Potential Democratic primary voters seem to be dividing pretty quickly into one of two camps: either you are a huge booster of Bernie Sanders for president or you are #NeverBernie.
As a political journalist I endeavor to draw a line between my personal political beliefs and the objectivity required to cover a primary election process that could have 20+ candidates without readers being able to discern my preference from the stories I cover.
Upstarts and outsiders like Bernie Sanders face a unique challenge in the political arena.
Yes, politicians sometimes have the ability to reinvent themselves and stay fresh (like Madonna or Cher do in the music industry) for decades, but no matter the repackaging, they are only new once. The second or third act in presidential politics often involves a candidate running as much against prior iterations of their own political persona as against other primary rivals.
This week, Bernie Sanders participated in a town hall aired on CNN. You can watch the video below, but Bernie Sanders gets pretty darn defensive when pressed about his tax returns.
Yes, Senator Sanders has committed to publicly releasing his tax returns “soon” and reassures voters that he would have done so in the past had he secured the Democratic nomination in 2016.
But here’s the thing:
One year of Bernie and Jane Sanders’ tax returns is publicly available: 2014.
You can see it for yourself here, although not really much to see.
In the year before he decided to throw his hat into the ring and seek the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders and his wife reported adjusted gross income of just over $200,000, almost exclusively from Bernie Sander’s Senate salary and their combined Social Security benefits. The couple reported interest income of $11 and dividends of $2. Looking at those paltry returns on investment, other than their Vermont 1980’s vintage home and their D.C. townhouse (which both had substantial mortgages), it seemed the couple had no assets and were basically living paycheck to paycheck.
As recently as 2013, Bernie Sanders had a negative net worth, nearly $115,000 in the hole. By the time Donald Trump was inaugurated, Bernie Sanders was officially a millionaire. His required federal disclosures show Sanders earned more than $1 million in both 2016 and 2017. With his most recent book Where We Go from Here: Two Years in the Resistance released in November 2018, it seems likely Sanders will top $1 million in earnings for both 2018 and 2019 as well.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge the guy making money.
Bernie Sanders has been screaming the same “rage against the machine” rhetoric for more than four decades. Sometimes he targets the political machine. Sometimes he targets the big banks and Wall Street. Lately his focus is on the haves and have-nots economically. Bernie had always been poor, and had always been an outsider, so no matter who he was standing with or raging against, he was a kindred soul.
Now it seems it just took him 40 years to figure out how to monetize that rhetoric.
Will his rhetoric continue to play, though?
Bernie Sanders recently began his 4th term in the United States Senate. He is currently 27th of the 100 Senators in seniority. Add in his 16 years of House service prior to winning his Senate seat and Bernie Sanders is one of the most senior Washington insiders. Sure, he bills himself as an independent who only caucuses with the Democrats, but when seeking a party’s nomination for the second presidential cycle in a row, identifying as an outsider becomes less convincing.
Will Bernie Sanders’ populist messaging and his targeting of the 1% be as easily accepted now that he is a millionaire and consistently earns double the annual income required to be part of that wealthy and privileged 1% he so scorns?
Will he still be accepted as poor everyman with his empty pockets turned out now that it takes so much longer to finalize his tax returns due to family trusts or other tax shelters recently established?
I guess we will find out, like the promised release of his tax returns…soon.