Politics & Policy

Hillary’s High Life

Clinton boards her campaign plane in May, 2008. (Joe Raedle/Getty)
As a senator, candidate or hired speaker, Clinton has spared no expense on travel.

Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney each finished second in their party’s primaries when they ran for president in 2008, but they took dramatically different routes to arrive at the same result — literally, in a way.

A deeper look into the candidates’ campaign expenditures reveals that Clinton spent more than nine times as much as Romney did on private jets during the 2008 race.

An analysis of public documents by National Review Online shows that Clinton took more than $19.2 million worth of private flights during the primaries before dropping out when then-senator Barack Obama finally built an insurmountable lead. Romney, who ultimately finished second in the primaries to Senator John McCain, spent just over $2.2 million on private-plane travel.

While Clinton’s longer campaign accounts for part of the disparity in private-plane costs — Romney withdrew in February 2008, four months before Clinton ended her run — Clinton had spent significantly more than Romney on chartered flights before the former Massachusetts governor dropped out of the race, too. By the time Romney called his campaign quits, the Clinton campaign had already spent $6.7 million on private planes — more than three times as much as Romney.

Both campaigns had significantly lower charter-spending totals than their party’s respective nominees, as presidential candidates receive huge flows of cash upon securing the nomination and have to pay travel costs for a running mate, surrogates, and staff.

The comparison between Clinton and Romney comes amid renewed interest in the former secretary of state’s longstanding affinity for private air travel. Last week, Bloomberg News highlighted Clinton’s preference for chartered flights during an analysis of her taxpayer-funded travels as a New York senator. During her eight years in office, Clinton took more than 200 private flights, for a total cost of $225,756. While members of Congress are permitted to charter their own private flights, the practice has become fair game for criticism in recent election cycles, especially as many lawmakers opt to fly commercially between Washington and their home states instead. A Clinton spokesman defended her travel decisions and called the private flights “a cornerstone” of the then-senator’s ability to reach constituents in the far-flung reaches of the state.

Clinton’s travel has been at the center of her messaging strategy since she left Foggy Bottom in 2013, and Republicans may want to keep it that way. While her supporters herald her record-breaking air mileage as secretary of state as one of her crowning achievements, scrutiny over Clinton’s tendency for chartered flights and her exorbitant travel demands has created a growing perception that she’s out of touch.

And Clinton has only furthered that perception through a series of verbal blunders. Renewed interest in Clinton’s lavish lifestyle ramped up last summer during the book tour for her latest memoir, Hard Choices. In an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, Clinton recalled that she and Bill Clinton were “dead broke” and struggling to afford multiple mortgages and their daughter’s Stanford education when they left the White House in 2001. Critics pointed out that Clinton was already a senator-elect by the time her husband left office and had recently earned an $8 million advance for her first memoir, Living History. Republicans seized on the episode as a sign that Clinton had lost touch with the average American after her time in the Arkansas governor’s mansion, the White House, the Senate, and the State Department.

And just days after the interview with Sawyer, a report in the Las Vegas Review-Journal shed light on Clinton’s lucrative second career on the speaking circuit, adding even more fuel to the fire. The report, which was occasioned by a speech the former first lady later gave at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, revealed that both Clintons typically charge more than $200,000 per engagement. A few months later, the Review-Journal followed that report with another article, quoting from a startling list of demands included in Mrs. Clinton’s contract with UNLV.

According to this second report, the contract stipulated that Clinton and her entire entourage would be flown into Las Vegas in style — “only a $39 million, 16-passenger Gulfstream G450 or larger will do” — and that Clinton would be put up in a presidential suite. (Both demands, the Review-Journal notes, are standard for any Clinton engagement.) All promotional materials for the event were subject to approval by Clinton’s staff, and the university was prohibited from recording Clinton’s appearance. (Instead, it had to pay for a stenographer and provide the resulting transcript exclusively to Clinton’s camp.) Clinton would appear at the event for only 90 minutes and would pose for “no more than 50 photos with no more than 100 people.”

The event rankled not only members of the university’s foundation, but students, who questioned the decision to pay the former first lady $225,000 — brought down from an initial request of $300,000 — as the cost of attending UNLV continues to rise. (Clinton did charge the University of California, Los Angeles, the full $300,000 fee and also required UCLA to furnish her seat on stage with the pillows she prefers.)

In contrast, Romney, who has so often been lampooned by Democrats for his personal wealth and supposed lack of “common touch,” spoke at Mississippi State University last week for about a fifth of Clinton’s fee, spending six hours on campus and attending various events with students, faculty, and alumni.

Clinton has received criticism from both sides of the aisle for her diva-like travel requirements. Commentators ranging from NBC’s Andrea Mitchell to Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart blasted Clinton for the “dead broke” comments. Former Obama aides David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs have warned that Clinton’s failure to develop a clear message for her campaign could allow her critics to define her, just as the upstart Obama team did when she was the front-runner seven years ago. And, in fact national Republicans are already doing just that. Last month, the Republican National Committee released a mock infomercial of Clinton’s speaking demands, hoping to paint her as out of touch and elitist before she’s even declared her candidacy.

Should she choose to run — an announcement that is expected in the coming months — Clinton will face a difficult balancing act. Presidential contenders have undergone increasingly close scrutiny in recent years for their spending habits, with Chris Christie just the latest example. And by pointing to her global and cross-country travels in an effort to bolster her foreign-policy credentials, Clinton will inevitably run the risk of calling attention to her lavish, expensive travel regimen.

As she crisscrosses the country looking to connect with potential supporters on the campaign trail, Republicans will make sure one question remains prominent in voters’ minds: How did she get there?

— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.


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