Monday, 11 June 2012

Romney's approach to campaign openness: Keep secrets and release only what law says he must

Keeping his secrets, Mitt Romney tends to lift the veil on his finances and campaign only if the law says he must.

The Republican presidential candidate refuses to identify his biggest donors who "bundle" money for his campaign. He often declines to say who's meeting with him or what he's doing for hours at a time. He puts limits on media access to his fundraisers. And he resists releasing all of his tax returns, making just a single year public after facing pressure to do so.

"We've released all the information required by law and then some," Romney said last month about his tax returns.

He's indicated that part of the reason for his secrecy is to avoid political problems in his race against President Barack Obama.

He has said of his election foe: "He's going to try and make this campaign about the fact that I've been successful, that I've made a lot of money. So he wants to be able to get all the details on each year and how much money I made this year and that year. I'm not going to get into that."

Not that Obama has been totally open, either.

For example, the Democrat also limits media access to some parts of his fundraisers, though he allows cameras into larger events and will bring a small contingent of reporters into private residences. Reporters are promptly ushered out ahead of question-and-answer sessions with donors. Some fundraisers are closed entirely because the campaign says Obama is not making any formal remarks.

But Romney, whose views have been shaped both by his years in politics and his nearly three decades in private business, has made a keep-it-under-wraps approach a hallmark of his campaign. He's often broken precedent set by presidential candidates of both parties.

"He is reluctant to disclose information that is standard for disclosure and has become the norm," said Angela Canterbury, policy director for the Project on Government Oversight. And she and others say there's no reason to think that style would change if Romney becomes president.

There's a short-term political benefit, to be sure, in keeping a lid on everything from campaign appearances to the names of big donors. It means Romney can more easily control his campaign message, rather than getting knocked off course by Democratic hecklers at events or by unflattering media stories. And it can prevent providing fodder for political rivals to use against him.

But there also are risks, not the least of which is that Romney could appear to be hiding something, further irking voters already suspicious of politicians.

Romney has had the Republican nomination locked up for months, but he has yet to start traveling daily with the journalists who are assigned to cover him. He hasn't agreed to what's called a "protective pool" of reporters, who go wherever a candidate goes. Romney aides fear the arrangement would push the candidate off the message of the day, so they are loath to agree to it until they absolutely must.

Obama's traveling press corps was with him virtually at all times starting in June 2008, just three weeks after he triumphed over Hillary Rodham Clinton to become the presumptive Democratic nominee. Republican nominee John McCain didn't officially have a "protective pool" until August but he had a familiar relationship his traveling press corps, and journalists almost always traveled on his campaign plane in the months after he clinched the nomination in March 2008.

On the campaign trail this year, Romney's aides have at times tried to limit reporters from approaching him when he shakes hands with voters at events. And his aides often don't allow a camera and microphone on stage to record those interactions — though that's been customary in past campaigns.

Also, Romney's schedule is closely held — and his campaign typically won't say what he's doing when he's not at one of the few public events he holds each week. Even public appearances often are announced less than a day in advance — or not at all. Recently he rode to the site of the failed energy company Solyndra on the unmarked press bus, leaving the logo-plastered Romney for President bus behind at his hotel. Aides said the campaign was concerned the Obama administration would work with local officials to prevent Romney from holding an event there.

Romney's campaign also usually won't disclose with whom the candidate meets — regardless of whether they are high-ranking officials or simply voters. He kept reporters away from a private meeting with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell last month, and says he regularly holds "off the record" meetings with middle class families, though he won't say who they are.

Obama's public schedule tends to list more Oval Office meetings than President George W. Bush did, but many of his sessions are not divulged. The White House does release Obama's visitor logs, and they are open on the White House website.

On his possible policies as president, Romney has been more upfront with audiences behind closed doors than he has been when the media are present.

At fundraising events not witnessed by reporters, donors are sometimes given access to policy roundtables with top staff, and Romney himself gave donors in West Palm Beach, Fla., a more detailed outline of which federal departments he plans to cut than is part of his normal campaign speech. That address was overheard by reporters who stood outside on a sidewalk.

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