Speculation About Romney's Taxes Goes Off the Rails

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Harry Reid says an anonymous Bain investor told him Romney paid no taxes for 10 years. But people who've seen the returns say otherwise.

mccain romneyReuters

A former McCain staffer who saw the summary of Romney's tax data independently confirmed former Republican presidential nominee John McCain's account that there was nothing disqualifying in it, but said he was not authorized to provide more detail from the confidential report.

Earlier this month Senator McCain, who was able to review 23 years of Romney's tax returns while vetting the former Massachusetts governor as his potential vice presidential running-mate in 2008, told Politico there was nothing in Romney's filings that would have raised a red flag. "Everything was fine," McCain said. "I can personally vouch for the fact that there was nothing in his tax returns that would in any way be disqualifying for him to be a candidate."

The former McCain staffer's account appears to contradict Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's allegation to The Huffington Post Tuesday that Romney paid no taxes for 10 years. A Bain investor who claimed to have inside knowledge of Romney's tax returns told the Nevada Democrat this, Reid said.

"Harry, he didn't pay any taxes for 10 years," Reid recounted the person as saying.

"He didn't pay taxes for 10 years! Now, do I know that that's true? Well, I'm not certain," said Reid. "But obviously he can't release those tax returns. How would it look?" ...

Tellingly, neither Reid nor his office would reveal who the investor was, making it impossible to verify if the accusation is true. And as his quote makes clear, he's uncertain if the information is accurate. The Romney campaign's press secretary, Andrea Saul, has previously denied rumors that Romney didn't pay "any taxes at all."

Other McCain aides have pointed to Romney's many houses as a principal reason for why Romney was passed over, as McCain was embroiled in a controversy at the time about his own inability to recall the number of houses he owned. Also, Sarah Palin was thought to be a fresh-faced political dynamo well-positioned to appeal to women voters, whose support the McCain campaign was in dire need of. (See also: Game Change, which described concerns over Romney's well-documented public history of moderate positions as something that made him unpalatable to the conservative base.)

None of this is to say that there's nothing in Romney's tax returns Democrats would be unable to make hay over, such as evidence of additional foreign accounts or use of legal loopholes and exotic accounting procedures taken advantage of only by the very wealthy. It's also possible he was able to get his tax payments down to a very low level. But so far, there's no evidence that Romney arranged his taxes so that he paid no taxes at all. The Romney campaign denies it flat out and there's every indication the McCain campaign -- already sensitive to the perception that McCain looked rich and out of touch in the middle of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression -- would have considered having paid no taxes at all for a decade a red flag.

What Reid was doing in passing along an anonymous quote whose veracity he couldn't even vouch for is called, in Washington, playing politics. The more outrageous theories are spun by Democrats about what's in Romney's tax returns, the more the pressure builds on him to release them to clear the air -- and thereby give Democrats an opportunity to comb them for "anger points" that can help add to their narrative about Romney's character.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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