For all the media clamor for Mitt Romney to come clean on his past tax returns, maybe his campaign advisers would be better off just advising him to keep quiet on the matter, before he gaffes again.
Mr. Romney's supposedly clarifying remark that he has "never paid less than 13 percent" in taxes in any recent year only raises another question. Does he realize he's paid barely more than half the marginal income tax rates of 25 percent to 35 percent that many Americans living on wages and salaries have to kick in?
Mr. Romney declared about $21.7 million in adjusted gross income in 2010, and he paid about $3 million in income taxes on it, or 13.9 percent. Much of his income that year came from investments subject to a capital gains tax of only 15 percent. Low capital gains rates and various tax shelters save Mr. Romney and others who know their way around the financial world from much bigger payouts to Uncle Sam.
This is, to be sure, what is called capitalism, which encourages investment and economic growth by the haves of our society so that the have-littles and the have-nots may have the jobs that enable the American economy to run. However, with many thriving entrepreneurs now sitting on huge profits but hesitant to hire for fear of an uncertain market, this simplistic textbook formula appears to have stalled.
Mr. Romney, while acknowledging he has paid lower taxes than most of the rest of us, sought to soften the blow by noting that "in addition, the amount that goes to charity, why, the numbers go up quite well above 20 percent." So much for virtue being its own reward. While it's commendable that he gives away a lot — especially to his church, according a Los Angeles Times review — it's still a tax shelter he can use to shield his great wealth.
All this would be nobody's business but Mr. Romney's and that of the Internal Revenue Service, of course, if he weren't the prospective Republican nominee for president. The same goes for President Barack Obama seeking re-election; he reported nearly $790,000 in income for 2011 and paid bout $162,000 in taxes, or a rate of about 20.5 percent, while he gave about $172,000 to charity.
Mr. Romney clearly complied with Federal Election Commission regulations in what he has reported and promised to report for last year. But in so steadfastly declining to release some previous years' returns, as demanded by the Obama campaign and urged by the inquiring and curious press, he allowed the issue to intrude on and even dominate much discussion of the campaign.
Unfortunately, the intentional mischief of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in alleging, based only on supposed hearsay, that Mr. Romney may not have paid any income taxes at all over the last 10 years was a particularly obnoxious element in the whole story. Mr. Romney's warranted indignation did not, however, quiet the clamor over his refusal to disclose further returns.
The Romney camp now obviously hopes that its candidate's latest comments will end this particular diversion from the central debate that both sides contend they want to have this fall. That would be over which nominee can best get America's economic machinery purring again. But Mr. Romney's acknowledgment that he paid a considerably lower income-tax rate than a typical middle-class wage-earner may remain as a lingering toothache for the man the Obama campaign has effectively tarred as the rich man's candidate.
Unfortunate also for the Romney team is the fact that one new element in the campaign — the selection of budget wizard Paul Ryan as the GOP vice-residential nominee — has initially thrown it on the defensive over Mr. Ryan's plan for reforming Medicare, sacrosanct to millions of voting seniors.
With the Republican National Convention in Tampa only a week away, Mr. Romney and his party have the ideal opportunity to steer the political discussion away from either diversion during four days of heavy television and Internet coverage. It will be largely in the hands of Mr. Romney, and to a lesser extent of Mr. Ryan, to make the most of the spotlight.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.