Mitt Romney, release those tax returns.
In crisis management, most experienced campaign consultants will tell you, the best thing to do when the proverbial manure hits the rotating blades, is to come clean: Tell the public everything you know, sit down with reporters until they run out of questions, and put all details out on the table in some exhaustive way.
Whether it's the Tylenol tampering incidents or Bill Clinton's Gennifer Flowers scandal, corporations and politicians alike have learned that there's no advantage in hiding and hoping things will eventually pass. The American people can handle bad news — but the drip, drip, drip of leaks and the prolonged agony of stonewalling just makes matters worse.
For all his touted experience in management, this is a lesson that Mr. Romney has clearly not taken to heart. His continued refusal to release more than one full year of personal income tax returns appears to be playing right into the hands of Democrats who prefer that voters focus on the secret income and investment strategies of a rich businessman with something to hide, rather than having them pondering the current state of the economy.
Don't take our word for it. Take it from the growing number of influential conservative Republicans who are calling on the former Massachusetts governor to comply, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Ron Paul, former Mississippi governor and Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and opinion writers Bill Kristol and George Will.
It's one thing when a Republican presidential nominee is getting attacked from the left; it's quite another when it's friendly fire. Most Americans would expect a serious candidate for high office to release multiple years of his or her tax returns as a matter of course. Mr. Romney's own father, George Romney, set the standard by releasing a dozen years of returns when he ran for president in 1968.
Granted, there is probably information contained in those documents that Mitt Romney and his supporters will find embarrassing. The little he's allowed out of hiding so far has raised questions about offshore investments, his tenure at Bain Capital and a Swiss bank account, and generally demonstrated that he earns a lot but pays a relatively modest percentage in taxes. How much worse can it get?
Here's what they are likely to show: Mr. Romney made a big pile of money in other years, too, and went to great lengths to shield the proceeds from taxes. Some of those investments may, like socking it away in Bermuda or the Cayman Islands, not make the candidate look exactly like a regular guy who goes to H&R Block and files the short form.
But considering how much the nation is grappling with important issues of taxes and spending and the widening gap between the rich and the middle class, this is vital information. Not simply because it offers the public some insight into the Republican challenger's life, his values and his ethics, but because it might shed light on this basic economic debate.
Are the wealthy answerable to anyone? If someone running for president of the United States doesn't have to explain to ordinary Americans what he did with the quarter-billion dollars at his disposal, then who would? If Mr. Romney is going to support large tax cuts for the mega-rich, as he does, don't the rest of us have a right to know what it means for his own personal fortune?
Unless more returns are made public, many voters will have little choice but to assume the worst. Release them, and Mr. Romney is forced to engage in an extended debate about his personal finances. But is that really such a bad thing?
If Republicans truly want to extend the Bush tax cuts for those in Mr. Romney's rarefied income level, they can't run and hide from the real-life consequences for the most prominent member of their party. This isn't like those college transcripts President Barack Obama has declined to release; this is something far more pertinent to the office and to the electorate.
The candidate may find the experience unpleasant, but experience shows that he's far better off disclosing all he can, taking his lumps now and taking such personal secrecy off the agenda.