Take out the tax returns day

I, like a lot of other aspiring wonks, watched The West Wing when I was younger. I watched Leo talk about a big block of cheese, I watched CJ stand up for women in Saudi Arabia, and I watched President Bartlet raise my standards for elected officials far higher than could ever be met outside of primetime.

Today, as Mitt Romney released his 2011 tax returns, I thought of The West Wing, and what they called “Take out the Trash Day.” Friday afternoon is when all the boring or negative news was fed to the press in a lump, so that it wouldn’t take up a full news cycle, and so it would run into the weekend when most people don’t pay attention to the news.

Mitt Romney just took out the trash for his tax returns.

From the Associated Press, Mitt Romney paid over $1.9 million in taxes in 2011, and he reported $13.7 million in income – it puts him down as paying at a 14.1% tax rate. No more. No less.

And it wasn’t a loud announcement, either. It was a quick news flash on Twitter from the Associated Press at 1:42 in the afternoon. The official release came at 3. Before the official release, the details leaked out to the media (as they do). No one in the campaign said anything, and the release was done as quietly as possible in a 24-hour news environment.

To be frank, tax returns deserve more attention than this. It’s not to criticize a candidate’s success. It’s not to tear apart donations to charity or church. It’s to see how honest our elected officials are. It’s an issue of transparency. And with a campaign full of half-truths, misnomers, “retroactive” retirement and sketchy statistics, Mitt Romney releasing honest tax returns would be a show of good faith. And yet even the validity of the numbers on the tax return are up for debate – Salon reports that Romney gave just enough to charity to qualify for an acceptable tax bracket.

It’s even more important because of his involvement with Bain. Since 2009, it seems, all we’ve been hearing about is jobs. The economy. How Candidate X will do better than Candidate Y in creating jobs and making sure everyone gets their fair share. How Candidate Y will making sure that Wall Streeters don’t overrun Main Streeters more effectively than Candidate X.

Mitt Romney, for a good portion of his career, was a Wall Streeter.  And if he wants voters to take his job creation credentials and economic prowess into account, his history with Bain should be public knowledge, rather than a nebulous blip on his resume before “White House: 2012 ­–  .“

To release tax returns on a Friday means that Governor Romney either considers them irrelevant, uncontroversial, or unimportant. Traditionally, the news cycle doesn’t pick up stories and keep them going when they launch on a Friday. Everyone’s leaving for the weekend, televisions are turned off, papers go unread until Sunday morning, and fewer people pay attention. But our media society isn’t traditional anymore – it thrives on the viral and keeps stories going for days longer than they used to. I doubt that news sources are going to let this go before Monday. I know the Internet won’t.

Clearly, Governor Romney knows he’s not the “average Joe” compared to most of the people he hopes to govern. He’s successful. There’s no fault in this. But in a week where he called almost half of the country “freeloaders” while pandering to a $50,000 a plate room of donors, he clearly doesn’t want a lot of attention called to his personal finances – especially if they don’t pass muster with the general public.

In short, Governor Romney has had a hell of a week. Mother Jones released the donor video early this week, then Governor Romney pushed to have the entire video of that donor pandering released to show context and hopefully absolve him of sounding like a jerk (whoops). And when he finally released his tax returns, he did it in the least public or transparent way possible – perhaps to distract from him sounding like a jerk on the donor video.

But to suggest that money doesn’t matter in this election is ignorant. To manipulate tax returns to legally serve your presidential aspirations is unscrupulous. And to believe that these tax returns don’t matter is just wrong.