Bill Clinton Defends Hillary’s Middle-Income Ties

Former President Bill Clinton defended his wife Hillary Clinton’s ties to middle-income Americans, saying “she’s not out of touch” and is an advocate for policies that promote social mobility.

Speaking at a conference in Denver, Clinton told moderator David Gregory of NBC’s “Meet the Press” today that making an issue of his family’s rise to wealth is “the wrong debate.” The public should be talking about how to address the “demise of the American dream,” he said.

Hillary Clinton, the former first lady and a potential 2016 presidential candidate, is trying to rebound from a series of comments in which she suggested that she and the former president aren’t really rich.

Bill Clinton acknowledged that she didn’t “give the most adept answer” to questions about their personal wealth. “You can say, ‘OK, I gotta clean that up,’ which she did.”

Hillary Clinton, also speaking today at the Clinton Global Initiative conference, drew from her past to portray herself as a lifelong advocate for poor children, pushing back against critics who say she’s lost touch with the concerns of middle-and lower-income Americans.

Upward mobility “really does take a village,” she said today, paraphrasing the title of her 1996 book to underscore the correlation between children’s achievement and income, school quality and other social factors in their neighborhoods.

Political Dexterity

“It’s no coincidence that places where we still see mobility in America are communities with vibrant middle classes,” she said.

Her ability -- or inability -- to pivot from her valuation to her political values will tell allies and adversaries a lot about whether she would be more dexterous and disciplined in a second presidential bid.

Her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, who is married to a hedge-fund manager, has reinforced the criticism by telling a magazine that she’s incapable of caring about money. And Vice President Joe Biden, who may run against Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, amplified Republican jibes yesterday with an implicit contrast to Clinton by saying he doesn’t “own a single stock or bond.”

Bill Clinton said his wife’s comments about being in debt when they left the White House were accurate.

Shocking Turnaround

“It’s factually true that we were several million dollars in debt,” he said, adding that neither of them could have envisioned the windfall they’ve reaped in the last 14 years. “I’m shocked that it’s happened.”

At the end of 2012, the Clintons were worth $5.2 million to $25.5 million, according to financial disclosures that Hillary Clinton filed in 2013 as she was leaving her position as secretary of state.

That total excludes the value of their homes in Washington and in Chappaqua, New York, any savings since 2012 and gifts made to their daughter, Chelsea, who is expecting their first grandchild later this year.

Under federal disclosure rules for administration officials, the Clintons provided their net worth in a broad range. Most of the assets reported were in a single cash account at JPMorgan Chase & Co. that held between $5 million and $25 million. As of 2010, they had two JPMorgan accounts, indicating a net worth of as much as $50 million.

Lucrative Speeches

Since she left the government last year, Hillary Clinton, 66, has been giving speeches, sometimes for hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Bill Clinton, 67, also makes paid speeches and appearances, receiving $200,000 each in October 2012 from Vanguard Group Inc. and Deutsche Bank AG, according to Hillary Clinton’s disclosures.

Hillary Clinton will be judged on the strength of her platform, not the weight of her pocketbook, said veteran Democratic strategist Paul Begala, who helped Bill Clinton win the presidency in 1992.

“We Democrats have a great tradition of electing privileged leaders who fight for policies that help working people,” Begala said, nodding to former Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, both of whom came from families known for their wealth. “The only political danger in being well-off is if voters think you are not on their side.”

Clinton has been on a promotional tour for her memoir since before its June 10 release, and she is prone to making remarks that even some allies qualify as unforced errors. In one case, she fought with National Public Radio host Terry Gross over the timing of her support for gay marriage.

‘Dead Broke’

She has been tripped up most often on questions about her finances -- even when no question has been asked.

Clinton said in an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer that she and Bill Clinton were “dead broke” when they left the White House in January 2001. She told Britain’s Guardian newspaper that the couple isn’t “truly well off.” Chelsea Clinton cemented the storyline with remarks to Fast Company magazine.

“I was curious if I could care about (money) on some fundamental level, and I couldn’t,” Chelsea said in the May edition of the magazine. The Telegraph in London yesterday republished Chelsea’s comments.

Republicans, who watched presidential nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney suffer for being perceived as elite in 2008 and 2012, have pounced on Hillary Clinton’s remarks.

“No one around Clinton apparently has the nerve to tell her that she is sounding more like Marie Antoinette than a future Democratic nominee,” Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote on the paper’s website yesterday.

Philanthropic Work

One former Clinton adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss her strengths and weaknesses, said the former secretary of state is given to becoming defensive in interviews because she doesn’t like the news media.

One irony of the elitism meme for Hillary Clinton’s allies is that her philanthropic work matches wealthy donors to projects that benefit the underprivileged. Another is that they’ve seen her drink beer, dance and eat regional delicacies with local residents around the world.

That shows that she’s not anything like the caricature of an American diplomat who seldom ventures outside U.S. embassies, said a former adviser who also asked for anonymity to discuss the matter.

The Clintons have spent much of the past year raising more than $200 million for an endowment that should keep their family foundation, the parent of CGI, financially viable even if she becomes president and they are no longer able to collect money without creating conflict-of-interest issues.

‘Give Back’

“Aren’t you supposed to turn around and give back to others?” Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who was speaking at the same forum today, said of CGI’s elite donor set.

Clinton’s discussion of her own wealth provided a rare opportunity for Biden to throw a rhetorical elbow. He’s had to watch Democrats, including some of President Barack Obama’s former advisers, swarm to Clinton’s side.

He hasn’t been able to echo Republican criticism of Clinton because most of it has been directed at what she did while she served in the administration with Biden.

Biden, who has always sold himself as an up-from-the-bootstraps, blue-collar Democrat, found an opportunity in Clinton trying to wear his political clothes.

“I don’t own a single stock or bond,” he said at the White House “Working Families Summit” yesterday. “I have no savings account.”

Biden Disclosures

That’s not exactly right, according to his official financial disclosure statement.

A form the vice president signed May 12 shows calendar year 2013 holdings ranging from $1,001 to $15,000 in a U.S. Senate Federal Credit Union joint savings account, and the same in each of two checking accounts at Suntrust and M&T Bank. It also shows a joint holding of less than $1,001 in an M&T Bank checking account.

The disclosure also shows that his wife, Jill Biden, has savings and investments including mutual funds.

Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committee member from New York and longtime Clinton supporter, said the current fascination with Hillary Clinton’s money won’t captivate voters if she runs for president.

“Whether a candidate is in the one percent or not is not the issue,” he said. “The issue is whether the candidate focuses on building the one percent or on building the middle class.”

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