There's at least one very good reason why they shouldn't: It's not required by law.
But there are three even better reasons why they should. First, it's established practice, observed by every major party nominee since 1980 (and sporadically even before that). Second, each of the leading candidates has already promised to release his return. And third, the political cost of clinging to tax privacy is steep -- just ask Mitt Romney.
In fact, you don't need to ask him: Last month Romney volunteered some advice to the current GOP candidates. "4 years ago today, I released my taxes," he tweeted on January 24. "Became issue. 2016 candidates should release taxes before first contests."
Well, too late for that: Iowa has come and gone, and the three leading candidates are still stalling on their promised tax disclosures. But at least one of the also-rans is trying to ratchet up the pressure. Last summer Jeb Bush set a high bar for candidate disclosure when he released 33 years of individual returns. He recently called out the other candidates for failing to follow suit. "Why wouldn't our candidates want to be fully transparent?" he asked Bloomberg Politics. "I think Republicans should demand it."
For their part, the two Democratic candidates have both made some sort of tax disclosure. Hillary Clinton has been particularly forthcoming; at one point or another, she has released returns dating back to 1977. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, has made publicly available only his Form 1040 from 2014. (We should expect more from him if he hopes to be taken seriously.)
On the GOP side, the candidates also differ in the scope of their previous tax disclosures. But all share one thing: They have promised to release recent tax returns and have failed to deliver.
On the eve of his Iowa victory, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz weathered a minor storm over his charitable giving, with opponents suggesting that he was failing to tithe, as might be expected from an evangelical Christian. "It's hard to say God is first in your life if he's last in your budget," quipped former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee without calling out Cruz by name. "If I can't trust God with a dime out of each dollar that I earn, then I'm not sure how I can tell him that I trust him with my whole life." (It's worth pointing out that Huckabee, now retired from the race, never released his own returns.)
Cruz conceded to an interviewer that he hasn't been tithing. He told The Brody File: "All of us are on a faith journey, and I will readily admit that I have not been as faithful in this aspect of my walk as I should have been."
Indeed, tax records would seem to bear out Cruz's history of modest giving. While running for the Senate in 2012, he released returns for 2006 to 2010. According to the Associated Press, those returns show that Cruz and his wife donated an average of less than 1 percent of their income to charity.
Of course, Cruz might have donated more in recent years. But we have no way of knowing because his campaign has failed to release more recent returns. In April 2015 a spokesman said Cruz had filed for an extension but promised that he would eventually release a more recent return. "It's just busy, and taxes are complicated," he explained.
It's now January. Things are still busy, taxes are still complicated, and Cruz has still failed to release his return.
Donald Trump has never released any personal tax returns -- hardly surprising because he has spent his entire life as a private citizen rather than a public servant. His substantial wealth and complex business dealings may well give him ample reason to resist disclosure. But as a candidate, he has promised repeatedly to release his returns.
"Well, I'm thinking about it," he told George Stephanopoulos of ABC News when asked last October about the timing of a release. "I'm thinking about maybe when we find out the true story on Hillary's emails." When asked more specifically about his average tax rate, Trump declined to answer but underscored his intention to release his tax information. "I'm not going to say it, but at some point I'm going to release it," he said.
Later that month, Trump tweeted a picture of himself, pen in hand, next to a huge mound of papers. "Signing my return," he wrote. But in January, Trump declined to say when he would release that signed return. Speaking to Chuck Todd of NBC News, Trump offered vague assurances. "Well, we're working on that now," he said. "I have very big returns, as you know, and I have everything all approved and very beautiful, and we'll be working that over in the next period of time, Chuck. Absolutely." Trump sidestepped repeated follow-ups asking for a more specific timetable.
Since he entered politics, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has been bedeviled by gossip about his personal finances, which by some reports are fairly strained. As a candidate, he has tried to turn the rumors into a compelling story of personal struggle. But the reframing has been problematic. "Rubio's story also raises old criticisms that he has lacked personal fiscal discipline, got special financial favors and abused campaign funds," reported the Tampa Bay Times. "It reveals a career politician's income growing in step with his rising clout in Tallahassee, including a $300,000-a-year job at a law firm that arrived as he locked in the position as House speaker."
Given all the rumors, it's understandable that Rubio might want to limit his financial disclosures. But while running for the Senate, he nonetheless made a significant, if limited, tax disclosure, releasing his Form 1040 for every year between 2000 and 2009. This past April, a Rubio spokesman said the candidate had filed for an extension but would soon release a recent return. The extension has presumably run out, but the return remains unreleased.
Rubio's reticence makes him just like the other GOP front-runners, all of whom failed to respond to repeated requests from Tax Analysts to release recent returns.
Ultimately, the candidates can run, but they can't hide. No White House hopeful has made a more concerted effort to preserve his tax privacy than Romney did in 2012. And it did not go well. "We had Harry Reid lying on the floor of the Senate about Mitt Romney not paying taxes," one of Romney's former aides told Bloomberg Politics. "And the press corps continued to push for the returns. It was a distraction for the campaign."
Indeed, nondisclosure promotes speculation, which can be more damaging than the unvarnished truth. For a candidate with a complicated financial and tax history, stonewalling can seem like the safest route. But in the modern era of hyperdisclosure -- when candidates' lives are open to vigorous and continual scrutiny -- stonewalling is doomed to fail.
Eventually, a serious candidate will have to do serious things. The current GOP front-runners have earned the right to be taken seriously. Now it's their turn to get serious about their tax disclosures.
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