It may be too late by now to make this point -- in the bizarre calculus of the media, the remark is already a narrative on its way to becoming a meme -- but the whole thing about whether the Clintons are well off has undergone the Orwellian somersault just about as quickly as anything I can remember. In other words, Clinton's comment actually meant the opposite of what people are now saying it means.
Here's the quote, first made to the Guardian, as reproduced by Politico:
“But they don’t see me as part of the problem,” she told the paper, adding, “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.”The larger problem here, of course, is that the internet has made us an entire culture of partisan pundits, and what this means is that we all get off on thinking like strategists -- that is, listening to what politicians say not for the sense they are making, but for the ways in which their words might be twisted so that it appears they are saying something else. No surprise there -- and it's pretty easy to get your base good and bothered by twisting the words of your opponents. What's harder is getting even the other side to believe that maybe something else got said than what actually got said -- and that's what's happening with this quote from Hillary Clinton.
To slow it down a bit so that those who long ago stopped listening for the sense of statements can recalibrate themselves to the real purpose of language...
"But they don’t see me as part of the problem..."Not much wrong here so far. "Me" is Hillary Clinton, "they" is the American people, and the "problem" is the difference between the way our economic laws treat wealthy and ordinary people. So right from the get go, really, the "me" and the "they" is already an acknowledgement from Clinton that she's in a rarified category, fiscally speaking. Out of context, "they" has a bit of a tin sound -- but that's what we're doing here, taking a quote out of context, and it would be a mistake to read too much into that...
"because we pay ordinary income tax..."Pretty obviously, "we" means her and Bill Clinton. No argument there, I hope. "Ordinary income tax" is a bit trickier, and I don't know whether anyone has made this kind of a distinction before, but I take "ordinary" to mean that she and Bill Clinton are not exploiting the kinds of tax breaks and loopholes that might be available to them. They pay taxes at the same rate as ordinary people, which even she here seems to acknowledge that she's not like, exactly.
"unlike a lot of people who are truly well off, not to name names..."Now here's the thing in a nutshell. The "unlike" of this phrase adjusts the last part of the sentence, the "we" of herself and Bill Clinton, and so the only thing that "unlike a lot of people who are truly well off" can really mean is that she and Bill Clinton fall squarely among those who are "truly well off." She's in no way suggesting that she's not truly well off, and in fact the whole quote is in support of that. What the quote does suggest is that even though she and Bill Clinton are truly well enough, they're a bit closer to ordinary people because they don't take every step possible to avoid taxes, like Mitt Romney -- not to name names. And what she hopes is that ordinary Americans understand that even though she is now truly well off, she hasn't forgotten where she came from, or what it's like to be ordinary.
In short, there may well be something to criticize here -- but it is not a statement in which Hillary Clinton claims to not be well off. In fact, it says the opposite of that.