Today the Republican party unveiled a new web site titled Poor Hillary Clinton, making the devastating point that Hillary Clinton has lots of money and should therefore not be elected president. If that’s what the geniuses at the RNC think is going to win the 2016 election for them, it may be time to start figuring out who’s going to be in Clinton’s cabinet.
But what may be even more remarkable is that so many in the press go right along with this stupidity. For instance, a Bloomberg News story from this morning begins this way:
Hillary Clinton has earned at least $12 million in 16 months since leaving the State Department, a windfall at odds with her party’s call to shrink the gap between the rich and the poor.
There’s a hidden assumption in some of this coverage that candidates should be nothing more than advocates for their class. If you’re rich, then you can’t sincerely care about the well-being of people who aren’t, and anything other than advocacy on behalf of other rich people is odd, even suspect. But politicians aren’t motivated only by self-interest. How, exactly, is Clinton making a lot money “at odds with her party’s call to shrink the gap between the rich and the poor”? Did I miss the Democratic policy paper demanding a national cap on speaking fees, or a proposed law making it illegal to get rich? No, I don’t believe I did.
What we see here is actually a journalistic version of the paranoid billionaire whining that people who criticize wealth inequality are like Nazis ready to herd hedge fund managers into concentration camps, because it portrays the inequality issue as one in which poor and middle-class people are completely absent. The only question it asks is whether the rich are heroic job-creators or evil kleptocrats, and you’re supposed to take one position or the other.
So let’s say this real slow: You can simultaneously believe that 1) It’s perfectly fine for some people to get rich, even spectacularly rich, and 2) government policies should be geared toward maximizing fair economic treatment of everyone, particularly those at the bottom.
That is, more or less, the position of Hillary Clinton’s party. And it has been for the entire lifetime of anyone who will vote in 2016.
It’s absolutely legitimate for reporters to look closely at Clinton’s income, just as they should for every presidential candidate. But much of the coverage of the dispute over it fails to supply political context. What’s often missing is a discussion of what the parties stand for, how they’re perceived, and why it matters. The fact that Democrats advocate policies like increasing the minimum wage and achieving universal health coverage that are aimed at the interests of the non-wealthy, while Republicans advocate policies like upper-income tax cuts and the weakening of labor unions that are aimed at the interests of the wealthy, is one of the foundational contrasts of American politics. The dynamic that contrast creates — how much success Democrats have in exploiting it and how much success Republicans have in working around it — helps determine the outcome of pretty much every presidential campaign.
And it is in this context that the question of whether Clinton’s wealth is politically damaging needs to be considered.
In recent history there has not been a single instance in which a Democratic presidential candidate was significantly harmed, let alone lost an election, because of his or her personal wealth. Yet it has been a problem for Republican candidates like Mitt Romney and John McCain (who, you’ll recall, couldn’t remember how many homes he and his wife owned). Why might that be?
The answer is that when it comes to extremely practical issues like economic policy, voters draw connections between the personal and the political. They didn’t care that Franklin Roosevelt was rich, because he was clearly an advocate for the downtrodden. The reason the issue of personal wealth was a potent one for Democrats to use against Romney was that they successfully told a story in which he gained his wealth by stepping over the broken lives of working-class people, and that showed, they argued, how he would act as president. What story are Republicans trying to tell about Clinton’s speaking fees?
There doesn’t appear to be one, and there is precisely zero evidence that anyone who thinks income inequality is a problem that should be addressed will vote against Clinton because she has a lot of money — particularly when the Republican nominee in 2016 will almost certainly say that inequality isn’t actually a problem at all.
The “who’s on your side” issue will work to Democrats’ advantage whether Republicans nominate a career politician whose wealth is limited (which describes many of the 2016 GOP contenders) or whether they nominate Scrooge McDuck. Democrats will make it an issue, because they always do; the only question is whether it turns out to be somewhat effective or extremely effective. Unless Clinton’s rather sudden elevation into the ranks of the super-wealthy actually made her change her policy positions and what should would do as president — in other words, unless getting rich turned her into a Republican — there’s no reason to believe her wealth will have any serious impact at all.