WASHINGTON -- Rising inequality, a sense of the system being rigged in favor of the powerful: Those themes have been building for years, among conservatives, liberals and independents. President Obama's focus on the minimum wage in his State of the Union address Tuesday night shows he is aware of the problem, whether or not you agree with his policy solution. And that's why Hillary Clinton's comment Monday that she hasn't driven a car since 1996 signals a problem for her 2016 presidential prospects.
“One of the regrets I have about public life is that I can't drive anymore," Clinton said in a talk at the National Automobile Dealers Association. "The last time I actually drove a car myself was 1996."
Reading the comment is one thing -- but watch the video, and the words from the former secretary of state sound jarringly off-key from the populist tone already heard in the runup to the 2014 midterm elections and echoing in early talk of 2016.
A person who understands your problems. Not the first thing that comes to mind. It's the kind of comment that fits in a quick soundbite and suggests to a voter many things about the kind of comforts Clinton has enjoyed. Never mind the grinding travel she endured during her time as secretary of state. Never mind the stress of being in the public eye most of your life, and all the other challenges of government service. Never mind that many a top diplomat, and former first lady, have been provided drivers or prevented from driving due to security concerns or simple protocol. Many voters -- and opposing political operatives -- will hear Clinton's driving comment and place her in an imperial class they view as increasingly out of touch with the common man and woman.
And voters are likely to hear the soundbite, over and over and over, in countless web and TV ads to come in 2016. When Buzzfeed asked longtime-Clinton aide, Phillipe Reines, about the comment, his response only drew more attention to Clinton's remarks.
Now, let's not overreact. Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's problems with the Bridgegate scandal dwarf Clinton's off-note comment, and it is early yet.
But at a time when American politics has strong undercurrents of anger at how elites have continued to prosper while regular folks have had to struggle harder and harder just to make it, incidents such as former President George H.W. Bush's grocery scanner moment (even if that was manufactured), Mitt Romney's 47 percent comment or Obama's own "cling to guns or religion" are the stuff that campaign-shaking memes are made of.
Populism is the engine of the 2014 and 2016 elections, several senior Democratic operatives in electoral politics emphasized in recent meetings. You're only beginning to see it gain momentum, on left and right, as both a disruptive and galvanizing force in our politics.
"I think even 2014 is only going to be a sense of where that's going," one of them said. "Those people who are angry and alienated and don't know why -- and drifted over to the tea party -- are quite like the people who are angry and alienated and don't know why and drifted over to Occupy Wall Street."
"And at some point I think they meet in the middle," he said.
So Clinton's car comment doesn't help her with a Democratic base that in some quarters is just looking for an excuse to cheer on populists like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whose entire career has been about looking out for the little guy, and it doesn't help her with the electorate at large, many of whom drive their own cars, if they can afford one.