What’s the reason for the tempest in the teapot of Hillary and Bill Clinton’s personal finances?
It can’t be about how much money they have. Wealth isn’t a disqualifier for office. Several of the nation’s greatest presidents who came to office with vast fortunes — John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt and his fifth cousin, Teddy — notably improved the lives of ordinary Americans.
The tempest can’t be about Hillary Clinton’s veracity. It may have been a stretch for her to say she and her husband were “dead broke” when they left the White House, as she told ABC’s Diane Sawyer. But they did have large legal bills to pay off.
It’s probably true that, unlike many of the “truly well off,” as she said an interview with The Guardian, the Clintons pay their full income taxes and work hard.
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Nor can the tempest be about how they earned their money. Most has come from public speaking and book royalties, the same sources as for most ex-presidents and former first ladies.
The story behind the story is that America is in an era of rising inequality, with a few at the top doing fabulously well, but others are on a downward economic escalator.
That’s why Sawyer asked Hillary about the huge speaking fees, and why The Guardian asked whether she could be credible on the issue of inequality. It’s why Hillary’s answers — that the couple needed money when they left the White House, and have paid their taxes and worked hard for it — seemed oddly beside the point.
The questions were really about whether all that income from big corporations and Wall Street put the Clintons on the side of the privileged and powerful, rather than with ordinary Americans.
Voters want to know because they believe the game is rigged against them. A new Pew survey shows that 62 percent of Americans think economic system unfairly favors the powerful, and 78 percent think too much power is concentrated in too few companies. Other potential presidential candidates are using every opportunity to tell voters they’re on their side.
The same concern haunts the Republican Party and fuels the tea party. In his stunning Virginia congressional primary upset, David Brat charged that Eric Cantor “does not represent the citizens of the 7th district, but rather large corporations seeking insider deals, crony bailouts and a constant supply of low-wage workers.”
But the Republican establishment assumes it can continue to represent the interests of big business and Wall Street, yet still lure much of the white working class though thinly veiled racism, anti-immigrant posturing, and steadfast opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
The Democratic Party, including Hillary Clinton, doesn’t have that option. Which means that, as the ranks of the anxious middle class grow, the winning formula used by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama may no longer be able to deliver.
That formula was not just to court minorities and women but also to appeal to upscale Republican-leaning suburbs, professionals, moderates on Wall Street and centrist business interests. Accordingly, economic plans for both Obama and Bill Clinton called for deficit reduction as part of a “responsible” fiscal policy, trade expansion, and “investments” in infrastructure and education to promote growth.
But in a world of downward mobility, Democrats need to acknowledge the widening divide and propose specific ways to reverse it. These might include raising taxes on the wealthy and closing their favorite tax loopholes to pay for world-class schools for everyone else; enacting a living wage and minimum guaranteed income; making it easier to unionize; and changing corporate and tax laws to limit CEO pay, and promote gain-sharing, profit-sharing and employee ownership.
It’s a gamble. It would make big business and Wall Street nervous.But if she runs, Hillary may have to take the gamble.
And if America is to have a chance of saving the middle class and preserving equal opportunity, it’s a gamble worth taking.
Robert Reich is chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.