Hillary Clinton’s not like the rest of us? Good!

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Matt Bai
·National Political Columnist
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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton visits a decidedly homespun restaurant — Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles in Columbia, S.C. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty)

After more than 200 years of contributing pretty much nothing to American democracy other than some inspired ice cream and a buffer against Canadian aggression, Vermont has apparently decided that once a decade it should send out some scrappy, leftist presidential candidate who will take it to the elitist Democratic establishment. This time it’s Bernie Sanders’ turn.

In an interview with CNBC’s John Harwood this week, Sanders assailed the party’s presumed nominee, Hillary Clinton, for having accumulated the kind of wealth that can “isolate you from the reality of the world.” He said she probably spent hundreds of dollars on dinner rather than eating “in restaurants like this.”

Sen. Sanders made this comment while sitting in what CNBC described as a “bistro near the Capitol,” which doesn’t exactly sound like Applebee’s, but you get the point: Clinton is out of touch with regular Americans because she doesn’t buy used cars or stockpile CVS coupons or save up for Disneyland like the rest of us do.

To which I would only ask: why on God’s earth would we want a president like us?

I see why Sanders thinks he can get some traction with this. The “out of touch” mantra has been a perennial line of attack in our campaigns for several decades, at least. George H.W. Bush didn’t know the price of milk, John McCain had more houses to keep track of than the ancient tribes of Israel, and John Kerry got caught windsurfing off Nantucket when he should have been, you know, playing darts or something. Mitt Romney admitted to building a multilevel garage for his private car collection in La Jolla, Calif.

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Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. at the “hometown kickoff” event for his Democratic presidential campaign on Tuesday in Burlington, Vt. (Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters)

The “out of touch” theme grows more pronounced every cycle, mainly because our politics looks more and more like a hobby for the superwealthy and superbored. This year’s Republican field includes another multimillionaire Bush scion, a multimillionaire neurosurgeon, a multimillionaire business executive, and so on down the line.

You want to know who’s not an out-of-touch multimillionaire? Marco Rubio. Last year, apparently, Rubio, who makes more than $200,000 per year and sends four children to private school, cashed in more than $68,000 in retirement accounts because he needed to buy a $3,000 refrigerator and replace his air conditioning.

I get it. This is precisely the kind of thing the rest of us might do if we really, really wanted that sweet side-by-side with the crushed-ice dispenser. But if you think cashing in your IRAs to spruce up the kitchen is a sound financial decision, I’m not sure I want you tinkering around with the Social Security Administration, you know what I mean?

We have this obsession in our politics with what we’re always calling the Horatio Alger story, even though, truth be told, most Americans under 60 wouldn’t know Horatio Alger from Alger Hiss. Basically, it means we think our presidents should be self-made, “everyday Americans,” to use the language of the Clinton campaign. (Apparently, the more affluent among us are only American on certain days of the week, like Tuesday.)

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This is why we have this irritating cliché about the candidate with whom you’d most like to have a beer. It’s why pollsters routinely ask the question about whether their candidate understands “people like me,” then force their clients to go eat at Chipotle or wear a flannel shirt.

The thing is, 20th-century history tells a very different story about what constitutes compassion and what qualifies a president to lead. Theodore Roosevelt was so elitist and out of touch that he waged an all-out war against corporate monopolies at a time of rapid industrialization (not to mention inventing the concept of public land conservation). His privileged cousin Franklin created what we now know as the social safety net, amid fierce opposition from most in his own financial and social strata.

John Kennedy inherited the ill-gotten wealth of a bootlegging empire, to the point that he joked in 1960 about how his father was willing to pay for a victory but not for a landslide. He wound up advancing the civil rights movement and inspiring a generation of social activism.

What history tells us is that wealth doesn’t actually have much to do with making presidents callous or self-absorbed; insecurity does. Richard Nixon was one of those classic Horatio Alger characters, and yet his clinical inferiority complex destroyed his presidency and much of our political culture, too.

Lyndon Johnson came from nothing and burned to be seen as the social and intellectual equal of the Kennedys. If he hadn’t been so consumed by that neediness, he might have seen clearly the folly of Vietnam.

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President Franklin D. Roosevelt may have come from a privileged family, but during the Depression he created New Deal programs, such as Social Security, that formed the cornerstone of the U.S. social safety net. (Photo: AP)

Don’t get me wrong: Wealth by itself is hardly a guarantor of great judgment or integrity. George W. Bush had all the breeding and money a man could want, but his own insecurity — the sense that, as the written-off son, he had something to prove to his father and the world — probably blinded him to his own tragic missteps in Iraq.

But if you’re asking me to choose between the self-made man or woman with resentments and identity issues, on one hand, and some arrogant oligarch who serves no financial master and is compelled to seek office mostly by some patronizing sense of altruism on the other (Michael Bloomberg, New York’s former mayor, comes to mind), then I’ll take out-of-touch every time, and so should you.

In fact, if there’s anything voters should fear about Clinton, perhaps, it’s not that she’s rich but that she doesn’t seem to regard herself that way. Having come from modest means and devoted most of their lives to public service, the Clintons seem to spend an awful lot of time these days focused on accumulating money, as if they still don’t have very much of it.

The speeches that have recently netted them $30 million, the foundation that sucks up cash from foreign governments, the first-class tickets for a two-hour flight from New Hampshire to Washington — all of it speaks to some underlying need to live in the rarified world they could only hope to glimpse as career politicians.

I don’t buy that Clinton is hopelessly out of touch with the lives of these “everyday Americans,” and I doubt that voters will, either. But I do wonder if she harbors some persistent insecurity about her own financial wherewithal after all these years spent in the company of staggeringly rich contributors.

Where insecurity lurks, bad decisions follow.