Early in his political career Lyndon Johnson is famously said to have wanted to make an outrageous charge – allegedly involving sex and an animal – against a political opponent. His staff pushed back arguing that the allegation was untrue, but Johnson was unmoved. Of course the charge was untrue, Johnson said, he just wanted his opponent to have to deny it.
I thought of the old LBJ story while watching the charge made last week by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid against Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Over the weekend Reid was pummeled – properly so if you believe politics is always a gentlemen’s game played according to Marquis of Queensberry rules – for saying he’d been told that there were many years when Romney paid no income taxes.
The Romney camp and the candidate himself immediately and vehemently denied the allegation with the GOP chairman going so far as to call Reid “a dirty liar.”
But, whether you believe Reid is guilty of gutter politics or the old amateur boxer is playing a politic game of what The Great Muhammad Ali once called “rope a dope,” the fact is that the Romney camp still finds itself in the awkward position of being able to decisively disprove Reid’s allegation only by releasing many more years of Romney’s tax returns, something the candidate continues to refuse to do.
Two things about the Romney tax returns and Reid allegations are, I think, noteworthy.
First, the Majority Leader’s gut punching anti-Romney attack was launched by a guy who survived one of the nastiest political campaigns in the country two years ago. With horrible approval numbers, Reid methodically fought his way back from comatose to win re-election in Nevada against a Tea Party darling. It wasn’t pretty, but was a win.
As an old Nevada Republican friend of mine, Greg Ferraro, told the Las Vegas Sun: “Harry Reid always seems to find a way to win. He never wins big and he never wins pretty, and the rumors of his demise are always greatly exaggerated. He always finds a way.”
Reid is of the generation of national Democrats who watched two of their recent presidential candidates – Michael Dukakis and John Kerry – run lackluster campaigns against opponents who identified them as squishy liberals, weak on crime and national defense. A lot of these Democrats, Harry Reid included, went to school on those and other similar campaigns and concluded that throwing a political punch is almost always better than taking one. Harry Reid is a puncher, even if some of the blows arguably land below the belt.
The second noteworthy issue relates to Romney’s tax returns, and here too Democrats have learned something from past campaigns. In and of itself Romney’s refusal to expose more about his personal finances is probably not anywhere close to a decisive factor in the current presidential race. It is, however, a window into the one real strength Romney brings to his campaign – his business experience.
With steady and persistent effort, rather like water dripping on a rock, the Obama campaign has chipped away at Romney’s one great strength, planting questions and raising doubt. Did Romney create jobs at Bain Capital or ship jobs overseas? Did he make his money the old fashioned way or by taking advantage of companies loaded up with debt and then shipping his own profits into off shore tax havens? Does Romney’s executive experience equip him to serve as a champion of the middle class in a tough economy or would his tax returns show a guy in such fundamentally foreign economic territory that he would never relate to Joe Six Pack?
Romney partisans, many pundits and even some Democrats find this “let him deny it” brand of politics unattractive, but the fact is the jabbing at Romney has kept him off his game now for going on two weeks.
In the boxing ring Ali would jab and move, jab and move and occasionally let his opponent, rope a dope style, tire himself out while The Champ bounced along the ropes. Then with a punched out opponent flaying away, Ali would launch a flurry of blows that really stung.
The overall approach may be unfair to Romney and I would argue that major elections should be about bigger things, but the fact is that right now Romney is tiring himself politically by responding to the jabs that continue to erode the story line that he hopes to ride to the White House.
And here we are in the political dog days of August where you have to believe the real fight hasn’t even begun. Make him deny it may not be fair, but little in politics is and this whole episode proves one thing for certain. If Mitt Romney could release his tax returns and explain them he would. He can’t and therefore won’t.
He’s left to deny without being able to prove. Lyndon would have loved it.