Are we asking the right questions about the Republican candidates’ tax returns?

In this circus we call the Republican nomination process, it’s hard to know which of the dozens of issues hurled our way each day is salient and which is just part of the hurly-burly.

Take the tax returns for instance. Tuesday, Mitt Romney released his 2010 tax returns and an estimate for 2011 after being pressured by his opponents, the media and that little voice in in his head that’s kicking him for not following his father’s example a week earlier, when it might have meant the difference in South Carolina (Mitt’s father George started the tradition of presidential candidates releasing tax returns during his failed 1968 run for President). Only Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have released their tax returns. The other two candidates have yet to do so. Consequently, this post focuses on the two that have, but should be relevant to all of them.

The questions spawned by Romney’s tax records were wide ranging, from the obvious – How much did he pay? – to the silly – How much does his housekeeper make? (Ann Romney doesn’t have much help around the house? Perish the thought!) – and some that were actually helpful – Will his tax returns hurt or help?

In the end, one question may be most obvious and important, but as far as I can tell, remains largely unasked. That is until now.

“What do the tax returns tell us about the candidates’ ability to lead?”

I didn’t say I have the answers, only the question. But I do suggest three points that are worth considering as you search for them.

  1. Success – Clearly, one of the key issues of the Republican campaign is how successful these candidates will likely be if given the opportunity to compete with and defeat Barack Obama, and then thrive as President of the United States.
    Aaron David Miller, a Former State Department official and Wilson Center scholar tweeted on Politico’s The Arena, “Only in today’s chaotic world of GOP politics could paying lower taxes and being rich hurt an aspiring nominee.” Instead of criticizing the candidates for being successful, shouldn’t we use the tax returns to better understand how their past successes might be an indication of future ones? It seems the amount of income, type of income and business structure could be fair indicators of their success.
  2. Honesty – The tax returns can be a good indication of honesty. Mitt Romney has said, “I can tell you we follow the tax laws, and if there’s an opportunity to save taxes, we, like anybody else in this country, will follow that opportunity.” Newt Gingrich paid a relatively high rate on personal taxes but his corporate taxes were still quite low through the use of several corporate tax breaks and Mitt Romney took advantage of the lower capital gains tax rate due to the majority of his income being investment related. Which tax rate the candidate’s used cannot be used to attack their character. Like every American, these candidates don’t want to pay any more in taxes than the law requires. However, their adherence to tax law and the methods they use to avoid paying taxes most definitely can and should.
  3. Compassion – Usually reserved for State of the Union or graduation speeches, compassion isn’t a very popular topic on the campaign trail. Given the state of affairs in the United States today, perhaps it should be. If nothing else, it’s a decent measure of well-roundedness. Compassion is a difficult thing to glean from debates and stump speeches. This is where the tax returns can be especially helpful. They’re a good quantitative measure, even if not a very qualitative one of the candidates compassion. The Deseret News graphics below, and a comparison in the New York Times, shows the charitable donations for those candidates who have submitted their returns for review, compared to those of Barack Obama’s and the “median taxpayer.” In an environment where very little is crystal clear, charitable giving may be the clearest thing the tax returns reveal.

 

With so much churning through the rumor mill, coming out of the spin rooms and winding it’s way onto our screens, having the candidate’s tax returns to review can be extremely valuable as concrete and quantifiable measures of the candidates’ qualities. But only when we ask the right questions.

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