To say this as plainly as possible: Mitt Romney's refusal to release his tax returns is untenable.
He can't stick with this policy if he hopes to win.
Even if Romney had an unshakable high-principle reason for refusing, it is obvious that in the specific circumstances of this year's campaign his stand is hurting him far more than it helps. Which is why people presumably rooting hard to get Obama out of the White House -- including Bill Kristol, George Will, Matthew Dowd, Haley Barbour, and the Republican governor of Alabama -- have made this same point.
And it is all the more damaging because of Romney's reputation as a calmly, cautiously rational, non-shoot-from-the-hip operator. Three messages I've just seen on this theme:
1) From a veteran correspondent who has written about national and international affairs for more than 50 years, and whom I first met when he was covering the Jimmy Carter campaign:
As I see it, there is only one conceivable reason why Mitt Romney won't release his tax returns and move on. It is that their disclosure would reveal a shocking level of avoidance that would jeopardize his presidential hopes.
2) From a veteran lawyer and policy-expert who worked on Capitol Hill in the late 1960s and has been involved in campaigns and politics since then:
I assume the reason he hasn't released his tax returns is that, effectively, he can't; the substance and/or appearance of the returns would be such that the story wouldn't blow over after a few days, it would blow him up within a few days. Isn't this the only explanation for his non-release of the returns that makes sense?
3) An item just now from John Cassidy on the New Yorker's site, which does what I was going to encourage someone on our site to do this afternoon. Cassidy goes into the sorts of things that might be in a tax return that could be worse than enduring heat for refusing to disclose. His summary is here.
3A) Update a post from a tax professor at NYU law school, Daniel Shaviro, adds some possibilities. And, on Bloomberg, William D. Cohan argues that the problem may lie in how Romney's IRA account grew to contain somewhere between $21 and $102 million, which is orders of magnitude beyond the norm for these tax-sheltered accounts.
Again let's focus on why this is a specially vexing problem for Romney. Precisely because we know that he isn't crazy or reckless -- "I'm running for office, for Pete's sake, I can't have illegals" -- we can't assume, as we perhaps would with Herman Cain or Sarah Palin, that he's simply failed to calculate the cost he is paying for his stance. Therefore we assume that he has decided the cost is worth paying. That is the problem, and one that is literally impossible to solve without releasing more returns.
UPDATE A reader argues that there could in fact be a very subtle long-game logic to Romney's tax stance, one that draws on an effective Obama ploy.
Another possibility: Romney does in fact plan to release his tax returns, but he's hoping to obliterate all those who are ripping him for his business activities/wealth by letting them go overboard and then finally releasing returns that show nothing untoward. He could then say, "Let's stop this ridiculous sideshow and focus on the issues that really matter to Americans: Obama's handling of the economy, etc." He could argue that all criticism of his business activities and wealth is an illegitimate sideshow by rabid partisans -- they went crazy over his tax returns and there was nothing there.
This would appear to echo the way Obama handled the birthers; Romney could even point to that as an analogous situation, and say that in both cases, the release of information put the issue to rest and showed it was time to move on.
Very interesting if it should in fact turn out that way. Also note that even this scenario depends on Romney's finally making the returns public.