The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hillary Clinton’s ridiculous hedge on Keystone XL, and why it failed

Placeholder while article actions load

Update 4:51 p.m. Sept. 22: Two months after taking the position that her previous work as secretary of state precluded her from taking a position on the Keystone XL pipeline, Hillary Clinton apparently no longer believes that to be the case. "I oppose it," she said in Des Moines on Tuesday, explaining that "I thought this would be decided by now, and therefore, I could tell you whether I agreed or I disagreed. But it hasn’t been decided, and I feel now I’ve got a responsibility to you and other voters who ask me about this."

The post below, from July 28, has been updated to reflect the news.

Here was Hillary Clinton's "answer" to a question about whether she supports or opposes the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline at a town hall in New Hampshire in late July.

"If it’s undecided when I become president, I will answer your question," Clinton said. "This is President Obama's decision. I'm not going to second-guess him."

Er, what?

Clinton went on to note that she was in a position unique among the 2016 field due to her time as secretary of state. "I'm in a different position than any other candidate," Clinton said. "I was there. I put this process together. I oversaw it for four years." (Because the pipeline would begin in Canada, its approval -- or not -- is in the hands of the State Department.)

Uh huh.

Look. When you are running for president -- whether or not you served in the current administration -- you are going to be asked to take positions on issues that the current president is dealing with. As long as we hold elections that begin two years (or more) before the current president is set to leave office, that's going to be a thing candidates need to contend with. If Clinton's position is that she can't take a public stance on any issue that has some sort of pending business before this White House, then she's not going to be able to take a position on, well, anything.

And she's already shown that on some issues, she is willing to take a position. Clinton came out in favor of the Iran deal, for example, despite the fact that its fate remains up in the air in Congress.

Second, the whole point of a campaign is for voters to get to know the candidates and understand what their respective presidencies might look like. People and reporters and the candidates you are running against ask you questions. You answer them -- most of the time. It's what we do. It's how voters can feel as though they are making an informed decision come Election Day.

Imagine if Jeb Bush, when asked about the immigration problem in the country, said only: "Look, it's a complex issue. I am not going to say anything about it until I am in the White House." There would be massive outrage -- and rightly so. Bush would be accused of obfuscating for purely political reasons. Which, of course, would be what he was doing.

And, of course, that is what Clinton tried to do on Keystone. She knew that no matter what position she took, she would make a big part of the Democratic Party unhappy. Organized labor wants the deal because of the jobs it will create; environmental groups oppose the deal, which they argue would do massive damage. It's the same "damned if you do, damned if you don't" problem that has led the Obama administration to take such a long time to issue a final ruling on the pipeline. But just because it's politically disadvantageous to take a position doesn't mean Clinton should be allowed to avoid doing just that.

This was pure politics by Clinton. It was a gamble based on the idea that the disgust over her failure to answer a direct question would be far less damaging than the fallout if she did offer her opinion.

She was wrong.