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Poor Hillary?

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HILLARY CLINTON
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"Poor Hillary Clinton."

Believe it or not, this is the current obsession of the inside-the-Beltway chattering classes. Of course, the statement can be read in more than one way, can't it? The literal interpretation is the main one being obsessed over -- the relative wealth of Hillary Clinton, and how it relates to her possible run for the presidency. This is inane on a number of levels, to be sure. But there's also a second reading, which might be better expressed by doubling the first word: "Poor, poor Hillary Clinton." Expressing pity for Clinton for one reason or another (the media making inane attacks, the fact that she has to put up with such nonsense, or maybe the inaccurate storyline "Clinton's book tour goes disastrously wrong!") is a secondary topic of this conversation, mostly put forth by her defenders. Neither interpretation makes much sense, though, which is why I went with the mocking use of a question mark: "Poor Hillary?" -- as in: "Are you people kidding me?"

Allow me to explain, in a rather roundabout fashion. First, the stage must be set. Hillary Clinton just released a book which many inside-the-Beltway types found to be boring. In the first days of its release, this was the overwhelming complaint about the book: it didn't air enough dirty laundry. To put this another way, there were no mentions of cigars or Monica. Now, I have no real proof, but my interpretation of this initial response was that a handful of political commentators actually read the whole book, searching for provocative comments and soundbites. They didn't find many. They then started publicly complaining that Hillary's book wasn't salaciously delicious enough. This gave everyone else in the punditocracy a big excuse to not even bother reading the book at all -- they just conveniently jumped on the "it's boring" bandwagon. Hillary, meanwhile, was giving interviews left, right, and center -- because that is the time-honored way for authors to sell books.

"It's boring," though, isn't very exciting. The statement itself is rather boring, when you get right down to it. So the media pack decided (as it is wont to do) to focus on one answer Clinton gave in one of these interviews. She said, quite accurately, that she and her husband were "dead broke" when they left the White House. "Dead broke" is a folksy way of saying "debts larger than assets," which (as previously mentioned) was an entirely accurate statement. But, bored of "it's boring," the pundits pounced. How could Bill and Hillary Clinton ever have described themselves as "dead broke" when they now make millions of dollars? Oh, the humanity!

Before further analyzing this reaction, it is worth mentioning that a cardinal rule in politics (most especially coming from Republicans) is to attack your opponent where he or she is perceived to be strongest. Not weakest -- strongest. Tearing down the opposition's strongest point should be the biggest goal (this way of thinking goes) because if that pillar crumbles then it's easier to stomp on their weaknesses, afterwards. When the Democrats nominated a decorated former member of the military during wartime, what happened? Swiftboating, that's what.

Clinton has two fundamental strong points in the political arena. The first is that both Hillary and Bill Clinton enjoy a very high likeability factor with the public -- people still like Bill, and they also still like Hillary. They both still seem like "regular folks" to many, no matter how much money they make nowadays. Her second big political strength is her appeal to women (look for that to be attacked next, one would assume).

The political attacks on Hillary Clinton have barely begun. If she does run for president, these attacks will hit a fever pitch very early on -- and then they will increase to become a true maelstrom of denigration. Whole industries in the 1990s were created to attack both Bill and Hillary Clinton, in fact, and while the target for the past six years has shifted to Barack Obama, the right-wing attack machine will very easily pivot back to becoming apoplectically anti-Clinton. What we've so far seen will be quickly forgotten amid the mudfest Republicans are preparing to throw at Hillary once she announces, in the hopes that one of them (any of them) will stick. In other words, we ain't seen nothin' yet, folks.

But in order for a political smear to stick, it's got to at least be somewhat believable. The entire theme of "Hillary Clinton is an out-of-touch plutocrat" is pretty laughable, at least in the way it has so far been presented. Republicans are delighting in their attempt to turn around an attack successfully used against their last presidential candidate, for use against a Democrat -- but this absolutely ignores the actual personalities involved. Mitt Romney oozed entitlement. Hillary does not. Hillary Clinton is not going to tell stories about how she knows "NASCAR owners" or give a speech excoriating the "47 percent" (to say nothing of "car elevators"). The Romney-as-plutocrat perception worked because he was a plutocrat, and he had been his entire life. This just is not true for Hillary Clinton.

This isn't to say that she doesn't have political vulnerabilities on the issue of wealth in general. But these vulnerabilities can really only be credibly exploited by someone standing to the left of Clinton. If she runs and if she faces a strong Democratic primary opponent, then Hillary will undoubtedly be confronted with sharp questions about her closeness to Wall Street, about her past positions on corporate boards, and even about her husband's economic politics (on free trade, deregulating the banks, etc.). All will be fair game -- but only for someone who is seen as "standing for Main Street" against the elitist one-percenters. And that pretty much rules out every Republican challenger on the list. Remember, as far as Republicans are concerned, what is good for Wall Street is good for everyone -- on any particular issue, and all the time. Which completely precludes the argument. What would they say, after all? Hillary buddies up to Wall Street better than the Republicans do? It makes no sense. Which is the main reason why the current "Hillary's out of touch" refrain from the right is just downright laughable at this point. Hillary -- again, if she draws a strong Democratic challenger -- may be politically forced to move closer to economic populism than she might otherwise be comfortable doing, but she's definitely not going to be forced to make this tack because of complaints from Republicans.

The same holds true for the sour grapes of "Hillary makes a lot of money per speech!" This, coming from supposed conservatives, is mind-boggling doublethink. After all, isn't the free market supposed to reign supreme, in the perfect conservative world? So how can they complain when the free market obviously has decided that Clinton's time is worth that much? Remember, in FreeMarketLand, any commodity is "worth" precisely what others are freely willing to pay -- no more, no less. Multiple groups have shown they are willing to fork over $200,000 (and up) to sit in a room and hear Hillary Clinton talk for an hour or so. So, yes, she is indeed "worth that much." Because people cheerfully pay her that much.

Perhaps because these two basic complaints run so counter to what is supposed to be Republican ideology, a third line of attack seems to be bubbling up: "Hillary shouldn't charge colleges full price to hear her speak." This, again, might be a credible complaint from the left. A Democratic challenger might be able to work this against Clinton effectively, portraying it as a waste of precious dollars which are supposed to be dedicated to educating America's youth. But from the right, it makes even less sense than "she's not worth her speaking fee." Most of the colleges which have paid Clinton have done so either from private bequests (no education dollars used at all) or as fundraising devices (where the sponsors are confident that they will not only cover her fee, but also make money on the event). Both, once again, fit in neatly with the "free market" philosophy of Republicans. Big-money donors are supposed to have freedom to direct how their money is used, and making money on an event is nothing short of pure capitalism, really. Demanding that Hillary speak "for free" at such events is nothing short of lefty anti-capitalist (perhaps even "socialist" or "communist," if they really get worked up) fluffy-headed Utopian liberal thinking, after all. Give away something of value for free? Preposterous! The very idea!

About the only thing the media mavens have gotten right, in examining Hillary Clinton under a microscope during the past few weeks, is the basic fact that "her book tour is an effort to polish up her campaign skills." She is rusty around the edges, but the flood of public appearances is a long way from the "disaster" some are trying to portray it as. She's got a ways to go before she hits her political stride again, but she's also the seasoned veteran of multiple media attack campaigns against her and her husband, over the last two decades. She will, undoubtedly, get more polished as time goes on.

For now, her basic plan seems to be working just fine. Hillary Clinton is testing the waters of another presidential campaign. She knows that by doing so, the anti-Clinton machine will also be cranking up and testing the waters of her vulnerabilities, both real and perceived. By getting her name and her face out there early, Clinton is trolling these waters to see what might be used against her in the near future. By getting all sorts of issues hashed out now, she can later use the "that's an old complaint, we've already been over that" line, in an effort to deflect such attacks. This technique sometimes works wonders, since the attention span of the inside-the-Beltway chattering classes might be compared to a hummingbird on crystal meth (flitting hither and yon with blinding speed).

Which brings me back to where I began. Defenders of Hillary are attempting to make the "poor, poor Hillary; the media is attacking her" case, but I don't believe that's any more true than the "Hillary is poor?" incredulity from people who normally worship wealth above all else. If Hillary really was outraged at the media attacks, all it would take to counter them would be for her to ask any high-profile interviewer a few simple questions: "You say that because I now make a lot of money, I should be seen as 'out-of-touch' because rich people can't relate to the average person. OK, well... your job as a national news anchor is to present the news so average people can relate to it -- so, exactly how much money do you make a year? Do you consider yourself 'out-of-touch' because of your income?"

But she won't do this. Hillary Clinton is smarter than that. From where I sit, she's doing a pretty good job of trolling for attacks in order to get them out of the way before her presidential campaign even begins. Poor Hillary? I don't think so. I think she's perhaps a little surprised at which particular aspect of her life is now being attacked (if she had a cartoon thought bubble over her head right now, it might read: "This is all you got? Really?!?"), but I don't think she's surprised the attacks have started. In fact, I think that was the whole point of writing a book and scheduling its release at this point on the political calendar. After all, every media obsession about Hillary that pops up over this summer will be one less she'll have to deal with later, when the anti-Hillary fury really begins, next year. And that's not exactly poor planning, is it?

 

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