Because he’s refused to release more than two years of tax returns, and has rooted his entire campaign in tax, spending, and economic growth plans that lack critical details and defy logical scrutiny, Mitt Romney’s critics, starting with senior Obama advisers, have assailed him as the least transparent candidate since Richard Nixon.
It’s a catchy attack — one that recalls not just Nixon’s candidacies, but his scandal-plagued presidency and ignominious resignation. Which is no doubt why “least transparent candidate since Nixon” has become one of Chicago’s favorite phrases.
But setting aside the Obama campaign’s partisan desire to make voters think of Watergate when they hear the name Mitt Romney, there’s something to the notion that Romney is unusually opaque compared to presidential candidates in the modern era, according to some presidential historians.
“I think the comparison to Nixon is not a very good one, because … Nixon may have been a shadier character in some respects — the Southern strategy, laundering campaign money — but he abided by the norms of the time in terms of disclosure,” said Norm Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute.
To Bruce Buchanan, a presidential historian at the University of Texas at Austin, Romney’s drawn attention to himself in a unique way.
“Just the fact of avoiding specifics is not all that unusual,” he said. “The fact of doing it in the context of claims that other analysts conclude don’t add up and not being willing to address those concerns, is a little less common in my memory at least.”
Romney’s fiscal policies remind Buchanan of Nixon’s 1968 campaign, in which he pledged to end the war in Vietnam without providing details — what came to be known as his “secret plan.” Likewise, after winning his first election in 1980 on fairly specific pledges to reduce deficits, cut social programs, and increase defense spending, Ronald Reagan glided to re-election in 1984 largely on the winds of an improving economy.
Not all historians place Romney in historically uncharted territory.
“I feel that Romney has disclosed a bit less than usual, but again, I’m not sure we are in unprecedented territory,” says Edward Widmer, a historian and one time speechwriter for Bill Clinton. “You mention Nixon’s secret plan for Vietnam was an interesting example of a vague promise that sounded good, without many details offered. Eisenhower also hit a good way of talking about the Korean War in 1952 when he simply said, ‘I will go to Korea,’ though no one knew exactly what that meant.”