We—and by "we" I mean both journalists and voters—ask politicians to do and say a lot of preposterous things. But few are as absurd as the requirement that every candidate, no matter who they actually are, pretend to be a regular fella or gal. Sure, she may walk with the wealthy and powerful now, but rest assured, she grew up amidst the common people, so she understands their travails. Not only that, she retains her love of the simple pleasures enjoyed by all—woe be to the candidate who sips wine or takes in a classical music concert instead of downing a Bud and watching football.
If she is actually wealthy, the candidate must wear that wealth so lightly you barely know it's there. Any mention of it must be accompanied by a furious denial that she is actually one of those snooty rich people who do not feel the struggles of the masses deep in their bones. Only then can she be trusted to do right by us all.
No one wrestled less successfully with this imperative than Mitt Romney (more on him in a moment), but today it's Hillary Clinton who is catching flak about the nature of her wealth and what it says about her. As you may know, when she and Bill became private citizens in 2001, they had spent a couple of decades in public service in Little Rock and Washington. They didn't own a home, and had only modest savings. This was not a problem, however, since there are (for some reason) an almost limitless number of organizations willing to pay a former president (and later a former first lady, senator, and secretary of state) six-figure sums to give an hour-long talk. With speeches and a couple of best-selling memoirs, the couple's wealth quickly ballooned, reaching upwards of $100 million.
And now, with a 2016 presidential campaign in the offing, Hillary Clinton is being asked about what all that money says about her, and she isn't doing a particularly good job of answering, mostly because she's trying to sound like a regular person of modest means. First there was her comment that she and Bill were "dead broke" when they left the White House (technically true, but a bit misleading), and now there's this, from an interview with the Guardian:
America's glaring income inequality is certain to be a central bone of contention in the 2016 presidential election. But with her huge personal wealth, how could Clinton possibly hope to be credible on this issue when people see her as part of the problem, not its solution?
"But they don't see me as part of the problem," she protests, "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," she says, letting off another burst of laughter. If past form is any guide, she must be finding my question painful.
She's right that people don't see her as part of the problem, but it isn't because of what kind of taxes she pays. It's because she's a Democrat, and most voters understand that there is a fundamental difference between the two parties on questions of economics generally, and the treatment of the wealthy in particular.
She could have just said, "People don't see me as part of the problem, because of what I and other Democrats stand for. We want a higher minimum wage, and a fair tax system…" But because of the blue-collar imperative, Clinton obviously felt that she had to make a statement of identity that bound her to ordinary people. Which is really hard when your wealth runs into the nine figures.
I doubt that this interview will mean much politically, nor should it. When it comes to judging politicians on things like this, a single extemporaneous remark spoken once can be disregarded if it's at odds with the rest of what the candidate believes and wants to do. If a candidate says something problematic repeatedly, then it's reasonable to take it as a genuine indication of their beliefs or even their character. This was the case with something Mitt Romney said a number of times about his own taxes, when he was questioned on the low rate he paid despite the fact that he "earned" millions of dollars every year without actually having a job. On multiple occasions, Romney said "I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more. I don't think you want someone as the candidate for president who pays more taxes than he owes. " As I wrote at the time, he seemed to think that if you don't deploy your lawyers and accountants to root out every available loophole to lower your tax bill, you're such a contemptible sucker than no one ought to vote for you.
That remark went mostly unnoticed, unlike the many other things Romney said that were used to argue that he was an out-of-touch rich guy who couldn't relate to regular people. But what actually mattered about Romney wasn't his propensity for comically reinforcing this image, but his agenda, which like that of most everyone in his party was focused on enhancing the wealth of the wealthy without doing much for everyone else (though in fairness, some of his proposals were slightly less regressive than those offered by other Republicans, including George W. Bush).
It's worth noting that even Romney, the son of a governor and corporate CEO, felt compelled to let everyone know that there were hardscrabble beginnings in his past, even if they weren't exactly his. "I'll tell you about how much I love this country, where someone like my dad, who grew up poor and never graduated from college, could pursue his dreams and work his way up to running a great car company," he said. "Only in America could a man like my dad become governor of the state in which he once sold paint from the trunk of his car."
The single biggest "gaffe" of Romney's campaign, the "47 percent" remark, was significant not just because it made him look out of touch, but because it indicated actual contempt for people of modest means, a contempt that could have serious policy consequences. And that's supposed to be why this matters. Even if you believe that this remark of Clinton's reveals something fundamental about her, that's only relevant insofar as it tells us something about what kind of president she'd be. Are Republicans going to argue that because of her wealth, Clinton would be too concerned with aiding the wealthy and insufficiently likely to look out for the little guy? That would be an odd thing to hear, coming from them (not that they won't try).
Despite their need to tell us over and over again of their humble beginnings, presidents' personal economic circumstances, whether in their youth or in their adulthood, have approximately zero relationship with the degree to which they actually represent the interests of the ordinary people. Democratic presidents have been just as likely to come from wealth as Republican ones, and a modest upbringing didn't stop Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon from being far more solicitous of the wealthy in their policy choices than Franklin Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy, who were bred in great wealth.
I seriously doubt that too many voters will be dismayed that the Clintons cashed in when they could, as long as they didn't do anything morally problematic in doing so. And though it may be ridiculous to get paid $200,000 for giving a speech to the American Lug Nut Association's annual meeting, if they want to give Hillary Clinton their money, who's she to say no? But she might not want to say that it was "hard work" (or say something that could be interpreted that way, even if she was talking about all the work she did in public service), or that in spite of the size of their bank account she and Bill still fret about paying the mortgage. It's OK not to be a regular person anymore when it comes to your finances. Just don't try to pretend you are.