Tax returns are an issue in every presidential campaign, until a candidate releases them. Thereafter, the returns have never been a significant issue.
Since Franklin Roosevelt began releasing his returns, the public has grown to expect to see them. Roosevelt is the all-time king of transparency, releasing 25 years worth from 1913 to 1937. Apparently, Roosevelt’s returns became such old hat that he didn’t need to release them for his last two elections.
Still, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that the release of tax returns became more prevalent. Since Nixon, the only president not to release his tax returns was Ford. Nixon released four years of returns, Carter three, Reagan six, George H.W. Bush three, Clinton eight, George W. Bush eight and Obama has provided eight years of tax returns.
Candidates for president and vice-president have varied widely in the returns that they have released. John McCain and his wife each released two years of returns. On the other hand, when Mitt Romney’s father ran for President in 1968, he followed FDR’s standard with 12 years of tax returns.
Mitt Romney has chosen the path of least openness. He is offering up only two years of tax returns, and one of those years is yet to be released. In Romney’s case, the tax returns are a more significant issue than with most other candidates. He is one of the wealthiest people to seek the presidency.
Questioned during an interview with “Fox and Friends,” Romney made the argument that McCain only released two years so he only needs to do the same. Wealth was a minor issue in the 2008 campaign as Cindy McCain has considerable wealth. It took some prodding for her to release two years worth of tax returns. She did and the critics immediately quieted down.
Romney then compared himself to John Kerry and his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry from the 2004 election. Wealth was also an issue in that campaign. It was a similar situation would be repeated in 2008. A candidate had a wealthy wife. Heinz Kerry faced enormous pressure. She released an estimate in May of 2004 and a partial return of her tax returns in October of that year for 2003. It never satisfied the critics. The McCains learned from Heinz Kerry mistake and effectively defused a similar situation by being more forthcoming.
No one is expecting wealthy spouses of candidates to reveal years and years of tax returns. It is unnecessary. Wealthy candidates are another issue. This is a special category that Mitt Romney has carved for himself. Part of the reason is that he has presented himself as a successful businessman who will repeat that success for the country’s economy. In that regard, his finances are an issue.
In the Fox interview, Romney also claimed that Kerry only released two years of tax returns, just like McCain. That is wrong. Kerry released 20 years of returns.
Then, implausibly, Romney compared himself to Heinz Kerry:
“You know, his wife, who has hundreds of millions of dollars, she never released her tax returns. Somehow, this wasn’t an issue.”
As mentioned earlier, this was an issue. Yet it was not as big of an issue as it is with Romney because Heinz Kerry was not the candidate. She is the spouse. All that Romney’s argument is good for is that Ann Romney only needs to release as little as Heinz Kerry did. But no one cares a great deal about Ann Romney’s tax returns. She has some money, but not enough to secretly fund Mitt’s campaign like Cindy McCain or Teresa Heinz Kerry could have funded their candidate spouses.
Romney is trying to establish two years as the standard that candidates use to release tax returns. He was wrong about Kerry’s tax returns, and he is wrong about how open previous candidates have been as well. The Washington Post criticized Romney’s distortions and noted that his secrecy is the aberration not the rule:
In fact, McCain is really the exception. John Kerry in 2004, Al Gore in 2000, George W. Bush in 2000, Bob Dole in 1996, Bill Clinton in 1992 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 all released many years of tax returns when they ran for president against the incumbent, either at the time or because they had routinely released tax returns while in public office. (There was no incumbent in 2000.) Dole, in fact, released tax returns for a whopping 30 years.
The longer that Romney hesitates to open his tax returns, the hotter the issue is going to become. This is only July. Come October, Romney will be pressed in the debates to release his returns. Every time that he says “no” it raises a new suspicion that he might be hiding something. Perhaps he paid very low taxes for several years, or even none at all. Perhaps he made some questionable investments or deductions. The speculation is probably far worse than the truth, but it is a distraction from his campaign message. Ultimately, it may defeat him.
More and more people are starting to wonder if he really has something to hide.