Hillary Clinton spent an hour talking to CNN's Anderson Cooper and a handful of New Hampshire voters in a town hall on Wednesday night. For 59 minutes of it, she was excellent — empathetic, engaged and decidedly human. But, then there was that other minute — really just four words — that Clinton is likely to be haunted by for some time to come.
"That’s what they offered," Clinton said in response to Cooper's question about her decision to accept $675,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs in the period between serving as secretary of state and her decision to formally enter the 2016 presidential race.
The line is, well, bad. More on that soon. But, the line when combined with her body language when she said it makes it politically awful for her.
— Tal Kopan (@TalKopan) February 4, 2016
Clinton is both seemingly caught by surprise and annoyed by the question all at once. Neither of those is a good reaction to what Cooper is asking. Both together make for a uniquely bad response.
Here's the thing: I'm not sure there is a great answer, politically speaking, for Clinton on the question of her acceptance of huge speaking fees from all sorts of groups — from colleges and universities to investment banks. She took the money because these groups were willing to pay it. And who wouldn't do the same thing in her shoes?
The problem is that you can't say that if you are the front-running candidate for the Democratic nomination, a front-runner facing a more-serious-than-expected challenge from a populist liberal who has made your ties to Wall Street a centerpiece of his campaign.
So, yes, Clinton was in something of a box when Cooper put the Goldman question to her. But, let's not let her off so easily. Are you telling me that Clinton and her team had no idea that the speaking fees, which Bernie Sanders put into an ad in the final days before the Iowa caucuses, might come up in the course of an hour-long conversation in New Hampshire?
If so (and I don't believe this to be the case), that's total political malpractice. Rather, I think what happened is something similar to Clinton's reaction during a testy exchange a few months ago with reporters over her email server: She got annoyed and freelanced.
The server and the speaking fees are two story lines that Clinton clearly believes are ridiculous. Sure, she shouldn't have used only a private email address and server while serving as secretary of state. But that error was a small one, not the sort of huge deal that Republicans and the media are trying to turn it into. And, sure, $675,000 is a lot of money to take for speeches but she is a former first lady, senator and secretary of state. It's not out of the ballpark that someone with that résumé would be compensated at such high levels.
That's what Clinton truly believes. And she's not good — as she made plain with her answer last night — at hiding her disdain/skepticism when questioned about it. But, politics is all about playing up your strengths and taking attention away from your weaknesses. The amount of money Hillary and Bill Clinton made from speech-giving — more than $25 million in 16 months — is a weakness. Period. It undercuts the idea that she is a committed fighter for wage equality or a voice of the 99 percent trying to level the playing field with the one percent.
In short: Clinton needs to find a WAY better answer to questions about her speaking fees than "that's what they offered." And soon.