Wow, Hillary Clinton really stepped in it with her comment about being “dead broke” after leaving the White House, didn’t she?
Factually, she’s probably right. Bill’s career was almost exclusively in public life — from his first term as Arkansas attorney general starting in 1977 to leaving the White House in January 2001, he spent 22 of 24 years holding a public office. And it’s not like he was the scion of a political dynasty like the guy he replaced or the guy who replaced him. Factor in the legal fees from lawsuits that are the inevitable result of decades of chasing tail, and you can see that the Clintons wouldn’t have been flush with resources, even if the cattle futures market performed particularly well. The questions came up because the Clinton’s hit the speaking circuit to help drum up the extra scratch – which has been incredibly lucrative in the post-White House years.
But what she said isn’t as important as how she said it:
“We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt,” Clinton told ABC News. “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.”
There are a couple of triggers in there that won’t resonate well with people who don’t pay much attention to politics (i.e. voters who have better things to do).
Obviously, the use of the plural “houses” and “mortgages” comes off wrong. You’ll remember that after Bill was laid off of his job, Hillary found work as a Senator, which required lots of travel. Having two houses makes sense and isn’t uncommon for Senators, but Senators are only 100 of the several millions of votes needed to become President. (And many of them are in non-target states, to boot.)
What wasn’t plural in her comments was the education expenses. Many parents with multiple kids struggle to figure out how to pay a double dose of inflated college expenses. Those same parents probably assume that the political connections of eight years in the White House probably help move money better than a FAFSA.
The new book and marathon interviews are clearly a way for Clinton to soften her image in advance of the coming deluge from the vast right wing conspiracy. The problem is the tin ear turned to how people currently view her. She has been in the public spotlight since 1992, which means a long and public track record on which voters have based mature opinions. There’s also a celebrity factor: the public assumes that famous people (whether actors, athletes, politicians) are out-of-touch. If they go broke, the assumption is that they must have spent their money foolishly.
The question was about making millions in speaking fees. Instead of talking about the need for the speeches, Clinton would have been better off talking about the chance to connect with people. “Yes, we did a lot of speaking, all over the country,” she might have said. “Living in the White House, you don’t get to talk to many people outside of government. After years of partisan bickering, that gave us a chance to get back out and see what people were thinking, what mattered to people.” And then, if she really wanted to pour it on: “That was a really important time for us. If really refreshed our desire to keep fighting for the things we believe in.”
Schmaltzy? Maybe a little, but it stops the conversation about speaking fees. Clinton’s out-of-touch answer keeps the issue going. If she misfires this way repeatedly, she’ll cement the public view of a career politician who believes it’s her turn to be President.
As Mitt Romney can attest, when voters feel like they can’t identify with you, they won’t vote for you.