In 2008, Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist, counseled her to emphasize that she was “born in the middle of America to the middle class in the middle of the last century.” Her populism on painful display in recent weeks draws upon this strategy.
Hillary hasn’t thrown back any beers and whiskeys yet, as she did in 2008 to prove her populist credentials in the Indiana primary, but she is getting there. She has complained about her “dead broke” status upon leaving the White House and insists that she and her husband, together worth about $100 million, aren’t “truly well off.”
One would think parlaying public service and mere celebrity into easy and extravagant wealth might offend liberal scruples. But Hillary doesn’t appear bothered. She has even suggested that her celebrity-driven wealth is the product of “hard work,” unlike that of the unworthy rich, by whom she means businessmen who have created tens of thousands of jobs. Hillary has created a few jobs for ghostwriters in her pursuit of wealth, but that’s about it.
Her strained populism has taken some other curious turns during her book tour. In an answer that must have brought a smile to Mark Penn’s face, she said, when asked about her favorite book, that it is the Bible of course. “At the risk of appearing predictable, the Bible was and remains the biggest influence on my thinking. I was raised reading it, memorizing passages from it and being guided by it. I still find it a source of wisdom, comfort and encouragement,” she told the New York Times.
It has had no discernible impact on her enthusiasm for abortion and gay rights. But she is trusting that Americans will overlook that small discrepancy. One of her legacies at the State Department, which John Kerry touted this week, was the un-biblical novelty of transgender diplomats. “I’m working hard to ensure that by the end of my tenure, we will have lesbian, bisexual, and transgender ambassadors in our ranks,” said Kerry, noting that under his watch and Hillary’s watch the country now boasts “five openly gay ambassadors.”
Like Obama, Hillary is an admirer of Saul Alinsky. She wrote her college thesis paper on his work. Phony populism was an essential component of Alinsky’s program. He urged his followers to appear middle class in order to influence the middle class.
“Our rebels have contemptuously rejected the values and the way of life of the middle class. They have stigmatized it as materialistic, decadent, bourgeois, degenerate, imperialistic, war-mongering, brutalized, and corrupt. They are right; but we must begin from where we are if we are to build power for change, and the power and the people are in the middle class majority,” wrote Alinsky. A good community organizer, he maintained, must “begin to dissect and examine that way of life.… He will know that ‘square’ is no longer to be dismissed as such — instead his own approach must be ‘square’ enough to get the action started.”
Hillary, adopting this tactic, conceals her status as a member of the rich and international liberal elite, casts herself as “ordinary,” and disguises her liberalism, which is as deep as Obama’s, as pragmatic.
One would think from all of her “dead broke” talk lately that she and Bill were still living down in Arkansas. In fact, they hobnob with billionaires in the Hamptons and wallow in luxury. They employ the same tax-avoidance schemes as the people they deplore. She has no problem dismissing plutocrats as bad citizens — “we pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off, not to name names” — while taking $200,000-a-speech fees from them. Nor does a distaste for plutocrats with off-shore accounts stop Bill and Hillary from hitting them up for donations to the Clinton foundation.
Bill Clinton could usually get away with populist posturing. The media would often praise him for his supposed lack of interest in money. But Hillary is having a tougher time of it. Still, she remains determined, so determined that she even brought herself to appear on Fox News last week. She happily adjusted herself to Fox’s audience, expressing deep concern about the imprisoned Marine in Mexico and adopting a populist-sounding tone on the IRS scandal. The latter is not “phony” to the targeted, she readily conceded, creating distance between herself and Obama.
Hillary is, if nothing else, willing to put in the practice to dupe the middle class. Long a fan of triangulation and incremental radicalism, she has always understood that the door to an elitist White House begins on the path of populism.