When Bill Clinton was presiding over the American political scene, most observers understood that part of the key to understanding his ability to connect with voters was his legendary ability to “feel your pain.” President Clinton’s ability to make people think he not only cared about them but also actually understood their trouble was a natural talent and a form of political genius. But like most natural talents, this skill can’t really be taught or transferred to another person. Even if that person has been watching Clinton closely for more than 40 years as his wife. It is in that context that we should regard Hillary Clinton’s cringe-inducing statement in the ABC interview with Diane Sawyer that launched her book tour about being “dead broke” when she and Bill left the White House in 2001.
In the strict sense of the word, this statement was true. The Clintons did not have, as many politicians do, inherited wealth. While Hillary was a well-compensated lawyer before she became first lady, other than a brief stint as a law professor her husband hasn’t had an honest job in his entire life since he had been running for office since emerging from Yale Law School. But to speak of the Clintons as broke in 2001 is to engage in the kind of deceit that voters can smell a mile away. Like all ex-presidents and first ladies, but especially those who were both popular and engaged in heated controversies like the Lewinsky scandal, their financial prospects were, to put it mildly, rosy. In the 13-plus years since leaving the White House, Bill Clinton has earned more than $100 million in speaking fees and both made fortunes writing their memoirs. They may have had a temporary cash flow problem in January 2001, but were soon rolling in it. Thus, for her to speak of their plight in 2001 when, as she put it:
We had no money when we got there, and we struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages, for houses, for Chelsea’s education. You know, it was not easy.
No, I suppose it wasn’t. But somehow with the help of generous donors, publishers, and those eager to pay six-figure fees for the honor of hosting the ex-president, they managed to pay their l’affaire Lewinsky lawyer fees as well as obtain multiple mortgages and houses that Clinton referenced when she used those words in the plural. But then again, Clinton had already gotten an $8 million advance for her memoirs even before her husband’s term ended.
Should this influence anyone’s opinion of her qualifications to be president? Strictly speaking, no. As Seth wrote earlier, her lackluster record as secretary of state, which her backers are furiously trying to rationalize, stands as a rebuke to her efforts to portray herself as ready for the presidency without our having to delve into their finances. The Clintons are now as rich as most of their peers, both Democrat and Republican, among Washington elites and may well be far less wealthy than the likes of John Kerry and John McCain, both of whom married money. But what this gaffe tells us is that while the widespread support for the idea that it is time we had a female president makes her the odds-on favorite for 2016, this Clinton still has the same tin ear for public opinion that hamstringed her 2008 presidential run.
Making speeches is not quite as easy as simply sitting back and letting your investments make money, as some wealthy folks do. But when most people think of working “very hard,” as Mrs. Clinton described her husband’s task, as well as her own ability to generate more than $5 million in fees since leaving the State Department, they don’t generally mean giving speeches. Taking a first class flight to resorts and other exclusive venues where the hard worker must be subjected to non-stop flattery, luxury accommodations, an appreciative audience for any platitudes he’s prepared to spin before accepting a huge check for his troubles, does take effort and a degree of skill–but it is not exactly working for a living. The same applies to writing a book with the help of staffs and researchers that ordinary authors could never dream of having.
The problem here is that Democrats do best when exploiting the natural resentment that most ordinary Americans feel about the rich. Filthy rich Democrats can play this card as easily as poor ones (see Roosevelt, Franklin and Kennedy, John, to name just a couple) but in order to do so they must never pretend to be anything other than what they are. For a person with multiple mansions, like the Clinton’s humble cottage in Chappaqua, New York to complain about what they had to do initially finance these transactions is, at best, bad form, and, at worst, a clear misreading of public opinion. It is, in short, exactly the kind of a mistake that Bill Clinton would never make.
In other words, this foolish sound bite is a sign that Hillary is still a politician who is capable of the sort of unforced errors that her husband only made when it came to sex. While it is not clear whether this will encourage some intrepid left-wing Democrat to attempt to derail her coronation as her party’s presidential nominee, it should alert Republicans to the fact that Hillary is vulnerable. Though she starts the 2016 cycle as the odds-on favorite, a candidate that could make a mistake like this should never be considered inevitable.