- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2014

With a public record spanning more than two decades, there is little left to learn about Hillary Rodham Clinton — except where she stands on a host of key issues.

As she gears up for a likely presidential run in 2016, the former secretary of state has been deliberately vague, analysts say, in her positions on National Security Agency snooping, the violence in Ferguson, Missouri, central aspects of the Obama administration’s foreign policy and other issues.

With no obvious, viable threat to her party’s nomination, Mrs. Clinton is able to straddle the fence on any number of controversial topics with little consequence, analysts say.

Last month, Mrs. Clinton offered seemingly strong comments on the unrest in Ferguson, where a white police officer fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black.

In a San Francisco speech late last month, she said the racial tensions in Ferguson and elsewhere, coupled with distrust between citizens and police, are real problems that must be confronted.

“Behind the dramatic, terrible pictures on television are deep challenges that will be with them and with us long after the cameras move on,” she said. “This is what happens when the bonds of trust and respect that hold any community together fray. Nobody wants to see our streets look like a war zone, not in America. We are better than that.”

But Mrs. Clinton also measured her words carefully and went out of her way to compliment police officers in Ferguson, who have borne the brunt of the blame for Brown’s death and the chaos that ensued.

“We saw our country’s true character in the community leaders who came out to protest peacefully and worked to restrain violence; the young people who insisted on having their voices heard; and in the many decent and respectful law enforcement officers who showed what quality law enforcement looks like,” she said.

Although Mrs. Clinton’s words about Ferguson highlight the benefits of having such a vast lead in the Democratic presidential primary process, she was in a similar position at this same point in the 2008 election cycle. Throughout 2006, she was the presumptive nominee with an overwhelming poll lead and no viable challengers, and was carefully staking out non-alienating positions.

However, she was in fact defeated and may have to learn (and not learn) from the man who beat her: Barack Obama.

Early in his 2008 bid, Mr. Obama took concrete positions on complex matters such as closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Although he has been unable to follow through years later, his campaign promises helped produce a winning formula.

Mrs. Clinton has been avoiding those types of hard-and-fast declarations.

This vagueness lets her, to a degree, avoid having her positions challenged by Democratic rivals in primary debates and could skirt criticism over broken promises if she ends up in the Oval Office, said Lara Brown, a political science professor and program director at George Washington University’s political management program.

“She’s so far ahead in the Democratic nomination world that if I were her campaign manager, I’d tell her to stay as vague as possible for as long as you can,” Ms. Brown said. “The minute she starts to be questioned, that means the competition is starting to heat up. That would be the appropriate time for her to flesh out her positions.”

Some Democrats hope that competition materializes soon. While Mrs. Clinton remains far ahead of Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and other possible primary foes in all polling, some high-profile Democrats fear her sense of inevitability and the lack of challengers to press her on controversial issues could hurt her in the long run.

“I think she’s fantastic and incredibly strong. But the problem with inevitability is it is sometimes interpreted as entitlement and I think that voters want competition and they want their candidates to have to work for it,” Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick told The Palm Beach Post this week.

“We don’t have to really get too deep into that because she hasn’t declared yet, but it’s just a concern that I hope her campaign keeps in mind,” he said.

Beyond Ferguson, Mrs. Clinton has been virtually impossible to pin down on key foreign policy issues, despite her eight-year tenure in the Senate and four years as Mr. Obama’s secretary of state.

In an interview with The Atlantic magazine last month, she seemed to take shots at the Obama administration’s lack of intervention in the Syrian civil war and subsequent rise of the Islamic State terrorist group, which has been able to co-opt the larger Syrian rebel movement and gain control of key swaths of land.

Days later, a Clinton spokesman denied that the former first lady was criticizing the president.

“The secretary called President Obama to make sure he knows that nothing she said was an attempt to attack him, his policies or his leadership,” spokesman Nick Merrill said.

Mr. Merrill did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Times.

Mrs. Clinton also has remained vague on the federal government’s surveillance and snooping programs. In her San Francisco speech last month, she said the NSA “came right up and sat” on the edge of what is legal and what isn’t.

At the same time, she has had harsh words for Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who brought the programs to public light. She also has sought to explain federal government actions in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“It was a debate that needs to happen, so that we make sure that we’re not infringing on Americans’ privacy, which is a valued, cherished personal belief that we have. But we also had to figure out how to get the right amount of security,” said Mrs. Clinton, who was serving in the Senate at the time of the 2001 terrorist strikes and voted for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Analysts say Mrs. Clinton also is keeping her positions as malleable as possible so they can be tailored to best fend off whatever competition arises from the left.

“The continual danger for her is going to be a much more left [wing] candidate arising out of being disgruntled with the president for not acting on immigration and not doing some of these things, say [closing] Guantanamo,” Ms. Brown said. “I think that really ends up being a problem for Hillary — and the reason she doesn’t want to stake out too many positions right now.”

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