(Evan Vucci/AP/AP)

“John McCain ran for president and released two years of tax returns. John Kerry ran for president; you know, his wife, who has hundreds of millions of dollars, she never released her tax returns. Somehow this wasn’t an issue.”

— Mitt Romney, on Fox News, July 16, 2012

 “It's standard for the last Republican nominee, the last Democratic nominee.”

— Romney senior adviser Ed Gillespie, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” July 15, 2012, answering a question on why Romney will release only two years of tax returns.

In trying to fend off demands — from both Democrats and even some Republicans — that presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney release more than two years of tax returns, his campaign has sought to claim that releasing two years of tax returns is normal. (Romney so far has released his 2010 return and an estimate for his 2011 return.)

 Is that really the case? Let’s check out Gillespie’s claim, presumably about McCain and President Obama, and Romney’s claim that the tax returns of Teresa Heinz Kerry were “not an issue.”


The Facts

 The Tax History Project run by TaxAnalysts has a fascinating Web page with the tax returns of presidents and presidential candidates, dating all the way back to Franklin D. Roosevelt. McCain, it is correct, released two years of tax returns, but Obama released seven years of tax returns.

Looking over the years at Obama’s returns, one can see how he suddenly became a wealthy man in 2005 from sales of his reissued memoir. In that year, he earned more than $1 million in income from book sales.

So Gillespie is simply wrong to claim that it is standard for the “last Democratic nominee.” (The Romney campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)

 In fact, McCain is really the exception. John Kerry in 2004, Al Gore in 2000, George W. Bush in 2000, Bob Dole in 1996, Bill Clinton in 1992 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 all released many years of tax returns when they ran for president against the incumbent, either at the time or because they had routinely released tax returns while in public office.  (There was no incumbent in 2000.) Dole, in fact, released tax returns for a whopping 30 years.

 Of course, Romney’s father, George Romney, is famous for having released 12 years of tax returns when he ran for president in 1968, saying “one year could be a fluke.” As BuzzFeed showed, he paid an effective tax rate of 50 percent — those were days before the Reagan tax cuts.  

And what of Kerry’s wife? Romney must have missed the controversy, largely fanned by Republicans, about her tax returns, in which they darkly suggested that she was secretly funding her husband’s presidential campaign. (She inherited the Heinz fortune from her late husband, and it was worth at least $500 million.)

A quick check of the clips shows that it was rather big issue, so much so that she eventually made public the first two pages of her 2003 return.

 That was not enough for Republicans, who wanted an even broader look. Amusingly, we see that the Wall Street Journal editorial page complained that, with an effective tax rate of 12.4 percent,  “she is paying a lower average rate than nearly all middle-class taxpayers paid in 2001” — similar to the line that the Obama campaign has been using about Romney’s tax rate.

 Romney, in his Senate race against Ted Kennedy in 1994, demanded that Kennedy release his tax returns, and Kennedy refused. In his 2002 race for governor, Romney cited Kennedy’s refusal, quoting him as saying, “I value my privacy.” Romney added: “I think he was right and I was wrong.” He never released his tax returns in that campaign.

However, Romney did provide the McCain campaign with 23 years’ worth of tax returns as part of the vetting process for being considered for vice president. Those returns were not released publicly. The Romney tax returns for the years 2008 and 2009, which he has not released or shared with others, would reflect his earnings during the depths of the recent economic crisis.


The Pinocchio Test

 McCain did release two years of tax returns, but the Romney campaign is being misleading with its suggestions that releasing two years of tax returns is some sort of standard for presidential contenders. Two years is actually the exception — only one challenger out of the last seven presidential nominees has released just two years of returns.

Moreover, Romney is wrong to suggest that releasing the tax returns of Kerry’s wife “wasn’t an issue” in the 2004 campaign. It was a big issue, because Republicans made it one.

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