The Politics Of Sen. Bernie Sanders' Tax Returns

Apr 16, 2019

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders released nearly a decade of his tax returns Monday, from 2009 through 2018. Sanders is running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, and he'd been promising to release his returns for several weeks.

More from NPR — "Bernie Sanders Releases A Decade Of Tax Returns" [April 15]

First, a quick look at what’s in a few of the returns:

  • In 2016, Sanders and his wife Jane had a total income of $1,073,333.
  • In 2017, that figure was $1,150,891.
  • In 2018, they reported an income of $566,421.
  • Sanders’ base U.S. Senate salary is $174,000, and most of the rest of his income comes from advances and royalties from his books.

Vermont Edition checked in with Middlebury political science professor Matt Dickinson about what's in Sanders' returns and what it means for the race for the Democratic nomination for president.

Dickinson said, in general, there’s a few reasons to care about presidential candidates releasing their tax returns — for example, being able to see any possible conflicts of interest and serving as a tool for voters to evaluate if they find a candidate relatable.

The release is particularly significant for Sanders, Dickinson said, “because so much of his candidacy is based on his message of economic populism.”

It isn’t strictly an issue of income; other candidates have reported larger incomes than Sanders in their tax returns.

“The issue isn’t the fact that he’s earning a lot of money,” Dickinson said. “The issue is among the candidates, he’s the one who has made so much political hay out of critiquing the 1%.”

What remains to be seen, Dickinson said, is how Sanders navigates the seeming juxtaposition of his current financial status and his messaging.

“The question I think is how he explains that, given the nature of his candidacy and the focus that he’s made on economic populism and attacking the 1%. It does raise a certain political awkwardness,” Dickinson said. “It’s not disqualifying by any means, but it does mean he has to sort of talk about, as part of the 1%, what does that do to his message which is largely premised on attacking the 1%.”

How Sanders goes about this discussion is what could impact his credibility, Dickinson added, noting that Sanders “can be prickly in his responses.”

If Sanders successfully explains how his personal finances can coexist with his 1% messaging, “I don’t think this is a long-term issue that he has to worry about,” Dickinson said.

Sanders had released his 2014 tax return during the 2016 campaign. But Dickinson said Sanders’ status as a frontrunner in the 2020 campaign has opened his tax returns up to more scrutiny than back during his initial bid.

“When you’re a frontrunner, you have a target on your back. And he is particularly susceptible to this target; this target says '1%.' And you can be sure his rivals who are looking for any edge they can get are going to point this out, that this is a potential problem for Sanders,” Dickinson said. “And that’s why it was so important for him to release the returns and to deal with this earlier as opposed to later.”

Broadcast live on Tuesday, April 16, 2019 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.