Republican Campaign's Cheapness On Tax Returns Disappointing
In defense of their stingy releases, the GOP team has said that it wants to keep this election focused on “bigger issues” than taxes. But that's not the point.
First of all, while many Americans couldn’t give a toss about foreign affairs, judiciary appointments or even welfare, every American has to pay taxes. There are plenty of voters out there willing to choose a candidate based on that candidate's stand on tax breaks alone.
Second of all, the interest in a candidate's tax returns really has nothing to do with taxation. People are interested in tax returns because of the information they reveal about the candidates themselves. And that can be plenty, if you’re willing to read between the lines - no politician ever withheld information from the public for nothing.
Tax returns don’t just show us how much people make, or the percentage of their income they pay in taxes. They also show us how people get their income—whether the majority comes from a wage/labor exchange, or from investments, assets and/or inheritances.
Perhaps most importantly, they show how people choose to spend their income. Did they recently purchase a chunk of expensive real estate, or did they give ten percent of their income to charity? How are they choosing to invest their money? Do they choose companies whose success only benefits their own economic welfare, or America’s as well? Do they discriminate between companies based on those companies' commitments to social responsibility, or are they willing or ignorant enough to put their money toward a company that engages in unfair labor practices, terrorist operations or atrocities and human rights abuses committed in the developing world?
While two years of tax returns might not tell us all that much—especially if a candidate has spent most of that time detoxing his or her finances in anticipation of the race—ten or 15 years provides a comprehensive narrative of a person’s fiscal practices. Since the job of president basically entails earning the country money and then spending even more of it, such a narrative is a pretty good precursor for what a candidate might do in the driver’s seat.
Tax returns are also a certificate of a candidate’s transparency. Americans value discretion in an executive, but they value honesty even more. No one likes being lied to by the government. When Romney and Ryan choose to release only two years of tax returns, our first instinct is to wonder what the other years have to hide. It automatically makes the Republican ticket seem less trustworthy, especially when you can see twelve years of Obama’s and Biden’s tax returns right on their website.
Ryan also further offends the American public by choosing to be more transparent with the GOP campaign than he is with the people. Last Monday, Ryan admitted in an interview with CBS News’ Bob Schieffer that he had released “several years” of tax returns to the Romney campaign as part of a “very exhaustive” vetting process.
So why exactly do Romney and his disciples get more honesty from Ryan than we do? How come the campaign, whose sole interest is to ensure the victory of its party's representative, receives more information about that representative than those of us who are actually trying to choose a candidate based on how well we think he can run this country?
The reason, of course, is that U.S. politics do not operate democratically, nor have they for decades. If they did, then the policies and processes of the presidential race would most privilege America’s voters—not the minority participating in the contest.
As citizens in a so-called democracy, we deserve the right to scrutinize our presidential candidates—especially through the rare medium that is necessarily unbiased and completely free of rhetoric. So yes, Paul Ryan, two years of returns is a little disappointing. But at least you didn’t upstage the equally poor showing of your presidential running mate.
Reach Contributor Francesca Bessey here.