Lately I am in awe of President Obama's weasel-perfect scheme of manipulating the press into talking non-stop about Romney's unreleased tax returns. You rarely see that level of naked cynicism work so well. It reminds me of the story of the politician who, in less enlightened times, accused his opponent of being a "flagrant heterosexual" because he figured voters were dumb enough to think that sounded like a moral failing.
Most observers assume Romney's taxes are in full compliance with the law and that his tax experts found clever ways to reduce his taxes as much as possible. In other words, Romney is smart, hires good people, plays within the rules, and believes in low taxes. That's totally consistent with his campaign message. Obama's genius is making all of that sound like financial pedophilia. It's a brilliant political trap.
This made me wonder what qualities we should look for in a president. In many ways, Romney and Obama are similar. Both candidates are staunchly opposed to personal freedom, albeit in different ways. And neither candidate has a plausible plan for fixing the economy. The winner in this next election will be the candidate who does the best job of convincing voters that the other candidate's gold is nothing but festively colored turds. But is that a bad thing?
The most important talent for a president is the ability to focus national attention where it needs to be. Election years are like an extended job interview with lots of role play. We citizens watch as the candidates compete to control the news cycle and get in our heads. The topics they choose (tax returns, birth certificates, etc.) are almost irrelevant to the larger question of how well they can manipulate the national conversation.
Leadership is mostly about controlling what people think. If you have two candidates of roughly equal intelligence, experience, and moral center, the tie-breaker is the indefinable quality called leadership. Lately, Obama has been winning the leadership contest by proving he can make Romney's unicorn look like a horse with a protruding brain tumor.
If I were to advise Romney on how to flip the tax return issue in his favor, it would involve the "higher ground" maneuver that I've described in past posts. That involves confessing that whatever people suspect is 100% true, proposing a path forward, and changing the context in a way that is more compelling to the press.
Steve Jobs famously used this method when people realized the iPhone dropped calls if you held it a certain way. The press went nuts about it. Eventually Jobs publicly confessed the problem, offered a fix, and changed the context to "all smartphones have problems." The press immediately turned to the question of whether all smartphones had issues, and discovered it was largely true. The controversy with the iPhone dissolved overnight.
In Romney's case, the higher ground strategy would involve confessing that he hired the best tax experts that money could buy and they did an "embarrassingly" good job of legally lowering his taxes. The keyword is "embarrassingly" because it explains his desire for privacy. Then he should propose doing the same thing for voters, i.e. find ways to lower their taxes while fixing the economy at the same time. Remind voters that he's running as a guy who knows how to navigate complicated financial situations and find the best solutions. Then ask a simple question: Would you vote for a candidate who couldn't do a good job on his own tax returns? That's the context change. I think Romney could get experts looking at Obama's published returns and determining that he paid more taxes than he needed; it's an argument you can always make about any return. That would make Obama look financially incompetent.
With this approach, the press would focus first on the question of whether success is, or should be, "embarrassing" in our country, and secondly on whether Obama handled his own taxes well. That cleverly changes the discussion from whether Romney is hiding something unseemly to the question of how well he hires people to do that sort of work.
I'll remind you that I don't think either candidate meets the minimum standard I would expect for a modern leader. I'm still waiting for a candidate that prefers using a rational process of borrowing best practices from other countries and testing new ideas on a small scale to see what works. And I prefer a leader who doesn't profess a deep belief in magic. Call me a dreamer.