Mitt Romney's Tax Returns: 6 Key Questions About the Politics

The Republican candidate has released his 2011 taxes. How might this affect the campaign going forward?

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This afternoon, Mitt Romney's campaign posted the candidate's tax returns online. But even before then, it posted some information from Brad Malt, the lawyer who oversees Romney's finances. In short, the Romneys paid $1,935,708 in taxes, having earned $13,696,951. Their effective tax rate was 14.1 percent. They gave $4,020,772 to charity, though they only claimed $2.25 million in deductions.

My colleague Derek Thompson has five takeaways on the returns; here are a few additional questions on the politics of the release.

1. Does this disqualify Romney from being president? It's particularly interesting that the Romneys intentionally deducted less than they could have in order to achieve a double-digit tax rate. Without that, they would have been closer to an effective rate of 9 percent. Back in June, when Romney was under fire for not releasing more taxes, he sat down for an interview in Jerusalem with ABC and said the following (emphasis added): "I don't pay more than are legally due and frankly if I had paid more than are legally due I don't think I'd be qualified to become president. I'd think people would want me to follow the law and pay only what the tax code requires." Does deducting less than is possible qualify as paying more than is legally due? It's a semantic gray area, but Romney's opponents are sure to say that he's failed his own test and disqualified himself from the presidency.

2. What's up with the timing? The campaign sent out Brad Malt's memo in midafternoon and posted the taxes at 3 p.m. That's late enough in the day to look like a Friday afternoon news dump but, paradoxically, probably not late enough to keep it from dominating the next 72 hours or so. Previously, the Romney team had said the candidate would release his returns by October 15. It seems they hope to dull any blowback by putting more time between the release and the election. What's more, it's coming at the end of an awful two weeks for Romney. As long as the night is already pitch dark, what's one more cloud in the sky? Might as well get it over with, right? Well ...

3. But what about the 47 percent? The strongest argument against the optimistic view is this: Romney's week was rough because of the release of secret video from May in which he is shown offering dismissive remarks about people who pay no federal income tax, a group that includes retired seniors, active-duty military, and those who make too little income to qualify for the federal income tax. In stark contrast, Romney was wealthy enough that he could pay more than he owed. So rather than offer a distraction from the 47 percent videos, the tax returns could just amplify those critiques.

4. Can the Romneys' charitable giving aid them? A major silver lining for the candidate is how much of his gold he's given away. The couple made donations of almost 30 percent of its income -- an impressive sum for anyone, and one that may help the public to see them more favorably. Conservatives are already rushing to highlight that giving as evidence of Romney's generosity and character, counter to the 47 percent video.

5. What would Obama policies do to the Romney return? There are two major, obvious ways in which proposals by the president would have affected the Romneys' tax return. First, Obama has called for the so-called "Buffett Rule," which would dictate that no one making $1 million or more in a year could pay less than 30 percent. That would more than double the Romneys' effective tax rate. He has also suggested reducing the amount of charitable giving that can be deducted.

6. Will this end the discussion over Romney's prior tax returns? In addition to putting out the 2011 return, Romney also released a summary of his taxes from 1990 to 2009 by the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. That answers some key questions about his past returns -- notably, it puts to rest once and for all the Harry Reid-propagated rumor, already viewed skeptically, that Romney paid no taxes at some point. And the campaign clearly hopes this summary will end calls for the candidate to release his full returns for at least the last 10 years -- though Democrats will surely keep trying.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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