Why hasn’t Bernie Sanders just released his damn tax returns already?
It’s a question that’s something of a Rorschach test for Democratic primary voters. For veterans of the great war of 2016, who’ve been in the trenches battling Sanders for years, it’s exhibit A of his hypocrisy, evidence of a man who claims the moral high ground but is hiding something from the public — perhaps something disqualifyingly corrupt.
There’s no evidence for this allegation, which fails to consider that Sanders has been filing rather detailed federal financial disclosures as a member of Congress since the early 1990s. For supporters of Sanders, meanwhile, the entire issue is a distraction, a way for the corporate media and centrist Democrats to undermine Sanders with trivial, horse-race nonsense.
The truth, though, is likely much simpler: By failing to release his tax returns despite repeated promises to do so any minute now, Sanders is being the stubborn curmudgeon he’s always been.
One possibility behind Sanders’s hesitancy is that the returns may show that he made actual money from his book about his 2016 campaign, and is now one of the millionaires, though not billionaires, that he routinely calls out. But the independent senator from Vermont resisted releasing his returns long before he published “Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In,” a New York Times best-seller. As a protest candidate in the last cycle, he barely campaigned until December 2015, only hitting the trail when the Senate was out of session. He didn’t expect to win the nomination, so he didn’t bother with releasing what he considered to be mundane tax returns that would just back up his financial disclosures. The louder the media demanded his returns, the more convinced he became that the issue was manufactured trivia.
For Sanders, the trappings of politics and campaigns are by default either corrupting or absurd in comparison to the scale of the true crises facing the American people. It’s not about political expediency: He doesn’t want his opponents caught up in frivolous debates, either, even when it means giving up some advantage. “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” he famously said in an October 2015 debate with Hillary Clinton, then went on to add: “Let me say something about the media as well. I go around the country, talk to a whole lot of people. Middle class of this country is collapsing. We have 27 million people living in poverty. We have massive wealth and income inequality. Our trade policies have cost us millions of decent jobs. The American people want to know whether we’re going to have a democracy or an oligarchy as a result of Citizens United. Enough of the emails, let’s talk about the real issues.”
Sanders refuses to engage with things that annoy him. But he is no longer a protest candidate and can no longer escape the old adage that you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you. He’s running not to make a statement or drag the conversation to the left, but to be the leader of the most powerful country in the history of the world and to rescue it from its collision course with a dystopian future. People rightly want to know whether he has his act together enough to do that, particularly as they experience life under the presidency of a man who clearly does not.
Sanders’s refusal to bend on any issue, no matter how minor, may be endearing to his most passionate supporters, but he’s doing both them and the country a disservice. An unbending approach to minutiae harms not only him, but his movement — and begins to look selfish and entitled. A million people have raised their hands to volunteer to make Sanders president. They deserve more from him.
There are other, more practical reasons for having not yet released the returns. The Sanders family, unsurprisingly, doesn’t employ a professional tax adviser. The IRS does not make it easy to get old copies of tax returns, so Sanders needs to root around and find all the returns — some probably filled out by hand — and get them in order for release. That’s an annoying but not terribly difficult task to accomplish, and Sanders has had three years since 2016 to get it done. But that’s where the stubbornness comes in: It’s an easy enough task to complete, but not if you think the underlying premise is silly at best and capitulation at worst.
Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, are demanding that the IRS turn over President Donald Trump’s returns, making the politics of Sanders’s delay that much less tenable. Trump should not be the standard; people deserve to see every candidate’s tax returns. Sen. Elizabeth Warren obliged early; Sanders isn’t special.
In a Thursday appearance on “The Daily Show,” Sanders finally named an actual date when he’ll release his returns. “April 15 is coming. That will be the 10th year and we will make them all public very shortly,” Sanders said. “I’m delighted to do that, proud to do that. Hey Mr. Trump, you do the same thing.”
Sanders, though, is fooling nobody when he says he’s delighted to do it. His approach to politics is as much a strategy as an attitude, and it has, with some fits and starts, served him well. He’s been uncompromising for decades, and that’s what his supporters now love about him, but his problem remains an inability to identify the line between issues he should stand firm on — “Medicare for All,” for instance — and ones in which he should just bow to an immediate political reality. Instead, Sanders digs in on everything, on both sides of the line, often only buckling after weeks of self-inflicted, avoidable harm to him and the causes he’s fighting for.
Sanders is a walking version of Winston Churchill’s famous aphorism about America, except for Sanders, the hesitation is not about doing what’s right. It’s about doing what the moment — trivial as it may seem — demands. Bernie Sanders can be counted on to do what’s politically smart after trying everything else first.