One of the flukes of the American democratic system is that we vote for people who embody a broad range of ideas, rather than weighing in on the ideas themselves. This is advantageous from a practical sense; plebiscite votes on everything that came before Congress would be impractical for a hundred reasons. But it affords those we elect an opportunity to blend and obscure what it is that people are actually voting for.
A good example was manifested on Sunday by Kellyanne Conway, adviser to President Trump.
Asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos how the administration would respond to a petition on the White House website calling for the release of Trump’s tax returns, Conway was dismissive.
“The White House response is that he’s not going to release his tax returns,” Conway replied. “We litigated this all through the election. People didn’t care. They voted for him. And let me make this very clear. Most Americans are very focused on what their tax returns will look like while President Trump is in office, not what his look like.”
There are two sentences that get to the point made above. We litigated this all through the election, Conway said, and people didn’t care. Since Trump won, the argument seems to be, everything that was known about him before the election is now something of which Americans approve.
That’s demonstrably false. A CBS News poll conducted a month after the election found that 60 percent of Americans still think that it’s important for Trump to release his tax returns. That includes a majority of independent voters — theoretically a group to which Trump’s outsider presidency should appeal.
Remember: That’s 60 percent of the country after the litigation to which Conway refers.
That litigation began in response to Trump’s initial insistence that he would release his returns, once filings from recent years were out of the audit process. During the 2012 election, Trump disparaged Mitt Romney’s reluctance to release his tax returns. When Romney returned the favor last year, Trump introduced the audit argument, insisting that his lawyers wouldn’t allow him to release the documents while the IRS was still looking into them. That didn’t explain why he couldn’t release years that weren’t under audit, of course, but this was a detail that was generally glossed over for the rest of the campaign.
In May, The Post and our polling partners at ABC News asked people how they felt about Trump’s failure to release his tax returns, a break with four decades of precedent. The numbers aligned generally with CBS’s December poll: 64 percent of Americans thought Trump should release his returns before the election.
Unsurprisingly, attitudes aligned heavily with party and presidential preference. Supporters of Hillary Clinton at that point in time felt strongly that he should release his tax returns; Trump supporters felt fine with his not doing so. The depth of the overlap between candidate preference and attitudes runs deeper than that, though. Trump’s base of support was split between those who were voting for him because they liked him and those who planned to vote for him in November to see Clinton defeated. Among that latter group, a majority thought he should release the information about his taxes.
During the primaries, Conway herself was opposed to Trump, backing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) through an independent super PAC. When she was in the role of opposing Trump, she, too, agreed that Trump should release his tax returns.
And here's Donald Trump's new campaign manager in April call for Trump to release his tax returns pic.twitter.com/pIxCCm39xj
— John Whitehouse (@existentialfish) August 19, 2016
This is another problem with arguing that election results are a rubber stamp for every position held by a candidate: Support for the candidate often drives attitudes toward policy as much as support for a policy drives attitudes toward a candidate.
It’s easy to see why Conway would argue that Trump’s election is a vote of approval for everything that the president does. Trump has been eagerly trying to establish that he has a mandate for what he wants to do. (Conway herself articulated some of the specious metrics he’s used to that end during an interview on “Meet the Press” on Sunday, including the particularly specious we won more counties line.) The split from our May poll among Trump supporters themselves is a reminder that it’s not that simple. A lot of people voted for Trump despite his positions and behavior, not because of them. Losing the national popular vote undercuts this argument even further. (“They voted for him” applies to a subset of “they.”)
It’s clear from polling both before and after the election that most Americans do, in fact, want to see Trump release his tax returns. That petition at the White House website, initiated last Friday, has 261,000 signatures at time of writing. Whether they particularly care, as in Conway’s formulation, is a slightly different question. I might hope that the Falcons win the Super Bowl because I generally dislike the Patriots, but I don’t particularly care who wins. That is much harder to measure.
On Monday, Conway backtracked from the position she staked out over the weekend, saying in a tweet that the administration would release tax returns once audits were completed.
On taxes, answers (& repeated questions) are same from campaign: POTUS is under audit and will not release until that is completed. #nonews
— Kellyanne Conway (@KellyannePolls) January 23, 2017
The question of whether he’ll release returns from those past years that aren’t under audit was left unanswered. In case you care.