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Harry Reid goes too far with allegations about Romney's taxes

Our view: Unsubstantiated tax-dodging claim against Romney is not only unfair, it undermines Democrats' legitimate criticisms of Republican's tax plan

August 5, 2012

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There's a right way and a wrong way to have a debate about taxes in this country. This week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid demonstrated how not to accomplish that task with his claim that Mitt Romney didn't pay any federal income taxes over a 10-year period.

The problem is that the Nevada Democrat offered absolutely no proof of this and said he was informed of it by "an extremely credible source" but not the White House. We don't know whom Mr. Reid might regard as highly credible — whether his barber or an IRS agent — but the episode smacked of the kind of McCarthyism that Democrats have so often derided when it comes from Republicans.

Indeed, the obvious comparison would be the recent incident involving GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann, who made outrageous allegations against a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the flimsiest of evidence. To their credit, Republican Sen. John McCain and House Speaker John Boehner were among those who immediately condemned the Minnesotan congresswoman and defended Ms. Clinton's Muslim American deputy chief of staff, Huma Abedin.

Ms. Bachmann's irresponsible attack on someone's patriotism and family ties was based on no more than trumped up speculation. So how are Senator Reid's blockbuster claims much different? His evidence is arguably even flimsier because it's no more than a single unidentified source.

Frankly, the Reid allegations smack of political calculation. Mr. Romney's refusal to release his income tax records, aside from a recent two years, has been a sore point with Democrats who would like to demonstrate to voters the gulf between the candidate's wealth and tax obligations against that of the average American.

What Mr. Romney has released so far is troubling enough, with its modest 13.9 percent tax rate and off-shore tax-avoidance schemes. But his refusal to release more does, as Mr. Reid obviously understands, raise legitimate questions about what even more embarrassing facts might lurk in those missing returns. Releasing them would clear that up. Hard facts are hard facts, after all, and a tax return is undeniable (and not spin-able).

But there's a better way for Democrats to make the case, and that was also demonstrated this week, albeit in a less commented-upon manner, with the latest TV commercial from the Obama campaign. Using two legitimate and easily-fact-checked sources of information, the ad makes the case that Mr. Romney pays a smaller percentage of his income in taxes than most Americans and that his tax plan would boost millionaires while raising taxes on middle class families "by up to $2,000 a year."

The best evidence available backs up both claims. A recently updated report by the Tax Policy Center, a well-regarded joint venture of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution, found that the average American pays a 15.5 percent effective tax rate, and that the Romney tax plan would raise taxes for families with children earning below $200,000 by $2,041.

Admittedly, the study has to make some assumptions because the Romney plan is short on certain specifics (chiefly it's about cutting tax rates and closing loopholes), but even making ones that favor the Republican candidate, the Romney tax plan still favors the rich at the expense of the middle class. And it's hard to regard the study as partisan — Mr. Romney himself cited Tax Policy Center analysis when he was running in the Republican primary.

Considering how many ads run by both candidates so far this summer have been remarkably unfair and inaccurate, the Obama ad stands out for its truthfulness. The Washington Post's "Fact Checker" columnist recently gave it a "Geppetto" checkmark for its lack of Pinocchio-like prevarication, a rarity in this summer of "You didn't build that" high-velocity spin.

Mr. Reid has declined to apologize for his absurd behavior, and while disappointing, that's not especially surprising in a hard-fought election year. But he ought to understand that his attacks aren't helping President Barack Obama make his case to the American people, who are likely to use the incident to question the fairness and truthfulness of politicians generally. Sometimes, honesty really is the best policy — even in politics.