June 23

Hillary Clinton once again finds herself being criticized for a ham-handed quote about the Clintons’ personal wealth, this time because of an interview with the Guardian. But the way Republicans are attacking her (she’s out of touch!) suggests a common misunderstanding of the connection between the personal and the political when it comes to candidates, particularly presidential candidates.

Yes, some Democrats — anonymously, of course – are fretting about her quotes, too. They are making the same mistake.

Here’s the portion of the interview that has gotten attention:

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.

OK, so the idea that the Clintons aren’t “truly well off” is ridiculous; I’m sure she’d like to rephrase that to make it clear that she was including herself in that group. But in what she was trying to say, Clinton was half right. There’s no evidence that Americans see her as “part of the problem” of inequality because she’s rich. But it’s not because she and Bill pay plenty of income tax, as opposed to those who make most of their money from investments and therefore pay taxes at lower rates. It’s because of the policies she advocates. Even if most voters don’t have a detailed knowledge of her positions on issues like the minimum wage, safety net programs, or Wall Street regulations, they know that she’s a Democrat and therefore they assume that her positions are oriented toward the interests of ordinary people, just as if she were a Republican they’d assume that her positions were oriented toward the interests of the wealthy.

Some Republicans may believe that’s unfair, but it’s true; party identification is the most important heuristic voters use to understand candidates. The idea that Democrats are the party of the little guy while Republicans are the party of the wealthy is one of the most fundamental distinctions people make between the parties.

If you’re going to make a personal attack on a presidential candidate, there has to be at least some connection to what sort of president they’d be. The reason the Democratic attacks on Mitt Romney’s wealth and record at Bain Capital were so effective wasn’t just that Romney so perfectly embodied the heartless capitalist who could barely stand to be around the unwashed masses and tended to make a fool of himself whenever called upon to do so. It was because that personal characterization (fair or not) said something about how he might act as president. The “47 percent” video was so resonant because the contempt Romney was displaying toward people of modest means was reflected in his party’s desire to slash the safety net.

Seeing this, Brian Beutler had the same thought as I did:

Romney’s weaknesses ran much deeper than tone-deaf asides close friendships with NASCAR team owners, or a car elevator. His unfamiliarity with material deprivation was badly compounded by his devotion to an agenda (and a moral belief system) that would have people like him contributing less to the general welfare, and everyone else contributing more. That mapped neatly on to a basically correct, broader perception that the wealthy and powerful use their considerable influence above all else to help each other. Being a tribune for that class was Romney’s real liability—not the magnitude of his wealth, or his inability to discuss personal financial matters with humility.

That’s why the personal wealth of Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy didn’t prevent them from convincing voters that they’d be on the side of ordinary people; the things they were advocating made it clear. And today, it’ll be difficult for a party that has spent years lionizing “job creators” to now be saying there’s something wrong with the fact that Hillary Clinton is rich. As Greg noted over the weekend, this is going to sound awfully strange:

In the past when Republicans have successfully cast a Democrat as “out of touch,” the attack has been cultural, not economic. You may remember George H.W. Bush, son of a senator and child of Kennebunkport, casting the middle-class Michael Dukakis as a representative of the “Harvard boutique,” a culturally alien presence seeking to subvert American values. They made the same argument about John Kerry (with some success), and about Barack Obama (with very little). If all you’re talking about is a candidate’s preference in vegetables (with Dukakis it was endive; with Obama it was arugula) then you can argue about identity disconnected from policy, but it will only get you so far.

On the other hand, if Republicans are going to say today that Hillary Clinton doesn’t understand the concerns of ordinary people but the only evidence they have is that starting in 2001 she and Bill made a lot of money, the argument isn’t going to be particularly persuasive. Especially if at the same time, they’re arguing against extending unemployment benefits and raising the minimum wage.