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SENATOR HILLARY CLINTON tried a new tactic at the Democratic presidential debate Tuesday evening. It amounted to this: a major event or policy breakthrough or something else must occur, she indicated, before she'd be ready to state her view on a number of touchy issues. In effect, she used this tactic to duck issues. And she ducked a lot of them.
She was asked, for example, if she favored raising the cap on income subject to Social Security taxation. Moderator Tim Russert noted she had both said the cap should remain at $97,500 and, privately at least, said she might favor lifting it to $200,000. In her answer, the New York senator declined to state her position.
Why not? "I have said consistently that my plan for Social Security is fiscal responsibility first, then to deal with any long-term challenges which I agree are ones that we are going to have to address," she responded. To put it mildly, this was a vague answer.
By fiscal responsibility, she said, "we have to move back toward a more fair and progressive tax system," which involves rolling back some of the Bush tax cuts. At that point, the president should create a bipartisan commission to recommend ways to reform Social Security, Clinton said.
Then--and seemingly only then--she might offer her opinion on raising the cap on Social Security taxes. The president, presumably with the commission's report in his hands, would have "the resources and the options to make decisions." For now, though, forget it. Clinton was equally resistant to giving her view of New York governor Eliot Spitzer's effort to allow illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses. She expressed sympathy with Spitzer, but followed that by saying, "I didn't say that it should be done." Instead, "we need to get back to comprehensive immigration reform," she said.
The reform effort, in which Clinton did not play a leadership role, failed in the Senate earlier this year and its future is unclear. Clinton said Spitzer's proposal was now trying to "fill the vacuum" on dealing with illegal immigrants. But "no state, no matter how well intentioned, can fill this gap," she said. So she declined to endorse Spitzer's proposal. "There needs to be federal action on immigration reform," she insisted.
Then there was her dodge on releasing the records of her advice to President Clinton when she was first lady for eight years. She had cited that period as an important part of the 35 years of experience in national affairs that makes her qualified to be president. Former president Clinton has written a letter asking the National Archives to keep these records secret until 2012. But Senator Clinton didn't comment on the letter, saying that releasing the papers is "not my decision to make." It's up to the National Archives. It's their slow "processes" that are holding things up, she suggested.
Finally there's the huge new tax bill proposed by Charles Rangel, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, that includes a 4 percent surtax on incomes over $200,000. Once again, she didn't state an opinion of the surtax or the tax bill, which would replace the alternative minimum tax (AMT).
This time, the impediment was timing. The Rangel bill "is not going to happen while George Bush is president . . . The AMT has to be part of what we try to change when I'm president." Until then? "I'm not going to be committed to a specific approach," Clinton said.
Let's summarize. Clinton couldn't talk about the Social Security cap because "fiscal responsibility" hasn't been achieved. She couldn't discuss driver's licenses for illegals because immigration reform was needed. She couldn't talk about releasing records in the Archives because the folks at the Archives handle that. And as for Rangel's bill, it won't come up any time soon, so she couldn't talk in any detail about it either.
As it turned out at the debate, broadcast on MSNBC, Clinton's new tactic didn't work. Her performance was her poorest in a debate in the campaign. Her tactic was transparent. The other candidates ganged up on her. But she gave them plenty to gang up about.
Fred Barnes is executive editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.