In the autumn of his life the late George McGovern, who as a senator and presidential candidate was a proud tribune of the proletariat, became a tribune of capital as well. In 1992 he penned a column for The Wall Street Journal, relating the difficulties he had encountered trying to run his own business.
Many of those difficulties, he found, stemmed from "federal, state, and local rules"—"'one-size-fits-all' rules for business ignore the reality of the marketplace." The "concept that most often eludes legislators," the liberal lion lamented, is the cost imposed on consumers by "public regulation and government reporting requirements."
McGovern admitted that he came to this wisdom late, but suggested late was better than never. Perhaps Hillary Clinton shares that view, as she tries to convey to the masses her hard road to personal riches.
The Clintons have done quite well for themselves in recent years. They are worth at least $100 million, and Hillary—who travels by private jet and says she hasn't driven a car since 1996—rakes in $200,000 per speech. This has led to some amusing spin. Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist, recently told The Washington Post: "I hope Hillary never apologizes for trying to earn a living." A living.
Hillary herself has tried to dispel the notion that she has it made in the shade. Over the weekend she told London's Guardian that she and Bill "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."
Comments like that make Democratic strategists wince. They fear she is beginning to sound too much like Mitt Romney, who in early 2012 casually mentioned that his wife drove "a couple of Cadillacs." Just like reg'lar folks. Is Clinton losing touch with the common man? Will she be able to relate to the proles on the campaign trail?
It's a fair question, but probably an overblown one. Voters and the establishment media tend to think of the Republicans as the party of and for the rich. They don't much mind rich Democrats—so long as those Democrats support policies that ostensibly benefit the little people.
Lady Hillary's comments betray more than an unfamiliarity with the great unwashed, however. They also show how little she understands people of her own economic class.
Clinton thinks she is "unlike a lot of people who are truly well off" because, first, she pays ordinary income taxes. The insinuation seems to be that most of the 1 percent come from old money, live off their inheritance, or have arranged their affairs to take advantage of lower capital-gains rates. But that's not so.
One in eight Americans will spend at least one year among the "1 percent," according to Marketplace.org. And at some point during their lives, one in five Americans will number among the richest 2 percent. Far more will qualify for membership in the top 10 percent. And only a small number will stay poor over the course of their whole lives.
Many well-off people hold high positions in the corporate world. And a principal reason they pay capital-gains taxes on much of their income is that they are paid in large part with stock instead of cash. Why? Not to dodge a higher tax rate. The point is accountability: to tie corporate executive pay to company performance.
Hillary also seems to think she is different because she made her money through "hard work." Some hourly laborers might care to dispute that: Writing books and giving speeches seems like pretty soft duty compared with digging ditches and changing bedpans.
True, public officials work long days—and nights and weekends, too. But then so do lots of other rich people. Doctors and lawyers—especially the better-paid ones—put in grueling hours. So do corporate execs. The competition for the top of the economic heap is fierce, and the people who get there tend to be drivers, not slackers. Most of the people on the Forbes 400 list "scrapped their way onto our list through their own efforts," the magazine reports. Most of them didn't get to bring home a Rolodex from the Oval Office, either.
Sure, America does have its share of the idle rich—and yes, income inequality has increased somewhat in recent decades. Yet for much of her career Hillary Clinton seems to have thought the story stopped and ended there: that economics was a zero-sum game in which one person's gain was another's loss—and so, as she once said, society had to "take things away from" the rich for "the common good."
Now that she's rich herself, she seems to be waking up to the realities of how people get that way. Thus far she thinks she's exceptional. But with enough time and experience perhaps she, like McGovern, will lose her ideological blinders and see the light.