“The taxpayers pay for government. It’s not like government just provides those things to all of us and we say, ‘Oh, thank you government for doing those things.’ No, in fact, we pay for them and we benefit from them and we appreciate the work that they do and the sacrifices that are done by people who work in government. But they did not build this business.”
-- Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney campaigning in Irwin, Pa.
Mitt Romney is not going to release a decade of his tax returns. He’s not even going to release three.
He’s going to release precisely two years worth and keep telling reporters that he’s not providing more because he doesn’t want to give President Obama more ammunition for attack ads against him and his vast personal fortune.
This is pretty brazen stuff. To tell reporters that your decision against transparency is to prevent political damage goes against all the conventions of campaign flackery. A candidate is supposed to dodge, not say “Of course not. I’m trying to win an election here.”
Romney has a penchant for bluntness. Remember the response to charges about his having illegal immigrants working in yard crews at his home? Romney said that he certainly sent them packing because he was “running for office, for Pete’s sake.”
Romney’s primary foes used this as evidence of overweening ambition in Romney. Obama will use Romney’s refusal to acquiesce to Democratic demands that he cough up two decades of tax returns as evidence of the same thing: that Romney is in pursuit of power over principle.
It’s an attack with which the president is familiar, having been on the receiving end of the same charge many times in the past five years.
When he reneged on accepting federal matching campaign funds and attendant spending limits in 2008, Obama was blunt. He was going to spend John McCain into oblivion and use the presidency to reform campaign financing once and for all.
When Obama embraced the idea of super political action committees this election cycle after denouncing them as vehicles for secret foreign funds and corruption, the answer was the same. He needed to embrace what was unseemly in order to end the unseemliness.
And on procedural political stories like these, brazen is a pretty good idea. Rather than coming up with some lofty reason for doing something un-lofty, Romney and Obama both find their inner Al Davis: Just win, baby.
For Romney this is a particularly good idea since the Obama campaign has gone from scorching to savage in its negativity in recent weeks. When Romney says that Obama will use anything he releases in an attack ad, even the most hostile reporter knows that is exactly right.
For now, in the mid-summer doldrums, the political press can entertain itself with stories about “pressure mounting” on Romney to cough up his 1992 W-2s and listing all of the Republicans and conservatives who say that Romney should give Obama what he wants for the sake of transparency.
But Romney also knows that the story can’t go forward forever. Unless Republicans rise up in one voice to demand Romney invite Obama for America’s opposition researchers to Zug for a tour of his former Swiss bank, the tax returns story will die from lack of oxygen.
Whatever damage will be done to Romney’s reputation will have been done now, three months away from the election. It would be far worse if Romney suddenly started suggesting that well, maybe four years or maybe partial returns or maybe an executive summary.
It’s a lesson Attorney General Eric Holder could have used on the gunrunning scandal that has swamped his agency: The time to stonewall is at the start, not as a last resort.
Plus, Romney is good at being blunt and terrible at being artful or relatable. The phrases “cheesy grits” and “I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners…” from the GOP primaries still hang in the air like the scent of burnt bacon.
And in the battle between two brazen, un-relatable candidates, Romney’s gift for bluntness may be his greatest asset.
Obama has been ratcheting up his own brand of big-government populism as part of his ceaseless personal attacks on Romney. His goal is to show himself as the one who cares and Romney as a rich, cruel “vampire.”
But Obama, who struggles with aloofness, has often ended up sounding patronizing or imperious instead of like a warm protector.
The “you didn’t build that” line about business success Obama delivered on Friday is proves how much Obama struggles in talking about the economy. Those words will dog Obama for the rest of the election cycle.
Those words also summoned from Romney a flash of how he could make his bluntness work for him.
The speech Romney gave Tuesday in Irwin, Pa. may have been his best stump speech ever. He was riled up and fired up and full of righteous indignation over Obama’s swipe at the private sector. He delivered a blunt, aggressive refutation and an unabashed defense of his fellow businessmen.
If this is an election about likability, Romney will certainly lose because that would mean voters are concerned with ephemera and emotional response. For Romney to win, the election will have to be about voters who are desperate to change the course of the nation. He has to reflect the urgency and seriousness of that moment and do it in a way that doesn’t make voters feel like they are being conned.
Romney often hits all the right notes, but the music doesn’t come together. On Tuesday, he seemed to have found his voice.
And with the tax return story running out of gas and the president out on a limb after months of negative personal attacks, it couldn’t come at a better time for the soon-to-be Republican nominee.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“This emphasis on government and its' at the root of all good in America is what is wrong with the Obama vision. And that is what Romney ought to attack. That is what the campaign ought to be about.”
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.