The Misplaced Criticism of Rick Santorum’s Tax Returns

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Rick Santorum released his tax returns to Politico’s Maggie Haberman on Wednesday night. Santorum is the third of the four remaining Republican presidential candidates to unveil a peek into his family’s finances, following Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. But he’s pulled back the curtain to a greater degree by providing four years’ worth, dating back to 2007. They provide a snapshot of a candidate whose personal wealth has blossomed since he was ousted from the Senate. 

Santorum’s income climbed from $659,000 in 2007 to a peak of $1.1 million in 2009 before dipping back to $923,000 in 2010. He’s paid between 25% and 28.5% in taxes during those years, topping out at $310,000 in 2009. That rate is sharply higher than Mitt Romney’s, because the latter reaped his income primarily from capital gains on investments.

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Two aspects of Santorum’s tax return have attracted much of the media’s scrutiny. First, the returns show that Santorum is a wealthy guy who has profited from his Capitol Hill connections, a fact Romney’s campaign has sought to drive home by cutting ads that cast Santorum as a “Washington insider.” And he is. The former Pennsylvania Senator likes to accentuate his blue-collar family background on the campaign trail, telling stories about his coal-mining grandfather and his public-employee parents. His campaign believes that Romney’s bearing — frequently described as “presidential” by supporters — is a hindrance in a primary whose backdrop is the economic hardship that has ravaged voters over the past few years. On the trail in New Hampshire, Santorum would announce — apropos of nothing in particular — that he’d feel great pride if one of his sons eschewed college to devote himself to being the best auto mechanic around.

There is no question Santorum’s advisers see the everyman image as a selling point and are actively working to play it up, though they insist it’s genuine. They stress that he is a regular guy, the kind who’s not so far removed from the quotidian details most of us worry about, such as the price of a gallon of gas or milk. (He self-prepared his tax returns, for example.) They love recalling a New York Times infographic that revealed the contrast between the scope of the candidates’ campaigns: Romney, with a phalanx of aides and a chartered jet; Santorum with a Dodge pickup and no entourage. “There’s an authenticity he has. He’s not this West Wing-created character,” says John Brabender, a Santorum strategist. “We actually think that has long-term benefits, not just in the Republican primary but in the general election.” Fair enough. But the Dodge RAM and the sweater vest are icons designed to occlude the fact that Santorum is wealthy. He’s not in Romney’s stratosphere, but by no means middle-class.

The revelation that’s drawn more animated discussion is the level of Santorum’s charitable donations. From 2007 to 2010, the family donated a little more than 2% of their income to charity. The charge critics are leveling against Santorum is hypocrisy: that for a devout Catholic who stresses the importance of following church teachings, and who has made faith-based charity a personal cause, he’s not “walking the walk,” as conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post puts it. CNNMoney, in a story titled “Santorum’s Charitable Donations Lag Rivals,” note that according to the IRS and CBO, people with incomes over $500,000 donate 3.4% of their wealth on average, and quotes an analyst saying, “When you put it in the context of people of faith, then it really is on the low side.”

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A couple of points are worth noting. The catechism of Catholic church states that members are “obliged to assist with the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability.” So Santorum hasn’t fallen short of any religious dictate. By contrast, Mitt Romney belongs to the Mormon Church, which requires members to tithe 10%. Romney met that requirement in 2010 plus some, donating 13.8% of his income. While Romney’s giving was exceptional, Santorum’s was relatively average. As the Chronicle of Philanthropy notes, in the $500k-$1 million bracket, the average charitable donation was 2.6% of total income. By contrast: Newt Gingrich, who made $3.1 million in 2010, gave 3%. Barack Obama, who reported $1.8 million that year, gave 13.6%. Joe Biden, as conservatives gleefully pointed out, gave less than 1% in each of the 10 years of returns he provided after being tapped for the Democratic ticket in 2008.

So Santorum’s level of giving is higher than some, lower than others, and relatively in line with the national norm. Consider also his personal situation. He has seven young children for whom he provides, including a toddler with a rare illness that requires special care. The cost of living in Northern Virginia is expensive. That’s not too say he’s a hard case. Nor does he claim to be. In a 2005 profile of Santorum, then fighting to keep his Senate seat, New York Times Magazine writer Michael Sokolove had an interesting section about the family’s financial health:

[They] live in Leesburg, Va., about an hour from Washington and as close to Washington as they could afford a home big enough for their family…Santorum says he does not want his home-state voters to think he feels impoverished on his $162,100 Senate salary, but it is clear that money is a concern and that he is almost certainly one of the least well-off among the 100 senators.

”We live paycheck to paycheck, absolutely,” he says. Does he have money set aside for college? ”No. None. I always tell my kids: ‘Work hard. We’ll take out loans. Whatever.’ ” He volunteers that his parents help out financially. ”They’re by no means wealthy — they’re two retired V. A. employees — but they’ll send a check every now and then. They realize things are a little tighter for us.”

Santorum is far too competitive to want to lose his Senate seat, but he operates in Washington like a man who is not afraid of defeat and, on some level, would welcome its benefits. More than once in our conversations, he mentioned that losing would not be without a financial upside. ”Everyone says, ‘Senator, the worst thing that could happen to you is you could lose and spend more time with your kids and help pay for college,’ ” he told me.

Indeed, losing had a financial upside. But charity is a personal choice. I would wager that plenty of the people publicly criticizing Santorum for being “stingy” privately donate less than he does. In any event, I’m not sure why it has any bearing on whether he would make a good President.