Hillary Clinton never looked comfortable at Monday’s town hall event in Detroit, her first appearance on the Fox News Channel in almost two years. She stood ramrod-straight through much of her half-hour session with moderator Bret Baier, and her exclamation at the end — “Oh, my gosh, it went by so fast!” — was thoroughly unconvincing. It had clearly been a grind.
But the Democratic presidential front-runner and her supporters should be glad she participated for what I assume is the very reason she was reluctant to do so: Fox pressed Clinton on issues that are important to many conservatives and managed to throw her off-script. That might sound like a bad thing for her, but the results were actually some of her best, most substantive responses of the campaign.
Baier challenged Clinton to explain her position on abortion, something no moderator in any of the seven Democratic debates has done.
Baier: I want to ask you about a question I asked Senator Sanders. Do you think a child should have any legal rights or protections before it’s born? Or do you think there should not be any restrictions on any abortions at any stage in a pregnancy?
Clinton: Well, again, let me put this in context because it's an important question. Right now, the Supreme Court is considering a decision that would shut down a lot of the options for women in Texas, and there have been other legislatures that have taken similar steps to try to restrict a woman's right to obtain an abortion.
The Supreme Court case, while topical, had little to do with the question. Clinton went on to talk about defending Planned Parenthood — another tangent. These were talking points, not answers, so Baier tried again.
Baier: Just to be clear, there's no — without any exceptions?
Clinton: No. I have been on record in favor of a late-pregnancy regulation that would have exceptions for the life and health of the mother. I object to the recent effort in Congress to pass a law saying after 20 weeks, you know, no such exceptions, because although these are rare, Bret, they sometimes arise in the most complex, difficult medical situations.
Baier: Fetal malformities and ...
Clinton: ... And threats to the woman's health.
Clinton: And so I think it is — under Roe v. Wade — it is appropriate to say, in these circumstances, so long as there's an exception for the life and health of the mother.
Now we're getting somewhere. Clinton didn't want to mention her support for late-term abortion restrictions, but Baier forced her hand with his follow-up. And she ought to be happy that he did. When Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) complained in a February debate that Democrats haven't been pressed on their abortion stances, he also said Clinton "believes that all abortion should be legal, even on the due date of that unborn child." That's not accurate, but Clinton can't debunk that kind of false attack if she never talks about the abortion restrictions she favors.
Later in the town hall, Baier raised the issue of Clinton's private email use as secretary of state. When he did, Clinton reverted to one of her favorite arguments: "Nothing I sent was marked classified or that I received was marked classified."
If only it were that simple. Any voter who has followed the story knows that the State Department, as it released Clinton's emails in batches, redacted more than 2,000 messages because they contained classified material. Without further explanation, Clinton's response looks like an outright lie. Baier pushed for a clarification.
Clinton: Well, what I'm saying is, it wasn't [classified] at the time. Now, if you — let's take Mary Smith who has some information in the government. And she is FOIAed — Freedom of Information Act — give us your information, your memos, your emails, whatever it might have been. That then goes through a process. So even though the agency she works in has none of this as classified, others start to have a chance to weigh in. So others might say, you know, that wasn't at the time, but now with circumstances, we don't want to release it, so, therefore, we have to classify it.
It wasn't a perfectly smooth answer, but it conveyed a point Clinton should make more often: Yes, many of the emails on her private server are now classified, but they were not at the time she sent or received them.
Clinton might prefer to say "nothing was classified" and have the argument end right there. But that's just not realistic. Forced to provide a more nuanced answer, she might have actually delivered an explanation that will satisfy some Fox News viewers who view her skeptically.
Clinton probably didn't win hordes of conservative converts Monday, but she answered tough questions in a way that might at least make some temper their disdain and that might appeal to independents. That's worthwhile. That's why she should do this more often.