I have been wondering why the calls for Mr. Romney’s tax returns have become so numerous and insistent, especially from those on the right, who usually don’t give a fig about disclosure in every other case.

The accepted media frame is that there is a deeply respected American tradition that Presidential candidates shall voluntarily, without whining, release several years of tax returns as a good faith assurance the candidate has nothing to hide.  Since we have this respected American tradition, no rational person would ever seek the presidency unless they were fully prepared to release multiple returns and had little or nothing to fear from their disclosure.

Since this is the accepted convention, the media reports that “even” many conservative Republican leaders are now calling on Mr. Romney to quickly disclose multiple years of his tax returns.  They assume that whatever there is that might be embarrassing can’t possibly be as bad as the negative publicity he’s getting by refusing.  As George Will and others so thoughtfully add, whatever it is, it’s always better to get it out sooner, while the candidate and his backers still have months to explain it away or the voters time to forget why it mattered.

This seems a plausible story line for the mainstream media.  I don’t hear it being challenged by the MSNBC evening types, though they may secretly hope whatever it is is extremely embarrassing.

But I put to you a different case.  While the demands for Mr. Romney’s tax returns are coming from various quarters, it’s coming very stridently from the right.  Indeed, I believe that if this were coming mostly from the left, the right would be united in condemning this effort as a liberal witch hunt and distraction to draw attention away from Mr. Obama’s failed stewardship of the economy.  Instead, the story remains alive, because the right wants it alive.

Why would conservatives want this?  I suspect the reasons have nothing to do with principles of public disclosure — after all, this is the party that just voted unanimously against even debating the popular DISCLOSE Act to make public the rich donors who secretly give to political SuperPacs — or giving the candidate time to get his story straight.  That’s not the timing that matters.

I think this is the conservatives’ latest and most virulent effort at “extreme vetting,” in which the candidate either survives the right’s gauntlet with a disclosure that turns out to be a non-event (and thus potentially harmful to Democrats for hinting it would be otherwise), or — and this may be the preferred outcome — he’s further damaged and wiped out quickly, before the convention.  Doing this now, before the convention, would allow the conservatives to replace Romney safely and victoriously with whatever “first team” conservatives the GOP claimed they had that did not run in the primaries.

Several facts support this theory.  First, it’s always been true that the so-called party leaders viewed Mitt Romney as an empty suit, an insincere usurper who could win the nomination only because he could bury his lesser known opponents with money.  And that was possible only because the real “first team” of natural conservative leaders chose not to run.

However, those first teamers’ choices can now be questioned because of the second fact: despite all the claims that Mr Romney has suffered a very bad, no good, horrible week or two of adverse publicity and distractions, while Mr. Obama has been on relentless attack, the race remains effectively tied.

The Obama campaign appears to be having some success in painting Mitt Romney as a greedy, out-of-touch, even heartless corporate looter who enriched himself by putting people out of work while businesses failed, and thus the wrong man to fix the economy, but even that image is not enough to allow Mr. Obama to sustain any significant lead over such a villain.  If that is true against a damaged, exposed and highly unattractive Mitt Romney as the opponent, then every one of the so-called “first team” wannabes must be telling themselves, “damn, I guessed wrong; I could have won this.”

Third, I see nothing on the horizon that may lead to a significant improvement in the economy before the election.  The “first teamers” likely assumed the economy would be clearly recovering by now; they, like Mr. Obama’s advisers, guessed wrong.  If Mr. Obama is lucky, the economy will limp into November not significantly worse than today.  But any of several things could easily make matters worse, and there is a major force working every day to make it much worse.

It’s now beyond dispute that the Republican Party is deliberately tanking the economy — not just preventing a recovery by refusing to vote for any expansionary means that might boost growth or reduce unemployment, but knowingly tanking it.  And they’re not doing it merely to doom Mr. Obama’s reelection.

More ominously, the GOP has proved, through the success of it’s most radical state governors, that depression-like conditions in their states can be used to dismantle huge portions of the New Deal and its progeny.  Safety nets, public health systems, public services that can be privatized, unions, environmental and safety regulations, accessible voting rights — every public policy can be curtailed, defunded, disempowered or ended at the state level with the excuse they have no money.  Meanwhile the federal government, though capable of helping, is prevented by conservative obstruction from doing so.  Congress has been paralyzed; the Federal Reserve has been intimidated and is now self emasculated. It’s effectively a coup.

Once upon a time, liberals might have assumed, and moderate Republicans would privately agree, that no responsible opposition party would knowingly hollow out the economy just to regain power, because once in power, they would become responsible for fixing the mess.  The problem with this assumption is that it’s no longer accepted: the current breed of conservatives do not want to fix these problems; they want to dismantle the public sector and prevent it from rising again. It doesn’t matter that millions remain unemployed, or without health insurance or adequate public services.  Present day conservatives want those services destroyed, downsized or at least privatized. We’re in Norquist’s bathtub, drowning.

It may be that some of the conservatives’ calls for vetting Mr. Romney’s tax returns are influenced by some now quaint notions of traditional fair disclosure.  But I think it more likely that what we’re watching now is a major play to take down Romney and replace him at the convention, to allow the demolition — only slightly set back by Justice Roberts — to continue.  After all, none of them believes Mitt’s one of them, and if they succeed, they’ll just claim they did it for the country.