Clinton’s habit of dodging key issues draws Democrats’ fire

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Could an excess of caution hurt Hillary Clinton?

This query is coming to the fore again after she dodged a question on Tuesday over whether she supports or opposes building the Keystone XL Pipeline. 

“If it’s undecided when I become president, I will answer your question,” she said during a New Hampshire campaign stop.

{mosads}Those words sparked derision on social media, while the Republican National Committee asserted that they amounted to proof that Clinton will “say or do anything to get elected.”  

Nonpartisan observers were also critical. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza termed the comment a “ridiculous hedge.”

An aide to Clinton’s main rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), also asserted that voters would react strongly against the awkward non-answer.

“I don’t think they’re going to accept it; it’s just unacceptable,” Tad Devine, a senior adviser to the Sanders campaign, told The Hill.

Devine conceded that Clinton faced a unique dilemma as a former secretary of State who served in that office during some of the time the pipeline was being evaluated. Complicating matters further for Clinton, the president she served remains in office. President Obama’s rhetoric on Keystone has been negative in recent months, even as he has avoided sounding a definitive death knell for the project.

But, referring to the Clinton campaign, Devine asserted, “I don’t think they have really figured out the formulation about how to stay close to the president while separating herself at the same time.

“It’s not an easy thing to do. But if she is going to be unwilling to answer a fundamental question about the environment, which Keystone XL is, she’s going to have to explain that in a way that is much more understandable to voters.”

The Clinton campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Even Democrats who are not Sanders partisans are concerned about Clinton’s sometimes-opaque comments on the campaign trail.

“What people are looking for is to know what’s in her heart,” said strategist Jamal Simmons.

Further fueling concern are a number of recent polls that have shown Clinton performing very poorly when voters are asked about her honesty and trustworthiness. Last week, a Quinnipiac poll showed Coloradans asserting by an almost 2-1 margin that Clinton was not honest or trustworthy: 62 percent said she was not, whereas only 34 percent she was. Respondents in Iowa distrusted Clinton 59 percent to 33 percent, and those in Virginia distrusted her 55 percent to 39 percent.

Keystone is far from the only issue on which Clinton has bobbed and weaved.

On the minimum wage, a key issue for many liberals, she has backed a minimum of $15 an hour for fast food workers in New York but has not stipulated a nationally mandated figure.

She avoided taking an unequivocal position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) even as the related debate over fast-track trade authority roiled Congress last month — and her position remains unclear.

On other environmental issues in addition to Keystone, such as fracking and off-shore drilling, activists fret that she has offered few commitments.

And last year, comments she made to an industry group on the possibility of repealing the medical device tax in the Affordable Care Act seemed to some like a textbook example of Clintonian slipperiness. 

“On the tax itself, again, I think, we have to look to see what are the plusses and minuses that are embodied in a decision,” she said. “I’ve obviously looked at the arguments on both sides, and I think we’ll gather more information and that will perhaps give us a better path forward.”

Clinton skeptics with longer memories recall that one of her earliest major mistakes of the 2008 campaign came at a debate at Drexel University in October 2007. There, she gave a confusing take on whether she supported the granting of driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, a policy that at the time was being pursued by then-New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D). Pressed on her initial answer in the debate, Clinton added, “I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Gov. Spitzer is trying to do it.”

Clinton’s caution is widely interpreted as an attempt to avoid alienating potential swing voters in a general election, while also using vigorous-enough rhetoric to appeal to liberal Democrats in the primary.

As such, however, it adds fuel to a debate that is already burning in Democratic circles. At issue is whether elections are still won on the center-ground of American politics — the overarching strategy pursued by President Bill Clinton in his victories in 1992 and 1996 — or by stirring one’s party base, as President Obama did in 2008 and 2012 and, to some extent, President George W. Bush in 2004.

New Hampshire state Rep. Timothy Horrigan (D) told The Hill he expected the GOP to select “a very conservative Republican nominee” and argued that “we are going to need someone who is a progressive, who is not afraid of being called a liberal.”

He suggested that Clinton’s tendency toward caution has fueled perceptions of her as a more centrist figure.

Horrigan, who is himself a liberal but says he has not decided whom to back in the race for the Democratic nomination, added, “I think there are a lot of voters who identify as Democrats and independents who are waiting to be reached by something different. I’m sure Secretary Clinton recognizes that but she … is more of a creature of the establishment than [former Maryland Gov. Martin] O’Malley or Sanders.”

Simmons argued that Clinton had shown signs that she could right her ship in terms of approach, however.

“Anytime she speaks forcefully, she helps answer some of the doubts that people who may be lining up for Bernie Sanders might have,” he said.

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