Hillary Clinton's tone-deaf comments about being "dead broke" after she and her husband left the White House were unfortunate, revealing and — if Clinton chooses to learn from them — instructive for the likely presidential campaign ahead.
ABC's Diane Sawyer asked Clinton about her reported $5 million in speaking fees since leaving the Obama administration, and Bill Clinton's supposed $100 million pile.
"We came out of the White House not only dead broke but in debt," Clinton responded. "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. ... We had to make double the money because of obviously taxes, and then pay off the debts, and get us houses and take care of family members."
Oh my. Ask John McCain, ask Mitt Romney. When one refers to houses in the plural, one is entering dangerous political territory. Car elevators, anyone?
Sawyer persisted. "But do you think Americans are going to understand five times the median income in this country for one speech?"
Clinton: "Well, let me put it this way. I thought making speeches for money was a much better thing than getting connected with any one group or company as so many people who leave public life do."
Excuse me, but "I could have sold out worse" does not strike me as a good answer, especially because the purported reason — being "dead broke" — had long expired by the time Clinton finished her stint as secretary of state.
This was unfortunate because there was a far better answer available: "You're totally right, Diane. It's a ridiculous sum of money for a single speech. Do I think Americans can understand it? I can't even understand it myself!
"But a lot of people — former presidents, former secretaries of state — have been paid ludicrous amounts for speeches. It's what the market will bear. What I have tried to do is to use my good fortune, through the Clinton Foundation and through other charitable giving, to help create a better America and a better world."
The comments were revealing in that they display Clinton's deep-seated economic insecurity combined with aggrievement over her treatment at the hands of what she famously labeled the vast right-wing conspiracy. In terms of economic insecurity, it's important to understand: Hillary Clinton for years was the family breadwinner — and the designated money-worrier.
"I worried that because politics is an inherently unstable profession, we needed to build up a nest egg," she wrote in her first memoir, Living History, recalling her wildly successful foray into commodities trading. "I realized that if our growing family were going to have any financial cushion, it would be mostly my responsibility."
As to the sense of injury: The fact that the thin cushion was eroded by legal bills from what Clinton viewed as unjustified investigations — Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky — was a source of anxiety and anger for Clinton. When the Clintons bought a house in New York in anticipation of her Senate run, they had to turn to Terry McAuliffe, their top fundraiser, to guarantee the loan. There is a certain Scarlett O'Hara, "as God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again" aspect to Clinton's determination to maintain a healthy bank balance.
Finally, the comments are instructive, or could be, in a cautionary way. On a stylistic level, it would behoove Clinton to tamp down the knee-jerk defensiveness ("I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas") that has plagued her. More substantively, they point up a potential hole in Clinton's framing of an economic argument. She is no Romney; as much as Republicans may try to paint her as such, her weakness is not apt to be that she is out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans.
The risk for Clinton may be more from the left. How does a candidate Clinton, with her history of close ties to Wall Street and the New Democrat, banking-deregulation, pro-free trade policies of her husband's administration, navigate the new strain of populism in the Democratic Party?
In the end, how Clinton elaborates an answer to that question will matter more than a few ill-chosen words about the state of her bank account.
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