Ten Miles Square


August 03, 2012 2:18 PM The High Ground? Lonely

By Jonathan Bernstein

Of course it’s irresponsible for an elected official — and not just any elected official, but a high ranking one, the Senate Majority Leader — to make reckless, rumor-based allegations against a presidential candidate.

Is there any defense for Harry Reid? Only that it could be worse. I mean, he’s not accusing Mitt Romney of a crime, or even necessarily something unethical — by Romney’s own standards, it would be more problematic for Romney to be paying any tax if he can legally avoid it, so by Romney standards there’s nothing necessarily unethical about not paying taxes. On the other hand, while I suspect a lot of people agree with the Romney standard expressed that way, I’d also guess that most people would also assume that if Romney hasn’t paid taxes he’s probably cheating in some way. At any rate, this is no kind of healthy politics. The Majority Leader of the Senate is either amplifying unproven rumors or just making stuff up. Reid’s free to do it, but the fair consequence is that he gets (or adds to) a reputation for being reckless and irresponsible.

And good for liberals who point that out.

On the other hand.

I disagree with one of those liberals, Steve Benen, who writes that “Romney had the high ground against a cheap shot.” I mean, I see his point, but you know what? Romney had previously forfeited any claim to having any high ground on this one by violating the norm of presidential candidates releasing tax returns. I don’t know that it’s a particularly useful norm — I don’t really think it’s likely that any presidential nominee will be undermined by anything in his or her tax returns, Romney included, and I’m really not interested in supposed conflicts of interest at that level. But that’s irrelevant. It’s a norm of modern presidential politics, and if you violate that, you have no high ground to begin with. Nor has Romney given any particularly convincing reason for why the norm should not apply generally or to him in particular; to the contrary, his campaign wound up justifying it was a lie about John Kerry’s tax returns, a lie they repeated after it had been pointed out. So, yeah, invoke cliches about sowing and reaping, please.

That doesn’t, in my view, excuse Reid. Just because someone is asking for a cheap shot doesn’t make it okay to take a cheap shot! But the high ground is usually pretty vacant during presidential elections, and Romney certainly wasn’t occupying it on this issue.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.


  • RaflW on August 03, 2012 7:44 PM:

    Romney frankly gave up the high ground on cheap shots months ago when he used the Obama quote "If we talk about the economy, we loose" wildly out of context.

    Romney gave up the high ground on cheap shots when he included the "Obama apologizes for America" lie in every stump speech for months and months.

    Romney has fabricated vast swathes of his negative campaign.

    You and many others may be clutching your pearls, but Reid has the willingness to meet the unscrupulous GOP partway down where they've decided to live.

    Not a good sign for democracy long term, but the current GOP is not good for democracy in the short term.

  • beejeez on August 04, 2012 1:06 PM:

    Mr. Bernstein:

    When you say you don't think it's likely any presidential candidate will be undermined by anything in his or her tax teturns, do you mean you think it's unlikely some important ethical lapse exists, or do you mean you think that it's unlikely even a significant lapse would become an election issue? I'm usually on your side about things, but I'm not sure whether to criticize you this time for being naive or for being overly cynical.

    Also, you're really not interested in supposed conflicts of interest at that level? Are you sure you're in the right line of work?

  • jjm on August 04, 2012 6:02 PM:

    I'm with Reid on this one, and even hope he's just making stuff up because ROMNEY makes stuff up every day! Today it's the claim that the Obama administration is suing Ohio to ''stop"' the military from voting early, when of course, it's trying to get that early vote extended to everyone, as it was last year and for years before.

    Romney lies so fluidly he reminds me (even in his looks) of that smooth con man serial killer Ted Bundy (he was even fond of dressing up as a police to intimidate women, too), and I think a big, fat dose of his own medicine should be forced on him.

    Seriously, no wonder people think Democrats are wimps, playing fair and by the rules while the other guys walk over them on a thick carpet of lies.

    Reid is testing the extent to which Romney actually wants to be president: if he's unwilling to divulge his tax returns as everyone running has for decades, then it demonstrates that he is not serious about becoming president.

    But I also think there is a grain of truth in what Reid is saying, otherwise it is easily disproved by Romney, who's all huffy and righteous as the guilty so often are...

  • joel hanes on August 04, 2012 9:23 PM:

    I see no reason not to think that Harry Reid is telling the straight truth: that some former Bain investor called him and told him that Romney paid no Federal income taxes for several years.

  • Tim Connor on August 05, 2012 3:17 PM:

    Romney does not have the high ground. If he had the high ground he would have released his tax returns.


    I am tired of the (also unproven) statement that he has obeyed the law. So what? Nobody is suggesting he be jailed. But one has to ask when the Beltway crowd decided that the standard of character required to be president consisted of only two issues:

    1. Are the provably guilty of criminal behavior?
    2. Are thy rich?

  • Wapiti on August 06, 2012 12:54 AM:

    "I am tired of the (also unproven) statement that he has obeyed the law."


    Anyone who is over 22 years old - that is anyone who was eligible to vote in 2008, when John Edwards was one of the serious contenders for the Democratic Party nomination - should understand that (1) politicians will run for office even while hiding career-killing stuff and (2) the national media does a really, really poor job of finding such stuff out.

    Trust but verify - we want to see the returns before we'll believe he can be trusted.