During the GOP debate last night in South Carolina, Mitt Romney was asked yet again if he intended to make his tax returns public. The former governor of Massachusetts first avoided the question, then hemmed and hawed, then gave a resounding…maybe?It’s not the first time Romney, the former chief executive of Bain Capital, a successful private equity firm, has performed a verbal doe-si-doe on stage with regards to this question. Last month, he told Chuck Todd of MSNBC, “I don’t intend to release the tax returns. I don’t.” But later, he was more equivocal, saying, “Time will tell,” and “I’ll keep that open,” and then suggesting that he “wouldn’t be opposed” to releasing the forms, “if that’s been the tradition.” Finally, he said he’d “probably” release them—but only maybe, and only if he becomes the nominee.
The thing is, Romney doesn’t have to release anything if he doesn’t want to. Legally, tax returns are private. Presidential hopefuls must only file a financial disclosure report to the Office of Government Ethics, and Romney did that (revealing, for the record, that he’s worth between $190 and $250 million buckaroos).
Politically, though, Romney’s refusal to release his tax returns may be a little trickier. Already, his fellow Republicans, including Sarah Palin, have come out swinging on the issue. Texas Governor Rick Perry—the only candidate in the Republican primary who has, in fact, released his tax returns thus far—demanded last night that Mitt release his records immediately. “Mitt,” he said, slowing down his voice for effect, “We need you to release your income tax so the people of this country can see how you made your money. I think that’s a fair thing.” Newt Gingrich, who has promised to release his own tax returns on Thursday, also pounded Romney for dragging his heels on setting a release date.
The Democratic National Committee has been less diplomatic. Earlier this month, it produced a web video, complete with horror-movie background music, claiming that traditionally, all presidential and vice presidential candidates have released their tax records, “but Romney won’t.” “What is Mitt Romney hiding?”
The DNC actually has a point. According to PolitiFact , a non-partisan Pulitzer Prize Winning fact-checking site, the vast majority of candidates who have run for president or vice president in the last 30-five years have indeed released their tax returns. Of the 30-four candidates who ran during that time period, only seven—Jerry Brown, Pat Buchanan, Mike Huckabee, Steve Forbes, Rudy Giuliani, Richard Lugar, and Ralph Nader—have refused to release their tax returns altogether. Most released their records in the late spring. Even Romney’s dad, George Romney, released his tax returns when he ran against Richard Nixon in the Republican primary in 1968.
But Mitt Romney has never released his tax returns. Not during the US Senate race in 1994. Not during the Massachusetts governor race in 2002. And not during his last presidential bid in 2008. Ironically, during the 1994 Senate race, Romney challenged his opponent, Senator Edward Kennedy, to release his state and federal taxes to prove Kennedy had “nothing to hide.” Romney said he would release his own tax records after Kennedy released his, but Kennedy never did.
Then again, Romney’s refusal to release his personal tax records might be the right choice, as far as his campaign is concerned. In the past, when candidates have released their tax returns, it hasn’t always gone well. In 1984, Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro and her husband, John Zaccaro, released their tax returns only to discover that—oops!—they owed more than $50,000 in back taxes. And during the presidential race between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in 1976, both released their tax returns, only to discover that a tax credit, signed into law by Ford himself, “resulted in a significant tax windfall” for one of Carter’s peanut warehouses —a revelation that both men perhaps would have preferred to keep out of the headlines.