Hillary Clinton has a Keystone XL catch-22


Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton  (D). (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton declined in an interview published Sunday to take a position on the debate over whether the Keystone XL oil pipeline should be constructed or not.

Don't expect her posture to change any time soon.

For a number of reasons, there is virtually no upside for Clinton, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, to weigh in on a contentious debate that has divided Democrats -- at least until President Obama announces his administration's long-awaited decision on the matter. Even after Obama decides, Clinton will have to come to terms with the political benefits and drawbacks of picking a side. Regardless of which she picks, she would encounter both.

We'll unpack all of these considerations in a moment. First, let's take a look at Clinton's words. In an interview with Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper, here's what she said when asked about Keystone XL:

[But] this particular decision is a very difficult one because there are so many factors at play. I can’t really comment at great length because I had responsibility for it and it’s been passed on and it wouldn’t be appropriate, but I hope that Canadians appreciate that the United States government – the Obama administration – is trying to get it right. And getting it right doesn’t mean you will agree or disagree with the decision, but that it will be one based on the best available evidence and all of the complex local, state, federal, interlocking laws and concerns.

When the paper followed up with a question about what Clinton personally believes, she said, "I can’t respond."

Indeed, it's understandable that Clinton's employment history might preclude her from weighing in. The State Department, which she headed from 2009-2013, is at the center of the Keystone debate. It completed a thorough environmental assessment and is considering millions of public comments on the matter. The Obama administration announced in April that its decision on Keystone XL would be pushed back once again-- seen by some as a move to punt a politically sensitive call beyond the 2014 midterm elections.

Putting aside Clinton's State Department connection, there are other reasons she wouldn't stand to gain much by saying now whether the pipeline from Canada’s oil sands to the Texas Gulf Coast should be constructed. The most obvious is that Clinton would risk putting herself at odds with the president by offering her two cents before he does. Since she is such a prominent public figure, announcing her position publicly would also probably be seen as an attempt to nudge the president in one direction or another. That could irk Obama's team.

Environmentalist Democrats oppose Keystone XL. But many Democrats from states where the energy industry is dominant favor it. For this reason, even after the president announces a decision, it won't be 100 percent safe for Clinton to embrace it wholeheartedly or reject it out of hand.

By embracing Keystone XL, Clinton would risk alienating herself from the liberal activist and donor wing of her party that mostly opposes the project. That includes billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer, who plans to spend big bucks supporting like-minded candidates this election cycle.

By opposing Keystone XL, she would risk losing more moderate supporters in red and purple states where she has more natural appeal than many Democrats.

Take West Virginia and Kentucky, two Appalachian, energy-producing states that lean Republican at the federal level. For a sense of how Keystone XL is playing in those states, consider that the Democratic U.S. Senate nominees in both states -- Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant -- favor the pipeline.

The Clinton brand is much stronger in those states that Obama's. Bill Clinton carried both twice in the 1990s and Hillary Clinton defeated Obama by wide margins there in the 2008 Democratic primaries.

Given how much the two states have moved to the right in recent years, the Republican nominee would almost certainly begin as the favorite to carry those states in 2016 against Clinton. But the Clintons' longstanding strength there means that opposing Keystone could put Hillary Clinton in a tough spot in states that, depending on the 2016 political climate, might be remotely within reach of being competitive.

Adding yet another layer to the complicated political picutre: Clinton embraced Keystone in 2012.

It's impossible to predict how big the Keystone debate will be this time next year, let alone when and if Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016. Taking a position on such a highly-charged issue later won't be easy. Doing so now would prove politically impossible. It's no-brainer for Clinton to steer clear of one for as long as she can.

Sean Sullivan covers national politics for “The Fix.”
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