Hillary Clinton’s status as a wealthy celebrity will make it difficult for her to deploy the populist narrative that helped Democratic nominees win the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections. How can a woman who boasts a net worth of at least $21 million and hobnobs almost exclusively with well-heeled financial titans and movie stars, plausibly denounce Republicans as the party of the rapacious rich while portraying Democrats as defenders of the downtrodden?
The only presidential election since 1988 in which the Democrat failed to win more votes than his GOP rival came with the victory of George W. Bush in 2004. In that year, the donkey party chose patrician John Kerry, whose marriage to Teresa Heinz provided an estimated net worth of $750 million and made him, arguably, the richest candidate ever nominated by either party. Republican attacks on the Massachusetts Senator as effete, elite and out of touch took their toll: remember the devastating ad that mocked his indulgence in wind-surfing?
In other recent contests, Democrats did better at portraying themselves as representatives of common folk. The 1992 battle between George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton came across as The Preppy vs. The Hillbilly, or the blue-blooded son of a US Senator against the posthumous child of a hard-drinking traveling salesman. Four years later, Bob Dole’s 36 years in Congress eclipsed his own hardscrabble background; President Clinton, still just four years away from Little Rock, seemed far more connected with middle-American life.
The year 2000 saw two sons of privilege squaring off, but Al Gore was merely the child of a Senator while George W. Bush was son of a president. Moreover, young Bush had made a bundle of money dabbling in the oil business and running a Major League Baseball team, while Gore, a career politician, only made a huge personal fortune after the Vice Presidency with his cable TV network and other ventures. Predictably, Gore won the popular vote by half a million.
Most recently, Barack Obama’s campaigns attacked both of his opponents, John McCain and Mitt Romney, as hopelessly removed from everyday Americans and outrageously wealthy. McCain had spent nearly all his adult life in the military or in Congress, but the Democrats endlessly mocked his seven luxurious homes, while Mitt Romney drew ridicule for his wife’s expensive show horse and the family’s installation of a high-tech auto elevator in their new seaside mansion.
Such tactics become more difficult for Democrats with Hillary as the nominee. If the GOP alternative turns out to be Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Mike Pence, Ben Carson, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee or most of the prominent possibilities, that nominee will enjoy the rare advantage of registering as less privileged and more connected to middle class realities, than the undeniably elitist Democratic contender. In this perspective, Ted Cruz might face his own unique challenges in exploiting this obvious Clinton vulnerability since the Tea Party Senator’s wife, Heidi Nelson Cruz, serves as a managing director of Goldman Sachs, placing her right at the beating heart of Wall Street. Of course, if Republicans take the unlikely step of nominating Romney again, or manage to coalesce around Jeb Bush as their standard bearer, they will have chosen a nominee who seems no better than Secretary Clinton in terms of money, but also no worse, when it comes to association with the Washington establishment.
Meanwhile, Democratic operatives and Clinton loyalists insist that her $300,000 speaking fees, multi-million dollar book advances and constellation of luxurious homes will do nothing to prevent her appeal to the less fortunate: after all, two the greatest Democratic heroes of the twentieth century, FDR and JFK, were both prodigiously wealthy, Harvard-educated aristocrats who nevertheless connected viscerally with blue collar voters.
But Roosevelt and Kennedy both gained their big bucks the old-fashioned way: they inherited fortunes from prominent parents, and neither man deigned to invest any significant portion of his life in the grubby task of earning or accumulating money. Hillary, by contrast, eagerly involved herself in the process of building wealth: first, toiling thirteen years as a senior partner at the Rose Law Firm while her husband earned barely $30,000 as Arkansas governor, and then, more conspicuously, during the years since she left office as Secretary of State.
For conservatives, there’s nothing dishonorable in getting rich by earning, saving and investing money but most liberals look askance at the process. Since they believe that the whole financial system is rigged in favor of elites, and that the wealthy in general count as greedy, grasping, exploitative and insensitive, Hillary’s visible rise to the plutocracy represents a serious problem for her. That’s especially true since she and her life’s partner struck gold not with business-building savvy but at the very intersection of politics and business that conservatives target as the corrupt essence of crony capitalism.
Against such objections, the resistance to acknowledging Secretary Clinton’s membership in the reviled 1% relies on her position as a female pioneer, ready to shatter the most significant glass ceiling. According to the favored argument in Hillaryland, this identity will function like Barack Obama’s role as the first serious black candidate – a role that cemented his underdog image despite his prep school background, upbringing by his prominent banker grandmother, the millions he’d earned on book royalties and his wife’s lavish salaries.
But unlike Hillary’s solid, stable, suburban background, Obama faced real turbulence in his childhood, featuring abandonment by his father and a mother who never settled into a permanent home or steady career. Moreover, at a time when big majorities of university graduates are women, it’s obnoxious to compare the obstacles to advancement faced by America’s female majority and the disadvantages faced by its troubled black minority. Members of Hillary’s own Baby Boom generation can recall a time when segregation and Jim Crow were still a brutal reality in major portions of the country. For someone who’s been close to the center of national power for a quarter of a century as has Secretary Clinton, the role of outsider, rebel or ground-breaking insurgent will remain an awkward fit.
None of this means that Republicans could, or should, try to turn the tables by demonizing Hillary’s record of establishment influence or money-making achievement. After denouncing class warfare for generations, any GOP effort to suggest that a richly advantaged candidate can’t relate to ordinary citizens would look like the rankest hypocrisy. At the same time, well advertised elements of her public persona and private arrangements should discourage Democrats from making a similarly silly case against the ultimate Republican nominee, thereby depriving them of one of their more potent weapons of recent years.