Why won't Hillary Clinton answer the Keystone XL question?

Hillary Rodham Clinton is making headlines this week not for what she's saying on the campaign trail, but for what she's not.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign stop at Beech Hill Farm in Hopkinton, New Hampshire, July 28.

If her non-answer to a New Hampshire voter about her stance on the Keystone XL pipeline is any indication, Hillary Rodham Clinton is a gambling woman. She's gambling that voters' outrage over her failure to answer a direct question is less damaging than the fallout would be if she had revealed her stance, as the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza wrote.

On Tuesday, Mrs. Clinton made headlines when she dodged a question about whether she supported the Keystone XL pipeline expansion, telling the New Hampshire voter who asked for a "Yes or no" answer that if the matter is still undecided by the time she becomes president, she will give him an answer then.

"I am not going to second-guess [President Barack Obama], because I was in a position to set this in motion," Clinton said, referring to environmental reviews conducted by the State Department that began when she was secretary of State. "I want to wait and see what he and Secretary Kerry decide."

She added, "If it is undecided when I become president, I will answer your question." 

It was a glaring punt that drew both ire and speculation about why Clinton wouldn't reveal her position on the 1,179-mile-long project that would move oil from Canada to refineries in the US.

Any candidate's position on the Keystone XL pipeline is important because it's a symbol of the environmental movement's fight against fossil fuel extraction as well as a litmus test for a candidate's seriousness about fighting climate change.

Which is why politicians from both parties called out Hillary's hedge.

"It is hard for me to understand how one can be concerned about climate change but not vigorously oppose the Keystone pipeline," Clinton's Democratic rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, said Tuesday.

“With her second dodge on Keystone in as many days, Hillary Clinton is making it abundantly clear she’ll say or do anything to get elected," the Republican National Committee’s Michael Short said.

Considering the pipeline's political importance, and the heat Hillary's taking for ducking a direct question, why won't she answer?

She wants to keep everyone happy

If Clinton ever reveals her position on the pipeline, she knows she will upset a large group of potential voters and donors. Businesses and organized labor want the pipeline bill to pass because of the jobs it will create. Environmental groups are staunchly opposed because of the damage it could do to the environment.

In other words, she's doomed if she supports it, and doomed if she opposes it, which is why she punted.

She really doesn't want to overstep her ground

While most observers said Clinton's non-answer was "ridiculous," there may be a grain of truth in her explanation.

"I understand there could be political advantages to weighing in on Keystone," Clinton campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri said Tuesday in a statement. "But given her former role as Sec state and having been part of the Keystone process, she believes that weighing in now could be disruptive to the process and not responsible to do. She is just in a different situation than other candidates."

Because she served under President Obama and is running to continue his legacy in the Oval Office, it is possible that Clinton doesn't want to get ahead of the White House and then force him to respond to her, "the way Vice President Joe Biden did with gay marriage before Obama was ready," posited MSNBC.

She assumes she already has the support of environmentalists

“It’s obvious what Clinton’s thinking is: she’ll be better than any Republican elected, probably by a mile. She simply expects environmentalists to fall in line,” Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, told Time.

And in fact, some have. The Sierra Club and billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer have expressed approval for Clinton's climate change proposals, and don't actually seem to care that she dodged the Keystone question.

“From our perspective, it’s not problematic,” Michael Brune, executive director the Sierra Club, told Time. “The decision on Keystone will be made long before the election. For the 2016 presidential candidates, their stance on Keystone is only symbolic.”

The environmental movement has moved on

There's good reason the Sierra Club isn't bothered by Clinton's dodge.

While stopping the Keystone pipeline is still important to environmentalists, it is arguably no longer, well, a keystone in their movement. Now, the movement is more focused on expanding renewable energy, stopping oil drilling in the Arctic, and slowing fracking.

Which is exactly what Clinton emphasized when she masterfully changed the subject after her non-response.

"To signal that there is only one overriding threat really doesn’t take into account the seriousness of a whole range of issues," Clinton said Tuesday. "That’s why I’m coming out with a comprehensive clean energy plan."

The plan, which the Clinton camp released Sunday night, proposes to expand US reliance on clean energy dramatically by 2027, move one-third of US energy to renewable sources within ten years of taking office, increase the amount of solar capacity 700 percent by 2020, and extend tax incentives for renewables and grants to states that adopt clean energy measures.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it doesn't mention Keystone XL.

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