Small Pence slip on tax returns highlights bigger mystery

Mike Pence made a small tactical error recently.

It got buried in the avalanche of other political news — his running mate at the top of the ticket is quite the attention-getter, and Pence, after all, is the vice presidential candidate — but it’s worth a second look.

After Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine released their tax returns, Pence was quoted as saying that, he, too, would make his returns available once they had been filed, which must have produced an awkward moment in the Trump-Pence campaign.

But then Pence said this:

“Well I just think, you know, it is breathtaking to see the way the Clintons throughout the last, you know, quarter century, have pursued a career in public life, but done quite well in private life, and I think that it, it makes a lot of her class warfare rhetoric in her speech yesterday in Michigan ring hollow.”

Again, in the midst of far more surreal campaign news, Pence’s comment disappeared without a trace. But had it come during a debate — and surely Pence, a professional, must have known this as the words escaped his mouth — an astute opponent would have pounced on that remark.

You see, when your running mate won’t release his tax returns, commenting on your opponent’s returns is fraught with, well, a whole passel of things. And it’s fortunate for Pence — and pretty telling — that no Democrat could be bothered to make something of it.

Pence’s small error points to the larger problem — and the even larger mystery.

Pence was gently touching on a narrative that — in a normal year — Republicans would be repeating without rest: Clinton’s speech money, her Wall Street ties, the Clinton Foundation. The dots connect themselves.

Regardless of the importance individual voters assign that narrative in their assessment of Clinton, if you’re her opponent, it’s nothing short of political malpractice to forgo it.

But if you won’t release your tax returns, that narrative lacks power. Because, if you won’t release your tax returns — this is the gift that keeps on giving — you invite a speculative narrative far more alarming than “Clinton has a cozy relationship with the wealthy.”

Not as wealthy as you say you are? Haven’t been paying taxes? In deep with shady Russians?

Those must be some tax returns. Could be a best-seller — something Trump should appreciate.

This appeared originally as the column One Dog Barking on

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