DENVER — Hillary Rodham Clinton is a hardworking champion of women, children and the poor. Or she’s a wealthy elitist more comfortable in Davos, Switzerland, than Davenport, Iowa.
Which is it? If Clinton decides to again run for president, how voters answer that question could play a role in whether she’s able to win the White House.
“They raised the bar on these issues with Mitt in 2012,” said Ron Kaufman, a longtime adviser to former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, whose wealth and business record were targeted by Democrats. “Now their candidates for president have to get over the same bar.”
Perhaps the biggest news to come from the recent launch of Clinton’s memoir of her time as secretary of state isn’t what the book says about the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, but what she’s said about her personal finances while plugging the book.
It started with an interview with ABC News in which she said she and husband Bill were “dead broke” when they left the White House in early 2001, grappling with millions of dollars in legal bills. Then there was the interview with the Britain’s Guardian newspaper, in which Clinton appeared to draw a distinction by saying her family paid an “ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off.”
The couple’s daughter, Chelsea Clinton, was pulled into the fray when Politico reported that she earned $600,000 a year at NBC News, where she has infrequently appeared as a special correspondent.
Those statements don’t mesh well with the fact the Clintons are, by almost any measure, quite wealthy, with an annual income that places them solidly among the top 1 percent of Americans. When she was secretary of state, Clinton’s financial disclosure report filed in 2012 showed the couple had an estimated net worth between $5 million and $25 million.
The former first lady and New York senator is by no means a billionaire but can command $200,000 or more for a single speech — four times what the median American household takes home each year. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said Tuesday that Clinton would be paid $225,000 to speak at the university foundation’s annual dinner in October.
Being rich isn’t necessarily a political liability for potential presidents. Democrats Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy both entered politics after privileged upbringings. The last two Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush, could vacation at the family’s Maine seaside compound or at the younger president’s sprawling Texas ranch.
Former President Bill Clinton, who defended his wife this week as someone who isn’t “out of touch,” said a president’s wealth should matter less than the policies they seek to promote.
“I think I had the lowest net worth of any American president in the 20th century when I took office. But I still could have been tone deaf,” Clinton said, adding: “The real issue is, if you’ve been fortunate enough to be successful, are you now out of touch and insensitive to the agonizing struggles other people are facing?”
And yet Republicans still remember how President Barack Obama’s campaign dissected Romney’s business dealings and capitalized on his reluctance to release certain tax records. The campaign successfully created an image of Romney tied to his wealth that was cemented by a video of him telling donors that 47 percent of Americans would automatically vote for Obama because they don’t pay income taxes and are “dependent upon government.”
Romney’s campaign tried to respond by portraying him as a success story and a business turnaround artist. But their efforts were undermined by a series of ready-for-YouTube gaffes in which Romney told out-of-work Floridians that “I’m also unemployed.” He told a New Hampshire audience that he liked “being able to fire people” and quipped to a Detroit gathering that his wife “drives a couple of Cadillacs.”
Such comments are reminiscent of Clinton’s recent struggles to talk about her money and lifestyle, including a January remark in a speech to auto dealers that she hadn’t driven a car since 1996.
While Clinton said this week that any comparisons to Romney were a “false equivalency,” they lend themselves to a still-forming GOP strategy of portraying her as a Washington insider who has enjoyed a privileged life sheltered by private jets, fancy homes and hobnobbing with the elites of Wall Street and Hollywood.
Democrats argue that Clinton’s personal wealth won’t be able to overshadow a long career in public service, which began as an advocate for poor families at the Children’s Defense Fund and led to years of work in Arkansas and Washington on issues such as early childhood education, expanded health care coverage and job creation.
“Attacks are most effective when they play into a pre-existing stereotype about a candidate,” said Ben LaBolt, a former Obama campaign spokesman. “Nobody thinks that Hillary Clinton spent her career focused on making money. She was in the public eye advocating for a policy agenda.”
In the interview with PBS NewsHour broadcast Wednesday, Clinton said her record “speaks for itself” and her “unartful use of those few words doesn’t change who I am, what I’ve stood for my entire life, what I stand for today.”