Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Really Have a Mitt Romney Problem

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Have you heard? The Clintons are rich.

This weekend, yet another story about Hillary Clinton's outsize wealth ricocheted through the blogosphere, this one publicizing her contract for a $225,000 speech at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Foundation. Among her requests: travel on a $39 million Gulfstream jet, round-trip business-class tickets for her advance team, a $500 cash stipend, lodging in a presidential suite plus five more rooms, and coverage for all meals and incidentals. 

The story, based on a public-records request, has the same sneering, how-dare-she quality that much of the coverage of Clinton’s money has taken on:

Hillary Rodham Clinton likes to travel in style. She insists on staying in the “presidential suite” of luxury hotels that she chooses anywhere in the world, including Las Vegas … Clinton’s $225,000 is something of a cut-rate. Documents obtained by the newspaper show that she initially asked for $300,000 and reveal that she insists on controlling every detail of the private event, large and small, to ensure that she will be the center of attention.

Wait, Hillary Clinton — the woman likely to be the next leader of the free world, a person as in-demand as Lady Gaga, Oprah, and the Pope — doesn’t charge a modest speaking fee, make her own way, and fade into the background? Cue the outrage!

But what the pundit class sees as the real issue for Clinton is not the money so much as it is her awkward embrace of it — her Romney-like inability to take it as a given that she is very rich, and to stress that she empathizes with middle-class Americans rather than living their same struggles. She infamously described her family as “dead broke” when leaving the White House. “We struggled to piece together the resources for mortgages for houses, for Chelsea's education,” she added. “You know, it was not easy.” Then she ham-handedly tried to explain that they are ordinary-rich, not rich-rich. “We pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off, not to name names,” she said. “And we've done it through dint of hard work." It's been enough to cement a narrative about Clinton being out of touch.  

What has been strange about Clinton’s responses to the questions about the many tens of millions she and her husband have pulled in of late is that there is an elegant and obvious rich-Democrat way to answer them. She simply has to say, “Yes, we’re really lucky. And I know first-hand that we don’t need a tax break for our millions in earnings or our private jet.” It’s a well-worn response, too, given by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton among many others.

But it is a response that Mitt Romney, whose economic policies would probably have slashed his own taxes while raising them for lower-income Americans, could never give. It is a response that many other Republicans could not give either. And that is what will ultimately neutralize the issue of Clinton’s wealth if and when she runs.

Clinton will offer a set of progressive economic policies that will likely raise taxes on upper-income families to pay for social services for lower-income families. (My guess is that she will propose a universal early-childhood-education program.) She will run against someone who will likely cut taxes and social services, perhaps deeply. It's easy enough to paint Clinton as out of touch while she is running against a ghost. But at some point, she will be running against a living, breathing Republican, like Romney, one proposing policies like Romney's. And that policy context will make it a lot harder to paint Clinton as an out-of-touch one-percent-type – even if she does make $225,000 a speech and jet around on a Gulfstream.