After previously trying to justify her six-figure speaking fees by claiming she and Bill Clinton were “dead broke” when leaving the White House, she's come under fire for stating that she wasn't that “well-off.” This has led to a spate of stories about whether the Clintons' enormous wealth would weigh on her presidential ambitions in a nation with growing populist sentiment. But the deeper takeaway from her recent dustups isn't her wealth, but that she's an overrated politician.
To understand how a clever politician can handle such an issue, consider how a very able politician — who happens to be Hillary Clinton’s husband — handled the matter of his newfound wealth in a speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
(Chuckles.) Now I'm in that group for the first time in my life. (Applause.) And you might remember that when I was in office, on occasion, the Republicans were kind of mean to me. (Laughter.) But soon as I got out and made money, I began part of the most important group in the world to them. It was amazing. I never thought I'd be so well cared for by the president and the Republicans in Congress. (Cheers, applause.)
I almost sent them a thank-you note for my tax cuts -- (laughter) -- until I realized that the rest of you were paying for the bill for it, and then I thought better of it. (Cheers, applause.)
Now, look at the choices they made, choices they believed in. They chose to protect my tax cut at all costs, while withholding promised funding for the Leave No Child Behind Act, leaving 2.1 million children behind. (Cheers, applause.)
And he continued his jiu-jitsu maneuver, turning his own wealth into an opportunity to attack a list of Republican policies for benefiting the rich over the middle class. Whatever one thinks of the substance of the attacks, it's clearly a politically effective way to deflect the wealth issue. (Watch the video of the speech here.)
Because the Clintons are often viewed in tandem, a lot of people have mistakenly transposed Bill's political acumen onto Hillary. But in reality, her political career has involved winning a Senate seat in New York over a weak Republican opponent in a year that Al Gore carried the state by 25 points -- and squandering a massive lead against candidate Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic nomination battle.
While Hillary can stay on message and often seems unflappable, she also lacks the natural instincts of Bill. Her infamous dissembling over a throwaway question on drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants during a Democratic debate is one prominent example, but certainly not the only one.
There's no doubt that if Hillary doesn't find a better way to answer it, questions surrounding her wealth could become an issue. Liberals have been arguing that it won't be, because unlike Mitt Romney (whose wealth was damaging) she'd be supporting policies to provide more benefits to lower income Americans. But that isn't necessarily going to save her from attacks on her hypocrisy. Just consider how much the story of John Edwards' $400 haircuts damaged his whole “son of a mill worker” poverty-fighting persona.
My operating assumption is that by the time the campaign rolls around, Hillary will find a way to answer questions about her wealth. It’ll probably go something like: “Bill and I have been fortunate enough to have a lot of opportunities, but I recognize that a lot of poor and middle class Americans aren’t so lucky, which is why I’m fighting for [insert redistributionist policy here].”
But all sorts of questions are going to come up over the course of a long campaign — some easily anticipated, others surprising. Her recent tone-deaf answers on questions about wealth speak to the fact that she’s a lot more politically clumsy than people assume.