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Is the focus on Hillary Clinton’s wealth sexist or part of the process?

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gestures while speaking to host Jon Stewart during a taping of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” Tuesday, July 15, 2014, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)


Hillary Clinton makes a lot of money.  Much, much, much more than the average American.  But not as much as Mitt Romney.  The latest headline from our colleague Philip Rucker is that the University at Buffalo paid $275,000 for a Hillary Clinton speech, with much of that fee going to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, the family’s non-profit philanthropic organization.

The revelations about Clinton’s University at Buffalo speaking fee come as Clinton has been on clean-up duty because of her “inartful” statements about being “dead broke” and as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is making progressives swoon. Political pundits and reporters, familiar with all the ways that presidential candidates have been tripped up over their bank accounts, are suggesting that Clinton has a tin ear when it comes to the wealth issue.  Some say a better move for Clinton, whose net worth combined with her husband’s is estimated to be $100 million, would be to make speeches for free.

In a recent post, columnist Ruth Marcus wrote this:

Which gets me to the second set of issues: how you’re continuing to ­vacuum up the money, and the aura of greediness it exudes. Madam Secretary, enough already. This behavior borders on compulsion, like refugees who once were starved and now hoard food. You’re rich beyond your wildest imaginings! You don’t need any more! Just. Stop. Speaking. For. Pay.

Some context about speaking for pay.  Everyone does it.  And by everyone, I mean famous people who have had fancy jobs, won NBA championships, and regularly appear on television. (Former White House press secretary Jay Carney is set to make $100,000 per speech according to Politico, FYI.)  But,  the luminaries who collect speaking fees aren’t possibly preparing for a White House run, when the dominant mood of the country is fed-up populism and a sense that the rich just keep getting richer and the poor and middle class are simply stuck. This is where Clinton is possibly vulnerable.

This week, Clinton gave her best answer to the wealth question on the “Daily Show”, saying that she is grateful for her financial success, but the focus should be on whether others are able to achieve the same.

“I’m worried that other people and particularly younger people are not going to have the same opportunities we did,” she said.

That’s a good pivot.

But, as the debate about her wealth rages on, there’s this question too:  Is the focus on her wealth at all sexist?  Or more specifically, if there is a downside to being wealthy and running for president, is there a bigger downside for a wealthy woman running for president?

We know, for instance, female politicians are judged more harshly on how they look.

We also know that when women who are running for office go negative on their opponents, it’s also perceived in a harsher light than when male candidates go negative.

So, it could also be that for a wealthy woman running for president, there is a higher penalty as well.

Now, wealthy women have run for office before, Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Linda McMahon come to mind.  And four out of the top 20 wealthiest members of Congress are women. But if Clinton runs and wins the Democratic nomination, she would be a trailblazer, and a point of pride for many women.

And it could be that even those huge speaking fees could be seen in the same way.

Donna Brazile made this point, when talking about Clinton’s wealth.

“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?”

It’s this kind of good-for-you-girl argument that could start to benefit Clinton as the focus on her wealth continues.

Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.

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