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Hillary Clinton Can't Outrun Questions About Her Obscene Wealth

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Hours before she held her first book-signing event for her new memoir, Hillary Clinton was already having to backtrack Tuesday from a remark she made in one of her pre-launch interviews. Asked by Diane Sawyer on ABC Monday about the estimated $5 million she’s made on the speaking circuit—some $200,000 per pop—and the $100 million her husband’s made in the same fashion, Clinton had this to say:

Well, if you—you have no reason to remember, but 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. 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 which was, you know, we had to make double the money because of obviously taxes, and pay you have at debts, and get us houses and take care of family members.

Yes, that’s “houses,” plural, and yes, she said it twice. The guffaws came hard and fast, and not just from Republicans looking for an opening against the likely 2016 Democratic presidential nominee. At the Washington Post, Philip Bump noted that, while the Clintons did in fact leave the White House in debt due to Bill’s legal fees, they had rebounded in a matter of months, making $15 million in 2001 and rebuilding their assets to between $5 million and $30 million. Over at Vox, Matt Yglesias noted that there is simply no comparison between people of the Clintons’ station going “dead broke” and into debt and average Americans who are in the red.

Realizing how tone-deaf her answer had sounded, Clinton tried to amend it on “Good Morning America” first thing Tuesday: “Let me just clarify that I fully appreciate how hard life is for so many Americans today. Bill and I were obviously blessed. We worked hard for everything we got in our lives and we continue to work hard, and we’ve been blessed in the last 14 years. So for me it’s just a reality what we faced when he got out of the White House, it meant that we just had to keep working really hard.”

That’s better, obviously, but don’t think for a second that her follow-up lays this particular issue to rest. Even before Clinton’s clumsy answer to Sawyer, it wasn’t hard to predict that the Clintons’ relentless quest for great wealth in the years since they left the White House was going to loom as one of the main areas of scrutiny should Hillary make a second bid for president. Bill Clinton’s pursuit of riches, and the company he was keeping in that endeavor, was an issue when she ran in 2008, and in the years since, Hillary herself has joined the chase, giving $200,000-and-up speeches to Goldman Sachs (twice) as well as humbler venues such as the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (really.) The couple’s net worth is now estimated to be as high as $50 million and they spent last summer living in a $200,000 per month mansion on the Hamptons.

Americans are famously slow to begrudge successful people their good fortune. Still, the country is getting more sensitive to the winner-take-all trends benefiting the top one percent (and top-tenth of the top one percent that the Clintons qualify for), and it will be very interesting to see how candidate Hillary Clinton reconciles her family’s fabulous wealth with her and her husband’s explicit attempt to fit their rhetoric (and the mixed economic legacy of the Clinton administration) into a more populist frame. In the 2008 primaries, she did quite well with working-class voters in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania by casting herself as the beer-and-a-shot alternative to the wine-track Barack Obama. But will Clinton be able to rekindle that bond when there is no cosmopolitan Obama to set herself against, and when she has spent so much time in the past few years raking in sums unimaginable to those voters?

Bill Clinton’s answer to this conundrum has been to make self-deprecating quips about his good luck and immediately remind people of his support for progressive taxation: “Hillary and I and some of our friends in this audience who live in New York probably pay the highest aggregate tax rates in America, and I thank God every April 15th that I’m able to do it,” he said in a speech at Georgetown this past April.

But Bill Clinton’s not the person who is going to be running for president, and the person who is thinking of doing so doesn’t have his ease in smiling his way through such questions. Somehow, over the next two years, Hillary Clinton is going to need to figure out how to answer this question: why is it that, long after the Clintons’ personal debt-crisis passed and Chelsea was through college and into her own $10 million apartment, they felt the need to keep raking in the big bucks? Why wasn’t enough simply enough?

There is, however, one saving grace for Hillary Clinton in this regard. It is quite possible that she’ll find herself running against a Republican who has also been mocked for claiming that he needed to make a lot of money because he was “starting from scratch” financially. That up-from-the-bootstraps Horatio Alger? None other than Jeb Bush.