Some Democrats fear Clinton’s wealth and ‘imperial image’ could be damaging in 2016

When Hillary Rodham Clinton said this month that she was once “dead broke,” it was during an interview in which she led ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer through her $5 million Washington home, appointed like an ambassador’s mansion. Mahogany antiques, vibrant paintings and Oriental rugs fill the rooms. French doors open onto an expertly manicured garden and a turquoise swimming pool, where Clinton recently posed for the cover of People magazine.

On her current book tour, the former secretary of state has traveled the country by private jet as she has for many of her speaking engagements since stepping down as secretary of state last year. Her fee is said to be upwards of $200,000 per speech; the exceptions tend to be black-tie charity galas, where she collects awards and catches up with friends such as designer Oscar de la Renta and Vogue editor Anna Wintour.

Such scenes reveal a potentially serious political problem for Clinton as she considers a 2016 presidential run: She and her husband are established members of the 1 percent, leading lives far removed from the millions of middle-class voters who swing elections.

Clinton has underscored the contrast with a series of stumbles in discussing her finances — the latest in an interview with Britain’s Guardian newspaper published Sunday, in which she compared herself with other multimillionaires. Unlike the “truly well off,” Clinton said, she and former president Bill Clinton “pay ordinary income tax” and have amassed their fortune “through dint of hard work.”

Some influential Democrats — including former advisers to President Obama — said in interviews last week they fear that Clinton’s personal wealth and rarefied, cloistered lifestyle could jeopardize the Democratic Party’s historic edge with the middle class that powered Obama’s wins.

What Hillary Clinton line made one of The Post's reporters say, "Oh, snap?" Diplomatic correspondent Anne Gearan and The Fix's Chris Cillizza add their context and commentary to Clinton's interview with ABC News's Diane Sawyer. (Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

“I don’t know whether it’s just that she’s been ‘Madam Secretary’ for so long, but she’s generating an imperial image,” said Dick Harpootlian, who recently stepped down as Democratic Party chairman in South Carolina, which hosts an early presidential primary.

Harpootlian, who backed Obama over Clinton in 2008 and is a longtime ally of Vice President Biden, added: “She’s been living 30, going on 40 years with somebody bringing your coffee to you every morning. Is it more ‘Downton Abbey’ than it is America?”

Multiple Obama campaign advisers — who spoke only on the condition of anonymity to avoid alienating the Clintons — said they fear Clinton’s financial status could hurt her as it did Republican nominee Mitt Romney, whom Obama portrayed in 2012 as an out-of-touch plutocrat at a time of economic uncertainty.

“It’s going to be a massive issue for her,” one Obama adviser said. “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.”

Asked what Democrats should do, the adviser said: “Panic.”

Clinton’s allies, however, strongly dispute suggestions that she is disconnected from the concerns and values of middle-class Americans. They note she grew up in a middle-class suburb of Chicago and said she has committed her adult life to lifting up the downtrodden — from her early work at the Children’s Defense Fund to initiatives at her family’s charitable foundation.

“Whoever thinks she has lost touch is clearly not in touch with her or her long-held beliefs,” said Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill. “If they were, they’d know that reducing inequality and increasing upward mobility has been an uninterrupted pursuit of hers through every job she’s held and continues to this day in her work at the Clinton Foundation.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discusses the capture of the Benghazi suspect Ahmed Abu Khattala. Diplomatic correspondent Anne Gearan adds her context and commentary to Clinton's interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour during a town hall event. (Divya Jeswani Verma/The Washington Post)

Other backers noted that the Clintons gave up more lucrative careers in business or finance, making their money giving speeches and writing books.

“Our nation has always applauded success, but politically, the focus is on how successful people can help us achieve,” said Robert Zimmerman, a longtime Clinton supporter and a member of the Democratic National Committee from New York. “The Clinton history has always been how to bring more people into the middle class.”

Bill Clinton rose from poor beginnings in rural Arkansas to the presidency. In 1992, it was Clinton’s everyman connection that helped him defeat then-president George H.W. Bush, a patrician who was ridiculed for not knowing the price of a gallon of milk and for expressing amazement at supermarket scanners.

Now Hillary Clinton risks a similar caricature. On tour this month for her new book, “Hard Choices,” Clinton mingled with regular people at signings, but only under strict rules: no photographs and no personalized autographs. There are Secret Service agents to keep the crowds in order and aides to hand her books, count how many she signs and ferry her to the next stop. The former first lady recently said she hasn’t driven a car since 1996.

“Every time that she tries to talk in some populist voice, it’s completely inauthentic,” said Matthew Dowd, a former campaign strategist for George W. Bush. “At a time when the country is anti-Washington and anti-Wall Street, she represents both.”

Following a lifetime with limited means, both Clintons became wildly successful financially after leaving the White House. In 2000, the couple had as much as $10 million in debt, according to financial disclosure documents that Hillary Clinton later filed as a senator. Much of it was unpaid legal fees from investigations into the couple’s Whitewater investments and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

In 2001, Bill Clinton made $13 million in speaking fees and Hillary began earning an advance for her first memoir, “Living History,” that totaled $8 million. By 2004, their debts were erased.

During the 2008 campaign, the Clintons released tax returns showing they had earned $109 million over eight years. And their earnings kept growing. In 2012, Bill Clinton reported collecting $16.4 million in speaking fees — including a $700,000 honorarium for a single appearance in Nigeria, according to Hillary Clinton’s latest federal financial disclosure.

Merrill declined to disclose the advance for Clinton’s new memoir or her speaking fee. But an executive who arranges speaking tours told The Washington Post last year that Hillary Clinton commands $200,000 or more per appearance.

Strategist Donna Brazile, a Clinton supporter, said scrutiny of Clinton’s speaking fees smacks of sexism.

“I hope Hillary never apologizes for trying to earn a living,” Brazile said. “She’s no different than [former secretary of state] Colin Powell, no different than [former Florida governor] Jeb Bush, no different than anybody else who’s left public office and looked for ways to make an income. . . . What is wrong with a woman having the same earning potential as any man?”

The Clintons’ daughter, Chelsea, 34, also does well financially. She makes $600,000 a year from NBC News as a special correspondent, taping occasional reports, according to Politico. Last year, Chelsea and her husband, Marc Mezvinsky, who helps run a hedge fund, bought a $10.5 million apartment in Manhattan.

Bill and Hillary Clinton own two houses: A brick Georgian in Washington near the Naval Observatory that they purchased in 2001 for $2.85 million is now assessed at $5.05 million, according to D.C. property records. They also own a white Dutch farmhouse in Chappaqua, N.Y., that they purchased in 1999 for $1.7 million and was last assessed at $1.8 million.

The Clintons had so much legal debt at the time of the New York home purchase that friend Terry McAuliffe, who is now the governor of Virginia, put up $1.35 million as collateral. He was repaid once the Clintons obtained a conventional mortgage.

In 1999, the Clintons vacationed in rustic Wyoming, with Bill photographed in jeans and cowboy hat riding a horse. These days, the Clintons summer in the Hamptons with New York and Hollywood glitterati.

In 2011 and 2012, for example, the Clintons rented a 9,000-square-foot, lush beachfront manse that owner Elie Hirschfeld described as “an opulent house, but in a relaxed way.” In 2013, they rented a sprawling mansion that the New York Times called a “virtual Shangri-La,” where Bill Clinton celebrated his 67th birthday by inviting over Paul McCartney, among other celebrities.

“We used to talk about the ‘hang test’ — could you hang out in a bar? At a county fair? At a union hall?” said Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union. “I think that will be a challenge for her.”

In the Sawyer interview, Clinton said: “We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt. We had no money when we got there, and we struggled to piece together the resources for mortgages for houses, for Chelsea’s education. You know, it was not easy.”

Two days later, she tried to backtrack in an appearance with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), saying: “That may not have been the most artful way of saying that Bill and I had gone through a lot of different phases in our lives.” Clinton also spoke movingly about her mother’s “miserable existence” growing up poor in an abusive family.

Still, a second Obama adviser said Clinton is falling into the same traps as Romney.

“She seems completely out of touch and elitist,” the adviser said. “You can draw direct parallels between her comments on mortgages on multiple houses to Romney talking about all the cars he owned . . . between her talking about having to struggle with Romney’s comments about being worried about ‘pink slips.’ ”

As a third Obama adviser put it: “It’s less that she’s out of touch with middle-class kitchen-table issues, it’s that most people can’t fix their problems by giving $200,000 speeches. That is a vulnerability.”

Anita Dunn, who advised Obama through the 2008 primaries, recalled that Clinton was “very effective” relating to working-class Democrats in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Historically, she noted, a candidate’s wealth has not always been a detriment.

“Franklin Roosevelt, who came from one of the most patrician backgrounds that you can come from, could speak to people about their personal economic circumstances in a way that immediately connected,” Dunn said.

Clinton supporters said it’s foolish to think that the Clintons could ever lose their middle-class appeal.

John Morgan, a Democratic donor, hosted Bill Clinton at his Florida home last year for a fundraiser. Morgan recalled that when his son complimented Clinton on his black dress shoes, the former president showed him the label: Allen Edmonds. (They cost about $250 at Macy’s.) Of Hillary Clinton, Morgan said: “I don’t see jewels. She may get some nice pantsuits, but they’re not flashy people.”

“Once you taste desperation, it’s very hard to get that out of your mouth,” Morgan said. “And I don’t think compassion will ever be out of her bones. That is the way their DNA is stranded.”

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