It’s not the empathy, it’s the honesty. Hillary Clinton told Diane Sawyer that she and her husband were “dead broke” when they left the White House. The remark caused something between a flap and a stir. It might even have qualified as a ruckus. The Republican National Committee said it showed that Clinton was “out of touch” (the go-to charge in the age of the Great Recession and its aftermath). The next day, Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts asked whether Clinton had regrets about how she characterized her financial straits given that so many people are actually struggling. Clinton replied, “Let me just clarify that I fully appreciate how hard life is for so many Americans today. It’s an issue that I’ve worked hard on and cared about my entire adult life.”
Hillary Clinton, the once and future candidate, should hope that people see this as an issue of whether she empathizes with regular Americans. That kind of problem she could handle. The bigger challenge for her as a candidate is that this inartful statement could start the slow erosion of voters’ opinions of Clinton’s honesty. That’s what happened in 2008, and it’s a harder problem to fix, especially when you are engaged in a political enterprise where honesty is already as pliable as a chicken bone.
It is technically true that Clinton was broke when she came out of the White House. The Clintons had no cushion from a previous lucrative life in the private sector, and they had mountains of legal bills from their court fights. But the Clintons were not unlike the couple with the winning Powerball ticket: broke at the moment but with the promise of significant riches ahead. Clinton had signed an $8 million book deal (for her previous book). Before leaving the White House they bought a $3 million Washington home and a nearly $2 million home in Chappaqua, New York. She and her husband have profited nicely from their experience in public service, mainly from public speaking and headlining big events. Would that we could all be struck dead with this kind of penury.
Does Clinton feel your pain? If Hillary Clinton gets caught in the empathy trap, it’s her husband’s fault. He elevated fellow-feeling to the high place it now has in presidential campaign politics in his race against President George Bush in 1992. It’s deadly to get caught out of touch, but Hillary Clinton has plenty of time to find her way to the right side of the economic empathy issue. She’s already been trying, talking about income inequality, student loan debt, and the middle-class squeeze. By the time voters actually engage with the next presidential election, this “dead broke” kerfuffle will be forgotten and any echo of it will appear in the soft cocoon of a campaign message devoted to her economic policies aimed at the middle class.
Yes, there’s a debate in the Democratic Party between the populist wing and the Goldman Sachs crowd with which the Clintons are aligned, but Clinton can debate those policies with skill when there actually is a campaign. Her husband will be a key force in testifying to her commitment to these issues. She can neutralize whatever disadvantage she has on this issue in order to let her other qualities shine.
What’s more problematic for Clinton are questions about her honesty. It has been a weakness for her in the past, and if “gaffes” ever sting, it’s usually when they inflame an existing caricature. Clinton’s honesty is an issue her opponents raised again and again during the 2008 Democratic primaries. It was essentially the theme of the debate in Philadelphia on Oct. 30, 2007. “I think what we need right now is honesty with the American people about where we would take the country,” said then-Sen. Obama about Clinton. John Edwards, who was keeping two sets of books in his personal life, nevertheless lectured: “The American people ... deserve a president of the United States that they know will tell them the truth, and won’t say one thing one time and something different at a different time.” Trust and Hillary Clinton became such a theme of the debate that Bill Richardson complained that the entire debate had devolved into whether you could trust Hillary Clinton.
The danger for Clinton is that the “dead broke” comment will not be seen as a tone-deaf slip-up about personal wealth but as an effort to create a false story when confronted with the uncomfortable fact that she and her husband have made a lot of money fast. (That Clinton resorted to such a clumsy dodge gives you some sense of how uncomfortable she is with the topic.) The misstatement will be irresistible for her opponents who want to lampoon Clinton and press on the trust issue, which is the one that hits voters in the gut.
We should expect nothing that happens now to have any impact on an election more than two years away, despite all the Twitter heat and the fact that Clinton moved so quickly to fix her characterization of her post–White House lifestyle. But if it is a sign of a casual dissembling instinct rather than a one-off slip, then it warns of a problem that could accumulate in the interviews and public political moments to come.
The reason Clinton’s approval ratings go up when she is out of politics is that people don’t see her behaving politically. Once they do, her numbers start to suffer. In an October 2007 CNN poll, 51 percent found her honest and trustworthy. That mirrored a Washington Post poll from May 2006 in which 52 percent viewed her similarly. But by April 2008, only 39 percent viewed Clinton as “honest and trustworthy” in the Post poll. A Gallup poll at the time showed a similar problem. Of course this was when she had charismatic candidates pounding away at her every day. Polls have recently shown that people once again trust the former secretary of state. In a recent ABC poll, 60 percent found her honest and trustworthy, which shows how much she has done to improve her balance sheet with voters. If the “dead broke” clunker is just a sign of rustiness, then it will live on only in the warm-up acts by local officials at GOP rallies. But if there are more of these episodes during her return to public life, it could put her in the red.