Romney's Clear-as-Mud Bain Explanation

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In a round of interviews intended to lay questions to rest, the Republican nominee can't give a straight answer on his business career or his taxes.

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Mitt Romney gave a round of television interviews late Friday in an attempt to beat back the escalating firestorm over when he actually stopped running Bain Capital, a sign his campaign was reluctantly acknowledging the potential political damage from the issue. But despite getting asked more or less the same question by interviewers from ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News and NBC, Romney didn't have a simple answer as to what his role at Bain was between 1999 and 2002. Take this passage from his interview with CBS's Jan Crawford:

CRAWFORD: But you were the sole owner? I mean, how should we be thinking about this? What was your role? You were the sole owner until 2002?

ROMNEY: I was the owner of a, of the general partnership but there were investors which included pension funds and various entities of all kinds that owned the, if you will, the investments of the firm. But I was the owner of an entity which was a management entity. That entity was one which I had ownership of until the time of the retirement program was put in place. But I had no responsibility whatsoever after February of '99 for the management or ownership - management, rather, of Bain Capital.

If Romney's line on Bain is complicated, that may be because the truth is complicated. If he continues to have trouble articulating a positive response to attacks on his business record, that may be because there isn't one. But this is not the sort of sound bite that lays anything to rest.

Meanwhile, in many of the interviews, Romney also was pushed on why he hasn't released more of his tax returns. Here's what he said about that to CNN's Jim Acosta:

ACOSTA: When are you going to release more of your taxes and how many years?

ROMNEY: I've indicated that -- well, first of all, we've complied with the law. The law requires us to put out a full financial disclosure. That I've done. And then, in addition to that, I've already put out one year of tax returns. We'll put out the next year of tax returns as soon as the accountants have that ready. And that's what we're going to put out.

I know there will always be calls for more. People always want to get more. And, you know, we're putting out what is required plus more that is not required. And those are the two years that people are going to have. And that's -- that's all that's necessary for people to understand something about my finances. And, look, if people believe this should be a campaign about attacking one another on a personal basis and go back to the kinds of attacks that were suggested in some campaigns in the past, I don't want to go there.

It's a mark of how successful the Obama campaign has been pushing the tax return issue that the Bain question and the tax question now seem inextricably linked, when in fact they are totally separate -- related thematically at best. We already know from financial disclosures that Romney received a six-figure salary from Bain during the years when his role with the company is in question; his taxes from those years would tell us the exact magnitude of the salary, but wouldn't likely clear up the question of how hands-on his managerial duties were or whether he personally signed off on Bain's plant closings.

The problem for Romney, though, is that the tax question inevitably boils down to, "If he has nothing to hide, why doesn't he just show us his taxes?" The answer to that question is that Romney has never claimed to have nothing to hide. In the returns we've already seen, there was plenty that Romney would have preferred to keep hidden, from a Swiss bank account to a shell company in Bermuda. The implication of Romney's refusal to disclose more is that the political flak he continues to take for his secrecy is still thought to be less painful than the potential public financial colonoscopy. And that will lead many to conclude that he does, indeed, have something to hide.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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