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Clinton’s 2008 lead is clear, though her policies often aren’t

Times Staff Writer

When Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke here last month, people liked what she said about ending the Iraq war. But it is not clear that they understood what she meant.

Ann Rivers, 41, came away from Clinton’s speech at a banquet held by the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People thinking that she and the New York Democrat had identical positions on Iraq: “Pack up all the stuff -- whatever we’ve got over there -- pack it up and leave,” Rivers said in summarizing what she thought was Clinton’s stance.

But Clinton’s comments were more nuanced. “We must begin to end the war in Iraq and bring our troops home as quickly and responsibly as we can,” the New York senator said. Her call to “begin to end the war” left Clinton substantial maneuvering room -- and since then she has refused even to commit to withdrawing all U.S. troops by 2013, the end of the next president’s first term.

After 10 months of campaigning, Clinton has built an image among Democratic voters as a skilled and experienced leader, propelling her to the top of the opinion polls. But her policy positions are sometimes unclear. In some cases, Clinton has made statements on the campaign trail or cast votes as a senator that put her on different sides of the same issue. At times she has avoided specifics, leaving her options open.

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Clinton says that Social Security is in jeopardy. But pressed in a recent debate on how to shore up the system’s shaky finances, Clinton refused to offer any remedy. “I don’t think I should be negotiating about what I would do as president,” she said. “You know, I want to see what other people come to the table with.”

On free trade -- a top-tier issue for labor unions and core Democrats -- her position is murky. Clinton has voted for at least three tariff-lowering trade deals, but voted against one. Appearing before free-trade supporters, she has praised the landmark North American Free Trade Agreement, which is loathed by many unions. But speaking to a union audience as a presidential candidate, Clinton said NAFTA hurt workers.

To counter criticism that she is beholden to special interests, Clinton has cited her work on a bill signed in 2005 overhauling bankruptcy laws. But others say that work is an example of something else: straddling an issue. She opposed the bill as first lady, voted for a later version as senator, then switched again to oppose it before a family crisis kept her from voting on the final bill.

Some people watching Clinton believe she owes the voters more answers.

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“I think she could be elected,” said former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000. “That’s not as critical as what she would do if she were elected. We know what [former Sen. John] Edwards would do. We know a little bit about what [Sen. Barack] Obama would do. We certainly know in foreign policy what [Sen.] Joe Biden would do. But we don’t know what Hillary would do, because she hasn’t gotten down to the three or four things that she’d do.”

Clinton campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson said: “She has spent this campaign laying out specific and detailed policy proposals, and I don’t think voters have any questions about where she stands on the big issues confronting us.”

He offered as an example the plan for universal healthcare Clinton rolled out last month. “There is no one who has spent more time on the campaign trail talking about this in great detail,” Wolfson said.

Clinton’s approach to the war is one issue where she has sent a nuanced signal.

“Are you ready to end the war in Iraq and bring our troops home?” she called to the audience outside the New Hampshire statehouse over Labor Day weekend. A sure-fire applause line at Democratic rallies, Clinton works it into many of her speeches.

The New Hampshire crowd roared.

Later in her remarks, Clinton added that “we should end the war in Iraq and bring our troops home safely and responsibly and as soon as possible.” But she did not lay out how much time it might take to withdraw “safely and responsibly.” Nor did she mention something she had said in a debate one month earlier: that she thinks the U.S. would need to retain military forces to keep terrorists “on the run” in Iraq.

Bob Williams, 65, of Chichester, N.H., came out to the statehouse for Clinton’s address. Asked whether he came away with an idea of when a full troop withdrawal might happen if she were president, Williams said: “I’m not sure.” He later said he had heard little from Clinton in the way of “specific plans or commitments” for extracting the U.S. from Iraq.

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For Clinton, free trade is a tricky proposition. Her husband is often identified with NAFTA, which as president he ushered into law despite union opposition. And labor is unhappy about successor trade deals ratified under the Bush administration, some with Sen. Clinton’s support.

Speaking to union members at a debate in Chicago in August, Clinton said something her audience wanted to hear: “Well, I had said for many years, that, you know, NAFTA and the way it’s been implemented has hurt a lot of American workers.”

By contrast, in her 2003 autobiography, Clinton describes NAFTA as an “important. . . goal” of her husband’s tenure. A year before, she told the centrist Democratic Leadership Council that NAFTA was one of her husband’s accomplishments.

In the Senate, Clinton has voted for several trade deals fought by labor, including agreements with Singapore, Chile and Oman. The first two deals were opposed by 24 Senate Democrats, including three of her rivals for the Democratic nomination: Edwards of North Carolina, Biden of Delaware and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut. Twenty-seven Senate Democrats opposed the Oman deal.

Clinton voted against one major trade deal, the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005, saying she worried about job flight to other countries, among other things.

Thea M. Lee, policy director of the 10-million member AFL-CIO, said she had met with Clinton and credits her with listening to union concerns. But Lee said it was not clear at this point what Clinton would do as president.

“We’re concerned about any candidate running on one platform and governing on another,” Lee said.

The overhaul of bankruptcy laws made it more difficult for some individuals to use the bankruptcy process to wipe out their debts. Banks and credit card companies said the changes were needed to stop abuse of the system, which they said raised borrowing costs for other consumers.

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As first lady, Clinton helped persuade her husband to veto one version of the overhaul. She was concerned that the bill would force single women to compete with credit card companies and other creditors when they tried to collect child support from fathers.

Then, as a senator in 2001, Clinton voted for a later version of the bill. She said the bill had been improved: Women would have first priority in collecting child support when the father was going through bankruptcy.

Experts disagreed. Harvard University law professor Elizabeth Warren wrote in her book “The Two-Income Trap” that the changes Clinton cited were largely cosmetic.

“Had the bill been transformed to get rid of all those awful provisions that had so concerned First Lady Hillary Clinton?” Warren wrote. “No.”

The bill failed. But Clinton’s critics say her 2001 change of position laid the groundwork for its eventual passage, because it deprived opponents of a formidable ally.

“In retrospect, Sen. Clinton’s reversal on the bankruptcy law was the death knell for opponents of the bill,” said Travis Plunkett, legislative director for the Consumer Federation of America.

Four years later, the bill passed, and President Bush signed it into law. By that time, however, Clinton said that she had changed positions again and that she opposed the overhaul.

In the end, she never voted. When the vote was taken, she was with her husband while he was in the hospital for complications from heart surgery.

Today, Clinton cites her work on the bankruptcy bill to counter critics who have painted her as captive to special interests in Washington.

“I fought the banks on bankruptcy reform,” she said at the Chicago debate.

Even when it comes to sports, an arena where fierce partisanship is often forgiven, Clinton has played it cautious.

Asked at a debate last month what she would do if two of her favorite baseball teams, the New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs, made it to the World Series, Clinton hedged.

“I would probably have to alternate sides,” she said.

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com


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