What Jeb Bush's Tax Disclosure Means for His Rivals

The Republican presidential candidate's release of 33 years of tax forms raises the bar for the rest of the field.

Al Hunt: Jeb Bush's Tax Release Was a Really Smart Move

Jeb Bush won some bragging rights Tuesday with the release of 33 years of tax returns early in his campaign, a bold move for the latest descendant of America's most famous Republican dynasty to seek the presidency. "By releasing so many returns," said Joseph J. Thorndike, an expert on the political economy of U.S. taxation, Bush has "raised the bar" for disclosure.

"This clearly raises the stakes for all the other candidates," he said.

Not only has Bush released more information about his personal finances than previous presidential candidates; he's released it earlier than most, taking pressure off himself and turning it onto his rivals. Absent any dubious financial transactions or problematic revelations, the major challenge this leaves Bush is running as a populist candidate with a rich man's portfolio.

"This is a significant move because it forces a conversation about which candidates are being honest, forthright and transparent," said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist who is unaffiliated with any presidential candidate, adding that it "puts the spotlight squarely on his Republican rivals to do the same thing."

Bush may have learned a lesson from the 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, who for months refused to disclose his returns until the pressure became insurmountable. In a similar position, Bush moved quickly to dispel a potentially lingering story.

'The Rich Candidate'

"He's the rich candidate, he's the dynasty candidate; he's the one we're all waiting to raise our eyebrows over," said Thorndike. "So it's sort of brilliant from Bush's perspective... He's the one who really needs to be out there on this."

It has become standard for presidents to release their tax returns annually, and for serious presidential contenders to follow suit. But this year's campaign could set new standards for completeness and earliness of disclosure. Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina released two years worth of income tax returns in early June, a month after she declared her campaign for the presidency.  

Bush's top rivals for the Republican nomination, according to the latest polls—Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker—have yet to release their returns. Both have stressed their humble beginnings as a selling point; neither is believed to be especially wealthy. Walker never graduated from college and Rubio is the son of a bartender and a hotel maid. But he has faced more scrutiny for his financial struggles. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a lawyer whose wife worked until recently as an executive for Goldman Sachs.

Pressure on Clinton

Another goal for the Bush team is to increase pressure on Hillary Clinton, whose family's finances have been heavily scrutinized in recent months. Republican operatives want to seize the opportunity to needle the Democratic front-runner. "Because of the millions of dollars she has earned," Bonjean said, "the most pressure will be on Hillary Clinton to release her tax returns or else it will force her campaign to play defense on yet another disclosure issue."

Brian Fallon, a spokesman for the Clinton campaign, said the former secretary of state "fully expects to release her tax returns again this time, as she did the last time she ran for president." He noted that the Clintons have released their tax returns for 30 years from 1977 to 2006.

Perils of Foot-Dragging

But the larger question remains: will candidates' release of tax returns affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential election? Don't count on it.

"I don't think these things are often pivotal," said Thorndike.

The 2012 election was an anomaly when Romney's foot-dragging on his tax returns backfired. The former private equity titan revealed in the heat of the election year that he paid a lower tax rate than many middle class Americans; President Barack Obama's allies painted the Republican as an out-of-touch elitist whose policies would give tax breaks to wealthy Americans like himself.

But even then, the tax returns were only part of the equation, noted Jim Manley, a longtime Democratic operative turned lobbyist. He argued that what really damaged Romney was his involvement in deals at Bain Capital that sparked large-scale layoffs. Manley suspected that "as long as there are no bombshells" in Bush's tax disclosures, the move will amount to little more than a clever tactical move to one-up his rivals.

"I'm not getting too excited right now," he said.

(Jennifer Epstein contributed reporting.)

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE