by Joe Shea
Feb. 22, 2012
AWAITING THE NEXT GREAT MISTAKE
BRADENTON, Fla., Feb. 22, 2012 Updated 7:30pm ET-- The stage is set tonight in Mesa, Ariz., for mistakes that make political history. Will the candidates come through?
The 20th GOP presidential debate kicks off at 8pm Eastern, 8pm Central time, on CNN, and all four candidates - who have canceled out of two other debates and have just one more to go, on March 19 - are salivating at the chance one or more of their rivals will say or do something that dramatically shifts the outcome of the race for the Republican nomination in August.
Newt Gingrich is the most gaffe-prone. mainly because he talks so much. Rick Santorum, who is gaining ground on the strength of social stands that are anathema to many but golden among cultural conservatives, may be the most likely to say something he'll regret. It would probably involve women and sex.
Less vulnerable is Rep. Ron Paul, whose views are so tightly bound to the Constitution they are unlikely to be more controversial than they already are, particularly with respect to Iran, yet could say something about America's relationship with Israel or antipathy toward Iran that could weaken his campaign further.
Mitt Romney, verbally the most agile of the bunch, has nonetheless offered some first-class boo-boos - but not at debates - such as "I don't care much about the very poor" and "I like firing people." No matter how well-prepared he is by his debate preparation staff, it wouldn't surprise us if he was the big winner of the biggest blunder contest.
Tonight, though, a major issue for Romney has suddenly blown up. The topic is his intermittent service - in 11 of the last 19 years - on the board of directors from 1993 onwards of Marriott International Inc., the huge hotelier. Romney left the board in 2009.
In six of his 11 years (from 1993 to 1998) on the board, Romney was chairman of Marriott's Audit Committee, which is responsible for internal audit of the corporation's financial activities.
One of those activities was the focus of the Internal Revenue Service in 2007, and twice were invalidated in federal courts. The IRS tax shelters used by Marriott were "schemes," the Dept. of Justice said, and Sen. John McCain, who has now endorsed Romney, called the Marriott shelters "scams" when he faced Romney in the 1998 GOP primary season.
One such tax shelter, the IRS charged, was known as "Son of BOSS," but what human "BOSS" is referenced in that name - or more likely was another investment entity known by the same name - is unknown.
In any case, the implication certain to arise is that Romney, as chair of the audit committee, should have known of any such "schemes" and that he helped the company enjoy far larger profits by ignoring such concerns.
Bloomberg News' Jay Drucker reported today that "During Romney's tenure as a Marriott director, the company repeatedly utilized complex tax-avoidance maneuvers, prompting at least two tangles with the Internal Revenue Service, records show. In 1994, while he headed the audit committee, Marriott used a tax shelter known to attorneys by its nickname: "Son of BOSS."
"A federal appeals court invalidated the maneuver in a 2009 ruling, siding with the U.S. Department of Justice, which called Marriott's transaction and attempted tax benefits"fictitious," "artificial," "spectral," an "illusion"and a "scheme." Marriott had argued the plan predated government efforts to close such shelters.
"Employing another strategy, Marriott legally avoided hundreds of millions of dollars in income taxes thanks to a federal tax-credit program criticized and allowed to expire by Congress. Marriott has also shifted profits to a Luxembourg shell company. During Romney's years on the board, Marriott's effective tax rate dipped as low as 6.8 percent, compared with the federal corporate statutory rate of 35 percent."
The IRS never charged Romney with any crime, however. The court cases did lead to a $220-million settlement with the IRS, Drucker reports.
The news service also reports that Romney's first name is actually Willard, like the fellow in the movie about a New York City man who feeds and trains dangerous rats to attack his enemies. Romney, the news agency owned by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg says, was named after J. Willard Mariott, the founder of Marriott Corp. and a close friend of Willard's father.
It would be great if Gingrich threw an actual punch at Romney, or a spaghetti-sated Santorum cut a massive fart, or Ron Paul spit on his glasses and wiped them on his tie, or Romney had to excuse himself to use the men's room - stuff that is very unlikely yet conceivable, remembering that we are all human and imperfect.
The single most curious anomaly in debate history to me remains the transmitter-sized box that George W. Bush wore at one of the one-on-one debates with Obama. Photos after the debate clearly showed the object outlined by his tan suit jacket in the center of his back. Presumably, it was intended to shock or buzz him when he was going off-message, a capability novelist David Baldacci described in his terrifically prophetic first novel, "Absolute Power."
There's no question that Gov. Rick Perry's awkward support of his order for a mandatory cervical cancer vaccine for pre-adolescent girls - which came under unanticipated attacks from Santorum and Rep. Michelle Bachmann - during his first GOP presidential debate in Tampa, fatally broke his campaign's momentum. The lesson: Be ready.
That mess was compounded by a 45-second memory lapse over which three Cabinet-level agencies he'd eliminate (he forgot the Dept. of Commerce). His statement that he'd take America back to Iraq if elected was not the frenzy-generator I thought it would be.
"This campaign is about ideas," Perry said afterwards. "It's not about who's the slickest debater or whether anyone's made a mistake or not. We're all going to make mistakes."
Let's hope so - that's what makes a ball game.
Update: There were no apparent major blunders tonight.
AR Correspondent Joe Shea has attended several presidential debates.