Wouldn’t you love to be “dead broke” the way Hillary Clinton was? With speech and job and book opportunities stacked up on life’s runway, poised to whisk her to solvency?
Last week, in the ABC News interview that launched her pre-presidential campaign, she lamented how terrible it was to leave the White House in 2001 without a penny in the Clinton family till. Her Oliver Twist remark still bugs me, if only because it was so politically tone deaf.
I’ll cut to the chase: At a time when voters are mad at the Washington elite, a paragon of the Washington elite looks pretty stupid when she cries poverty. Because voters might come away thinking, “This woman doesn’t understand our everyday struggles.”
The key moment came when Diane Sawyer asked Hillary about the Clintons’ lucrative speaking fees (Hillary has made $5 million; Bill, $100 million). Hillary replied: “We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt. We had no money when we got there and we struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages for houses, for Chelsea’s education, you know, it was not easy...We had to make double the money because of obviously taxes, and then pay off the debts, and get us houses and take care of family members.”
OK. For starters, it’s not a good idea to talk about getting “houses,” as in plural. (Even while the Clintons were “dead broke,” they managed to buy a $3-million Washington house, and a nearly $2-million Chappaqua, New York house.) Most voters tend to own only one, or none. I doubt that John McCain did himself any good, back in 2008, when he couldn’t remember how many “houses” he owned.
Secondly, it’s not a good idea to whine about the need “to make double the money because of obviously taxes,” because most voters these days believe that high earners should pay their fair share of taxes. Heck, that’s a Democratic party principle.
And however “dead broke” Hillary was in 2001, she was uniquely positioned to soar with Bill into the financial stratosphere. In the ABC News interview, she somehow forgot to mention that, in December 2000, she had inked a deal with Simon & Schuster for her future memoir - and the book advance totaled nearly $8 million.
This is the difference between Hillary and the average Joe: When she’s “dead broke” and struggling to escape debt, she can write best-selling books and deliver lucrative speeches. When the average Joe is “dead broke” and and struggling to escape debt, he takes a second job tending bar or driving a cab - and probably remains in debt.
Hillary’s remark hasn’t necessarily damaged her 2016 prospects, because voters don’t necessarily resent candidates for being affluent. FDR was very affluent. So was JFK. The money is a problem only when candidates give the impression, by word or deed, that they’re out of touch with the masses. For instance, Mitt Romney hurt himself in ‘12 by defending the low taxes he paid on his lavish investment income, and by boasting that his wife drives “a couple of Cadillacs.”
Hillary has already tried to make amends - last week, she subsequently said that her original remark could’ve been more “artful,” that she and Bill were “obviously blessed” by their unique status, that “I fully appreciate how hard life is for so many Americans today” - and she may well polish those clarifications in the days ahead. She has also talked lately about income inequality and the American “dream of “upward mobility.”
But she may still have a problem with the Democratic left.
The party’s liberal populists have become steadily more vocal (hello, Elizabeth Warren), more determined to “soak the rich” and assail the special interests. Yet here is Hillary, the presumptive ‘16 front-runner, who has long enjoyed close ties to Wall Street, and whose definition of “dead broke” is a tad different from the struggling Democrat’s. Bonding with the left - demonstrating her commitment to the underdog, by word and deed - could be the biggest challenge of her pre-campaign.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at email@example.com.