On Clinton's Tax Returns, a "Frankly Disturbing" Lack of Transparency, and Surrogate-ancholy

It's hard out there for a surrogate. Especially for a Clinton surrogate being asked why Hillary Clinton has not released the last eight years of her tax returns. As Congresswoman and Clinton surrogate Nita Lowey made clear on Meet The Press yesterday, the reason it's so hard to give a good answer to "Why hasn't Clinton released her returns?" is because there is no good answer.

Lowey gave it a shot, but it wasn't pretty -- or particularly intelligible. When Tim Russert asked about the returns, she opened with the main talking point the Clinton campaign has been using for weeks: "It's my understanding that there are 20 years of tax returns in the public view from both Bill and Hillary Clinton."

And she's exactly right. There are 20 years worth of returns that have been released. What's missing are the last 8 years -- years in which Bill Clinton has been making money hand over fist, and involving himself in all kinds of interesting financial deals (see Ron Burkle, Yucaipa, and the ruler of Dubai).

Lowey then quickly pivoted away from tax returns (clearly the 20 year line, as lame as it is, was the only arrow in her quiver) to make points about earmarks and the terrific work Bill Clinton's foundation has done on HIV/AIDS in Africa -- neither of which Russert had asked her about or have anything to do with tax returns.

Now, Nita Lowey is no slouch. She's smart and accomplished. But when you are sent into battle armed with little more than nonsensical blather, you are not going to end up looking very good. And Lowey didn't. And she seemed to know it -- her eyes belied a classic case of surrogatancholy.

Hillary Clinton has repeatedly paired herself with John McCain as of late, making the case that they are candidates with a "lifetime of experience," so it seems appropriate that her refusal to release her tax returns is another thing they have in common.

While Clinton has been tossing verbal bouquets to McCain and attacking Obama for not being "vetted," Obama has been living up to his promises about making government more transparent. Not only did he release his latest tax returns in April 2007, he also just made public his list of earmarks, and sat down at the end of last week with the Chicago Tribune and Sun Times to answer all their questions about Tony Rezko. The conclusion of the Tribune?

"When we endorsed Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination Jan. 27, we said we had formed our opinions of him during 12 years of scrutiny. We concluded that the professional judgment and personal decency with which he has managed himself and his ambition distinguish him. Nothing Obama said in our editorial board room Friday diminishes that verdict... Barack Obama now has spoken about his ties to Tony Rezko in uncommon detail. That's a standard for candor by which other presidential candidates facing serious inquiries now can be judged."

It's a standard not being met by either McCain or Clinton.

As Sheila Krumholz of the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics said of Clinton not releasing her tax returns: "What is the holdup? She hasn't exactly made it clear as to what process is making it so cumbersome to just release them."

Or as John Aravosis summed it up: "People with nothing to hide don't usually hide."

The main excuse we've gotten so far is that Hillary Clinton just has too much on her plate. "I'm a little busy right now," she said during the Ohio debate. "I hardly have time to sleep. But I will certainly work toward releasing, and we will get that done and in the public domain."

That was three weeks ago. Two weeks ago, Howard Wolfson promised the returns would be released "on or around April 15." But weren't the returns completed and filed a long time ago? Doesn't Clinton's accountant have time to print them out and make some copies (note to Clinton's accountant: many Kinko's are open 24 hours).

As Andrew Sullivan notes, "Did they file an extension for the past few years? If they didn't, the forms are available now."

And it's not as if the Clintons have attempted to make a reasoned argument as to why the returns shouldn't be released -- something about there being too much scrutiny of public officials. Instead they've gone with Classic Clintonism: envelope themselves in lofty, good-guy rhetoric while utterly failing to follow-through. And then smearing their opponents, such as their absurd attack on Obama's campaign for "imitating Ken Starr."

The Clintons have obviously done very well during the Bush years -- well enough that she was able to loan her campaign $5 million at a critical moment. Is it really Ken Starr-like to want to know where that money came from? Or to ask for a list of the donors who have contributed $500 million to her husband's library? Or to ask what her policy as president would be regarding the transparency of huge donations from foreign interests to her husband's charitable fund (see the $31.3 million donation and additional $100 million pledge to Bill Clinton's foundation after he helped a Canadian mining mogul secure a massive uranium deal with Kazakhstan)?

As a New York Times editorial put it:

"As a former president, Bill Clinton has been making millions annually giving speeches and traveling the globe. What is publicly known about his business dealings is sketchy, and clearer disclosure of them is required to reassure voters that Mrs. Clinton's candidacy is unencumbered by hidden entanglements."

In short, it's well past time for Hillary Clinton to be as "vetted" as she claims to already be -- and to have this vetting done now by Democratic voters rather than later by GOP hit squads. She needs to live up to the standard she laid out for Rick Lazio, the opponent in her 2000 Senate race. At that time, she said it was "frankly disturbing" that Lazio was holding back on releasing his tax returns.

What a difference eight years -- and tens of millions of dollars (some of them from questionable deals) -- can make.