Hillary Clinton is, well, quite rich. Is that a big problem?
She certainly stepped in it with her complaint to Diane Sawyer that she was “dead broke” upon leaving the White House. But is the wealth that the Clintons have accumulated a serious obstacle to moving back there?
The former secretary of State bobbled the issue again in an interview with the Guardian, saying that voters “don’t see me as part of the problem, because we pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off, not to name names; and we’ve done it through dint of hard work.” Unlike the “truly well off.”
The Washington Post ratcheted up the controversy yesterday, and in a way that exposes a potentially serious rift between the Clinton and Obama camps.
Under a cloak of anonymity, Obama “advisers”—we don’t know whether they work in the White House—were happy to tell the Post’s Philip Rucker that wealth could be as big a problem for Clinton as it was for Mitt Romney.
Said one “adviser”: “It’s going to be a massive issue for her. When you’re somebody like the secretary of state or president of the United States or first lady, you’re totally cut off [from normal activity], so your perception of the middle-class reality gets frozen in a time warp.” This person said it was time for the Democrats to “panic.”
Cue “adviser” No. 2: “She seems completely out of touch and elitist. You can draw direct parallels between her comments on mortgages on multiple houses to Romney talking about all the cars he owned . . . between her talking about having to struggle with Romney’s comments about being worried about ‘pink slips.’ ” A third adviser carped about her $200,000 speeches.
I have a real problem with the Post allowing these people to take potshots without their names attached. Newspapers are supposed to grant anonymity to obtain sensitive information they can’t otherwise get, not to allow snarky strategists to dump on someone they don’t particularly like.
If former South Carolina Democratic Chairman Dick Harpootlian wants to say “she’s been ‘Madame Secretary’ for so long” and has “an imperial image,” great. At least he had the guts to go on the record with the paper.
But some Obama allies must be fed up with all the Hillary mania. With pundits all but declaring Barack Obama’s presidency “over” as he sinks in the polls while Hillary is practically the Democratic nominee by acclimation, some resentment would be natural.
But you have to wonder about their motivation in trying to tarnish their party’s best hope of holding the White House—especially since Hillary and the president long ago seemed to heal the scars of their bitter 2008 contest.
As for Hillary and Bill having made more than $100 million since 2001—and even their daughter Chelsea collecting $600K as a part-time NBC contributor—sure it’s a problem. By padding her bank account with top-dollar speeches to the likes of Goldman Sachs, Hillary puts herself at odds with the anti-Wall Street, Elizabeth Warren wing of her party.
But I don’t think it’s as big an albatross as the one Romney carried, and here’s why.
Unlike Romney, the son of an auto company CEO and Michigan governor, Hillary grew up in a suburban middle-class family and attended public schools. And while she and her husband have two luxurious houses in Washington and suburban New York, there are no car elevators; their wealth doesn’t approach Romney levels.
More important, though, Romney’s chief liability wasn’t so much his moneybags image as his tenure at Bain Capital, which slashed many jobs (while creating others) as it bought and sold companies. Hillary, like most Democrats, favors policies (on health care and taxes) that favor the poor and middle class at the expense of wealthy people like her. Being obscenely rich didn't stop such Democrats as FDR and JFK from winning the White House.
On the other hand, as the author of two $8-million books, Hillary has struggled to find the right tone in discussing her family fortune.
In the Post piece, CNN commentator and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile dismisses the criticism by saying: “What is wrong with a woman having the same earning potential as any man?” Seems to me that political figures going back to Ronald Reagan have been criticized for giving six- or seven-figure speeches. I hope we don’t reach the point where legitimate criticism of Hillary Clinton is countered by suggestions of sexism.
Footnote: In a Fast Company interview, Chelsea Clinton, who lives with her husband in a $10-million apartment, says she gave up some lucrative gigs to join the family foundation. “I was curious if I could care about [money] on some fundamental level, and I couldn’t,” she said.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.