Sometimes, it's possible to gain and lose the moral high ground very quickly.
When reporters shout intemperate questions at a candidate near Pilsudski Square in Warsaw, the candidate has gained the high ground. When the candidate's aide tells the reporters, "Kiss my ass" and "Shove it," the candidate has lost the high ground.
Similarly, Mitt Romney had the high ground when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made unfounded allegations about the Republican's tax returns. And yet, he somehow managed to cede the high ground soon after.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Reid claimed he'd heard from a Bain Capital investor that Romney hadn't paid income taxes for 10 years. Which investor? Reid didn't say. Why should anyone take the claim seriously? Reid couldn't say. He heard a rumor, and he's passing it along.
Team Romney was furious and they had a point. The discourse can't work this way -- prominent officials need to be responsible when making attacks, and not just throw around second-hand innuendo, as if presidential candidates have a responsibility to respond to every unsupported rumor.
Romney had the high ground against a cheap shot. And then he gave it away.
"It's time for Harry to put up or shut up," Romney said on Sean Hannity's radio show. [...]
"Harry's gonna have to describe who it is he spoke with because of course that's totally and completely wrong," Romney said Thursday in the radio interview. "It's untrue, dishonest and inaccurate. It's wrong. So I'm looking forward to have Harry reveal his sources and we'll probably find out that it's the White House."
Is that so. Does Reid have any proof that Romney failed to pay taxes for 10 years? No, it's just an unsubstantiated allegation that Reid carelessly pushed in the media. And does Romney have any proof that the White House is Reid's secret source behind the attack? No, it's just an unsubstantiated allegation that Romney carelessly pushed in the media. High ground, lost.
As for "put up or shut up," is this really the phrase the guy who has been hiding his tax returns wants to use?
In recent weeks, Romney and his campaign spokespersons have claimed he always followed the law when paying his taxes and never paid an income tax rate of 0%. Romney also told a national television audience he'd be "happy to go back and look" to see how many years, if any, he paid a rate under 13.9%.
But these boasts are as dubious as Reid's irresponsible claims -- Romney has effectively told Americans we're simply supposed to take his defense on faith. He could bolster his own rhetoric about his tax history with documented proof, but for reasons he can't explain, Romney doesn't want to.
The message: just take his word for it. And what about his willingness to happily go back and look at his paid income tax rates? Apparently, Romney intends to break this commitment just days after making it.
This is not how one keeps the moral high ground.
For Reid's part, the Senate Majority Leader issued a statement last night that stands by the original allegations.
"There is a controversy because the Republican presidential nominee, Governor Mitt Romney, refuses to release his tax returns. As I said before, I was told by an extremely credible source that Romney has not paid taxes for ten years. People who make as much money as Mitt Romney have many tricks at their disposal to avoid paying taxes. We already know that Romney has exploited many of these loopholes, stashing his money in secret, overseas accounts in places like Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.
"Last weekend, Governor Romney promised that he would check his tax returns and let the American people know whether he ever paid a rate lower than 13.9 percent. One day later, his campaign raced to say he had no intention of putting out any further information.
"When it comes to answering the legitimate questions the American people have about whether he avoided paying his fair share in taxes or why he opened a Swiss bank account, Romney has shut up. But as a presidential candidate, it's his obligation to put up, and release several years' worth of tax returns just like nominees of both parties have done for decades.
"It's clear Romney is hiding something, and the American people deserve to know what it is. Whatever Romney's hiding probably speaks volumes about how he would approach issues that directly impact middle-class families, like tax reform and the economy. When you are running for president, you should be an open book.
"I understand Romney is concerned that many people, Democrats and Republicans, have been calling on him to release his tax returns. He has so far refused. There is only one thing he can do to clear this up, and that's release his tax returns."
The issue isn't going away.