You can read about the horserace aspects of last night’s lively GOP debate elsewhere.

The important thing to note here is that Mitt Romney at last made the argument that success in the capitalistic system is nothing to be ashamed of (nor is having invested wisely):

And I know that there may be some who try to make a deal of that [Romney’s money and investments], as you have publicly. But look, I think it’s important for people to make sure that we don’t castigate individuals who have been successful and try and, by innuendo, suggest there’s something wrong with being successful and having investments and having a return on those investments. Speaker, you’ve indicated that somehow I don’t earn that money.

I have earned the money that I have. I didn’t inherit it. I take risks. I make investments. Those investments lead to jobs being created in America. I’m proud of being successful. I’m proud of being in the free enterprise system that creates jobs for other people. I’m not going to run from that. I’m proud of the taxes I pay. My taxes, plus my charitable contributions, this year, 2011, will be about 40 percent. So, look, let’s put behind this idea of attacking me because of my investments or my money, and let’s get Republicans to say, you know what? What you’ve accomplished in your life shouldn’t be seen as a detriment, it should be seen as an asset to help America.

Whether people who h ave been successful should be penalized by the tax system is going to be an underlying issue in the presidential campaign. The president’s view is very different from Mr. Romney’s, and that is why it was good that Romney wasn’t in a defensive posture last night (well, he did get defensive once).

Charles Krauthammer captured the president’s punitive view—he calls it “fairness”—in his column this morning:

Which is why Obama introduced a shiny new twist — the Buffett Rule, a minimum 30 percent rate for millionaires. Sounds novel. But it’s a tired replay of the alternative minimum tax, originally created in 1969 to bring to heel all of 155 underpaying fat cats. Following the fate of other such do-goodism, the AMT then metastasized into a $40 billion monster that today entraps millions of middle-class taxpayers.

There isn’t even a pretense that the Buffett Rule will do anything for economic growth or job creation (other than provide lucrative work for the sharp tax lawyers who will be gaming the new system for the very same rich). Which should not surprise. Back in 2008, Obama was asked if he would still support raising the capital-gains tax rate (the intended effect of the Buffett Rule) if this would decrease government revenue.

Obama said yes. In the name of fairness.

Fairness, in the old-fashioned American view, was allowing competition and realizing—sadly—sometimes the outcome will not be good. Fairness, ironically, includes recognizing that, as John F. Kennedy was wont to observe, life is unfair.

Some people do not end up rich and successful like Mitt Romney. In the old America, where there were flourishing civic institutions to help the poor, where the costs of medical services were a little less ruinous (because the federal government wasn’t as minutely involved), and where families were stronger, success and failure were personal matters. Taxes were to raise revenue (and less revenue was needed!), not to soothe envy.

Speaking of envy, the sin that gives no pleasure, Jonathan Neumann has a good piece on the “overly-anticipated release” of Mitt Romney’s tax returns.

There is no legal requirement that presidential candidates release their income tax returns. They are required to make a financial disclosure statement that reports their assets. Tax returns are personal and the IRS can’t release them.

The disclosure statement would be useful for spotting conflicts of interest and abuse of power for financial gains. But tax returns? Neumann writes:  

This still leaves us with our question, though: why do candidates and presidents release their tax returns? Voters’ prurience, David Brooks rightly answers, as well as other unsavory motivations, such as envy and a broader war on privacy. Ed Morrissey agrees, and rightly wonders why conservatives – traditionally so mistrustful of the IRS and like intrusion – are so insistent on seeing candidates’ filings.

That said, the Romney tax returns, Neumann points out, are quite revealing:

What the Romney tax return does show is a family who gives generously and exemplifies communal devotion, and provides a model which favors voluntary charity over enforced taxation, a model to which we and our tax code should aspire.

I’m willing to bet that the money the Romneys gave to charity was used more effectively, helped more people, and created less dependency that the money he gave to the IRS.