Campaign 2016

Hillary’s Doomed if She Can’t Learn to Talk About Her Privilege

Twenty years after Bill ran for president as a scrappy Southerner, the Clintons are in danger of stumbling on the same obstacle his opponents did: their inability to see outside their bubble.

Elise Amendola/AP

By any standard Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign pre-show masquerading as a book tour has been a disaster. Book sales have been lower than expected. Monica Lewinsky is back in the public eye and the undeclared but likely candidate has made enough gaffes to put her in the running for the Mitt Romney Medal. (Clinton recently conceded some of her recent word choices have been “inartful.”)

The gaffes, strangely enough, are rooted primarily in the issue that has long been one of the Clinton brand’s greatest strengths: how to make America an equal playing field for the little guy and big guys alike. But Clinton seems to have confirmed for everyone during her publicity tour that she and her family are now officially “big guys.” They ceased being one of the little people a long time ago, but appear to be the only ones who don’t know it. And that may doom any shot Hillary Clinton has at the presidency.

First, Clinton said her family was “dead broke” upon leaving the White House. This struck some who identify as broke as odd, since the Clintons managed to buy more than one swanky home during their supposedly “broke” phase. Then there was the attempt to distinguish her tax status from those who are “truly well off.” Well, to most who are not multimillionaires, the Clintons are “truly well off.”

Then there were the revelations regarding Chelsea. Despite no real journalistic experience, the Clintons’ daughter was given a job by NBC News earning more per month than most seasoned media professionals earn in a year. In a business in which layoffs have become a fact of life for experienced journalists, Clinton’s high-six-figure salary would be more than enough to elicit eye rolls. But Chelsea’s later comments about money more likely elicited nausea. In an interview with Fast Company, she said, “I was curious if I could care about [money] on some fundamental level, and I couldn’t.”

Saying “I don’t care about money” is the sort of thing people say who have never had to worry about not having any. It’s also the kind of thing someone earning six figures for little work, and living in a multimillion-dollar apartment, is likely to say.

Then there is former President Clinton, who has become one of the wealthiest ex-presidents ever, and the wealthiest former president alive. He defended his wife as “not out of touch,” indicating that he, too, is out of touch.

When Bill Clinton first ran for president, his best-remembered message was his quip, “It’s the economy, stupid.” But that wasn’t his only message. His message was he was a good old boy from Arkansas who knew what it was like to grow up in a family that struggled. His opponents, on the other hand, were comprised of a billionaire (Ross Perot) and a guy who so rarely set foot in a grocery store he seemed amazed by a run-of-the-mill supermarket scanner. Every campaign has a moment or two that is recalled long after the votes are tallied. Scanner-gate is one such moment. The New York Times wrote at the time: “This career politician, who has lived the cloistered life of a top Washington bureaucrat for decades, is having trouble presenting himself to the electorate as a man in touch with middle-class life.”

Now, two decades, later the Clintons find themselves confronting the same problem. And just like former President Bush, the problem will only be amplified should Hillary find herself facing a contender who, like her husband 20 years ago, is more representative of America’s little guy.

Though in recent years the GOP nominees have been scions of privilege (think Bush, McCain and Romney) the current GOP lineup has more middle- and working-class bona fides. Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio all come from backgrounds that make it likely they know how to operate a grocery store scanner. They also come from backgrounds in which the meaning of “dead broke” probably has a very different meaning for them than it appears to for the former secretary of state, especially since unlike her they are all still relying on government salaries.

Mitt Romney lost the last presidential election not because he was born to privilege, but because he didn’t know how to talk about his privilege. If Hillary has any hope of being a viable candidate against these men, then she should say what Romney never did: “I’ve been more fortunate than the average American. My daughter is certainly more fortunate than the average young person. Thanks to the advantages she grew up with she has opportunities the average young person can only dream about. But my family is committed to using our privilege to lift up other Americans. Because every person in our great country should have the same shot at the American Dream that the wife and daughter of a former president do.”