Hillary Clinton was in full-throttle everywoman mode the night she won the 2008 Ohio primary. "For everyone here in Ohio and across America who's ever been counted out but refused to be knocked out, and for everyone who has stumbled but stood right back up, and for everyone who works hard and never gives up, this one is for you," she declared.
Indeed, in one of the more curious aspects of that unusual primary season, the New York senator and former First Lady had emerged as the great hope of the white working class, complete with a throwback Arkansas twang.
Today, a repeat performance in that role, always unlikely, is looking increasingly implausible, as Clinton tries and fails to learn how to talk about her money on the campaign trail — oops, I mean book tour.
The allegedly "dead-broke" Clintons (in her words) knew before they left the White House that between book advances, speaking fees, his pension, and her Senate salary, they would soon be raking in millions. Nor is it any comfort to the hard-pressed to learn from the presumed 2016 frontrunner that the Clintons, with an estimated combined worth of over $50 million, "pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off."
Never mind that Clinton favors policies to lift up those who aren't well off. Her two statements about her own money have spawned the first meta-narrative of 2016, fueled by social sharing and online media that were nonexistent or mere glimmers during her last national campaign: Is Hillary Clinton out of touch?
The answer is obvious. Of course she's out of touch. She's one of the most powerful and important people in America. The real miracle was that she managed to appear in touch in 2007 and 2008.
Part of Clinton's advantage back then was one she'll never have again. She was the default option for Democrats who — for whatever reason, including prejudice — would not or could not vote for a half-black Harvard lawyer who had grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia, whose middle name was Hussein, and whose last name was one letter removed from the world's top terrorist.
Obama did himself no favors, either. Remember when he tried to explain the mind-set of small-town Pennsylvanians to wealthy Californians at a private fundraiser? When their communities fail to revive, he said as an unpaid Huffington Post blogger secretly recorded him, "it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." Way to win over those blue-collar whites.
Not surprisingly, he didn't. Powered by white working-class voters, Clinton beat Obama by double digits in the Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries and crushed him with two thirds of the vote in West Virginia and Kentucky. Her largest victory margin over Obama in any county nationwide was 93 percent to 5 percent in Magoffin County, Ky., in the heart of the Appalachians. It didn't hurt the working-class-heroine schtick that Clinton was the underdog against a younger male candidate who, as they say, hadn't waited his turn.
All of those Clinton-Obama dynamics will be missing if Clinton runs in 2016. That includes the underdog role, which she stumbled into in large part because she ran a bad campaign. Clinton could even find herself fenced into an elitist, establishment slot if she's up against a populist rival from the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party, such as, well, Warren.
Not that it would be much of a stretch. Clinton is even richer now than she was in 2008, and further away from the time in her life when she and Bill were scrabbling for money. She's also further away from the folksiness of Arkansas, the White House sex scandal that made her a relatable figure, and the days of talking about price supports with farmers in upstate New York. Instead, as secretary of state, she spent four years talking about global conflicts with world leaders.
Clinton is now returning to national politics in a media environment vastly more overheated than it was in 2008. In her interview with The Guardian, she may have meant to say people don't consider her part of the income-inequality problem "because we pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of OTHER people who LIKE US are truly well off." But she left out the words "other" and "like us," making it sound like she didn't consider herself truly well off. Cue the rash of stories about her rich-and-famous lifestyle and comparisons to Mitt Romney, he of the multiple houses, Cadillacs, and rich friends who own sports teams.
Not only is Clinton rusty, she is showing us repeatedly that when she's in an uncontrolled situation — you know, like an interview — her political pitch is far from perfect. But these stumbles on money, while not ideal for a prospective candidate, are simply confirming a larger reality. The everywoman persona was an accident of 2008. No matter how many times she tells us that she works hard, pays taxes, and once had to struggle, Clinton is now hugely rich and privileged. She needs to accept that, figure out a graceful way to handle it, and move on.
Jill Lawrence is an award-winning reporter and columnist. She has written for the National Journal, USA Today, The Associated Press, Al Jazeera America, The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post, among other publications.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Sorry, GOP, tax cuts don't pay for themselves
- Why Pakistan won't hunt down the terrorists within its borders
- How academia's liberal bias is killing social science
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Hey, bosses: Stop giving bonuses to your employees
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Why torture doesn't work: A definitive guide
- Alien conspiracy theorists think the government is on the verge of spilling big secrets
- Why the Sony hack changes everything
Subscribe to the Week