Here's my simple advice for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee when it comes to the debate over his tax returns: Tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself.
Yes, Gov. Romney — that subtitle to my memoir concerning the rules we learned the hard way at the Clinton White House in 1996-98 about getting the truth out yourself proactively, even if it is a bad-news story, applies to you and the issue of your tax returns.
It applies to everyone facing bad news — in business, politics and life.
The only exception is if putting the facts out can land you in jail. In that case, I recommend forgetting about crisis management rules and relying on the advice of a good criminal lawyer.
If you stay where you are, you are defying history — in both parties. As my favorite source of truth, Glenn Kessler, pointed out in his Monday “Fact-Checker” column for The Washington Post, virtually every other presidential candidate in both parties going back to FDR released many years of tax returns when they ran for president against the incumbent. Why wouldn’t you, too?
Here’s what I am betting you are worried about: that your tax returns show you broke the Buffett Rule in some years and, thanks to various legal devices and tax loopholes, you managed to avoid paying more taxes than you were legally required to do.
So, I ask you — after the Obama campaign denounces you for paying lower taxes than your secretary, or using tax loopholes legally, or depositing your money legally in Swiss bank accounts, or in Cayman Islands bank accounts, or storing your cash under your bed, or whatever, my question to you, to your campaign manager, to everyone, including my fellow liberal, Obama-supporting Democrats, is:
Let’s assume worst worst worst case (which I must assume is at least partially true, or why else are you violating Crisis Management Rule 101?):
Let’s assume you paid NO taxes in some years, or got a REFUND in others, on hundreds of millions of dollars of income, taking advantage of all the loopholes, deductions, write-offs, tax shelters, etc. — but again, ALL LEGALLY.
My question again — knowing that my fellow liberal supporters of President Obama (and maybe me too!) will make fun of you, mock you, accuse you of being wealthy and not paying your “fair share” (a favorite expression of us progressives, who don’t like wealthy people paying too little in taxes, albeit legally), my question still is —
Ultimately, you have to believe — you just have to — that the American people have common sense and can see through hypocrisy and humbug in politics.
And what would be hypocrisy and humbug? When (not if) we liberals (and President Obama’s campaign) make a big deal in the media and in paid negative ads out of someone choosing not to voluntarily pay more in taxes than he was legally required to.
In the final analysis, and I can’t prove this with data (at the moment), but I’ll bet I am right: The independent voters who will decide this election (still about 10 to 15 percent in every poll) will not be persuaded to ignore the economy as the main issue and vote against Gov. Romney because he did not voluntarily donate more money to the federal government than he was legally required to pay.
Is President Obama really going to make that argument?
I don’t think so.
But by continuing to resist disclosing at least the past 12 years of tax returns, as his dad did in 1968 — 44 years ago — Mitt Romney forgets the inevitable consequence of violating the fundamental rule of crisis management mentioned above: It’s not the bad news, but the cover-up (and the inevitable drip-drip-drip of the story continuing day-by-day) that does you in.
One can’t count how many times we have seen that mistake made in business, politics and life — from Nixon’s “modified limited hangout” in Watergate to the disingenuous Susan G. Komen announcement about cutting off funding for Planned Parenthood to the recent chairman of the board of the University of Virginia deciding she could replace the president of the school behind closed doors, literally in the dark of night, and get away with it.
When will they ever learn?
Lanny Davis, a Washington attorney and principal in the firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, specializing in legal crisis management and dispute resolution, served as President Clinton’s special counsel from 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board from 2006-07. He currently serves as special counsel to Dilworth Paxson and is the author of the new book, "Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping With Crises in Business, Politics, and Life," (Simon & Schuster March 2013). Follow him on Twitter at @LannyDavis.