NEW YORK – Hillary Clinton is annoying people again. Recently, she said in an interview that she and her husband were “dead broke” when they left the White House. This led to unhelpful headlines such as “Bill Clinton: Hillary Is ‘Not Out of Touch.’” The gaffe also opened the door for Republican attacks – this being a standard campaign strategy that has dogged wealthy major-party candidates (as they all are) since George H.W. Bush was astonished by a grocery scanner.
You would think that Clinton, the first wife and mother to have a good shot at being America’s next president, would easily pass the “relatability” test. But last weekend, she did it again, telling The Guardian that, “unlike a lot of people who are truly well off,” she and her husband “pay ordinary income tax,” and that their wealth came only “through dint of hard work.”
Clinton’s supporters are right to worry about her nails-on-blackboard elitism. Her presumptive candidacy’s trump card is supposed to be her advantage among critically important women voters – the deciding factor for Democrats in national elections. Had Al Gore maintained her husband’s high margin among women in the presidential elections of 1992 and 1996, the Supreme Court would not have decided his 2000 election fight with George W. Bush. Hillary Clinton has raised millions on the premise that she can restore the Democrats’ traditional advantage.
But most of the women sought as voters are not corporate attorneys or secretaries of state. The gender gap that has benefited the Democratic Party is attributable mainly to struggling working-class and pink-collar women; someone on Clinton’s staff needs to tell her to stop offending them.
Clinton’s rhetoric, as I wrote in a review of the hagiographic “campaign biography” HRC, often alienates many women because of flaws in how she views and expresses herself and her mission. For starters, she frames her quest in terms of outdated, unappealing, and irrelevant rhetoric. HRC’s iconography includes all-female pictures of her former staff, as if a single-gender – or single-race – photograph would not affront thoughtful people in 2014.
She also seems to believe that women voters see in her the embodiment of their own struggles and will cheer her on vicariously when, by becoming America’s president, she shatters the last “glass ceiling.” But American women voters know quite well what their own struggles are: paying the bills, educating their kids, dealing with a degenerated, costly health-care system, and so on. They are interested in a candidate, male or female, who speaks to their life issues, and are turned off by a woman who assumes that they are just waiting, sheep-like, for a Joan of Arc figure who will serve “lesser” women as what Jungian psychologists call an “ego ideal.”
The term “glass ceiling” is itself elitist, deriving as it does from the corporate struggles of a few professional women. Most American women are having a hard enough time on the factory floor or the unemployment line or making minimum wage at Wal-Mart; when working-class women hear a former corporate attorney carry on about a glass ceiling, they think not about gender identification but about the class divide that has widened since the term came into vogue in the 1980s. Yet Clinton keeps telling her angry female constituents – as a campaign message! – that she is a member of the 1%.
Finally, she alienates her potential gender-based voters by being perfect. Clinton’s advisers confirm that never showing weakness is a key component of her strategy. This was her approach with the Monica Lewinsky scandal – which is predictably rearing its head again, as Lewinsky has come forward (we can’t know the machinations that may have been behind that timing) to muse on old events. As one of her advisers told me in a TV debate, Clinton’s approach was not to address any pain that she might have felt, as that would have been “the biggest press conference ever.”
That may be true, but it is bad advice nonetheless. By never showing weakness or honesty about her own suffering or any imperfection in her life, negative stories and hostility continue to percolate. If she had held a press conference and said something like, “I feel what anyone would feel at this painful time, and I ask for privacy for myself and my family as we try to get through this,” the scrutiny of her would have ended much sooner, along with the story itself.
But the larger issue concerning Clinton’s perfectionism is what it means for her possible role as leader of the free world. At a time of ever-increasing income disparity in America, is it not a serious political flaw in any presidential candidate not to know how to speak sensitively about wealth and poverty? And, given diminishing government transparency in the US and more and more secret law, is it not a serious issue that a presidential candidate will not address his or her mistakes and shortcomings?
Hillary Clinton’s campaign badly miscalculated in 2008, losing the Democratic Party nomination to Barack Obama. She may well get the nomination in 2016; but when she faces the Republican candidate in the election, she may be in for another rude awakening.
Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Vagina: A New Biography.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.