Hil­lary de­serves the tough ques­tions

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - PHILIP GAI­LEY

Of the po­lit­i­cal pum­mel­ing Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton en­dured at the pres­i­den­tial de­bate two weeks ago, it can be said she had it com­ing.

Rid­ing high in na­tional polls, Mrs. Clin­ton has been cam­paign­ing as if she doesn’t want vot­ers to know what she would do as pres­i­dent. She has waf­fled, evaded, ducked, ob­fus­cated, parsed and mis­led when pressed for an­swers on po­lit­i­cally del­i­cate is­sues such as So­cial Se­cu­rity and il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion. And Slick Hilly — re­mem­ber Slick Wil­lie? — got away with it un­til the de­bate in Philadel­phia, where she stum­bled badly two months be­fore the pri­mary vot­ing be­gins in Iowa and New Hamp­shire.

Her aides por­trayed Mrs. Clin­ton, the run­away front-run­ner com­ing into the de­bate, as the vic­tim of a gang mug­ging — poor, de­fense­less Hil­lary be­ing slapped around by a bunch of mean male bul­lies. If she was the vic­tim of any­thing, it was of her own dou­ble talk. The Philadel­phia event was ex­actly what a pres­i­den­tial de­bate should be. Can­di­dates should face tough ques­tions and be held ac­count­able for their an­swers. Con­trary to the post-de­bate spin of the Clin­ton cam­paign, it is not a per­sonal at­tack or pil­ing on when can­di­dates ag­gres­sively grill and chal­lenge each other on im­por­tant is­sues fac­ing the next pres­i­dent.

Vot­ers don’t ask that much of their pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, just some hon­est an­swers and a sense of where they would take the na­tion if en­trusted with the pres­i­dency. Some­times Mrs. Clin­ton acts like her views are none of the vot­ers’ busi­ness. How dare any­one try to in­ter­fere with her cake­walk to the nom­i­na­tion?

Mrs. Clin­ton is walk­ing a po­lit­i­cal tightrope be­tween the Demo­cratic pri­mary con­test and the gen­eral elec­tion, be­tween her party’s lib­eral in­ter­est groups and av­er­age vot­ers. She lost her bal­ance in Philadel­phia. At some point she will have to take prin­ci­pled, even un­pop­u­lar, po­si­tions and trust the vot­ers to judge her fairly.

In Philadel­phia, her Demo­cratic ri­vals fi­nally called Mrs. Clin­ton to ac­count, ex­pos­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties that could be a prob­lem for her in the 2008 gen­eral elec­tion. Barack Obama and John Ed­wards were her most ag­gres­sive chal­lengers, ac­cus­ing her of be­ing un­truth­ful, se­cre­tive and de­vi­ous. Mrs. Clin­ton made their work easy.

When NBC’s Tim Russert, one of the de­bate mod­er­a­tors, asked Mrs. Clin­ton if she sup­ported New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s pro­posal to give driver’s li­censes to il­le­gal im­mi­grants, the New York sen­a­tor first sug­gested that she did. But when Chris Dodd said he op­posed the plan, Mrs. Clin­ton tried to shift her po­si­tion. “I did not say that it should be done,” Mrs. Clin­ton in­ter­rupted.

Mr. Russert re­minded her that she had told a New Hamp­shire news­pa­per that Spitzer’s plan made “a lot of sense” and asked her to clar­ify her po­si­tion.

She re­fused, say­ing, “You know, Tim, this is where ev­ery­body plays gotcha.” Mr. Ed­wards pounced. “Un­less I missed some­thing,” he said, “Sen. Clin­ton said two dif­fer­ent things in the course of about two min­utes. Amer­ica is look­ing for a pres­i­dent who will say the same thing, who will be con­sis­tent, who will be straight with them.” Mr. Obama weighed in, mak­ing it clear he didn’t think Mrs. Clin­ton mea­sured up to that stan­dard. “She has not been truth­ful and clear,” he said.

Mr. Russert pressed Mrs. Clin­ton to clar­ify her po­si­tion on rais­ing the cap on So­cial Se­cu­rity taxes. She re­cently told an Iowa voter in a private con­ver­sa­tion, over­heard by an As­so­ci­ated Press re­porter, that she was open to in­creas­ing pay­roll taxes on wealthy Amer­i­cans. But she told Mr. Russert, “I do not ad­vo­cate it. I do not sup­port it.” Well, which is it? On an­other mat­ter, the for­mer first lady was asked if she would re­lease her cor­re­spon­dence with the pres­i­dent, pa­pers locked away at Bill Clin­ton’s pres­i­den­tial li­brary in Lit­tle Rock, Ark. The for­mer pres­i­dent asked the Na­tional Archives not to re­lease any of those doc­u­ments un­til 2012.

She first said she had ap­proved re­lease of the pa­pers, a claim that na­tional ar­chiv­ists dis­pute. Then she said re­leas­ing the pa­pers was “not my de­ci­sion to make.” Mr. Obama took the open­ing: “We have just gone through one of the most se­cre­tive ad­min­is­tra­tions in our his­tory, and not re­leas­ing, I think, th­ese records at the same time, Hil­lary, that you’re mak­ing the claim that this is the ba­sis for your ex­pe­ri­ence, I think, is a prob­lem.”

Mean­while, the Clin­ton Spin Ma­chine has been work­ing over­time on dam­age con­trol, claim­ing, among other things, that the beat­ing she took at the de­bate will only strengthen her ap­peal to women vot­ers. Please, not the gen­der card. Don’t tell us that the can­di­date who touts her tough­ness, who says she is ready to stand up to tyrants and ter­ror­ists, is just a help­less wo­man who can be pushed around by the likes of Tim Russert or John Ed­wards.

Does any of it re­ally mat­ter? Only to vot­ers who be­lieve it is not too much to ex­pect pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates to level with them.

Philip Gai­ley is ed­i­tor of edi­to­ri­als for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. Dis­trib­uted by Scripps Howard News Ser­vice.

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