Hillary Clinton's Battle With Cultural and Financial Elitism

05/06/2015 02:43 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2016

Bill and Hillary Clinton have amassed a fortune since leaving the White House. Because of this financial windfall, Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is facing charges of "elitism." The revelation that Hillary decided to run for President at the Dominican Republic estate of fashion mogul Oscar de la Renta, and the revelation that some of the participants in an Iowa forum that she participated in were Democratic campaign workers rather than rank-and-file voters, make some Americans wonder if Hillary is "out of touch" with the Middle Class.

Even though the Clinton's did not have a monetary fortune in their early years together, during Bills' first gubernatorial term in Arkansas, Hillary became susceptible to charges that she was a cultural elitist. When the Clintons first married, Hillary kept her maiden name, Hillary Rodham. This was very rare in the conservative state of Arkansas and viewed by traditionalists as elitist.

In 1980, Bill Clinton lost his bid for re-election, making the 34-year-old the youngest ex-Governor in American history. Bill Clinton's Republican opponent, Frank White, exploited the maiden name issue by continuously introducing his own wife as "Mrs. Frank White."

In 1982, Bill Clinton regained the Governorship, defeating White. Hillary became more engaged in the campaign and changed her name to Hillary Clinton, telling a reporter: "I'll be Mrs. Bill Clinton." During the next nine years of her husband's Governorship, Hillary gradually shed the elitist label, as she chaired the Arkansas Education Standards Committee and was successful in bringing a neonatal clinic to Arkansas's Children's Hospital in Little Rock. By 1990, there was even talk of Hillary running to succeed her husband as Governor of Arkansas. Bill instead ran and won re-election.

When Hillary ran for the 2008 Democratic Presidential nomination, she became a champion of blue-collar voters and lunch bucket Democrats, focusing on economic issues and championing her humble roots. Her main opponent was U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), who battled charges of cultural elitism because of his professorial speaking style. These allegations were compounded when he seemed to be patronizing working class Americans by telling attendees at a San Francisco fundraiser that working class voters "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade."

Historically, it is a struggle for wealthy candidates for public office to relate to voters. Whether they hail from patrician backgrounds, are self-made, or marry into wealth, most of their coefficients come from upper-income tax brackets. They take on the language and demeanor of the wealthy, making interactions with voters somewhat awkward. This leads to many Candidates developing specific strategies to downplay the inevitable elitism charges.

Nelson Rockefeller, in his first campaign for Governor in 1958, would tell voters who praised him: "Thanks a thousand" rather than his customary "thanks a million" so that voters would not associate Rockefeller with his vast inherited wealth.

In a rare case of taking the issue of Elitism head-on, Massachusetts Republican Governor Bill Weld, after losing a hard-fought U.S. Senate race in 1996 to incumbent Democrat John Kerry, made light of his patrician pedigree and cultural elitism. He told New York Times reporter Sara Rimer: "It was not my first defeat. There was the Rhodes scholarship, the Marshall scholarship, the Harvard Law Review. My life is a tangled wreck of failures."

George H.W. Bush, the son of a U.S. Senator, learned to take the offensive when it came to his wealth. Before being branded as an "elitist," Bush would suggest the same of his opponents. Bush was reared in Greenwich Connecticut, was educated at the prestigious Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts and then graduated from Yale University.

Despite Bush's own privileged background, when he ran for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1988, he derisively referred to one of his opponents, Pierre (Pete) S. du pont (a fellow ivy leaguer from a patrician background) as "Pierre." Mr. DuPont always referred to himself as "Pete," knowing that "Pierre" triggers elitist connotations. His other opponents referred to DuPont as "Pete." Despite Bush's background, his first name did not denote elitism in voter's minds like the name "Pierre."

After mustering the Republican nomination that year, Bush successfully countered his patrician heritage, including his accent and demeanor, by framing his Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis as a "cultural elite." Bush often referred to him as "that liberal Governor from Massachusetts." Interestingly, though Bush was an Ivy leaguer himself, he bashed Dukakis, who graduated from Harvard Law School, asserting: "His foreign policy views born in Harvard Yard's boutique, would cut the muscle of defense." These charges helped Bush turn a seventeen- point deficit into a ten-point victory over Dukakis. Although Dukakis tried to suggest Bush was a "financial elitist," his charges gained him little political traction. Dukakis averred: "George Bush plays Santa Claus to the wealthy and Ebeneaser Scrooge to the rest of us." In the end, the American people chose the "financial elitist" over the "cultural elitist."

Bush's son, George W. Bush, is a rare breed of politician. Despite his Ivy League education and immense inherited wealth, he was successfully able to style himself as "an old boy from West Texas."

In 1978, when Bush ran for an open Congressional seat, his Democratic opponent, Kent Hance, was successful in branding Bush as an "Ivy Leaguer." Hance used his own humble background to lambast Bush's elite upbringing. Hance lamented: "Yale and Harvard don't prepare you as well for running for the 19th Congressional District as Texas Tech [Hance's alma mater] does." Hance also said "My daddy and granddad were farmers. They didn't have anything to do with the mess we're in right now, and Bush's father has been in politics his whole life." Hance won the race.

However, George W. Bush learned his lesson, and when he ran for Governor of Texas in 1994,he turned the tables by presenting himself as the antithesis of his background. He even succeeded in talking in colloquialisms, calling parents "moms and dads" and calling voters "folks."
In his race for Governor in 1994, Bush beat popular incumbent Governor Ann Richards despite her personal approval ratings, which exceeded 60%. He did this with a disciplined message, focusing on issues which struck a resonant chord with socially conservative Texans, including welfare reform, tort reform, and juvenile justice reform. Moreover, Bush excoriated Richards for vetoing a concealed carry handgun bill. Lone Star state voters came to see Bush as one of their own, not as some "phony Texan" from Yale.

In 1999, as Bush was beginning his Presidential campaign, he purchased a ranch in Crawford, Texas. This was a strategic and political tour de force. The Bush team successfully effectuated a master narrative of Bush as a rugged individualist and a rhinestone cowboy clearing brush from his ranch while the Eastern elite sit in their ivory tower air-conditioned offices mocking working class Americans. Bush exploited the undercurrent of virulence in Middle America toward the people he had gone to school with, and he did it brilliantly.

Bush knew that Harvard and Hollywood don't play well in America's heartland. By emphasizing his slight Western accent, his love for the outdoors, and his devout Christianity, Bush became public enemy number one in the eyes of the coastal establishment. They mocked him as obtuse, ignorant, and anti-intellectual. In both 2000 and 2004, Bush ran against two fellow patricians, Ivy Leaguers Al Gore and John Kerry, respectively. In both cases, Bush won the election, in part by creating a master narrative where he was a plain-talking Texan challenging "intellectual out-of-touch elites."

During his successful 1992 Presidential campaign, Hillary's husband Bill emphasized his humble background and pledged to be a voice for the plight of "the forgotten middle-class." During a primary debate, former California Governor Jerry Brown accused Bill Clinton of using his power as Governor to funnel money to the Rose Law Firm, where Hillary worked. In response, Clinton portrayed Brown as an elitist, retorting: "Jerry comes here with his family wealth and his $1,500 suit, making lying accusations about my wife."

In the 2016 Presidential election, Hillary must counteract charges of both cultural and financial "elitism." She must prove to voters that despite her recent fortune, she is still the same woman who grew up in a middle-class household in Park Ridge, Illinois, moving to Arkansas after college.

One way to showcase this would be to dispatch her contacts from Parkridge and Arkansas to the early primary states to make the case that Hillary has not changed. This will counteract the inevitable charges by critics that Hillary only associates with the rich and famous. In Bill Clinton's successful 1992 Presidential campaign, he dispatched the family's Arkansas friends to campaign for him around the nation. They came to be known by the moniker: "Arkansas Travelers." Hillary must show voters that despite her wealth and elite friends, she still views the country through the prism of everyday Americans, not through the prism of the nation's economic and cultural elites.