Opinion: The political calculation behind Hillary Clinton’s poor-mouthing

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative America in Denver.
(Brennan Linsley / Associated Press)

It’s “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” time for Hillary Clinton.

For the last few weeks she’s been busy laboriously explaining that even though she’s as rich as Croesus’ Chihuahua, she’s not rich rich.

Here’s her June 9 interchange with Diane Sawyer:

Diane Sawyer, ABC News: “It has been reported you’ve made $5 million making speeches, the president’s made more than $100 million.”


Hillary Clinton: “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 ... debts, and get us houses and take care of family members.”

“Houses”? Most “dead broke” people are lucky if they have just one place to call home that’s not directly under a freeway overpass. And Stanford tuition is sky high but not $105 million high.

So here’s an explanation in a June 21 interview with the Guardian:

“America’s glaring income inequality is certain to be a central bone of contention in the 2016 presidential election. But with her huge personal wealth, how could Clinton possibly hope to be credible on this issue when people see her as part of the problem, not its solution?” asks Ed Pilkington.

“ ‘But they don’t see me as part of the problem,’ she protests, ‘because we pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well-off, not to name names; and we’ve done it through dint of hard work,’ she says, letting off another burst of laughter.”

What’s going on? I gather there was a dig at 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney in there — but the Clintons don’t seem that far behind Romney with his $250 million net worth. As the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker notes:

“[M]entioning that she pays taxes as a defense of her wealth is striking considering that Bloomberg News reported last week that the Clintons use ‘financial planning strategies befitting the top 1 percent of U.S. households in wealth’ to shield some of their wealth from standard estate taxes.

“Hillary Clinton’s speaking fee is $200,000 or more — and although the advance for her latest book, ‘Hard Choices,’ has not been released, she received an $8 million advance for her first memoir, ‘Living History.’ ”

Here’s my theory about the Hillary Clinton poor-mouthing as she dithers Hamlet-style over whether to be or not to be a presidential candidate in 2016: She’s trying to “Piketty-proof” herself.

French economist Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” even though it’s a statistic-heavy 696-page tome, shot to No. 1 on Amazon and made Piketty the darling of every left-of-center political strategist trying to figure out how to milk more taxes out of anyone who looks like a conceivable cash cow in order to do something about our $17-trillion national debt.

Piketty’s theory, expressed in his now-famous equation r (for return on investment) > g (for economic growth), is that the rich are getting rich not by earning their money (like virtuous Bill and Hillary Clinton working so “hard” and paying income taxes on those lucrative books and speeches) but by sitting back and letting their bank accounts grow fatter, or, even worse, inheriting their wealth from their ancestors. Those bad people are the “truly well-off,” to quote Hillary Clinton and to paraphrase Piketty.

Not surprisingly, Piketty is calling for a “global wealth tax” that would seize part of the assets of the “truly well-off” — or, actually, practically every “millionaire next door” who has managed to save a nest egg for one’s old age or one’s children — and redistribute it to the nonsavers, all in the name of reducing inequality.

It is, therefore, extremely important for Hillary Clinton to assure everyone that she and her husband couldn’t possibly be among of the “truly well-off,” despite their having reportedly earned more than $100 million in less than 13 years. They don’t want to look like the evil 1% to all those progressive thought leaders waving their Post-it-Noted copies of “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” even though they’re likely among the very richest sliver of Americans.

So Hillary Clinton is talking “poor.” She’s talking “dead broke.” She’s talking “income tax.” Pay no attention to all that money behind the curtain.

Charlotte Allen writes frequently about feminism, politics and religion. Follow her on Twitter @MeanCharlotte.