Many citizens of this country – in my mind far too many – have little to no
idea how it operates, don’t understand how the institutions of government function or relate, don’t apply daily news stories to their own lives, find politics boring/distasteful and go about their own business thinking someone else will handle it. Until something goes wrong or adversely affects them. Then they holler.

While that sounds a bit arrogant, I don’t mean it to be. Evidence supporting that thesis is all around us. Even in Congress. Maybe especially in Congress. Just a few days ago, I was involved in another example of this too-large civic vacuum on my Facebook page. Someone is linked to that page; someone I don’t know but it appears we have a mutual friend or two. I don’t like that feature because that immediately makes your “friends” my “friends” and, in life, that’s not always the case.

But back to the Facebook evidence. This person seemed honestly motivated to start a discussion by asking if Mitt Romney should produce more tax returns than the one he already has and the one he’s promised to. I thought the answer was pretty obvious – he must – but the several dozen answers that came in over the next few hours showed how little some people really know about the important issues implicit in that question.

For the record, most of the respondents clearly had some good education judging by spelling, sentence structure and coherent thought. They seemed interested in saying their “piece” and – whether you agreed/disagreed with their position – did so with some apparent conviction. Problem was, some of those convictions just didn’t square with knowledge of the subject.

About half said Romney should put up several more years of tax returns. The other half said he shouldn’t have to. Now, that’s fine as far as personal opinions go. But some of the “reasoning” for not doing so clearly showed those “opinions” were not based on real knowledge of the situation, were short on fact and not offered with any real political understanding.

“He made his money and it shouldn’t be anyone else’s business.” ”He’s entitled to his privacy like the rest of us.” “I’d rather see Obama’s college transcript than Romney’s taxes.” “I don’t have to show mine so he shouldn’t have to show his.” Many opinions along those lines. To my mind, responses not based on the facts of the issue.

The problem is that the Romney tax returns question has taken on a larger life than it ordinarily would have and has produced more than one legitimate reason to press for their release. And Ol’ Mitt did this to himself.

While not required by law, it’s customary for candidates for President, Vice President or appointees to national office to open several years of financial records as a matter of transparency. Again, customary but not required. But I like the exercise. Romney – for whatever personal reason – won’t do that. His wife even said during a media interview “We’ve given you all we’re going to” then suggested more tax information would just be more ammunition to be used against her husband. I found that rather interesting.

What has taken this from just a matter of Romney making a decision contrary to recent custom to a major, legitimate issue is the evidence piling higher and higher that he has not been honest about his career, his sources of income and connections with the business world which he has made a cornerstone of his campaign. Government filings of corporate ownership, public statements of non-involvement with Bain Capital when he swore on official affidavits he was still the major stockholder and CEO, interviews in which he said he was making major Bain decisions that don’t match his recent disavowal of such actions, then saying he wasn’t making those decisions when public records show he did. Too many things don’t add up.

While Romney is perfectly within his rights to keep his tax information confidential personally, his recent public statements and claims don’t square with legal filings and his past history. His unwillingness to open these returns and offer the transparency necessary to reconcile his statements with facts has created the largest single problem of his candidacy. He’s put himself in a “damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t” box and given his opponent fertile campaign ground that could’ve been easily avoided at the start. Leading Republicans from left to right are telling him to “get them out there.” No matter, really. Whatever he decides now will cause him problems.

The absence of factual information is raising all sorts of questions about his campaign and his personal integrity. Has he been lying about his business background? Has he made millions but not paid taxes? Has he been investing overseas? Did he have personal Bain income after public claims he was not there? If so, why? Is he involved in other businesses that have not been identified? How did he get $20-million into an IRA when laws allow only a limited annual deposit amount – laws he would’ve had to violate?

What the recent Facebook exercise showed me anew is that many people apparently don’t make the connection of these returns with the honesty we seek in anyone who wants to be President of these United States. They equate Romney’s refusal as being the same as their own “right-to-privacy” and don’t see how the information within those documents has become more than just so many forms we all have to fill out. The real meaning of what, in recent days, has become the largest single issue of the Romney campaign doesn’t register.

Then, there’s Ann Romney’s statement that release of more tax information would give Mitt’s opponent “more ammunition” to use against him. Now he’s said the same thing. Those statements alone make alarm bells go off in my head. Is there official information or documents within those returns that wouldn’t look good for someone who’s running for high public office? Are there omissions that would constitute false filings? Is she saying the refusal is based on campaign strategy that it’s better to deal with questions of the unknown than to publicize facts that may damage Mitt’s chances? I think Missy Ann – and ol’ Mitt – have lobbed grenades into the story with those words.

I’ve seen at least two reports that Mitt has privately said to friends if he’d known he would be faced with full tax disclosure he wouldn’t have gotten into the race. If he did say that, it speaks volumes to me about his reasons for running and a lack of depth in commitment to the job. Also an odd thing to say when his own father made more than a decade’s worth of his tax information public during a presidential run and encouraged others to do the same.

The Romney tax story is important. More than it should be. But he made it so. He’ll have to live with that no matter the outcome. Still, it distresses and alarms me that the people who expressed their support for Romney’s decision on that Facebook page the other day seemed to know so little about why the story is very important. It makes me wonder if the nearly 50-50 split on that page is indicative of how the nation feels.

If so, it’s more evidence that far too many Americans know far too little about America.

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