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Harry Reid's just like those birthers who hounded Barack Obama into proving he was an American citizen.

At least that’s what commentators as diverse as Jon Stewart, Ann Coulter and Frank Bruni all told us, after Reid said that an unnamed Bain investor informed him that Mitt Romney hadn't paid his taxes for ten years.

“Stewart’s point—an excellent one—is that the crazies who insist that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States are Reid’s philosophical and strategic kinfolk,” Bruni wrote.

This is arguable.

The charge Reid has leveled against Romney, citing a source he won't name, is that Romney is a rich man who figured out a way not to pay taxes. Reid maintains that he is not accusing Romney of breaking the law, leaving unexplained the part about how Romney could have managed this feat of evasion legally, and says he doesn't even know if the rumor he's airing is true.

By contrast, people like Donald Trump (a onetime leading G.O.P. presidential candidate and Romney fund-raiser) allege that America's first black president isn't legitimate.

We should assume what Reid's saying turns out to be precisely as false as the birther stuff. In that case, one tale will have been an appeal to resentment of Americans whose personal finances are literally too big and complicated for average people to comprehend, and the other will have been an appeal to xenophobia and racism.

The burden on Obama to demonstrate his citizenship also happens to be one uniquely imposed on Obama—and no other president in modern history. Romney, at the moment, is the only presidential nominee in decades who hasn’t released his tax returns.

These things are not equally extraordinary.

Actually, though, the comparison between Reid and the birthers is beside the point, in the context of this presidential race. That's because Reid himself is beside the point. The Obama campaign would be hammering Romney on his taxes whether or not Reid was carrying out his side operation, and Romney would have to reckon with the issue regardless.

Likewise, the American people will be able to judge the superficiality of the charges and decide whether they're being fed a line. That's what happened with the birth certificate crusade, where what started out as a nutty-sounding slur was comprehensively marginalized, after Obama produced proof that it was bunk. It's surely within Romney's power to demonstrate that Reid's accusations are, at the very least, similarly ridiculous.

The fact that Romney isn't making the decision simply to provide the documents and make Reid look like a lying idiot suggests one of two things: Either he's adhering to ironclad principle in not disclosing his tax returns under duress, or he thinks they're somehow too damaging to release.

Romney is a quintessential pragmatist, and not big on inflexible stances, principled or otherwise. (See his positions on guns, gays, abortion and health care.)

So it’s probably the other thing: that he's worried about what's going to happen when the public sees the details of his finances.

Which is actually the biggest difference of all between the birth certificate stuff and the tax accusations: Reid's wild tale, for whatever reason, seems to be having the desired effect.

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