Time for Tax Returns

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

HERE'S ONE instructive difference among the leading presidential candidates: Only one, Sen. Barack Obama, has released his income tax returns. Mr. Obama's Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, have so far refused to do so. Most troubling, Mr. McCain isn't even pledging to release his returns once he becomes the nominee.

It might be possible, if unconvincing, for presidential candidates to draw a principled line at such an invasion of privacy. After all, candidates are required to file financial disclosure forms that outline their assets and liabilities, along with the amount and sources of their income -- although, notably, spouses are exempt from providing much detailed income information. This argument would be unconvincing because the stakes involved in picking a president allow for little in the way of a zone of privacy. It has become a given that presidents and vice presidents release their tax returns; why shouldn't the same be expected of someone applying for the job? In addition to filling the gaps in the financial disclosure requirements, tax returns provide insights and information that are not available elsewhere, such as the use of tax shelters or the amounts and kinds of charitable contributions.

Privacy is not, in any event, the argument that Ms. Clinton is making. "I've said that I'm going to release my tax returns when I'm the nominee," Ms. Clinton said at a forum this month. This is contrary to historical practice; Sen. John F. Kerry released his returns in December 2003, long before winning the nomination; Vice President Al Gore's returns, of course, were already public. More important, the refusal is unsupported by any rationale: If it's legitimate for voters to expect nominees to disclose their returns, why not primary candidates, especially at this winnowed stage of the process? Indeed, Ms. Clinton's refusal to release her returns is exactly contrary to her campaign's argument that Mr. Obama has not been "fully vetted," as campaign adviser Harold Ickes said Monday at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. When it comes to Ms. Clinton, Mr. Ickes said, "There's nothing left to vet." Really? Then show us the tax returns.

Mr. McCain's position is even more disturbing. He is the all-but-official GOP nominee, yet his communications director, Jill Hazelbaker, told us in an e-mail that she had "not yet discussed" the matter with Mr. McCain. "He is not the nominee of the party at this time, and we're focused on winning primary contests and wrapping up the nomination," she wrote. "When the right time comes I will have that discussion and get you an answer to your questions." With all due respect, Mr. McCain, the right time is now.

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