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Hillary's Hardest Choice (and the Democrat's Dilemma)

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Cross-posted from Robert Reich

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton
(Image by (From Wikimedia) Hillary_Clinton_2007-1.jpg: Marc Nozell from Merrimack, New Hampshire, USA derivative work:  — Mike.lifeguard | @en.wb / , Author: See Source)
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What's the reason for the tempest in the teapot of Hillary and Bill Clinton's personal finances?

It can't be about how much money they have. Wealth has never disqualified someone from high office. Several of the nation's greatest presidents, who came to office with vast fortunes -- JFK, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his fifth cousin, Teddy -- notably improved the lives of ordinary Americans.

The tempest can't be about Hillary Clinton's veracity. It may have been a stretch for her to say she and her husband were "dead broke" when they left the White House, as she told ABC's Diane Sawyer. But they did have large legal bills to pay off.

And it's probably true that, unlike many of the "truly well off," as she termed them in an interview with the Guardian newspaper, the Clintons pay their full income taxes and work hard.

Nor can the tempest be about how they earned their money. Most has come from public speaking and book royalties, the same sources as for most ex-presidents and former First Ladies.

Then what's it about?

The story behind the story is that America is in an era of sharply rising inequality, with a few at the top doing fabulously well but most Americans on a downward economic escalator.

That's why Diane Sawyer asked Hillary about the huge speaking fees, and why the Guardian asked whether she could be credible on the issue of inequality.

And it's why Hillary's answers -- that the couple needed money when they left the White House, and have paid their taxes and worked hard for it -- seemed oddly beside the point.

The questions had nothing to do with whether the former first couple deserved the money. They were really about whether all that income from big corporations and Wall Street put them on the side of the privileged and powerful, rather than on the side of ordinary Americans.

These days, voters want to know which side candidates are on because they believe the game is rigged against them.

According to new Pew survey, 62 percent of Americans now think the economic system unfairly favors the powerful, and 78 percent think too much power is concentrated in too few companies. Even 69 percent of young conservative-leaning voters agree the system favors the powerful.

Other potential presidential candidates are using every opportunity to tell voters they're on their side. Speaking at last week's White House summit on financial hardships facing working families, Vice President Joe Biden revealed he has "no savings account" and "doesn't own a single stock or bond."

The same concern haunts the Republican Party and is fueling the Tea Party rebellion. In his stunning campaign upset, David Brat charged that Eric Cantor "does not represent the citizens of the 7th district, but rather large corporations seeking insider deals, crony bailouts, and constant supply of low-wage workers."

But the Republican establishment doesn't think it has to choose sides. It assumes it can continue to represent the interests of big business and Wall Street, yet still lure much of the white working class though thinly-veiled racism, anti-immigrant posturing, and steadfast opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

The Democratic Party, including Hillary Clinton, doesn't have that option.

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Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has a new film, "Inequality for All," to be released September 27. He blogs at

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