Hillary Clinton and 'wealth': Why the missteps?

Did Hillary Clinton mean to exclude her family from the ranks of the 'truly well off,' in a remark to The Guardian? Americans will elect very rich presidents. But if she intends to run in 2016, here's why her comments are dangerous.

Eric Gay/AP
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton waves to the crowd before she speaks about her new book, 'Hard Choices,' on Friday, June 20, 2014, in Austin, Texas.

Hillary Clinton keeps saying unfortunate things about her family’s wealth. First it was her comment to ABC’s Diane Sawyer about leaving the White House “dead broke.” Now it’s a remark to The Guardian that might further indicate a lack of perspective about her six-figure speaking fees and multimillion-dollar book advances.

Asked how voters could see her as credible on the subject of income inequality, Mrs. Clinton had this to say: “But they don’t see me as part of the problem, because we pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off, not to name names; and we’ve done it through dint of hard work.”

So paying “ordinary” income tax is a badge of middle-class honor? Well, maybe – it’s true that 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney paid a smaller percentage of his income in federal taxes than did the Clintons, at least as far as can be determined from the tax information they released when she ran for president in 2008. "The Fix" blog at the Washington Post has the numbers here: The Clinton family federal tax rate in 2008 was 31.8 percent, while Mr. Romney paid 13.9 percent in 2010.

But are we wrong to think most voters will look at someone's overall income level to judge his or her financial status, with tax rate further down their list? After all, this whole game is about whether voters perceive that candidates relate to their problems. Generally speaking, the public does not worry about whether the private jet taking them to a weekend policy conference in Aspen is on time.

Then there’s the truly dangerous phrase in Clinton’s answer: “people who are truly well off.” By any stretch of arithmetic, the Clinton family is in the 1 percent. This is not a barrier to voter acceptance: John Kennedy’s family money made him a billionaire. Franklin Roosevelt was obviously a plutocrat. But neither of these popular Democratic presidents insisted that they were middle class.

Will this hurt Clinton if she runs for president? That’s possible – Republicans are already trying to use it to tar her in the eyes of the electorate. Some on the right even hope that Clinton’s perceived 1 percent problem will drag down Democrats as a whole in the 2014 midterms.

“The phrase ‘limousine liberal’ will be poised for a big comeback this midterm season, and Democrats will have Hillary to thank for it,” writes Ed Morrissey Monday at "Hot Air."

But we’d say that the vast majority of US voters already have their minds made up about Clinton’s personality, one way or another. She’s been in the public eye at the national level for, what, almost a quarter of a century? It’s both an electoral weakness and a strength that she represents a known political quantity.

The bigger problem Clinton’s “wealth” comments reveal is that Republicans already see her as their general election opponent, for obvious reasons, and thus will campaign against her as if she were already the nominee. That’s the downside to her popularity within the Democratic Party. The other side can concentrate their rhetorical fire on her comments and on issues deemed negative for her in particular. Democrats have to plan on running against anyone from Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul to Gov. Chris Christie, vastly different candidates with different weaknesses and strengths.

As to why Clinton speaks so clumsily about her finances, we’ll go with the theory promulgated by Dan Drezner, Tufts University professor of international politics. He writes that she suffers from “Status-Income Disequilibrium” (SID). That’s what happens when everybody you hang out with has more money than you.

The Clintons’ social and professional circles now include lots of hedge fund managers and so forth, meaning they may now perceive themselves as not in the 1 percent.

“And until the former secretary of state gets over her massive case of SID, these kind of gaffes will recur indefinitely,” Mr. Drezner writes.

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