After a presidential election in which the losing candidate was seriously damaged, if not defeated, by perceptions that he was a distant plutocrat, Hillary Clinton’s early stumbles on questions about her personal fortune certainly cheered opponents. Claims that she and Bill were “dead broke” when they left the White House and had “no money” rang hollow with the public. While their finances may have been stretched thinner than some may realize, there’s certainly no shortage of lucrative opportunities for an ex-president and accomplished first lady. She didn’t help matters with a later remark that they pay income taxes “unlike a lot people who are truly well off.” If Clinton is indeed going to seek the presidency, she’s going to need to find a better way to talk about being rich.
The “dead broke” comment was a tone deaf exaggeration that was predictably lampooned and met with general skepticism. Enlisting Terry McAuliffe to help secure a loan for a $1.7 million house isn’t quite the same thing as scrambling to scrounge together a security deposit for a post-White House apartment. The remark about those who are “truly well off” is a bit more innocuous when read in context, but still a comment that should’ve been avoided after she claimed to have emerged from the White House in poverty. It’s precisely the kind of sound bite that will be dissected by breathless conservative commentators and minced into unflattering headlines.
In the grand scheme of the 24-hour news cycle, these remarks are unlikely to be terribly significant in the long run. They’ll live on for a time in the conservative echo chamber but will eventually fade from public memory, particularly as other prospective candidates contribute their own verbal failures to the national discussion. However, that doesn’t mean Clinton’s initial missteps on this topic shouldn’t be cause for some concern. In the wake of a major recession, with income equality becoming a more persistent issue, and many voters convinced that the American Dream is no longer within reach, talking about wealth has become an increasingly important part of running for office in America. Voters can be forgiven for thinking that the millionaire candidate on stage who just flew in on a corporate jet from a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser may not be completely in tune with their concerns. While the Clintons spent much of their lives in public service and outside the upper stratosphere of income earners, in recent years they have earned tremendous amounts of money from best-selling books, speaking engagements, and other endeavors. There’s certainly nothing wrong with such success, but there needs to be a better approach to discussing it. Fortunately for Clinton, she has quite a bit of time to develop that message.