Romney's Newly-Released Tax Returns Don't Reveal Anything Surprising
Tax returns from the years in which a candidate is gearing up for a run at the presidency rarely provide any insight into that candidate’s character, lifestyle decisions or values. What they do show is how well a candidate was able to work with political strategists to minimize the damage caused by giving the public a window into their private finances in the following year or two. In other words, these two recently released tax returns are of little value. But a few interesting story lines did emerge from them.
Given the immense public and media pressure on Romney for him to release his last 10-15 years of tax returns, and his refusal to do so, it seems pretty safe to say that Romney’s returns over the last decade or so contain far more damaging insights into his activities and character than these most recent ones. Of course, that can't be proven, but the issue has been such a problem for the GOP’s candidate that it doesn't seem likely that those returns are as innocuous as the ones he did choose to release.
Surprisingly enough, even with the help of his legal and political strategists, Romney still managed to blunder his way through his 2010 and 2011 tax returns. In an effort to increase his overall effective tax rate, Romney chose not to deduct over $1.75 million out of his $4 million charitable donations, despite saying on the record earlier this year, “I don’t pay more than are legally due, and frankly if I had paid more than are legally due I don’t think I’d be qualified to become president.” Oops. Guess he’ll be withdrawing now, since by his own admission, he's unqualified to be president.
The move to pay more than you owe to Uncle Sam is not a common one, to say the least. "I was in private practice for 40 years and don't know that I ever had a client who said, 'I don't want to take all my deductions,'" said David Kautter of American University's Kogod Tax Center, who spent his career at accounting giant Ernst & Young. Dishonest, at best, but also appallingly clueless. Did Mitt (and his entire campaign team) think that this would just go unnoticed by the media and the public? They must have realized how ridiculous this would make them look wouldn’t they? All ethical issues aside, after these last few gaffe-filled weeks, we have to wonder if we really want a person who appears so fundamentally inept to be the leader of the free world.
Much attention this weekend was also devoted to the Romneys donation of an average of 13.45 percent of their income to charity (last year’s 29 percent to charity was fairly obviously for ulterior moves, as was Obama’s substantial jump in donations as he prepped for his own presidential run). The level of Romney's donations has actually been confirmed via a letter from PriceWaterhouseCooper. The Romney team has since worked to contrast this 13.45 percent with the Obamas' approximately 2.5 percent average over the years for which they released tax returns prior to the year Obama ran for president. Perhaps Mitt “believes in 53 percent of America” Romney is the candidate who actually has the interests of the poor and helpless among us at heart. That would be a shocking turn of events in the presidential storyline, wouldn’t it? Could it be true? Actually, no.
For Mitt Romney to remain a Mormon in good standing with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, he is required to tithe 10 percent of his income to the Church. It would be unfathomable to think that he would not complete this requirement, given his commitment to his faith. Suddenly, that 13.45 percent number looks a lot smaller. Donating to the Mormon Church, while that is legally recognized as a charitable, tax-deductible contribution, is a far cry, in terms of its impact, from donating to charity such as Habitat for Humanity or Ten Books a Home. One recipient is actively involved in political activities, namely ones against gays, and spends a good deal of resources building up palatial houses of worship. The others are not. I’m sure you can guess which is which.
Even many of the non-Mormon charities that received Romney’s donations are closely affiliated with the church, whether you consider his donation to BYU, Romney’s alma mater and a Mormon University, or to the Tyler Foundation, the Romney Family’s Foundation. Unsurprisingly, that foundation also gave lots of money to the Mormon Church. So, when you actually look at the nature of his so-called philanthropy, the argument that he is a far more generous person than his opponent weakens quite a bit.
In the end, these tax returns did not reveal any earth-shattering insight into Mitt Romney.
Yes, he paid a low effective income tax rate, shockingly low to many Americans, given what he made. But that was expected by anyone who understands how capital gains taxes work.
Yes, he gave a substantial portion of his income to charity, but much of that was in the last few years leading up to his presidential campaign, and a vast majority of his giving went to the Mormon church, which comes as no surprise, either, since Mormons are required to give to the church.
Yes, he was embarrassingly clumsy in attempting to raise his tax rate to appease the American people, but given the way in which the Romney campaign has operated so far, it would almost be more surprising if he hadn’t.
Once again, Romney punted on the tax return issue. I don't know about you, but I'm not surprised.
Reach Contributor Daniel Lewin here.