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The Nation

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

October 04, 2007|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

CHARLESTON, S.C. — 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.

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.

"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.

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.

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