ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish.
The Obama campaign is not letting the issue of Mitt Romney's tax returns go away. Listen to this TV ad released yesterday in Pennsylvania.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Romney admits that over the last two years he's paid less than 15 percent in taxes in 43 million in income. Makes you wonder if some years he paid any taxes at all. We don't know, because Romney has released just one full year of his tax returns.
CORNISH: The Republican presidential candidate has made it clear that he will release a second year of tax returns soon. Still, despite calls from not only Democrats but many Republicans, Romney has steadfastly refused to release more. He explained why, here in a TV interview with WPXI in Pittsburgh, citing recent history.
MITT ROMNEY: John McCain also released two years of tax returns. Actually, John Kerry never released the returns of his wife. And, of course, she had a great fortune. You know, we've seen the precedent of John McCain. We're following that precedent.
CORNISH: So has that really been the precedent? Where did it come from? Molly Ball covers politics for The Atlantic magazine, and she's here to explain. And, Molly, help us understand who made the first show of releasing their tax returns, and what was the reason for doing so at the time?
MOLLY BALL: Well, as many people have noted, Romney's father, George Romney, the one-time governor of Michigan and unsuccessful candidate for the Republican nomination in 1968, was one of the first candidates to really release a large amount of his own financial information. Like Romney, a big part of his resume was being a businessman. He released 12 years of his tax returns because he felt that that gave a bigger picture of sort of the ups and downs of his career better than a single year, which is what had been requested.
CORNISH: So what's come to be the expectation? I mean, 12 years seems like a lot.
BALL: Yeah. There's no single standard. And Romney is correct to say that McCain only released two years and that Kerry didn't fully release his wife's information. However, John Kerry himself released 20 years of his tax returns when he was running in 2004. In 2000, George W. Bush released nine years going back to 1991. And Al Gore released the same. He had, of course, been vice president for those years and was disclosing during that time. Obama, during the 2008 campaign, released seven years of his tax returns, so going back to the year 2000.
So it really varies from cycle to cycle. Ross Perot never released his tax returns. And that was a big issue because he also was a sort of self-made billionaire. And there were a lot of accusations from his opponents about what might be in there.
CORNISH: So, Molly, help us understand the difference in pressure, then, on those who are already in public service versus those who come from the private sector.
BALL: Well, politicians who are serving in office are generally expected to disclose something about their finances. On the other hand, people working in business, you know, information is power in the market; and so they have an expectation of being able to keep this stuff secret and having that be sort of a part of their success. So I think they may tend to bristle more at the expectation that they reveal this information.
CORNISH: And now, the pressure on Romney is coming from both political parties. You've got Republicans like former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and the editorial page of the conservative National Review saying that he should release more. What's going on there?
BALL: Well, these are people who want to Romney to win. And they feel, as a matter of campaign strategy, he needs to put this issue behind him. He needs to rip off the Band-Aid, get it over with so that he can go back to talking about the economy, go back to prosecuting President Obama on that central issue of the campaign. They feel this has become a distraction that is threatening to sort of throw him off course.
And the reason this may not go away is that this really gets to the heart of Mitt Romney's candidacy. Both his rationale for why he would make a good president and Democrats' argument for why he wouldn't comes down to his profile as a businessman and his work in the private sector, and the way he made his fortune.
And so that image of Romney as a creator of wealth and how it extends to the policies he would implement and how it extends into his personal life and his experience to be president, that's going to stay at the center of this campaign. And that is the reason that the Democrats think that this attack is likely to stick.
CORNISH: Molly Ball, staff writer for The Atlantic. Molly, thank you for talking with us.
BALL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.