Civility Outbreak? Romney Camp Gently Rebuffs Obama Campaign Manager's Polite Taunt

The Obama campaign offered a tax-return truce to the Romney campaign, but it wasn't exactly good faith.

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Jim Messina. Not pictured: The elusive Matt Rhoades. (Reuters)

Reporters woke up this morning to find themselves CC'ed on an unusual letter from Obama campaign manager Jim Messina to his counterpart on the Romney campaign, Matt Rhoades:

August 17, 2012

Matt Rhoades
585 Commercial Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02109

Dear Matt:

I am writing to ask again that the Governor release multiple years of tax returns, but also to make an offer that should address his concerns about the additional disclosures. Governor Romney apparently fears that the more he offers, the more our campaign will demand that he provide. So I am prepared to provide assurances on just that point: if the Governor will release five years of returns, I commit in turn that we will not criticize him for not releasing more--neither in ads nor in other public communications or commentary for the rest of the campaign.

This request for the release of five years, covering the complete returns for 2007-2012, is surely not unreasonable. Other Presidential candidates have released more, including the Governor's father who provided 12 years of returns. In the Governor's case, a five year release would appropriately span all the years that he has been a candidate for President. It would also help answer outstanding questions raised by the one return he has released to date, such as the range in the effective rates paid, the foreign accounts maintained, the foreign investments made, and the types of tax shelters used.

To provide these five years, the Governor would have to release only three more sets of returns in addition to the 2010 return he has released and the 2011 return he has pledged to provide. And, I repeat, the Governor and his campaign can expect in return that we will refrain from questioning whether he has released enough or pressing for more.

I look forward to your reply.

Jim Messina
Obama for America Campaign Manager

The backstory to this, of course, is that Romney managed to get sidetracked Thursday with a renewed discussion of his tax returns when he announced at a press conference in South Carolina -- apparently in a fit of impatience -- that he'd never paid less than a 13 percent effective tax rate, regardless of what Harry Reid might say.

As I explained yesterday, it's unclear why he'd want to keep feeding reporters and the public morsels like this, which won't sate their hunger but will sustain their hunger for the full tax returns. That's all the more clear because he's eventually going to have to release his 2011 returns, as he has promised to do before the election. BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins and Zeke Miller heard from the Romney campaign that the candidate hadn't intended to talk about taxes -- it just came out. To get a sense of how much oxygen the tax returns suck up, check out the print front page of today's New York Times, which leads with the tax returns story.

Messina's offer, of course, was not issued out of some newfound spirit of charity or good-heartedness. The Obama campaign figures that there's no way Romney would take Messina's deal, which means it's a harmless opportunity to grandstand with a stunt that keeps the story alive. And on the vanishingly small chance that Rhoades did take the deal, the five years of returns might be damaging "enough." Besides, even if the Obama campaign stopped talking about returns, that doesn't mean that super PACs and allies will. They see it as a win-win.

How did Rhoades respond? It took only about two hours for him to get back to Messina, and there were no surprises:

Hey Jim,

Thanks for the note.

It is clear that President Obama wants nothing more than to talk about Governor Romney's tax returns instead of the issues that matter to voters, like putting Americans back to work, fixing the economy and reining in spending.

If Governor Romney's tax returns are the core message of your campaign, there will be ample time for President Obama to discuss them over the next 81 days.

In the meantime, Governor Romney will continue to lay out his plans for a stronger middle class, to save Medicare, to put work back into welfare, and help the 23 million Americans struggling to find work in the Obama economy.

See you in Denver.

Thanks,
Matt Rhoades
Romney for President
Campaign Manager

That sounds like a no. In any case, it's perhaps the most cordial exchange the campaigns have had in weeks. Odds the tone will last until the first presidential debate in Denver? About zero.

Presented by

David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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