Hillary Clinton's 'dead broke' claim

By Anthony Zurcher
Editor, Echo Chambers

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Hillary Clinton says she and her husband "worked hard for everything we got in our lives"

Politicians often attempt to show that they understand the economic struggles of the average person by comparing their personal experiences with those of the people whose votes they are seeking.

Abraham Lincoln's story of being born in a log cabin is but one classic example of the practice.

Bill "Man from Hope" Clinton could also pull it off. When he ran for president in 1992, he was a governor of a small Southern state, not too far removed from youthful struggles to make ends meet.

In 2014 his wife, Hillary Clinton - now a former first lady, senator and secretary of state - may have a harder time doing so.

In an interview with Diane Sawyer that aired Monday night, Ms Clinton was asked to explain accepting six-figure speaking fees after leaving the White House in 2001.

"We came out of the White House not only dead broke but in debt. We had no money when we got there, and we struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages for houses, for Chelsea's education. You know, it was not easy."

She continued:

Bill has worked really hard, and it's been amazing to me. He's worked very hard. First of all, we had to pay off all our debts. You know, you had to make double the money because of, obviously, taxes, and then pay off the debts and get us houses and take care of family members.

While many Americans have struggled to pay their mortgage since the 2008 economic crash, the number who have faced difficulty affording their "houses" (plural) dwindles considerably.

Add to that the big-money earning potential that the country's pre-eminent power couple had as they exited the White House, and Ms Clinton's tale of facing hard times - even if they were, in fact $10m (£6m) in debt - is unlikely to resonate with the US public.

Republicans smelled an opportunity - a Clinton complaining about taxes, no less! - and were quick to strike. They shared pictures of her million-dollar homes, and noted the six-figure speaking fees and mega-book deal Mr Clinton received shortly after leaving office.

"Bill and Hillary were so broke they had to light a fire with the $15 million advance he got for his book," tweets Commentary magazine editor John Podhoretz.

Wealthy politicians who attempt to connect with the economic struggles of the common person often open themselves up to ridicule. Republicans relentlessly mocked 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry for his elitist vacations.

Democrats returned the favour in 2012, as Mitt Romney caught flack for his offshore bank account and multiple houses, including one in California with an elevator for his cars.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Bill and Hillary Clinton were $10m (£6m) in debt when they left the White House in 2001

One of the most memorable lines at the 1988 Democratic National Convention was fiery Texas populist Jim Hightower's jab about how President George HW Bush was "born on third base and thought he hit a triple".

"It's so fun watching the two parties radically change positions every four years on whether it's bad to have a super-rich presidential nominee," tweets the Intercept's Glenn Greenwald.

On Tuesday morning, Ms Clinton tried to explain her statement, saying that she appreciates "how hard life is for many Americans today".

"Bill and I were obviously blessed," she said. "We worked hard for everything we got in our lives and we have continued to work hard, and we've been blessed in the last 14 years."

The mini-tempest surrounding Ms Clinton's remarks plays into some criticism of her during the 2008 presidential run that she was too willing to stretch the truth in seeking the sympathies of her audiences.

"Hillary Clinton misremembers events so they fit into her own personal heroic narrative, not as they actually were," writes the National Review's Jim Geraghty. "Lots of people do this, particularly politicians, but this is a dangerous habit for a leader to have."

A perception of wealth and elitism have not been a proven line of attack for damaging Ms Clinton's standing among Americans to date - and it will likely take more gaffes like this for it to become a point of weakness.

For the moment, Ms Clinton is riding high in the polls - and the rollout of her new book, which begins this week, has been seen as an important step in laying the groundwork for a possible 2016 presidential campaign.

Consequently, her opponents will do what they can to knock her off message and blunt the positive, wall-to-wall press coverage a book tour often brings.

Unforced errors such this one make such a task much easier.