Tax returns, like birth certificates, cloud election’s real issues

It’s time to stop asking for Mitt Romney’s tax returns.

The dogged, single-minded pursuit of Romney’s tax history by individuals demanding the returns, like Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, has contributed to the drowning out of this election’s real issues and is reminiscent of the clamor for Barack Obama’s birth certificate.

As of Friday, Romney has released two years of his tax returns, while Obama has released the last 12 years. The IRS cannot legally release any information regarding a taxpayer’s returns, but since the ‘70s, beginning with Nixon and Carter, presidents have released their own returns. Releasing traditionally private information like tax returns — or even a birth certificate — has simply become a part of becoming a public official.

The problem with controversies such as these is that they are never truly resolved; rather, they amplify the predetermined assumptions of the most negative and extreme factions of our political system. Romney’s taxes have become a lure that has trapped Romney and the public alike from more important issues and has made an already-negative election even worse.

For example, the interest in Obama’s nationality was, at one time, a defensible investigation into the legality of his candidacy and presidency. But the unceasing requests for his birth certificate became a rallying cry for those were already invested in portraying the president as radical, socialist and essentially un-American.

In the case of Romney’s tax history, the details within those returns could arguably shed light on the financial dealings of a candidate who has long used his business experience as a selling point. However, his privileged upbringing and personal wealth have fueled the opposition narrative that Romney is an elitist who thinks of himself high above regular citizens.

Romney is in a double bind: Releasing more tax forms would only draw more attention to his personal finances; if he doesn’t, his lack of transparency instead would seemingly justify the suspicions of those, like Reid, who think that Romney has somehow evaded his fair share of the tax burden.

When faced with a similar bind, Obama delayed distributing his birth certificate. It was a last resort, a realization that the noise generated by birthers was more damaging than the image of the president caving to such pressure.

But with the release of his last two years of returns, we must now investigate the motives for demanding more. Even if we had these returns, would they show anything more than a businessman who, along with numerous others, benefitted from the U.S.’s investor-friendly tax code? Can an honest argument be made that Romney is hiding something more than financial documentation of his family’s wealthy lifestyle?

Romney is a wealthy man who makes his money from sources mostly unobtainable to the average American. To no one’s surprise, that is what his tax forms show.

Beyond financial matters, Romney has done little to endear himself to those in the middle and working class, and the release of a secretly-taped fundraising speech, along with past gaffes, have not eased Romney’s struggle to “reintroduce” himself to the voters.

In the end, we should keep in mind that the birther movement levied a much more serious charge against Obama than the one Romney now faces from those interested in his tax history.

However, the effects of these political manhunts are same: Narratives and ideology become the central actors of the election instead of the issues. It turns the election from one between two candidates into outlandish combat between a collection of assumptions, character flaws, inferences and stereotypes.

As for Romney, whether he releases the rest of his taxes or keeps them to himself, his next move should be to present us with a more detailed economic plan backed up by data, health care reform policies and other planned legislation.