Harry Reid has always been an unusual character. He's often dismissed as a lightweight by Republicans (Senator Tom Coburn recently called him "incompetent and incapable"), but he is also an adept legislative maneuverer who has notched some extraordinary victories, perhaps none more notable than getting every Democrat in the Senate, even ones like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman who live to make trouble for their own party, to vote for the Affordable Care Act. He's very soft-spoken, speaking most of the time in a near-whisper, but he's also willing to wield a shiv with an enthusiasm few in his party can muster.
And now, Reid is doing the kind of work that surrogates are supposed to do for presidential candidates: go out and make the kind of biting, maybe even questionable attack on the opponent that the candidate himself doesn't want to be seen making. Reid has charged that a source at Bain Capital has told him privately that Mitt Romney didn't pay any taxes for 10 years, and that's why Romney won't reveal his tax returns. When asked for concrete evidence beyond the word of an anonymous source, Reid says, "I don't think the burden should be on me. The burden should be on him. He's the one I've alleged has not paid any taxes. Why didn't he release his tax returns?" Romney replied that Reid should "put up or shut up," and offered an unsubstantiated charge of his own: "I'm looking forward to having Harry reveal his sources and we'll probably find out it's the White House."
This episode gives us yet another case study in how different Republicans and Democrats are. If the parties were reversed, I guarantee you that you would not be able to find a single Republican to criticize what their colleague was doing. They'd meet the "McCarthyism!" charges with a laugh. But Democrats are conflicted, as they usually are about hardball politics (Jon Stewart tore Reid a new one over it). So let's take a moment to sort through just how we should feel about this.
As a general principle, people shouldn't toss around explosive charges without having evidence to back them up. And everyone is assuming that what Reid is saying is false, but there is at least some possibility that it's true. It's highly unlikely, but it's possible. We can probably also assume that Reid didn't make this up out of whole cloth—somebody did tell him this, though whether the person ought to be believed is something we can't know.
Is this really akin to the birther controversy, as some have charged? It might be, if Romney had already released his tax returns and everyone knew what was in them. Remember that Obama released his birth certificate during the 2008 campaign, not to mention the fact that there were birth announcements in Hawaii newspapers. There was never any question but that the birthers were nuts, and Obama was never hiding anything. In this case, however, Romney is hiding something. His argument is that even though he will certainly demand to see multiple years of tax returns for his nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, and even though he's certainly demanding to see multiple years of tax returns for the people he's considering to be his running mate, the public doesn't get to see his tax returns for more than one year. The absolute gall of his position—that he wants to be president of the United States, but doesn't think he should have to give a full accounting of his finances—is really something to marvel at.
So just like it's possible for the police to frame a guilty man, Reid is making what's probably a false charge about a matter that Romney is improperly concealing from the electorate. If Romney wanted to, he could refute the charge and humiliate Reid tomorrow, just by releasing his returns. But it's obvious that those returns contain something (or maybe multiple somethings) that Romney believes would be so damaging to his candidacy if voters knew about it that he's willing to suffer all this bad press, and give the Obama campaign all this ammunition, to keep anyone from finding out.
And frankly, Mitt Romney has run his campaign in a manner so disreputable—constantly questioning Barack Obama's patriotism, twisting his words out of context at every opportunity, running up a record of mendacity that stands out even among modern campaigns—that it's hard to feel any sympathy for him when someone hits him a little below the belt.