Commentary Magazine


Can Being Broke Help Joe Beat Hillary?

He couldn’t resist it. With his putative 2016 rival Hillary Clinton still dealing with the backlash from her bogus claim of being broke after leaving the White House, Vice President Joe Biden laid it on thick today at the White House summit on working families by boasting of his own lean finances.

Biden may well have been “the poorest man in Congress” during his 36 years in the Senate. But his claims that he didn’t “own a single stock or bond” and “no savings accounts” was not factually correct. He does have some savings and there are some investments in his wife’s name. Though his net worth of approximately $800,000 makes him a pauper compared to most Washington politicians, with annual income in the $400,000 range (including $2,200 a month from the Secret Service in rent payments for the use of a building at his Delaware home), no one need worry about him.

There’s little doubt that Biden hopes that highlighting his relatively modest means will remind Democrats that they have an alternative to Clinton as she slogs through a book tour that has brought her as many negative headlines as good ones. However, anyone who thinks that the so-called party of the people would be more inclined to nominate a middle class candidate over one of the now demonstrably wealthy Clintons knows nothing about American politics or Democrats.

Like the English, who have always been known to “love a lord” even as they resented the privileges of the ruling class, Americans generally like rich people. That may even be truer of the party that claims to represent the interests of working people and to be in perpetual war with Wall Street than it is of the Republicans who are generally billed as the party of business. On this point I agree with Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, who also pours cold water on the notion that Biden has any advantage with Democratic voters on the question of income.

While the GOP has had its share of wealthy standard-bearers (Mitt Romney, John McCain, the Bushes, and Theodore Roosevelt being the most prominent examples in the 20th and early 21st centuries), the Democrats have shown even more of a weakness for swells than the Republicans.

If we ignore Barack Obama, who entered the White House a relatively wealthy man due to the sales of his books and his wife’s income but came from a humble background, Bill Clinton was actually the last non-rich Democratic presidential candidate. Al Gore (who has grown far richer due to his exploitation of “green” economics and his sale of a cable channel without an audience to Al Jazeera) and John Kerry were both extremely wealthy. Going back further, you discover not only have the Democrats often nominated wealthy men, the richest tend to be the most popular, i.e. John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Looked at in that context, over the course of the last century, Democrats have always been suckers for the rich guy who claims to defend the interests of the little guy at the expense of his fellow millionaires.

Thus, if Joe Biden thinks he can counter Hillary’s compelling narrative as the first female president with one that touts his middle class background and relatively thin back account, he is probably wasting his time. Democrats get as much, if not more of their money these days from the wealthy, including those on Wall Street.

There are some rich people Democrats don’t like: Republicans. Obama’s campaign relentlessly harped on Romney’s wealth not because their voters aren’t attracted to the lifestyles of the rich and famous but because they were able to claim that the GOP candidate was essentially self-interested as well as out of touch with ordinary Americans. Romney’s inability to connect with most voters, a trait that had to do with his shortcomings as a politician rather than his money, made the charge stick. While income inequality is a meme liberals like to use against their opponents, they’ve never yet applied the same standard to their own candidates. Being a member of the “one percent” is no bar to Democrat applause so long as the member of that club is willing to attack other one-percenters.

It is true that Hillary is hopelessly out of touch with most Americans as her clueless line about being “dead broke” when she left the White House with an $8 million book advance in her pocket indicated. But don’t expect Democratic primary voters to hold it against her. Biden is so far behind Hillary it’s hard to imagine anything she could do or say to be denied the nomination (other, that is, than refusing to run). Indeed, if she were smart, she’d stop trying to pretend to be middle class and embrace her status as one of the nation’s elites with more gusto. Nobody cares if she has money but they don’t like a woman who has largely lived at the expense of the public pretending that she is just an ordinary person. It will work a lot better and save her from further embarrassment about hypocritically fretting over the travails of financing multiple homes even as she receives $200,000 speaking fees.

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