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Hillary’s High-Stepping

The Democratic front-runner bobs and weaves at a candidate debate in Philadelphia.


At a Democratic debate in Philadelphia, Sen. Hillary Clinton ducked some questions and gave misleading answers to others.

  • She avoided a yes-or-no answer to whether she supports giving New York driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and at one point denied saying the idea made sense, when in fact she said less than two weeks earlier that it “makes a lot of sense.
  • She avoided saying what, if anything, she would do about Social Security taxes or benefits, saying a commission should study the system “if” it has problems, and saying that acting as though the troubled system is in “crisis” is “a Republican trap.”
  • She said that “all of the records, as far as I know” of her failed 1993 effort to overhaul the health care system have been released by the National Archives. That’s far from true — there are still more than 3 million to go.

But at one point it was moderator Tim Russert who misled. He asked Sen. Clinton if she would lift a “ban” on releasing her White House communications, adding that “a letter written by President Clinton specifically [asks] that any communication between you and the president not be made available to the public until 2012.” That misquotes Bill Clinton’s letter. There’s no “ban.”

Correction: Nov. 8: Our story originally stated that Sen. Clinton’s response to Russert’s question was misleading. We made the same mistake Russert did, misreading the former President’s letter to the Archives.


The most recent debate among Democratic candidates took place Oct. 30 at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Absent this time was former Sen. Mike Gravel, who was too low in opinion polls and had raised too little money to be invited by  MSNBC. The front-runner, Sen. Hillary Clinton, faced tough questioning from moderators Tim Russert and Brian Williams of NBC News, and from rival candidates. Her responses were often uninformative and sometimes misleading.

Driver’s Licenses for Illegal Immigrants

Clinton bobbed and weaved on whether illegal immigrants should be granted driver’s licenses, avoiding a yes-or-no answer but denying her own words in the process.

Russert asked her about an interview she had given to an editorial board in Nashua, New Hampshire, in which she was asked about New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to grant state driver’s licenses to immigrants who are in the U.S. without legal permission.

Clinton: I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it. And we have failed –

Sen. Chris Dodd:
Wait a minute. No, no, no. You said yes, you thought it made sense to do it.

No, I didn’t, Chris. But the point is, what are we going to do with all these illegal immigrants who are (driving ?) – (inaudible)?

Actually, we checked the video, and Clinton did tell the Nashua Telegraph interviewers on Oct. 17 that Spitzer’s plan “makes a lot of sense,” despite her denial to Dodd.

Clinton (Nashua, N.H.): I know exactly what Governor Spitzer’s trying to do and it makes a lot of sense. He’s trying to get people out of the shadows.

During the debate, Clinton repeatedly said immigration should be dealt with nationally, not on a state-by-state basis. But after a long exchange she still hadn’t answered the question to Russert’s satisfaction:

Russert: Do you support [Spitzer’s] plan?

You know, Tim, this is where everybody plays gotcha. It makes a lot of sense. What is the governor supposed to do? He is dealing with a serious problem. … Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No. But do I understand the sense of real desperation, trying to get a handle on this? Remember, in New York we want to know who’s in New York. We want people to come out of the shadows. He’s making an honest effort to do it. We should have passed immigration reform.

We don’t agree that asking a candidate for a specific stand on an issue is a “gotcha” question. In any event, Clinton avoided a direct answer.

Social Security

Throughout the debate Clinton resolutely avoided saying specifically what, if anything, she would do to shore up the finances of the Social Security system. She repeatedly called for “fiscal responsibility” and said she would appoint a bipartisan commission to study the system. And she made clear she was in no hurry to act:

Clinton: I think for us to act like Social Security is in crisis is a Republican trap.

In fact, the system is headed for nearly certain collapse unless some action is taken to increase taxes or at least slow down the projected rise of future benefits. And delay will only make the eventual corrections more painful, experts say.

The system’s trustees state that the program is financially adequate for the short term, but fails the test of financial adequacy by a “wide margin” in the long term. Within 10 years, under the most likely projection, payroll taxes will no longer be adequate to pay for current benefits and the system will begin cashing in the IOUs that make up its trust fund. That means it will be paying for a portion of benefits out of other federal taxes, and that portion will increase year to year. At that rate the trust fund will be exhausted in 2041, at which point the payroll tax could finance only 75 percent of promised benefits, and less in each succeeding year. At that point benefits would necessarily be cut 25 percent, or taxes would be increased.

To bring the system into balance for the next 75 years would require “an immediate increase of 16 percent in payroll tax revenues or an immediate reduction in benefits of 13 percent or some combination of the two,” the trustees stated. That’s  assuming the action is “immediate.” Delaying action beyond this year will only make the needed changes more painful for future generations. The trustees said:

Social Security and Medicare Trustees (April 2007): To the extent that changes are delayed or phased in gradually, larger adjustments in scheduled benefits and revenues would be required that would be spread over fewer generations.

Nevertheless, at one point during the debate, Sen. Clinton seemed to imply that it was possible no action was needed at all, saying that “if” there are problems a commission should address them.

Clinton: If there are some of the long-term challenges that we need to address, let’s do it in the context of having fiscal responsibility, and then let’s put together a bipartisan commission and look at how we’re going to deal with these long-term challenges.

Clinton Flip-Flops?

Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards accused Clinton of multiple flip-flops on trade, torture and Social Security:

Obama: And Senator Clinton in her campaign, I think, has been for NAFTA previously, now she’s against it. She has taken one position on torture several months ago and then most recently has taken a different position.

Edwards: And then finally she said in our last debate that she was against any changes on Social Security – benefits, retirement age or raising the cap on the Social Security tax.

NAFTA: Obama is partly right concerning the North American Free Trade Agreement. Clinton’s views on NAFTA have shifted, but they shifted prior to her official run for the White House. Back in 1998, in a keynote speech given at the Davos Economic Summit, Clinton praised business leaders for mounting “a very effective business effort in the U.S. on behalf of NAFTA,” adding later that “it is certainly clear that we have not by any means finished the job that has begun.” But by 2005 she was expressing reservations about free trade agreements, voting that year against the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). And she told Bloomberg News in March 2007 that, while she still believes in free trade, she supports a freeze on new trade agreements – something she calls “a little time-out.”

Torture: Obama is right. In an interview with the New York Daily News in October 2006, Clinton condoned torture in what she called “improbable” ticking time bomb scenarios:

Clinton: In the event we were ever confronted with having to interrogate a detainee with knowledge of an imminent threat to millions of Americans, then the decision to depart from standard international practices must be made by the President, and the President must be held accountable. That very, very narrow exception within very, very limited circumstances is better than blasting a big hole in our entire law.

But in a debate in New Hampshire last month, Sen. Clinton shifted her position when moderator Tim Russert offered her just such a ticking time bomb case:

Russert: Senator Clinton, this is the number three man in al Qaeda. We know there’s a bomb about to go off, and we have three days, and we know this guy knows where it is. Should there be a presidential exception to allow torture in that kind of situation?

Clinton: As a matter of policy it cannot be American policy, period.

To our ears, that sounds like a reversal.

Social Security: But in accusing Clinton of reversing course, Edwards mischaracterizes what she actually said during the September 26 debate at Dartmouth College. Moderator Tim Russert pressed Sen. Clinton on what, specifically, she was willing to “put on the table” to ensure the solvency of Social Security. Her reply:

Clinton: I’m not putting anything on the proverbial table until we move toward fiscal responsibility. I think it’s a mistake to do that.

That’s not being “against any changes on Social Security” as Edwards claimed. Rather, Clinton simply refused to specify what changes she might be willing to accept.

Moderator’s Misstep

It was moderator Tim Russert who misstated the facts when he asked Clinton if she’d lift a ban by her husband on the release of her communications with him when he was president.

Russert: [W]ould you allow the National Archives to release the documents about your communications with the president, the advice you gave, because, as you well know, President Clinton has asked the National Archives not to do anything until 2012?
Clinton: Well, actually, Tim, the Archives is moving as rapidly as the Archives moves. There’s about 20 million pieces of paper there and they are moving, and they are releasing as they do their process. And I am fully in favor of that……
Russert: But there was a letter written by President Clinton specifically asking that any communication between you and the president not be made available to the public until 2012. Would you lift that ban?
Clinton: Well, that’s not my decision to make. And I don’t believe that any president or first lady has. But certainly we’ll move as quickly as our circumstances and the processes of the National Archives permits.

Contrary to what Russert said, there’s no “ban” on releasing Hillary Clinton documents. Bill Clinton’s letter, which dates from 2002, didn’t block access to communications between the President and the First Lady during his presidency. On the contrary, it eased restrictions on access to his documents, which are located at his presidential library in Little Rock and administered by the National Archives.

Under the 1978 Presidential Records Act, any president can, while in office, assert that he or she wants to block release of six categories of records for 12 years after leaving office. One of those categories is “confidential communications requesting or submitting advice, between the President and his advisers, or between such advisers.” Generally, “advisers” would include the First Lady. Like his two immediate predecessors, Clinton claimed that right before leaving the White House. And like Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, he loosened the restrictions after leaving office – though Clinton, in his November 2002 letter to the Archivist of the United States, eased them sooner and more. (See attached document).

To be sure, the former president stopped well short of dropping his right to object to the release of certain records before 2012. Some types of documents in the “requesting or submitting advice” category, he wrote, “should generally be considered for withholding.” Among them are “communications directly between the President and the First Lady, and their families, unless routine in nature.” According to the letter:

Clinton (Nov. 6, 2002): My intent is to make available to the public as full a record as possible documenting the decision-making, policy-making and appointment process of my Presidency by applying both the appointment and confidential advice restrictions as narrowly as possible.

There’s a big difference between barring release of a document and directing that it be “considered for withholding” before it’s released. According to Susan Cooper, spokeswoman for the National Archives, “the operative word is ‘considered.’ It doesn’t mean these documents should automatically be withheld. It means we’ll take a second look and in some cases work with the president’s representative to make sure we understand what the president’s intention was.” Bill Clinton could still, in theory, block a release in this category.

But it’s not a given. Russert was off-base when he said the former president “asked the National Archives not to do anything until 2012” and that Clinton’s letter was “specifically asking that any communication between you and the president not be made available to the public until 2012.”

Hillary Clinton could have pointed that out. Instead, her response focused on the fact that it takes an awfully long time for the Archives to make documents public. True enough. The Archives has six staffers working through the former president’s 76.8 million pages of documents, trying to fulfill nearly 300 pending Freedom of Information Act requests. The documents must be reviewed not just for the exemptions listed in the Presidential Records Act, but others that are laid out in different laws.

Could Hillary Clinton speed the release of records from her White House years by convincing her husband to tell the Archives to open them up? Not very much, according to Cooper. “We’d still have to screen each page for other exemptions, including the privacy of third persons and national security,” she said.

Sen. Clinton was wrong, however, when she said all the records involving her efforts to revamp the nation’s health care system had been released.

Clinton: Now, all of the records, as far as I know, about what we did with health care, those are already available.

In fact, while thousands of pages having to do with Clinton’s health care “working group” have been released, as of last year there were still more than three million documents related to her broader health care “task force” that had not, according to an archivist at the Clinton library.

Correction, Nov. 8: In our original version of this story, we found Clinton’s response regarding the Archives to be “doubly misleading.” We have since concluded that we were wrong, and have rewritten the section as you see it above.
Two days after this article was first posted, Bruce Lindsey, who is Bill Clinton’s designated representative for dealing with the National Archives, issued a statement that said, in part, “Contrary to recent reports, Bill Clinton has not asked that records related to communications with Senator Clinton be withheld.” It also said that “Currently, none of the FOIA requests [the Archives] has processed and provided for my review involve Senator Clinton. On the same day, the former president responded to a reporter’s question about the issue. Hillary Clinton “was incidental to the letter, it was done five years ago, it was a letter to speed up presidential releases, not to slow them down,” Bill Clinton said at a stop in Redmond, WA.
These statements prompted us to dive back into Bill Clinton’s 2002 letter to the Archives and similar letters from his two immediate predecessors, and to talk to some more experts in this small crevice of the law. We realized that the area of confusion for us – and perhaps for other journalists – was the wording of this sentence: “[I]nformation should generally be considered for withholding only if it contains…..” The section goes on to list eight categories, one of which involves his communications with his wife as well as with his family and his wife’s.
We originally read the sentence as putting a lock on the documents. That isn’t the case, as we note in our revised section in the body of the article above. The bottleneck is at the lightly staffed Archives. It of course remains possible that Bill Clinton could yet block the release of any or all communications between himself and the First Lady, but that hasn’t happened yet It remains to be seen whether any of this material will surface before the election.
But Russert was wrong, and so were we Bill Clinton, in Redmond, called Russert’s question “breathtakingly misleading,” and we now agree. Russert did not respond to requests for comment.

Obama’s Revised Remarks

Obama attempted to soften a previous accusation that Clinton was being less than truthful about a variety of issues.

Russert: But when asked by The New York Times whether Senator Clinton has been truthful, you said no.

 Obama: What I said is that she has not been truthful and clear about this point that I just made [about Social Security], which is, we can talk about fiscal responsibility, and all of us agree with it. All of us oppose privatization. But even after we deal with those issues, we are still going to have an actuarial gap that has to be dealt with. It is not going to vanish.

Actually, the Times paraphrased Obama on October 28 as saying Clinton was being somewhat untruthful about “what she would do as president” generally, not just on Social Security:

New York Times: Asked if Mrs. Clinton had been fully truthful with voters about what she would do as president, Mr. Obama replied, “No.”

“I don’t think people know what her agenda exactly is,” Mr. Obama added, citing Social Security, Iraq and Iran as issues on which she had not been entirely forthcoming. “Now it’s been very deft politically,” he said. “But one of the
things that I firmly believe is that we’ve got to be clear with the
American people right now about the important choices that we’re
going to need to make in order to get a mandate for change, not to
try to obfuscate and avoid being a target in the general election.”

Russert’s characterization of Obama’s quote, as featured in the Times, was accurate. Obama, however, attempts to narrow the claim down to her position on Social Security when he really referred to her statements overall regarding what she would do as president.

Presidential Qualifications

Finally, we wondered about the accuracy of this statement from Sen. Joe Biden:

Biden: Rudy Giuliani [is] probably the most underqualified man since George
Bush to seek the presidency.

Biden is certainly entitled to state his opinion, and his line did get a lot of laughs and some applause. But a twice-elected former mayor of New York City is hardly without executive qualification. And does Biden really think Giuliani is less qualified than, say, cable TV comic Stephen Colbert, who is seeking signatures to qualify for the ballot in South Carolina?

Just asking.

– by Brooks Jackson, with Viveca Novak, Justin Bank, Jess Henig, Emi Kolawole, Joe Miller and Lori Robertson

Supporting Documents

2002 Clinton letter


Office of William Jefferson Clinton. Letter to the National Archives. Presidential Libraries. 6 Nov. 2002.

Landrigan, Kevin. Clinton says gender has been advantage. Video. 17 Oct. 2007. NHPrimary.com. 31 Oct. 2007.

Jensen, Kristin and Mark Drajem. “Clinton Breaks With Husband’s Legacy on Nafta Pact, China Trade.” Bloomberg News. 30 Mar. 2007. 31 Oct. 2007.

Smith, Ben. “McCain Team Mocks Hil Torture Loophole.” New York Daily News. 16 Oct. 2006.

Nagourney, Adam and Jeff Zeleny. “Obama Promises a forceful stand against Clinton.The New York Times. 28 Oct. 2007: A1.

Status of the Social Security and Medicare Program, A summary of the 2007 Annual Reports.” Social Security and Medicare Boards of Trustees 23 Apr. 2007.