Should Romney demand that Obama release his college records in exchange for tax returns?

That’s the suggestion from former Libertarian Party VP candidate Wayne Allen Root, who graduated in the same disciplines as Barack Obama at the same time (1983) from the same college, Columbia University.  If Harry Reid wants to play the “there must be something scary in those records” game, why not challenge Obama by offering to release 10 years of tax returns if Obama will release 10 years of college records?

Obama and his infamous strategist David Axelrod understand how to play political hardball, the best it’s ever been played. Team Obama has decided to distract America’s voters by condemning Mitt Romney for not releasing enough years of his tax returns. It’s the perfect cover. Obama knows the best defense is a bold offense. Just keep attacking Mitt and blaming him for secrecy and evasion, while accusing him of having a scandal that doesn’t exist. Then ask followers like Senator Harry Reid to chase the lead. The U.S. Senate Majority Leader appears to now be making up stories out of thin air, about tax returns he knows nothing about. It’s a cynical, brilliant, and vicious strategy. Make Romney defend, so he can’t attack the real Obama scandal.

This is classic Axelrod. Obama has won several elections in his career by slandering his opponents and leaking sealed documents. Not only do these insinuations and leaks ruin the credibility and reputation of Obama’s opponents, they keep them on the defensive and off Obama’s trail of sealed documents. …

My answer for Romney? Call Obama’s bluff.

Romney should call a press conference and issue a challenge in front of the nation. He should agree to release more of his tax returns, only if Obama unseals his college records. Simple and straight-forward. Mitt should ask “What could possibly be so embarrassing in your college records from 29 years ago that you are afraid to let America’s voters see? If it’s THAT bad, maybe it’s something the voters ought to see.” Suddenly the tables are turned. Now Obama is on the defensive.

My bet is that Obama will never unseal his records because they contain information that could destroy his chances for re-election. Once this challenge is made public, my prediction is you’ll never hear about Mitt’s tax returns ever again.

I admit that this scenario would give some satisfaction after Reid’s attack-dog McCarthyism of the past week or so.  There is precedent for release of both tax returns and college records; in 2004, both candidates released at least part of their college records, which showed that George W. Bush had a slightly better undergrad GPA than John Kerry, and both earned good grades in pursuit of their post-graduate degrees.  Other than that, the topic was completely uninteresting, because it had little to do with the issues in the election, and also because they came out early — well before either campaign could build a sustained narrative about them.

Tax returns hold the same cachet and relevance.  They’re usually dry affairs, especially for people who can afford to have professional preparation for their tax returns.  As I wrote earlier, they don’t really serve any purpose but to allow critics to seize on legal income and tax structuring in order to paint their opponents as too rich to trust.  That’s exactly what Barack Obama and David Axelrod want to do with Romney, which is why he’s balking at releasing any more of his returns.  The risk for Romney is that the refusal makes him look secretive, which Team Obama has already claimed, when in fact it’s no one’s business what’s in his tax returns.  Romney, just like all other politicians at the federal level, is required to make disclosures about his wealth in order to disclose potential conflicts of interest, which is what is actually relevant to the pursuit of public office.

People have criticized Obama for not releasing his college records, especially in 2008, when he ran as a super-intelligent outsider whose lack of experience was an asset to bringing a fresh perspective to Washington and policy.  Poor grades would certainly have been relevant at that time, but probably not so much today.  (Root argues in his piece that he thinks Obama scored scholarships as a “foreign exchange” student based on his years spent in Indonesia, but Obama had been in the US all through his high-school years, so that doesn’t seem very plausible.)

The problem for Romney in this kind of strategy is that it will serve as a distraction from his central premise: that Obama’s record as President shows that his policies have failed, and that the US needs new leadership, especially on the economy.  Even if he did adopt this strategy, the Obama campaign has Harry Reid playing Tail Gunner Joe on this issue, keeping a safe distance from the mud-slinging.  Even if, as Root supposes, Axelrod has been running Reid as a front man, a Romney challenge on Obama’s college records won’t shut Reid up.  Instead, Romney will end up punching below his weight, way off message, while Team Obama stays ostensibly on the sidelines and benefits from the derailing of Romney’s messaging. And by making the offer at all, Romney legitimizes the demand for the release of his tax returns.

In the end, Obama’s betting that people care more about Romney’s tax returns than their own pocketbooks.  If they stick with that strategy, they’re going to be in for a rude surprise in November — and the more the economy slides toward recession, the more the reminders of Romney’s business success might backfire on Obama.

Update: A couple of commenters are angry with me for using the term “McCarthyism,” claiming that the communist infiltration that Joe McCarthy claimed turned out to be real.  But that’s not what the term means.  As I wrote two years ago in another context, Joe McCarthy may have been right in general, but he ended up doing a lot of damage:

Note: People objected yesterday to the use of the word “McCarthyism” in my post, but I use it for two reasons.  First, it’s a term that the Left throws out with abandon any time people dissent from their orthodoxy and have the temerity to question their motivations.  Second, it is a clear, concise description that immediately conveys the kind of guilty-until-proven-innocent abuse of power from government officials when it occurs.

Some people objected because later information proved Joe McCarthy correct in general about Communist infiltration in the government, but that doesn’t acquit McCarthy of his abuse of power.  He accused people without evidence, many of them the wrong people, and did so as a representative of the government that is supposed to protect the individual presumption of innocence until evidence proves contrary.  McCarthy was a dangerous man, and perhaps even more for the discredit he heaped on the anti-Communist effort when the Soviet Union was at its most aggressive.

Specifically, McCarthy smeared people as Communists or Communist sympathizers when he didn’t have evidence to back up those claims, then demanded that they prove themselves innocent rather than him proving their guilt.  It was a despicable tactic then, and it’s a despicable tactic now.  No one should waste time trying to rehabilitate McCarthy.