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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 20, 2012
Romney can't pull off what Jobs did, because Romney is the prototypical "rich guy" that the weasels in the press love to hate. Meanwhile, Jobs was a Svengali who actually made way more money than Romney while terrorizing his own employees, but the press decided that that was cool, because he did it while wearing flip-flops and black sweaters.
 
 
Jul 20, 2012
I'm liking your style a lot Scott. You continue to amaze me and I am trying to take your ideas on board for my own purposes - so far doing pretty well I'd say, in my own low key way. I look back at my own previously clumsy elephantine dialogs with people, now I get so more many sub texts, and can at least make a few minor improvents. The subtle way a little language can totally reverse a situation - it's revelation to me at least.

On Romney I cannot like him. The dog on the roof thing does not indicate compassion or empathy.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitt_Romney_dog_incident
So the dog liked it even though he produced enough diarrhea to trickle down the back windscreen, from a turkey. Right.

I can accept capitalism is the least bad system to operate, but I strongly dislike the strain of capitalism that makes money without creating anything useful - this seems to be the Romney way.
 
 
Jul 20, 2012
Hi Scott,

You've misread both the iPhone AND the Romney situations.

The problem isn't the "accusations" (both of which are "true", btw).

The problem is the evasion. Evasiveness makes people look guilty.
 
 
Jul 19, 2012
@fledder: "Either way, both candidates are filthy rich and therefore cannot associate with common people anyway."

Good luck getting a candidate who isn't rich. Those days are over.

But I don't think being rich necessarily means they can't "associate with common people". Unlike FDR and JFK, who, nevertheless showed empathy for poor people, some rich presidents have been self-made men, which means they started out as "common people" themselves.
 
 
Jul 19, 2012
@Kingfisher:

My bad. I thought we were discussing Presidential leadership. But I realize now you had Obama leadership in mind, since you mention street gangs and mobs.
 
 
Jul 19, 2012
Yeah I didn't understand why Romney didn't just.come out and say what you said, Scott. His flandering made him look like a giant buffoon. He's not going to win this campaign. Period.
 
 
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Jul 19, 2012
I think your reasoning is too much on the legality of the tax return, and the intelligence it takes to leverage the loopholes in the system. The real question is an ethical one. Sure, most people would leverage any way to lower their taxes, but people expect better from a presidential candidate.

That's one. The second part is how you realize those tax returns. If taxes on stock profits are simply low, you can't blame anyone, only the system. However, if taxes are lowered by moving income offshore, that's a different category. It's still smart, perhaps still legal even, but clearly it sends out the wrong message. It's still more of a system problem than a personal problem, but I figure it is not perceived as such.

Either way, both candidates are filthy rich and therefore cannot associate with common people anyway.
 
 
Jul 19, 2012
@BigHenry

I'd say a good number of 'Leaders', as well as the bulk of politicians very easily be pathological liars. It's much easier to be persuasive when you're not constrained by the truth.

Your definition of leadership is way to narrow. Street gangs have leaders, mobs have leaders.
Leadership is just a combination of charisma, courage and ambition.
 
 
Jul 19, 2012
@RMan: "Thousands of people graduate from ivy league schools every year and is not a big deal"

I think it's a big deal for the graduates. Be that as it may, I take it you agree that there must be something sinister about Obama's Ivy League sojourn? Otherwise (if it's "not a big deal"), why would he hide his records? We won't even mention his birth documentation, which, you must agree, is a very big deal, since his Presidential eligibility depends on them.

And whatever you suspect about Romney's tax records, how is that relevant, given that the IRS has access to them and is the arbiter of their legality?
 
 
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Jul 19, 2012
@TheBigHenry

Thousands of people graduate from ivy league schools every year and is not a big deal, someone turning $420,000 of sep-IRA contributions into $21-100 million is like having 3 holes in one in a round of golf.

As far as the IRS and his tax records I suspect he took advantage of the IRS 2009 offshore amnesty program to avoid going to prison when the laws changed to allow the IRS to crack down on those accounts where people were not reporting income.
 
 
Jul 19, 2012
@aaror2:

What does it matter who set the precedent? Is there any doubt that the IRS has scrutinized Romney's returns? Can there be any doubt that if his returns weren't squeaky-clean everyone would have been hearing about it 24/7 in the MSM?

On the other hand, exactly what (and by whom) scrutiny has been brought to bare on all the documents Obama has locked away beyond public scrutiny? And what explanations/excuses has Obama volunteered for his secrecy?
 
 
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Jul 19, 2012
Romney should complain to the guy who established the precedent of releasing your tax returns to show you are on the up and up. What was that guy's name? Oh yeah, Romney (Mitt's dad).
 
 
Jul 19, 2012
@RMan:

This would be a great story to hear how [Obama] did this. If he were proud of how he obtained his [diplomas] he would be more open, but he his [sic] hiding this information so he most likely did some ethically questionable things and possibly something illegal.
 
 
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 19, 2012
Here is a good article on Romney's magic IRA, the returns are stunning even if "only" $21 million is in the account today (the high end estimate is $102 million).
http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-07-15/the-secret-behind-romney-s-magical-ira.html

This would be a great story to hear how he did this. If he were proud of how he obtained his wealth he would be more open, but he his hiding this information so he most likely did some ethically questionable things and possibly something illegal.
 
 
Jul 19, 2012
@Raketemensch:

I agree with your Rule#1. Do you agree that those on the Left violate the rule at least as often as their opponents? If not, have you actually done the math?
 
 
Jul 19, 2012
"Most observers assume Romney's taxes are in full compliance"

Rule #1 of posting opinions on the internet: Do not simply assume that you, or your circle of friends, constitutes a majority.

 
 
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Jul 19, 2012
Dreamer!

The presidential election is a smoke screen for the American public, to keep their attention off of what is actually happening to them. Leadership isn't even involved.

The Electoral College determines the presidency.

Get a clue.

 
 
Jul 19, 2012
A part of me (the Canadian part), would like to see Romney win the Election, Because I think Romney would have a better chance of dealing with a Democratic Senate, than Obama has of dealing with a Republican House.

For example, I think Romney - if he so chose - could easily convince a Republican House that replacing the Bush Tax cuts with the Obama Tax cuts isn't such a bad thing.

Also - assuming Harry Reid continues as the Senate majority leader, the fact the the President and the Senate Leader share a common religion may give them some personal reasons to find common ground, even if they disagree politically.

Third - his promise to 'Repeal and Replace' Obamacare is probably true. But I'll bet that what he proposes to replace it with will be functionally identical to Obamacare. It will be a huge middle finger to the Tea partiers, but it would establish Romney as the most centrist President since - ever.

There is the possibility that Romney will not do this, but will instead try pandering to the more right-wing factions of the Party. Which will further alienate a large portion of the population and make a class war more likely.
 
 
Jul 19, 2012
@Kingfisher:

I don't agree that "persuasiveness" is the mark of a leader. A pathological liar can be very persuasive.

Leadership, such as Abraham Lincoln's, is that indefinable something that enables one to persevere against monumental obstacles until a righteous vision is accomplished, or is defeated by a better and/or more powerful one.
 
 
Jul 19, 2012
For a minute I thought you were going to say that the presidential race was actually a valid method of choosing the best candidate!

You said "The most important talent for a president is the ability to focus national attention where it needs to be," and then discussed how Obama was doing that and how Romney could counter. I thought you were going to say the candidate who is the best at tricking the public into voting for him is also the best choice to be president (assuming no nefarious hidden agendas).

I'm not sure I disagree with this point that you never made. Who wants a president who isn't cunning enough to get elected?
 
 
 
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