Today, Hillary Clinton declined to take a position on the Keystone pipeline, and even seemed to suggest that we may not know what that position is until she is president. I think folks are reading a bit too much into the tone of that latter comment — it seems to me that her formulation ran off the rails — but her comments are still problematic, and seem likely to compound the grief she was already getting from the left over the issue.

Via Alex Seitz-Wald, here’s what happened:

The day after she rolled out her plan on climate change, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton said in New Hampshire that voters may have to wait until she’s president before finding out her position on the Keystone XL pipeline. 
At a town hall meeting in Nashua, New Hampshire, a man asked Clinton if she would sign a bill supporting the controversial pipeline — “yes or no, please,” he insisted.
“Well,” she replied, pausing. “This is President Obama’s decision and I am not going to second guess him,” Clinton continued, saying she would wait to see what Obama does. “If it’s undecided when I become president, I will answer your question.”

Clinton is saying that she isn’t going to step on the formal approval process as it unfolds, and that she thinks it’s inappropriate to take a position before that process leads the administration to do so officially. If that doesn’t happen until she is president, then that’s when she’ll take her position. Her formulation comes across as haughty and regal, but underneath that is an actual stance on how this process should work.

But in an email to me, climate activist Bill McKibben spelled out what’s wrong with this in process terms, too:

Saying ‘I’ll tell you my position if I’m elected president’ can’t be the real answer. I mean, in that case why bother with campaigns and so forth? And it’s not like this is a small issue: it generated more public comments than any infrastructure project in U.S. history, sent more people to jail than any issue in many years, and so forth.
It really does seem wrong to duck it — especially since she was willing to say, publicly, that she was “inclined” to approve it before the stated department review even started.

Clinton has reiterated again and again that she will take a position only after the administration does. On Monday, she said:  “I’ve been very clear, I will not express an opinion until they have made a decision.”

But what Clinton can’t avoid here is that climate advocates and environmentalists want to know her position on Keystone not just because they are naturally curious about her views on this project, but for a larger reason: they think it will indicate how strong her resolve is to stand up to fossil fuel projects and to combat climate change in a general sense.

Clinton rolled out some elements of her climate plan earlier this week, and there are many things about it to like. It met billionaire Tom Steyer’s challenge that the Dem candidates all pledge to reach 50 percent or higher renewable energy sources for U.S. electricity by 2030, something the Clinton campaign has showcased. But as Rebecca Leber pointed out, Clinton’s plan wasn’t comprehensive and left many questions about her overall climate agenda unanswered.

In the email to me, McKibben adds that Clinton’s Keystone stance makes him worry that she is currently failing to signal sufficient climate resolve, and says that there are other ways, beyond Keystone, that she could address that, if she so chose:

If she really refuses to answer this question, we’d have a better sense of where she stood on the larger issue of extreme energy if she would say whether she favors drilling in the Arctic, or offshore on the Atlantic.
In the largest sense, it’s her hedging-of-bets that makes the rest of us so wary. Dealing with climate change in a serious way will take enormous commitment in the face of many strong opponents; we need strong signals that our president would be resolute in this crucial task.

Clinton does seem resolute about this in one sense: she isn’t going to let climate advocates jam her into revealing her position until she’s ready to do so.