tried to insist on another ridiculous proposition, which is that he left Bain suddenly and completely in 1999. This cannot possibly be true. Romney was Bain Capital -- chairman, chief executive and sole stockholder. There is no way he could have disentangled himself from the firm so abruptly.
Indeed, he did not. As late as 2002, Bain's filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission list Romney as chairman, chief executive and sole stockholder.
If you look at Romney's signature on those documents and listen to what he's been saying on the campaign trail, you have to conclude that either he lied to the SEC or he's lying to voters now. Romney's defenders have had to fall back to the position that the SEC doesn't really expect companies to file accurate information. So, all you corporate compliance officers, take the day off!
All of this flows from a fundamental misrepresentation: Bain Capital's purpose wasn't to create jobs, it was to create wealth. If Romney had spoken honestly from the beginning about his company's goals and actions, his campaign surrogates wouldn't have to be out there trying to explain how retroactive retirement works.
Maybe a little early candor would also have made the question of Romney's personal income tax returns a non-issue. Then again, maybe not.
Romney has spent the better part of a decade running for president. Did it never occur to him that if he ever won the Republican nomination, surely there would come a time when he was under pressure to release multiple years' worth of tax returns? Did he think everyone would forget that it was his own father, George Romney, who set the modern standard for financial disclosure? Did he not recall that when he was being considered for the vice presidential nod four years ago, he furnished tax returns spanning more than two decades to the John McCain campaign?
Clearly he knew the subject would come up. The only reasonable conclusion to draw is that Romney believes that while stonewalling on his taxes may cost him some support, releasing them would cost him more.
Some conservatives are becoming restive; Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, for example, said Sunday it was "crazy" for Romney not to release more than the one tax return he has grudgingly surrendered. If Romney is trying to hide something, what might it be? Could there have been more offshore accounts? Some additional undisclosed mansions? Might Romney have made some kind of profitable -- but impolitic -- bet against the U.S. economy?
Going out of your way to invite this kind of speculation, as Romney is doing, seems an awfully unpromising campaign strategy.