Politics & Policy

Mitt’s Tax Returns

Don’t give in to the demagogues.

Mitt Romney has said he will release and make public a total of two years of income-tax returns. It looks as if the Obamaites will have a collective fit if he doesn’t release more. I say let ’em.

These tax-return demands are just one of the ways politics gives us an excuse for doing what we could not otherwise get away with.

An adult watching movies every day during daylight hours would be frowned upon (unless he were a movie critic). A middle-aged man poring over reams of pornographic material would be ostracized (unless he were a judge hearing a case about that subject matter). But a political race allows us, as “concerned citizens,” to consume information about what a candidate did with his lunch money in junior high, as well as whom his wife dated when she was a teenager.

As far as perennial guilty political pleasures go, none has achieved a greater and more predictable status than reviewing the tax return.

Politicians, especially those who have spent their adult life on a government salary, demand that their opponents disgorge their financial records and returns, preferably going back as far as that first suspect lemonade stand. The press invariably joins in the hounding. They demand to know, for example, how much the candidate gave away to charitable organizations. Giving to strangers, you see, rather than giving generously without the advantage of a tax write-off to loved ones in need or other individuals who may need assistance, reveals the size of one’s heart (unless you are Joe Biden).

But, mainly, the demand is made because candidates (rich ones especially) need to demonstrate that they have paid their “fair share” in taxes. What is a “fair share”? Never mind. That’s for the press corps and the opposition to decide. A person could have paid more in taxes than a gymnasium full of his detractors and it still would not be enough if he has made “too much” money in comparison with his tax bill. Also, never mind that, unlike the case of the common criminal, the burden is placed on the candidate to prove his innocence.

A tax return can reveal that a taxpayer (slightly over 50 percent of Americans, nowadays) has followed the law, paid all required taxes, and has done nothing improper or that his worse critics wouldn’t have done. Yet, in skilled hands, that tax return can be used as a hammer with which to beat a candidate over the head.

Oftentimes, the more successful a person has been, the longer and more complicated his or her tax return will be. It is, therefore, that much more target-rich for the opposition. The thought of the selective and misleading use of a “rich guy’s” tax return makes the political ad man’s mouth water.

A small example: There is a provision in the tax law that allows a business owner, large or small, to set up a retirement account and not pay taxes on income that goes into that account until the money is drawn out, possibly years later. You must include and set aside money for your employees, too, although you can have as few as one employee. This deferral of taxes on the retirement contribution, of course, makes your taxable income less. This in turn lowers the current percentage of taxes paid on gross income.

In everyday life, such retirement accounts are considered sound and responsible. In the political world, such retirement planning is tailor-made for the 30-second unscrupulous ad.

The Democrats know this, and so does Mitt Romney, which is one reason he and his campaign are standing strong against releasing more than they have released.

But if you thought that the Dems just wanted to have the issue of the non-release of the additional returns, I think you’re wrong. They also want the tax returns. To their way of thinking, the best outcome is a long, drawn-out fight over release of the returns, with enough media pressure to force Romney to release them. That would made him look weak and they would still be able to go to work on his returns.

I’ve been encouraged by the strong stand he’s taken. I know that others who have his best interest at heart have advised him to succumb, while others have said he must have something to hide. I disagree with both notions.

Based on what I thought was appropriate at the time, I have released my share of tax returns when running for office, and while I might have advised him differently a year ago, now I say go all in. I would not give one inch to an outfit that accuses me of killing a worker’s wife. Tell them to go fly a kite. Tell them that when Obama releases his grades and Harry Reid releases his tax returns you might consider it. Have some fun. Talk about the fragile future of this country and its role in the world, and let Harry and the boys talk about anonymous sources and tax returns.

Mitt may take some flak, but he will, anyway, no matter what he does. This year especially it’s the rich man’s burden. Embrace it and go on. There are bigger problems that a candidate could have. Like having led this country to the brink of second-rate status.

Besides, the Romney campaign has been the recipient of a major stroke of luck in the form of Harry Reid. He is a classic example of the Peter Principle. I came of political age during the time of Senators Howard Baker, Robert Byrd, and George Mitchell. I served under the leadership of Bob Dole and Tom Daschle. When Reid was elevated to the position of Senate majority leader, he achieved the level of his own incompetence. He has no concept of the responsibility that the position carries. He uses the Senate floor to slander opponents and degrade the Senate. Those who wonder why the Senate has become so acrimonious and partisan need look no further. The Senate Democrats have presented us with a poster boy for the problem. And he is now the face of the Romney “tax return” issue.

The broader point here is that Reid and the tax-return issue are simply a small part of a campaign of demagoguery and division by a party and president desperately trying to change the subject from the issues that will determine our fate as a nation.

Let’s not let them.

— Fred Thompson represented Tennessee in the U.S. Senate from 1994 to 2003. For more from Fred Thompson, visit FredThompsonsAmerica.com.


The Latest