Editor's note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House. He is a consultant to the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
(CNN) -- There's a great story about Democratic icon Ted Kennedy. When he was first running to succeed his brother John in the Senate, he was attacked for being a child of privilege. It was true. Kennedy had nannies and nursemaids and private schools. He'd hobnobbed with ambassadors and princes and popes.
So the story -- perhaps not even true, but what the heck -- is that young Teddy was campaigning outside a factory in the predawn chill. As he shook hands with the working men, one stopped him and said, "So you're young Kennedy? They say you haven't worked a day in your life." To which Kennedy shrugged and answered, "I suppose that's true." And the man replied, "You ain't missed a thing."
Democrats have a tradition of electing aristocratic populists. Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were patricians. And one of the senior Democrats in the Senate today is as rich as a Rockefeller. His name is Jay Rockefeller. Since 1977, first as governor of West Virginia, then senator, he has been elected and re-elected by the coal miners and farm families of West Virginia.
So the current hyperventilation over Hillary Clinton's comments about her relative wealth and her lucrative book and speaking deals misses the point. Voters want to know what's in her heart and what's on her mind, not what's in her wallet.
Clinton was already wealthy when she ran for president in 2008. Yet in the primary in Pennsylvania -- a bastion of blue-collar voters -- she bested Barack Obama by 12 points among voters earning between $30,000 and $50,000 a year, according to CNN exit polls.
FDR, JFK, Jay Rockefeller and all the other wealthy Democrats were seen as champions of working people. Same with Clinton. All her life, she has been a tireless advocate for the middle class and those struggling to get into the middle class. From her days at the Children's Defense Fund to her advocacy for the rights of women and girls around the world, Clinton has a consistent record of fighting for middle-class economics and middle-class values.
As an adviser to the super PAC that hammered Mitt Romney's business record, let me explain why Clinton's case is different. The issue was never how much money Romney had; it was how he made that money.
When you amass a megafortune in part by taking over companies, loading them with debt, plunging them into bankruptcy while paying yourself millions -- well, folks don't like that. And when Romney combined that Gordon Gekko image with an agenda that included cutting taxes for the rich and making Medicare a voucher program, voters got the sense that he was not on their side.
There is a dichotomy of elitism. Republicans' downfall is economic elitism. For generations they've been seen as the party of the rich. Democrats don't have that problem. Their Achilles' heel is cultural elitism: the sense that they value highfalutin' Ivy League degrees more than practical experience; that they look down their noses at folks who go to church, hunt and fish, and salute the flag.
Both are caricatures, to be sure. But as a Democratic strategist I am always more worried about cultural elitism than a Democrat's wealth. And remember: George W. Bush had degrees from both Harvard and Yale but was seen as a down-home guy you could have a beer with.
There's no doubt that this is a populist moment. Americans worry about the collapse of the American Dream and the shrinking of the middle class. If Clinton runs on an agenda of empowering working people -- with an increase in the minimum wage, equal pay for women, student debt relief, increased availability of child care, prekindergarten, and an end to tax breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas -- few voters will care how fat her bank account is.