Friday, April 4, 2008

21st Century Campaign Conundrum

Over the last several months there has been a call for Senator Hillary Clinton to release her taxes to the public and today she and former President Clinton released their 2000 through 2006 returns as requested.

It is puzzling to me why candidates, regardless of who they are, are forced to divulge this information.

Yes, it is important to know that politicians are not robbing the IRS blind. Yes, it is important to know where politicians are getting their money (especially that it isn't coming from questionable sources). And yes, it is important to know that fairness be across the board in terms of what each American pays in taxes.

However, I am skeptical as to why opponents of Senator Clinton insist on having this information. Does it level the playing field to have this information out there? Does it strategically benefit one candidate over another if they know how much cash on hand they can personally loan to their own campaign?

It is one thing to have campaign finance reporting. It is a different animal to require that every candidate make their tax information available to the American public, an American public that may be insulted by said information.

Why do we need to know that over the past seven years the Clintons have collectively made $109 million? I don't need to know that. I don't want to know. The only amount of money that the Clintons have made over the past seven years that is relevant in my eyes is the pension President Clinton received as a former commander-in-chief and the salary Hillary Clinton receives as a public servant in the United States Senate. As a taxpayer, that information is important to me. I don't need to know whether or not they have claimed Chelsea as a dependent. I do not need to know who prepared their taxes. And I certainly do not need to know which deductions they cited and how many charitable donations they made.

First of all, don't other Americans feel insulted, as I do, by having someone else's income paraded in front of them? I suppose I've always felt that taxes were private, a silent agreement between the taxpayer and their government. I don't need a priest to confess to God when I screw up and I don't need the media to advertise my income that I have privately reported to the Internal Revenue Service.

Sure, as public servants the Clintons have agreed to live their lives in the public eye. It is intrusive enough to have the prying media on your doorstep wanting to know every detail of your personal lives. It is intrusive enough to have the prying media speculating on your sex life. It is intrusive enough to have reporters following your every move as you campaign for the highest office in the land. Is there no line drawn for what is too intrusive? Evidently, it is a line in the sand.

Welcome to the 21st century, the Clinton's tax returns are now available for all to see (American or not) in pdf format on the world wide web. Is nothing private anymore?


Jared said...

Tara, this is an interesting post. I'm not sure I agree with you, though. As far as I know presidential candidates are not required to release their tax returns, however if it is required of them you won’t find me lamenting their lack of privacy. PUBLIC service is not a private affair and I think the people have a right to. If we are going to demand sunshine laws on their public work, a little sunshine in their “private” lives can’t be that bad. They obviously must forfeit some elements of their privacy by being a public servant. I know they have the campaign finance paperwork, similar to the paperwork required of members of Congress and Senators. But we demand a little more from our prospective presidents than the law requires. It may not be our business how much they make. It’s fairly well established that our public servants range from well-off to insanely rich—tax returns just affirm our assumptions! The bottom line isn’t that important (and I don’t think most Americans begrudge the fact that this country has been generous to them), but WHERE it comes from can be important. A president has some absolute powers and we should have the utmost assurance that the people that pay them aren’t benefiting in anyway from executive orders, pardons, clemency, appointments, etc. Also, I think the American people want to know how generous our prospective presidents are by how much they give to charity. It certainly isn’t a perfect barometer of good intentions, because I suppose a corrupt politician can write a fat check to charity just as easily as the next altruistic guy. It’s kind of an assurance that they “walk the walk”. Frankly, one of the most interesting things about Barack Obama’s tax returns was how small of a percentage of his income he actually gave to charity. He has a 7 figure income and continually giving less than 5 percent? The Clintons should be commended for all the money they have given to charity, including for the good work their foundation does. But you raise some interesting points, Tara.

Jared said...

I guess I should correct myself:

Obama has generally made seven figure income (or very near to it) in all the years of his released tax returns. And he did give 6+% of his income to charity in 2006. But all previous years were turely a pittance...most being less than >1%.