When the website Politico revealed earlier this month that Newt Gingrich had spent at least a quarter of a million dollars at Tiffany & Co., his bling bill put a spotlight once again on an acutely sensitive issue for Americans: politicians and their wealth.
Of course, Gingrich did nothing wrong by making high-end jewelry purchases and paying them off conscientiously. "All of his payments were made in a timely fashion," says Tiffany spokesman Carson Glover. "His account balance is zero." Nor was Gingrich treated differently than any other wealthy and creditworthy person would be.
And it's not fair to say that just because Gingrich is a fiscal conservative running for president, he can't breakfast at Tiffany's. As long as he's not stealing the stuff, or deeply in debt, or trading on his name and influence, or failing to pay child support, the way he chooses to spend his own money — and he's made a lot of it since he left office in 1999 — is his own business. Theoretically.
But that hasn't stopped pundits from ruminating or talk show comics from turning him into the piñata of the week. (This is the same Newt Gingrich, after all, whose "Contract With America" would have prohibited public assistance for teenage mothers or benefit increases for welfare moms who have additional children.)
The question now is whether voters will punish him for his extravagance or reward him. Americans are of two minds on wealth: We aspire to it and, at the same time, we resent those who have more of it than we do. We admire self-made men and women, but we also feel alienated from those who live in a world most of us see only in the movies. These contradictory impulses can cause trouble for political candidates, who need to convince us that they are extraordinary enough to lead but ordinary enough to be our friends, to empathize with our problems, to have a beer with us.
Think of the ridicule John Edwards faced for his $400 haircut, or the backlash against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008 when he couldn't remember how many homes he owned. Anything that suggests a politician is living in so rarified a world that extravagance is the norm risks raising the ire of the electorate, whether that's fair or not. (But as the poor will tell you, life's not fair.)
The irony is that politicians are by and large far richer than the people who vote for them. The Center for Responsive Politics found in 2009 that nearly half the members of Congress were millionaires (compared with 1% of Americans), 55 had an average net worth of $10 million or more and eight were in the $100-million-plus club.
As they have for years, political consultants will continue to advise their wealthy clients to be neither ostentatious nor nonchalant about their wealth. (Oh — is it six houses or seven?) Until most Americans have six-figure accounts at Tiffany, this will be a minefield for candidates.