Why Hillary’s problems talking about her wealth should worry Democrats

Hillary Clinton is having lots of trouble lately talking about her wealth.


Former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York speaks at the Long Center in Austin, Texas, USA, on 20 June 2014. EPA/ASHLEY LANDIS CORBIS

The latest episode came over the weekend when she sought to distance herself from the ultra wealthy who are "truly well off."  She added that she pays "ordinary income taxes."

Republicans immediately seized on the comment, noting that the Clintons have made more than $100 million since leaving the White House in early 2001. (For a deep dive into their finances, check out this terrific post by Philip Bump.) Publicly, Democrats insisted Clinton was simply making the point that she isn't someone born with a silver spoon in her month. But, privately, Democrats were more worried.

“It’s going to be a massive issue for her,” one Obama adviser told WaPo's Phil Rucker in a terrific piece about Clinton's wealth as an issue in 2016. “When you’re somebody like the secretary of state or president of the United States or first lady, you’re totally cut off [from normal activity], so your perception of the middle-class reality gets frozen in a time warp.”

Democrats are right to be worried. Here's why.

The single most striking number from the 2012 exit poll was how voters responded when asked which candidate attribute was the most important to them in deciding how to cast their ballot. Roughly one in five (21 percent) said the most important candidate trait was that he "cares about people like me." (That was more than  double the 9 percent who said caring about people like them was most important to their vote in 2004.) Of that group, President Obama beat Mitt Romney 81 percent to 18 percent. Let me repeat: 81 to 18 -- in an election that was not exactly a blowout.

The reason for that massive disparity is simple: The Obama campaign effectively cast Romney as an out-of touch oligarch, interested only in protecting his well-off friends and allies. One other number from the exit polls to prove that point: A majority of voters (53 percent) said that Romney's policies would favor the rich while just 9 percent said the same about Obama's policies.

Now, Clinton is not Romney. (That's the whole point she keeps trying to make.) And voters tend to be more open to the "X politician is only looking out for rich people" attack when it's made against a Republican rather than a Democrat. But Clinton needs to understand that her clumsy talk about her wealth can, if not handled properly going forward, turn into a gateway to a broader "she just doesn't get it" argument that could be very effective for Republicans looking for a way to slow her momentum in the race.

The Clintons are not "average" people. One is a former secretary of state and senator. The other is a former president of the United States. The income they have reaped from those achievements places them comfortably in the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. Trying to cast their wealth as fundamentally different from that of other wealthy people is a losing political argument. Whatever -- and wherever -- the Clintons came from, that's not where they are now (or even close).

Instead of spending her time litigating just how wealthy she is, Clinton should acknowledge her wealth and then spend the vast majority of her rhetorical time making the case that through the policies she has advocated and pursued, she has never lost sight of the middle class. Continuing down her current route hands Republicans an issue on a silver, ahem, platter.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Philip Bump · June 23