Is it any surprise that in a presidential election in which the differences between the candidates are so miniscule that the discourse has been reduced to a battle of releasing personal information?
Earlier this week Maricopa County (Arizona) sheriff Joe Arpaio renewed discussion of President Obama's citizenship by conducting his own investigation and stating that the president's birth certificate is "definitely fraudulent."
Without missing a beat Donald Trump jumped in too, saying, "If I were Mitt Romney or advising Mitt Romney, I would say, 'I will put out all of my records, I'll go back as far as you want, after you put out your records on college.'"
All this comes in addition to calls from Democrats that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee release more than the 2010 returns he has already released.
It's unclear what anyone expects to see in Romney's tax returns or Obama's birth certificate or college records. These issues aren't in themselves insignificant, but they are a distraction. They are a distraction from a real national conversation that could be had on secrecy and transparency.
Obama was elected in part due to his opposition to the Bush administration's penchant for secrecy and declaring that his own administration would have "an unprecedented level of openness." But since Obama has not lived up to his promise, this would seem like an ideal way for Romney to attack Obama: Take Obama's words from 2007-08 and use them against him.
But this is unlikely. Rhetoric aside, Romney is as likely to side with Obama when it comes to secrecy and transparency, even on Obama's most bald-faced attempts to conceal the tracks of his administration.
Without indictment, on September 30, 2011 an Obama-approved drone strike in Yemen killed American-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki for allegedly conspiring with al Qaeda. A subsequent drone strike two weeks later killed his American-born son, Abdul-Rahman al-Awlaki. Today the family is filing suit against the Obama administration.
Or maybe Romney could press Obama about who is on the secret panel that reportedly gave him the authority to assassinate an American citizen without charge or warrant? Perhaps the American people would like to know what unelected group of people holds the power to issue a potential death sentence on any of them without trial?
But here too Romney says he would have signed the National Defense Authorization Act that codified this power into law. Not only does he agree with Obama, but he completely changes his attitude toward the president when this subject comes up as he did at a GOP presidential debate, "I don't think [Obama]'s going to abuse this power."
One month ago, President Obama invoked executive privilege for the first time and refused to disclose subpoenaed documents that could have shone light on the "Fast and Furious" gun-running operation that resulted in the death of border agent Brian Terry and what Obama attorney general Eric Holder knew about it. On this issue at least, Romney could be more pressing, but his attacks have had more to do with the bungled operation itself and less to do with the claim of executive privilege. Could it have anything to do with his past, repeated support for executive privilege?
It would doubtlessly be interesting to see if as a student Obama listed Kenya as his birthplace, not because it would prove his birth certificate is a forgery, but whether it was beneficial to list himself as a foreigner if only to receive preferential treatment in applying to elite universities. Likewise, it would also be interesting to know whether Romney's investments are the result of good financial management or whether his wealth allowed him to navigate an onerous tax system.
But these are ultimately distractions that would be better handled by proposals to abolish both affirmative action and the current tax code, not as political clubs to score partisan points that are soon forgotten.
The real reason the candidates and their surrogates are talking about birth certificates, records, and tax returns is because there are so few real differences between them.