How voters may react to the Clintons' $109 million income
Few will begrudge the couple its wealth, experts say, unless business ties raise red flags.
WASHINGTON — Now that the Clintons have bared much of their financial life, in the form of tax returns going back to 2000, will voters view them any differently?
Probably not, unless further revelations about the former president's business dealings raise red flags, analysts say. There was never any doubt that the Clintons have become quite wealthy since leaving the White House in January 2001, starting with the bestselling books both Bill and Hillary have written. In addition, former President Clinton is active on the global lecture circuit, at times commanding well into six figures per speech, and has engaged in lucrative investment partnerships.
When the Clintons left the White House, they faced massive debts – reportedly, about $12 million – from legal fees incurred during various investigations, but they have long since paid them off.
Now, voters in Pennsylvania and in the other remaining primaries have new information to weigh as they decide between Senator Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination. In the past eight years, according to the returns released Friday afternoon, the Clintons earned $109 million, almost half of that ($51.9 million) from the former president's speeches. They paid $33.8 million, or 31 percent of their gross income, in taxes. They donated $10 million to charity, including to their own family foundation.
The irony for Senator Clinton is that it's the lower-income, working-class segment of the Democratic Party that has tended to support her, while the far less wealthy Senator Obama has attracted higher-income voters. But American voters often don't begrudge wealthy candidates their money; many aspire to wealth themselves.
"Wealth by itself will not be a problem for her, but the means by which she acquired it could raise some questions," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
Clinton's strength with lower-income voters comes in part from her husband's presidency, and memories of the economic prosperity of that eight-year period. When the Clintons were just starting out in politics, Bill could tout his humble origins. Hillary came from a more middle-class family, her father a successful small-business man. Now, the question is whether voters will look at the Clintons and believe they still know what it's like to face financial challenges.
On the campaign trail, both Obama and his wife, Michelle, talk about their own modest family backgrounds and how it hasn't been that long since they paid off their student loans.
But their days of financial struggle are clearly over. When the Obamas released their 2000 to 2006 tax returns last month, they presented a picture of a two-career couple that began the decade comfortably (earning $240,505 in 2000) and can now be called wealthy. In their best year, 2005, their combined income was $1.6 million, including $1.2 million in earnings for Senator Obama's bestselling books. In 2006, the couple made almost $1 million.
Still, the Obamas are not Clinton-level wealthy. And their financial picture is far less complicated than the Clintons‚ especially given the former president's business dealings with fundraisers for both Clintons' campaigns and with donors to the Clinton presidential library in Arkansas. Bill Clinton's best-known business associate, billionaire Ron Burkle, is the founder of the Yucaipa investment firm and a "Hillraiser," the title for those who raise more than $100,000 for Hillary's '08 campaign. Bill has earned at least $12.6 million as an adviser and rainmaker for Yucaipa since 2003.
Yucaipa's dealing with the government of Dubai and with a Chinese media company could present a conflict of interest to Senator Clinton if she becomes president, and Bill Clinton is reportedly set to sever his ties to the company if his wife wins the nomination.
The origins of the Clintons' wealth became a campaign issue when Clinton revealed in February that she had loaned her campaign $5 million, and was reportedly prepared to donate up to $15 million.
"The Clintons have now made public 30 years of tax returns, a record matched by few people in public service," Clinton campaign spokesman Jay Carson said in a statement. "None of Hillary Clinton's presidential opponents have revealed anything close to this amount of personal financial information."
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, has not released past tax returns. Candidates aren't required to release their tax returns, but the practice has become customary.