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.
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Jul 19, 2012
I think both Obama and Romney are fairly intelligent, and they both have very intelligent people working on their campaigns - perhaps more so than any previous election.

So if Romney is continuing to refuse to release his taxes, it is because they know that the opposing side will be able to spin whatever is in there much more effectivly than they could. Or they are buying time until they can spin a better story than they think their opponents can.

It may be possible that the tax records will show that Romneys fortune increased dramatically during the height of the crisis, which could easily be spun as "Romney profited from America's Pain", even if he didn't do anything unethical.

President is the ultimate Political Position. In order to become president you have to first convince the elites in your party that you are their man (so that they fund your campaign), and then you have to convince the rest of the country that you are their man. Doing that convincingly is the mark of a truly persuasive personality.

Thats good, because the job of the President of the United States is, of course, to provide leadership. But more importantly it is to be the Most Persuasive Person in the government.
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Jul 19, 2012
I'm thinking that the Presidential campaigns are becoming more & more like the Supreme Court nominees Senate "interviews". That is, don't commit yourself to anything, like how you'd rule on something or even what you might think of some judicial theory, for god's sake, etc.

Obama has had almost 4 years to do what he seems to believe he *can* do something about the economy. Romney has had just as long to envision an alternate plan for the moribund economy. Both have failed utterly at these main tasks. But they actually *both* seem to embrace talking about & challenging the other on inconsequential issues that have nothing to do with their main jobs. What a waste of what might have been a "national conversation" about the US economy & the government's role within it.
Jul 19, 2012
Your post gives me the impression that seeking a grand solution to our problems trumps (for you) making a considered choice between the limited alternatives we are presented with. That may be fine for a dreamer who feels he has lots of dream-time at his disposal.

But for a realist who believes the majority of voters don't have such luxury, it is time to choose the less-bad choice. That would be Romney, or any old yellow dog, since the alternative is Obama.
Jul 19, 2012
"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"

This is "embarrasingly" genius!
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Jul 19, 2012

If Romney wins despite what he has supposedly "achieved" as a "capitalist," then either Obama chose to lose or the American people are really, really against long-term growth as a country.
Jul 19, 2012
Some comments:

"And neither candidate has a plausible plan for fixing the economy."
That's clearly a matter of opinion. There are plenty of true believers out there for both schools of though on what makes a good economy.

"changing the context in a way that is more compelling to the press."
There is nothing more compelling to the press than making Republicans (Romney in this case) look bad and Democrats (Obama) look good. You are assuming here that we have an impartial press that is merely attracted to bright shiny objects, but in truth we have a highly politically motivated press that voluntarily acts as a mouthpiece for whatever Obama's team wants said. The iPhone example works because electronic fad gadgets aren't political.

"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."
The problem with this is that the leftist press along with the Democrat party already pushes the view that success is most definitely embarrassing to put it mildly. They do their best to set the country against those who are successful. Romney saying he got good tax breaks would just be used to further the message about how greedy and unfair he is just like all other rich and successful people. Obama is running around touting liberal wealthy people that claim publicly that they want to pay higher taxes. Obama paying more taxes than he needed to would be held up as virtuous by the press, not foolish.

"And I prefer a leader who doesn't profess a deep belief in magic."
Based on arguments I've had with atheists, I assume this is a reference to being a practicing member of a religion. Equating faith in God with belief in magic is a vast oversimplification and misstatement of what faith is.

[Is supernatural different from magic? -- Scott]
Jul 19, 2012
Romney was trying this approach already since the January Debate when he stated he makes no apologies for having done well financially, and having good tax attorneys. So the best way for him to make this go away as quickly as possible at this point is to release a few more years of taxes, anything above 2 or 3 years should be enough to get people to move on.

[The "makes no apology" approach is a loser. Psychologists will tell you that the irrational part of your brain registers the word "apology" and ignores the word "no," which reinforces the idea that an apology is even an option on the table. Romney needs to change the context from yes-apology versus no-apology into yes-good-at-financial stuff versus not-good-at-financial stuff. -- Scott]
Jul 19, 2012
The question I would like answered wouldn't be solved by releasing the tax returns - how did Romney get so much money in his IRA - hundreds of times the maximum amount he could have contributed? I suspect that it isn't something he wants the American people to know, even if it isn't illegal.

[Because he's embarrassingly good at financial stuff? -- Scott]
Jul 19, 2012
I think you are on to something with the higher ground position. For bonus points, Romney could point out at least he knows to pay his taxes... something Obama's Secutary of the Treasury failed to do. That might give the argument a little extra umph.

Another angle is Romney could say this: "Yes' I'm rich and I hire good people to keep my taxes down. Who wouldn't want to pay the least taxes you are legally responible to pay? You'd have to be crazy to want togive away your hard earned money to those lunatics in Washington. But I also want everyone to be rich or at least have the possibility, and by lowering everyone's taxes, that becomes easier. Obama on the other hand is a committed communist DINO, democrat in name only, and as a good communist he wants everyone to live in third world conditions and use Obamacare to enfore a one child policy on america's poor. So, do you want everyone to be rich or do you want to America to be a third world nation and be forced into having an abortion?"

Yes it's a little long and slippery slope, but if Romney could pull it off, it attacks Obama in several ways and gives Romney several chances to have something that sticks from being a DINO, to the economy, to hinting that Obama wants to make america more like china in a bad way (loss of personal liberties).
Jul 19, 2012
Republicans have been arguing for six months about the 50 percent of the country which "pay no taxes" (which is not true -- they certainly pay sale taxes, if not payroll taxes, state taxes, property taxes, and so on).

If it turns out that Romney paid no federal taxes in 2009 -- even if he broke no laws to do so -- it would certainly look very, very bad, especially since his primary campaign message to date has been "rich people pay TOO MUCH in taxes."

[I'm suggesting that Romney could recast the "looks very, very bad" into "embarrassingly effective" without changing any of the facts involved. -- Scott]
Jul 19, 2012
Sure, maybe the best way to win is by manipulate the national conversation. The electorate enables this by responding to the out-of-context quotes used by both parties ("I like to fire people" and "You didn't built that").

Is it too much to expect our leaders to be the mature adults in the room, focus on what matters and informing the public, and not stoop to manipulation-even if manipulation is proven to work?
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