The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Insiders: How will Clinton reconcile her past with her platform?

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivers a speech at Texas Southern University in Houston last week. (Pat Sullivan/Associated Press)

It isn’t hard to figure out the issues Democrats care about these days. Poll after poll confirms that Democrats are eager to reboot their usual list of tax-and-spend and redistribution initiatives, avoid any foreign conflicts and do something about “income inequality.” In fact, a recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed that 66 percent of Americans think “the money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed among more people.” The New York Times goes so far as saying that income inequality will “become a central theme in next year’s general election campaign.”

So if you are a Democrat running for federal office — starting with president of the United States — the polls serve as an easy guide to where you need to be on various issues, particularly if you allow your campaign to be poll-driven.

The problem for Hillary Clinton is that on position after position, what she will say will stand in stark contrast to what she has actually done in office and how she has conducted her private life. And on the party’s favorite issue of income inequality, Clinton is the poster child for what Democrats believe is wrong with the United States. If she is the Democratic nominee in 2016, how will the party standard bearer rationalize her gargantuan haul of cash over the past few years? How can she reconcile her past with her platform?

There are a lot of questions Clinton will eventually have to answer. If the U.S. economy were operating at some optimum level the Democrats find acceptable, how much less would Clinton have raked in since leaving her position as secretary of state? Does she feel guilty about her wealth? Does Clinton think she should have taken less money? If the Clintons’ $30 million income in 16 months was too much, what would the right amount have been? If she had to do it all over again, would she do it all the same way? Does she have any regrets she will acknowledge in public?

Clinton’s FEC filings show an estimated 30 percent tax rate for 2014. Does she think that was enough? If not, how much should she have paid? Will she raise taxes on people like herself?

And if Clinton is elected, will she change the rules so others can’t follow her path? Will she work with Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) on reforming tax-free organizations? Will she suggest that non-profits be prohibited from having political operatives who serve no charitable function on the payroll?

Even the famous Clinton gall and lack of shame will make explaining some of this with a straight face impossible.

Anyway, given how the Democrats want to demagogue the issue of income inequality, it will be hard for Clinton to avoid having to explain her own actions to the Democratic base. It is easy for her to say the right things, but when you begin to look at her record — from her 2002 vote in the Senate supporting the invasion of Iraq to her latest gluttonous approach to wealth accumulation — she’s wildly out of sync with what the Democratic base hopes for in a candidate. Even with a compliant media and liberal commentators ready to make any excuse, the Clinton campaign is going to great lengths to keep her away from unscripted encounters with the public or any but the most docile questioners. How will she reconcile her failings with the growing populist sentiment within the Democratic party? ‎How will she draw attention away from her policy positions and baggage and distract Democrats so they don’t focus on her deficiencies as a candidate?

Simply put, Hillary Clinton has limited options. She won’t be able to sell herself, so the easiest solution will be to savagely attack her opponent. She won’t face much real opposition from other Democrats, the Republicans won’t give her a clear opponent for months and the usual attacks against the GOP brand will get stale pretty quickly. She’ll have to have a day of reckoning eventually. No matter how clever her campaign hands may be, Clinton will be unable to decouple her own record and behavior from her candidacy for president.