Steve Benen, Political Animal


January 24, 2012 8:40 PM State of the Union Open Thread

In about 20 minutes, President Obama will head to the floor of the House chamber to deliver his 2012 State of the Union address. I’ll have plenty of thoughts in the morning, but in the meantime let’s open the floor to some discussion.

What are your impressions? Any surprises? What worked? What didn’t?

By the way, you can apparently watch an “enhanced” version of the SOTU online here. There will be charts — and you know how much I like charts — so it might be worth your time.

And with that, the floor is yours.

Update: If I’m doing this right, you can also watch the MSNBC feed of the speech right here:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

January 24, 2012 5:30 PM Tuesday’s Mini-Report

Today’s edition of quick hits:

* Europe: “Euro zone finance ministers on Monday rejected as insufficient an offer made by private bondholders to help restructure Greece’s debts, sending negotiators back to the drawing board and raising the threat of Greek default.”

* On a related note, the IMF is clearly concerned: “The International Monetary Fund warned on Tuesday that global growth prospects had dimmed as the sovereign debt crisis in the euro zone entered a ‘perilous new phase.’ Releasing quarterly updates of three reports on the outlooks for the economy, debt and global financial stability, the fund cut its estimates of global growth this year.”

* Syria: “The Arab League sought help from the United Nations to address the escalating crisis in Syria on Tuesday, amid Syrian defiance of Arab efforts to broker a peace settlement and an upsurge of violence in which dozens of people died.”

* Rumors in Afghanistan: “The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan on Tuesday condemned rumors that the United States is planning to divide the war-torn country, saying the suggestions were ‘lies that dishonor the sacrifice of more than 1,800 American service members who have died in the cause of a unified Afghanistan.’”

* Encouraging news out of Chicago: “Sen. Mark Kirk was doing better than expected after suffering a stroke and undergoing emergency surgery, his neurosurgeon said Tuesday, noting the Illinois Republican was answering questions and even asking for his Blackberry. Dr. Richard Fessler, who performed surgery on Kirk at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, said the 52-year-old ‘is doing very well’ but that the road to recovery will be long.”

* Quorum avoidance in Indiana: “The Indiana House again remained at a standstill today, as most Democrats boycotted the chamber to stall the controversial ‘right to work’ bill.”

* The inconsistencies of libertarian lawmakers: “Outraged over being detained by the TSA when he refused a pat-down after setting off an airport scanner, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) told Fox News host Greta Van Susteren on Monday night that even though he doesn’t want ‘special treatment,’ TSA pat-downs need to be less random, targeting people such as ‘Middle Eastern students.’”

* When he was being considered for John McCain’s 2008 ticket, Mitt Romney turned over 23 years of tax returns. If McCain can see 23 years of returns, why can American voters only see two?

* For-profit colleges have their share of detractors on the Hill: “Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) is introducing legislation to limit the amount of federal funds for-profit colleges can derive from veterans.”

* And First Lady Michelle Obama will have several notable guests join her for the State of the Union address tonight. Of particular, she’ll be sitting with Debbie Bosanek, who just happens to be Warren Buffett’s secretary, and who pays a higher tax rate than her billionaire boss.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

January 24, 2012 4:50 PM Why tonight matters

President Obama will deliver his State of the Union address tonight and will reportedly unveil a new slogan: “win the future” is out; “built to last” is in.

One of the larger questions, of course, is whether the speech will matter. Can we expect Obama to get a bump in the polls? Probably not. The post-SOTU bounce is largely mythical. Can we expect Congress to take the president’s vision seriously as the basis for a legislative agenda for 2012? Put it this way: very little got done in 2011, and 2012 will almost certainly be worse.

So, why should anyone consider tonight’s speech to a joint session important? Jonathan Bernstein explains why: the SOTU is “usually a reliable guide to White House priorities for the next legislative year and even beyond.”

Students of elections and the presidency have learned that presidents tend to keep their promises, or at least try to, and one way to think about the State of the Union is as a series of promises. Perhaps the most famous one in recent years was George W. Bush’s introduction of the “axis of evil” in the 2002 State of the Union — and with it the fateful pivot from Afghanistan to Iraq. We’re not going to see anything as dramatic this year. But the normal construction of a State of the Union speech involves various outside interests and administration factions fighting to get their priorities mentioned (and as prominently as possible), because they know that it places the president on the path to fighting for those programs. Presidents even wind up searching out new initiatives because they don’t want reporters to conclude that there’s nothing new and that the White House is losing energy; that’s how the Bush administration, for example, wound up supporting a Moon/Mars program.

Even when there appears to be little hope of a cooperative Congress, the specific proposals that the president highlights often matter. Sometimes that’s because the president can move forward on those things without Congressional approval; sometimes it’s because once made, a State of the Union proposal tends to stick around. If Obama is re-elected some of the programs orphaned after this year’s speech may show up during his second term. And of course, proposals can be negative as well: a State of the Union veto threat is a lot less likely to be walked back than one that’s made in a less visible way.

The Monthly’s Paul Glastris made a similar point on NPR yesterday: “[R]emember, the State of the Union is the blueprint for the government for the next year or, in the case of a re-election year, for the next four years…. So these are marching orders to his government, marching orders to all the people that work for him, marching orders to Democrats throughout the country. ‘Here’s what we want to accomplish. Here are the things we want to do that cohere into a theme and a message. We’ve got a long-term goal here, and in a sense the government will be feeding off that State of the Union for ideas, for formulations for the rest of the year.’”

In other words, if you want to know what Obama’s prepared to fight for, look no further than what he has to say tonight.

January 24, 2012 4:15 PM In defense of partisan SOTU seating

As part of a symbolic gesture, more than 180 members of Congress have reportedly committed to having a seatmate from the other party at the State of the Union address. It’s apparently intended to be a move to demonstrate a degree of bipartisanship — lawmakers don’t really hate one another, the argument goes, if they’re willing to sit with colleagues they disagree with.

The idea has become popular enough that a non-partisan group called No Labels even took out a full-page ad in the New York Times recently, insisting upon bipartisan SOTU seating.

I’m not necessarily bothered by the notion of bipartisan seating. But I think the traditional model has underappreciated virtues.

For those who aren’t familiar with the usual arrangements, when presidents appear in the House chamber to deliver State of the Union addresses, Democrats nearly always sit on their side of the aisle, while Republicans sit on the other.

Over the last couple of years, most notably in the wake of last year’s shootings in Tucson, there’s been a drive towards more intermingling. Dan Amira made an argument a while back that still strikes me as compelling:

Unity is great, sure, but apart from the entertainment value, there is an important practical reason to maintain the State of the Union’s partisan seating arrangement. A neat separation of the parties allows the American people to see, in real time, their positions on the president’s agenda and the issues of the day. It’s actually very informative and helpful to be able to easily assess which proposals the Republicans and Democrats support, respectively, through the decision to applaud. It also allows us to identify the few party-bucking independent thinkers who, every so often, stand up to clap while the rest of their colleagues remain seated.

Thrown together in one big bipartisan hodgepodge, congressmen and senators would still carefully regulate their applause, but that brief chamber reaction shot on TV becomes nearly impossible to decipher. The country could certainly benefit from more symbolic demonstrations of solidarity, but the State of the Union address is one instance where a stark partisan divide is actually good for democracy.

That sounds right to me. When Republicans, for example, stand in response to something President Obama says, that conveys something important to the public. Intersperse members, and the visual lessons disappear.

We’d be left, in effect, with cues from just two people — Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner, who’ll be seated behind the president, and who probably won’t be standing in unison.

January 24, 2012 2:45 PM What Boehner considers ‘almost un-American’

Over the weekend, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) described President Obama’s State of the Union address, which he had not heard, as “pathetic.” Today, Boehner pushed the rhetorical envelope a little further.

House Speaker John Boehner Tuesday forcefully denounced the Democrats’ campaign theme that they are for the middle class and Republicans are for the wealthy — saying the policies the president is running on are “almost un-American.”

“This is a president who said I’m not going to be a divider, I’m going to be a uniter, and running on the policies of division and envy is — to me it’s almost un-American,” said Boehner.

Even for Boehner, this kind of rhetoric is cheap and inappropriate.

At a certain level, it’s tempting to think the Speaker doesn’t even believe his own nonsense. What is it, exactly, that Boehner finds so offensive about President Obama’s message? The notion of a Democratic president championing the interests of the middle class isn’t exactly unusual, neither is the prospect of asking the very wealthy to pay a little more to help guarantee opportunities for all.

Indeed, there’s nothing in the White House’s agenda that wouldn’t have generated significant support from Democrats and moderate Republicans for the better part of the 20th century. Obama’s economic vision is, at a fundamental level, about as mainstream as you can get.

It makes sense for Boehner to attack this, to the extent that he sees it as his job to reflexively oppose everything the president is for. But officials, especially those in key positions of authority, really ought to avoid words like “un-American.” Just because the House elected an oft-confused Speaker, who lacks a cursory understanding of public policy and history, is no excuse for American leaders questioning other American leaders’ patriotism.

I’m reminded of a recent piece from Tim Dickinson:

The nation is still recovering from a crushing recession that sent unemployment hovering above nine percent for two straight years. The president, mindful of soaring deficits, is pushing bold action to shore up the nation’s balance sheet. Cloaking himself in the language of class warfare, he calls on a hostile Congress to end wasteful tax breaks for the rich. “We’re going to close the unproductive tax loopholes that allow some of the truly wealthy to avoid paying their fair share,” he thunders to a crowd in Georgia. Such tax loopholes, he adds, “sometimes made it possible for millionaires to pay nothing, while a bus driver was paying 10 percent of his salary — and that’s crazy.”

Preacherlike, the president draws the crowd into a call-and-response. “Do you think the millionaire ought to pay more in taxes than the bus driver,” he demands, “or less?”

The crowd, sounding every bit like the protesters from Occupy Wall Street, roars back: “MORE!”

The year was 1985. The president was Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Today’s Republican Party may revere Reagan as the patron saint of low taxation. But the party of Reagan — which understood that higher taxes on the rich are sometimes required to cure ruinous deficits — is dead and gone. Instead, the modern GOP has undergone a radical transformation, reorganizing itself around a grotesque proposition: that the wealthy should grow wealthier still, whatever the consequences for the rest of us.

I suppose the follow-up question for Boehner is, was Reagan “almost un-American,” too? Were the lawmakers from both parties who approved tax reform in the mid-80s a bunch of socialist sell-outs?

January 24, 2012 2:05 PM Losing a 23-point lead in a week

As recently as Jan. 15 — nine days ago — Gallup’s daily tracking poll showed Mitt Romney leading Newt Gingrich by 23 points. In fact, a day earlier, Gallup showed Gingrich running third, a point behind Rick Santorum.

And as of today, Gallup has Gingrich leading Romney by four, 31% to 27%. The pollster published this image this afternoon:

This really is astounding. Romney’s national support has dropped 10 points in nine days — not because of any new scandal or humiliating gaffe, but because his support was fairly tepid and weak, and voters were easily swayed away.

For the record, I still believe Romney is the frontrunner and likely nominee, in large part because of his financial and organizational edge. I also believe Romney has demonstrated an ability to destroy Gingrich once — remember when the former Speaker had a big lead in Iowa, right before Romney spent millions to tear him down — and will likely do so again.

But when a frontrunner sees a 23-point lead evaporate this quickly, the ripples of panic in Republican circles are well justified.

January 24, 2012 1:05 PM Leave the Navy alone

The only thing that bothers me more than Mitt Romney’s falsehoods is when Romney repeats the falsehoods after they’ve been proven untrue.

In last night’s debate, the former governor, who’s routinely struggled with the basics of military and national security policy, complained, “[W]e keep on shrinking our Navy. Our Navy is now smaller than any time since 1917.”

Romney backer John Bolton raised the same concern in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: “The Navy has only 285 ships today, the fewest since World War I, and it is straining to uphold its unique global responsibilities.”

The problem isn’t with the data, per se, but with the metric. Romney and his campaign want to give the public the impression that the Obama administration is somehow scaling back the military, leaving us vulnerable. But as multiple fact-checks have made clear since the Republican campaign starting pushing this line, the claim is wildly misleading.

[E]ven by that standard, Obama’s Navy has more ships than at any point in the last four years of the Bush administration. The Navy’s downsized fleet was a result of a decades-long reorganization rather than any Obama administration policy. More to the point, we’re getting a lot more bang for our buck — we’ve swapped dreadnoughts, monitors, and 50-gun frigates for air-craft carriers and nuclear submarines. Which would you want in a fight?

And this once again leaves us with one of two options. Romney is either (1) confused about military policy, and didn’t do his homework before popping off on a subject he doesn’t understand; or (2) trying to deliberately fool voters, and counting on the media not to call him on it.

It’s an either/or dynamic that comes up all the time with this guy.

January 24, 2012 12:20 PM Hello, I must be going

I have some news to share: after three-and-a-half years at the Washington Monthly, I’m moving on. My last post will be tomorrow and I’ll start my new career at MSNBC on Monday morning.

Working for the Monthly has been an amazing experience, but I’m thrilled about an extraordinary opportunity at MSNBC: I’m going to be a producer for “The Rachel Maddow Show” and an MSNBC contributor. Don’t worry, I’ll still be blogging; I’ll just be writing at a new online home.

It’s not easy for me to leave the magazine. I’ve been reading the Monthly since I was an undergrad, and being part of the team has been an honor. Editor-in-Chief Paul Glastris is a friend and a mentor, and everyone here is a pleasure to work with, making this a bittersweet departure.

I always said I wouldn’t leave this job unless something truly special came along, and fortunately for me, something did. The chance to work for Rachel and MSNBC is a dream gig that I couldn’t be more excited about.

If you’ve come to value Political Animal, rest assured, I’m leaving the site in very capable hands, and will reveal more about the site’s future tomorrow. For now, however, I want to thank the Monthly for nearly four great years, Rachel and her team for the amazing opportunity, and all of you for the support and encouragement.

(By the way, don’t leave — this isn’t my last post of the day. In fact, I’ll maintain a usual posting schedule until close of business tomorrow.)

January 24, 2012 12:00 PM Tuesday’s campaign round-up

Today’s installment of campaign-related news items that won’t necessarily generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers:

* In Florida, a new survey from Public Policy Polling shows Newt Gingrich leading the Republican presidential field with 38% support. Mitt Romney was second with 33%, followed by Rick Santorum at 13%.

* If Gingrich is going to compete in Florida, he’s going to need a major cash infusion. Fortunately for him, he’s got one: the Adelson family is contributing another $5 million to the Winning Our Future super PAC.

* And speaking of Gingrich’s finances, the disgraced former House Speaker has collected $2 million in contributions since his primary win in South Carolina.

* Romney’s campaign isn’t letting Gingrich’s investments in Florida go unmatched. Team Romney has reserved nearly $2 million worth of new in-state airtime for this week, and one of his super PACs had made roughly $600,000 in additional media reservations.

* Enforcing the truce will probably prove difficult, but in Massachusetts’ U.S. Senate race, both Sen. Scott Brown (R) and Elizabeth Warren (D) have reached an agreement to restrict third-party-group spending in their race.

* Responding to Romney campaign criticisms, Gingrich released additional details yesterday about his Freddie Mac contract.

* Romney has picked up a new debate coach: Brett O’Donnell, who had been working as a strategist for Michele Bachmann.

* It’s doubtful he’ll sway a lot of voters, but actor-turned-senator Fred Thompson (R) announced his support for Gingrich last night.

* And in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) fundraising efforts for his recall race are already proving to be very successful: from Dec. 11 through Jan. 17, the Republican governor raised a whopping $4.5 million.

January 24, 2012 11:15 AM ‘Self-deportation’

A couple of months ago, Romney campaign spokesperson Eric Fehrnstrom was asked what a Romney administration would do with undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. Fehrnstrom said Romney “doesn’t believe in granting them amnesty,” but when asked what Romney sees as an alternative, the campaign spokesperson would only say, “He would not grant them amnesty.”

Team Romney was comfortable saying what they’re against, but not what they’re for. It wasn’t exactly illuminating.

Last night, Adam Smith, the political editor at the Tampa Bay Times, asked the former governor a good question: “You say you don’t want to go and round up people and deport them, but you also say that they would have to go back to their home countries and then apply for citizenship. So, if you don’t deport them, how do you send them home?”

Romney replied, “Well, the answer is self-deportation.”

And what, exactly, does that mean? Adam Serwer explained that the point is to make life so miserable for these immigrants that they simply leave on their own.

This is the right-wing’s answer to the question of how you deport eleven million unauthorized immigrants: You don’t. You force them to “deport themselves.” Although immigration reform advocates would prefer a solution that involves a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants already here, Romney and his top immigration advisers believe they can remove millions of people through heavy-handed enforcement that makes life for unauthorized immigrants intolerable. This approach is notable for its complete lack of discretion and flexibility. Unauthorized immigrant parents with citizen children who need to go to school? Americans who are married to an undocumented immigrant who needs medical treatment? “Self-deportation” hits them all with the same mailed fist. […]

[M]ake no mistake, when Romney is discussing “self-deportation,” he’s talking about creating a United States where parents are afraid to register their kids for school or get them immunized because they might be asked for proof of citizenship. He’s talking about the type of country where local police can demand your immigration status based on mere suspicion that you don’t belong around here. “Self-deportation” is just a cleaner, less cruel-sounding way of endorsing harsh, coercive government policies in order to make life for unauthorized immigrants so unbearable that they have no choice but to find some way to leave.

On immigration, it’s fair to say Romney is the most right-wing candidate of the modern political era.

January 24, 2012 10:30 AM Taking its toll on Romney’s reputation

We talked over the weekend about Mitt Romney’s “likability problem” — the more voters see him, the less popular he becomes. As the campaign progresses, this appears to be getting worse.

The number of Americans with negative views of Mitt Romney has spiked in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, compounding the former Massachusetts governor’s challenges as he tries to rally from Saturday’s big loss in South Carolina.

Among independents, Romney’s unfavorable rating now tops 50 percent — albeit by a single point — a first in Post-ABC polling back to 2006. Just two weeks ago, more independents had favorable than unfavorable views of Romney; now, it’s 2 to 1 negative.

Romney’s losses since a Post-ABC poll conducted between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary are not limited to independents. The number of Democrats viewing him unfavorably is up 10 percentage points, and among his fellow Republicans, negative ratings have jumped from 18 to 32 percent. (Prior to his Iowa performance, Romney’s unfavorable number had been higher than 18, but hadn’t been in the 30s among Republicans since early 2008.)

What’s striking is the speed with which this is happening. Just two weeks ago, Romney had a higher favorable than unfavorable rating. Now, the unfavorable number has soared, going from 34% to 49% in 16 days.

For much of the Republican establishment, the argument has been that Romney is a much stronger general-election candidate because Gingrich is so unpopular with the American mainstream. But as of now, the two leading GOP candidates have nearly identical fav/unfav numbers: 31/49 for Romney, 29/51 for Gingrich.

There are competing theories to explain Romney’s deteriorating standing — the criticisms of his work at Bain, his stilted persona, greater public awareness of his dramatic flip-flops, his shameless dishonesty, etc. — and it’s likely a combination of factors. Regardless, it’s tough to see these polls and think an extended nomination fight is in Romney’s best interests.

In the meantime, President Obama’s favorability rating — not his approval rating, just those with a positive impression of him — is now up to 53%, the highest it’s been since April 2011. That’s not what Team Romney wanted to see, either.

January 24, 2012 10:00 AM No more white knights

Republican voters, activists, leaders, and pundits are all coming to the same realization: in November, either Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich will be the GOP nominee against President Obama. And as this insight takes root, many of those same voters, activists, leaders, and pundits are once again asking, “Are we sure it’s too late to nominate someone else?”

The latest is the New York Times’ Ross Douthat, who weighed in yesterday.

For months now, even as the rest of the conservative commentariat has gradually resigned itself to the existing presidential field, the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol has continued to pine — publicly, unstintingly, immune to either embarrassment or fatigue — for another candidate to jump into the race. He’s dreamed of Mitch Daniels, touted Chris Christie, talked up Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, name-dropped Jeb Bush, and circled back to Daniels once more. He’s quoted poetry on behalf of his cause — Yeats, and (with some revisions) Andrew Marvell. He’s endured snark from the Huffington Post, eye-rolling from Slate, mockery from New York Magazine. But he’s continued undeterred — and in the wake of Newt Gingrich’s South Carolina victory, he was back at it again, throwing out a link to “a new online petition was launched Saturday night … at”

And do you know what? He’s been right all along. Right that the decisions by various capable Republicans to forgo a presidential run this year have been a collective disgrace; right that Republican primary voters deserve a better choice than the one being presented to them; and right, as well, that even now it isn’t too late for one of the non-candidates to change their mind and run.


Over the late summer and early fall, when a large number of party officials expressed deep dissatisfaction with the GOP field, it was not unreasonable to reach out to possible candidates watching from the sidelines. Indeed, to a certain extent, these efforts worked — Rick Perry got into the race.

But September was a long time ago. Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have already weighed in, and Florida is a week away. I don’t blame Republicans for feeling underwhelmed, at a minimum, by the prospect of a Gingrich or Romney nomination, but it’s past time for the right to come to terms with the reality of the situation.

There are no white knights coming to rescue the party. It’s simply too late. As Eric Kleefeld documented nicely, “In every primary state up through early April, the filing deadlines have passed. That includes the very delegate-rich Super Tuesday of March 6…. [F]or a Republican hero to ride in on a white horse, it would take a scenario that verges on political science fiction: A combination of write-in voting where applicable — and for Romney to fully drop out and endorse this new savior candidate, to essentially bequeath his place on the ballot by telling his pledged delegates elected in this manner to go along with it.”

And what about talk of a brokered Republican convention? That’s “not going to happen,” either.

There are four candidates left — Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul — and one of them will win the 2012 Republican nomination. If the party isn’t satisfied with these choices, too bad. They should have thought of that before it was too late.

January 24, 2012 9:30 AM When Romney echoes Bachmann

At least in theory, Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann represent very different elements of the Republican Party. When the former is echoing the strange arguments of the latter, there’s a problem.

In last night’s debate, for example, Romney complained that gasoline prices have “doubled” since President Obama took office. If this line sounds familiar, it’s because Bachmann repeated it in nearly every stump speech for months.

The argument also happens to be ridiculous.

More important, though, is the reason that gas was — comparatively speaking — so cheap a few years ago. It wasn’t because the U.S. was suddenly pumping more oil, or because the Saudis had decided to flood the market, or because the head of ExxonMobil lost his mind and started to give all Americans a 2-for-1 deal on gas. The U.S. — and the world — was in the depths of the worst recession since the 1930s, depressing demand for everything from data centers to electricity to driving.

It’s Econ 101: precipitous falls in demand usually trigger precipitous falls in price, which is what happened to gas prices, dropping from a high of $4.05 a gallon in mid-July 2008 to a low of $1.69 a gallon at the end of December that year.

As Romney has noted repeatedly, under Obama, the economy has “gotten better.” And as the economy improved, demand went up, and the price of gas started climbing. This really isn’t complicated.

And yet, despite the simplicity of reality, Romney is spewing nonsense. Indeed, I’m not sure which is worse — the idea that Romney believes Bachmann’s silly talking points have merit, or the idea that Romney understands the facts just fine and wants to deceive the public on purpose.

January 24, 2012 8:40 AM What we’ve learned from Romney’s returns

Mitt Romney’s campaign, as promised, released the former governor’s 2010 tax returns, as well as an estimate for his 2011 returns, and we’re starting to get a sense of why the Republican candidate wasn’t eager to share these details.

Mitt Romney offered a partial snapshot of his vast personal fortune late Monday, disclosing income of $21.7 million in 2010 and $20.9 million last year — virtually all of it profits, dividends or interest from investments.

None came from wages, the primary source of income for most Americans. Instead, Romney and his wife, Ann, collected millions in capital gains from a profusion of investments, as well as stock dividends and interest payments.

By any fair estimate, over $42 million in income over two years isn’t bad for a guy who jokes about being “unemployed.” Indeed, Romney would be in the top 1% based solely on the income he makes in one week.

Romney said last week that his rate was “closer to 15%,” but as it turns out, despite his vast wealth, he actually only paid a 13.9% rate last year — lower than his political rivals who aren’t nearly as wealthy, and lower than most middle-class American workers.

And what about those overseas investments?

His 2010 return also showed that he had a financial account in Switzerland that was closed in 2010 and that he generated income from overseas investments. He also reported financial accounts in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.

A Reuters report added that Romney’s Swiss bank account was closed in 2010 “after an investment adviser decided it could be politically embarrassing to Romney.”

I suspect those with far more expertise in this area will subject these materials to considerable scrutiny, but at first blush, the disclosure appears to raise at least as many questions as it answers.

Why did Romney set up $100 million trust funds for his sons without paying any gift taxes? Were his accounts in the Caymans and in Switzerland created to avoid paying taxes? Was the closing of the Swiss account related to this IRS investigation? And given all of the questions surrounding Romney’s Bain-era work, why does the Republican candidate continue to insist he won’t disclose returns from previous years?

What’s more, following up on a point from last week, even if Romney argues that he’s simply playing by the rules — taking advantage of existing tax loopholes to pay lower rates than much of the middle class — this doesn’t explain why Romney is eager to exacerbate issues on tax fairness with his tax plan that makes the problem worse.

In a debate over tax fairness and income inequality, Romney is practically a case study for What’s Gone Wrong, but he can at least plausibly argue that this is a mess he benefits from, but didn’t create. Romney, however, prefers to believe the problem doesn’t exist.

Greg Sargent did a nice job capturing the larger political context:

I’m not sure the Obama campaign could have scripted this more perfectly. In a remarkable bit of good timing, President Obama is set to deliver a State of the Union speech focused on income inequality and tax unfairness on exactly the same day that Mitt Romney will reveal that he made over $40 million in the last two years — all of it taxed at a lower rate than that paid by middle class taxpayers. […]

Romney doesn’t just disagree with Obama on these fundamental issues; he personally symbolizes virtually the entire 2012 Democratic message. He is the walking embodiment of everything Dems allege is wrong with our system and the ways it’s rigged in favor of the wealthy and against the middle class. Yet this is the standard bearer the GOP seems set to pick.

Romney and his aides believe these materials should end the discussion. That’s backwards — the larger debate is just beginning.

January 24, 2012 8:00 AM Turning the dishonesty to 11

Last night’s debate for the remaining presidential candidates offered Mitt Romney a chance to try to turn his campaign around. He hasn’t had much luck lately, and confidence in his candidacy has been badly shaken, especially after Romney turned a double-digit lead in South Carolina into a double-digit defeat.

But one of the former governor’s more disconcerting qualities is his reliance on falsehoods to get back in the game.

I won’t fact-check every claim from the debate, but there were some doozies that should, if honesty in politics had more meaning, cause Romney and his team some headaches. He claimed Dodd-Frank was hurting community banks, but that’s not true. He said he never advocated for a national health care mandate, and that’s false, too. He repeated his misleading claim about the size of the U.S. Navy; he claimed not to have received an inheritance; and he claims his private-equity firm never did any work with the government. All of these claims are deceptive, if not demonstrably wrong.

The most irksome, though, was this claim:

“We have $15 trillion of debt. We’re headed to a, to a Greece- type collapse, and he adds another trillion on top for Obamacare and for his stimulus plan that didn’t create private-sector jobs. This president has failed.”

This is an important part of Romney’s indictment against the president, so it’s worth unpacking it a bit. Let’s take this one claim at a time.

* It’s true we have $15 trillion in debt, but the biggest chunk comes from Bush-era tax breaks. Romney wanted to make them permanent.

* Anyone who seriously believes U.S. fiscal challenges are in any way similar to Greece is a fool.

* The Affordable Care Act doesn’t add to the debt, it cuts the debt by hundreds of billions of dollars.

* The stimulus created millions of private-sector jobs. Indeed, take a look at private-sector job growth since the start of the recession:

Since March 2010, the U.S. economy has added 3.1 million private-sector jobs. Even playing by Republican rules, that’s 3.1 million more than zero.

And as for whether President Obama has “failed,” Mitt Romney has argued repeatedly this month that under Obama, the economy has “gotten better.” That sounds to me like the opposite of failure.

I’m not optimistic this will ever happen, but Romney’s penchant for dishonesty in high-profile settings deserves to be a story unto itself.

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