Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Tax returns and re-imagining history

Like Obama's "you didn't build that" gaffe, the issue of Romney's tax returns just won't go away. The latter is all the pundits on the Left want to talk about, while the former remains the primary issue for pundits on the Right.

But with regard to Romney's tax returns, there's a meme running through the media that goes something like this: "Romney's decision to release only two (or one, depending on the pundit) years of tax returns flies in the face of tradition; candidates typically release many more years." Bill Clinton--now an "elder statesman," of sorts--weighed in on the issue as well, some three weeks ago:
I am a little surprised he only released a year's worth of tax returns. That kind of perplexed me, because this is the first time in, I don't know, more than 30 years that anybody running for president has only done that. you know, it's typical we all release 10, 11 years.
That's kind of been the standard operating line for the left: it's usual for candidates to release ten or so years of tax returns. But is it? Here's FactCheck on the issue, based on Romeny's claim that two years was an established precedent:
Mitt Romney says he is following the “precedent” set by John McCain in releasing just two years of tax returns. That’s accurate. But McCain, the 2008 GOP nominee, bucked the trend of other recent presidential candidates.  
In more than three decades, no other nominees for either party have released fewer than five years’ worth of returns. Romney’s own father released a dozen years’ worth when he ran for the GOP nomination in 1968.
Okay. So what is the standard, what is the precedent? And why is three decades--Bill Clinton's thirty years--meaningful? Thirty years takes us back to 1982. What happened before that and why doesn't it matter? We can guess: prior to 1982, the Democratic candidates may not have appeared particularly forthcoming. Because it was actually in 1984 that a Democrat first released more than one year of returns. FactCheck even provides a couple of handy charts, but fails to make use of them:

In total, there are eighteen Presidential candidates on these charts, nine Republicans and nine Democrats. The charts go back to 1968, thus giving us forty-four years to consider. And there's no reason I can think of to not consider forty-four years, to limit the analysis to the last thirty years, so I won't.

So, what do the numbers tell us? Out of eighteen candidates, seven--including Romney--released zero, one, or two years of returns, while also seven released ten or more years of returns. Percentage wise, 39% released two or fewer years, 39% released ten or more, and 22%--including Obama--released three to nine.

We can spin the numbers, it is true, and say 61% released more than two years. But we can just as easily say 61% released fewer than ten years (a group that would include both Romney and Obama). The reality is that there is no standard here. Claiming that it is usual for candidates to releases ten years of returns is an untruth, a lie. Yet, that's what is being sold in the media, by and large, what is being claimed by the Obama Campaign and it's Democratic supporters like Pelosi, Reid, and Wasserman-Schultz.

What troubles me the most about all of this is how easily the public appears to be buying into these kinds of fabrications, how willing it is to accept a phony version of history, when it comes to Presidential races.

Cheers, all.


  1. OT, but since you are ngaged in an argument about voter fraud on AW, you might find this interestng

  2. http://www.taxhistory.org/www/website.nsf/web/presidentialtaxreturns

    Please note Clinton released his 1992 tax returns and none prior.

  3. @Dm: Thanks!

    @Anonymous: No, I think that's incorrect. I remember 1992. Clinton released a bunch of his returns. 12 sounds right and every major source says the same. The Tax History Project doesn't say differently, it just hasn't uploaded the ones Clinton released during the campaign, for what ever reason.