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Hillary Clinton stumbles on money questions

Hillary Clinton can't seem to get comfortable talking about her personal finances, which may be a problem if she's running on populism.
Hillary Clinton participates in \"A Conversation with Hillary Rodham Clinton\" at the Council on Foreign Relations June 12, 2014.
Hillary Clinton participates in \"A Conversation with Hillary Rodham Clinton\" at the Council on Foreign Relations June 12, 2014.

Hillary Clinton has a money problem.

Twice in the last month, the former secretary of state has been tripped up by questions related to her personal wealth, which is estimated to be as high as tens of millions of dollars.

In an interview with The Guardian published Saturday, Clinton responded to a question about whether her impressive net worth would undermine her ability to critique income inequality.

“They don't see me as part of the problem," Clinton reportedly responded, "because we 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.”

Clinton appeared to be alluding to millionaires like Mitt Romney whose wealth comes primarily from investment income that is taxed at lower rates than the speaking fees and book sales that have buoyed her and her husband over the years. But Clinton may want to hold off before suggesting her taxes are so ordinary: A report in Bloomberg this month detailed how she and and her husband employ techniques commonly used by ultra-wealthy families to reduce estate tax bills for their heirs. The apparent contrast between the Clintons and the "truly well off" seems pretty minor as well for a couple firmly in the 1%.  

Earlier this month, Clinton said in an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer that she and her husband were “dead broke” when they left the White House and explained they “struggled to piece together the resources for mortgages for houses, for Chelsea’s education.” 

It’s true that Clinton and her husband carried millions in legal debts after years of Republican-led investigations, but it wasn’t a form of poverty or “struggle” most Americans would recognize given that the family could – and did -- replenish their coffers through lavish speaking fees and book deals.

Democrats are gearing up for an even more populist 2016 campaign after a 2012 race in which President Obama’s campaign tormented Romney with endless attacks on his wealth, taxes, and business record. Republican strategists, who have jumped on her comments, see an opportunity to undermine Clinton's credibility as a middle class messenger if she runs.  

There’s no reason, however, that Clinton can’t effectively campaign on inequality while owning multiple houses. Obama was rich in 2012 too, after all. The reason his attacks connected was that they were linked to a clear policy critique: Obama favored raising taxes on the wealthy, including investors like Romney, and had championed increased spending on social programs that benefited low-income and middle-income Americans. Romney favored lowering top tax rates in a way experts warned would raise taxes on average Americans. He also had pledged to balance the budget entirely in eight years while increasing military spending, which would have guaranteed drastic cuts to social programs. Polls showed voters thought that Romney’s prescriptions favored the rich

But Obama was careful to talk about his own millions, which mostly came from book sales, in a way that firmly kept the critique on Romney and preempted hypocrisy charges. He often made a point that Republicans should stop “giving tax breaks to people like me” or even "people like me and Mr. Romney.”

Bill Clinton at times proved even better than Obama at mixing his own wealth with populist rhetoric, using charm and humor to bolster his case. In a memorable section of his 2004 speech to the Democratic convention he joked that Republicans treated him differently after he struck it rich:

“You might remember that when I was in office, on occasion, the Republicans were kind of mean to me. But soon as I got out and made money, I began part of the most important group in the world to them. It was amazing. I never thought I'd be so well cared for by the president and the Republicans in Congress. I almost sent them a thank-you note for my tax cuts -- until I realized that the rest of you were paying for the bill for it, and then I thought better of it.”

Given that Hillary Clinton could be making the same critique of GOP policies for the next two-plus years, it might behoove her to brainstorm some similar responses.