Hillary Clinton has always been a quick study, and just a week into her “book tour,” she’s worked some of the rust out of her system. In back-to-back televised interviews with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and Fox’s Bret Baier and Greta Van Susteren, there was none of the defensiveness we saw last week with Diane Sawyer or Terry Gross. She was calm and confident throughout, she bested Bret Baier on Benghazi, charmed Amanpour and Van Susteren – and yet she remains way more cautious than she should be if she wants to run for president again.
Because “Hard Choices” is on foreign policy, Clinton mainly faced foreign policy and national security questions. But there were three questions in the CNN/Tumblr Town Hall with Amanpour that will likely matter to the younger, female, strongly African-American Democratic base, and her answers were unsatisfying on all of them.
One reply was so unlikely I have little doubt she’ll eventually be walking it back. Asked in the CNN town hall whether she supports measures to strengthen the Family and Medical Leave Act her husband signed in 1993 by adding some portion of paid parental leave, she said she supports state and local initiatives to do that but stopped short of saying it should be federal law.
AMANPOUR: So, should paid maternity leave for companies be mandated by law?
You know it is in many parts of the world.
CLINTON: It is.
AMANPOUR: Many parts of the developed world.
AMANPOUR: Not here.
AMANPOUR: Should it be?
CLINTON: I think, eventually, it should be, but, right now, we're seeing some -- some very good proposals being implemented in other parts of the country, so that we have answers.
You know, it's like the debate over the minimum wage.
AMANPOUR: Why do you ...
AMANPOUR: ... not now?
CLINTON: Well, because I don't think, politically, we could get it now.
Sadly, if anything confirms that Clinton is running for president, it’s that cautious, consensus-oriented answer. A woman who didn’t plan to run for office again wouldn’t worry about what we can get now politically. In fact, many congressional Democrats are way ahead of her on this issue. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi supports paid parental leave, and the issue tops the roster of policy prescriptions backed by the Fair Shot campaign, a coalition of SEIU, the Center for American Progress, Planned Parenthood and American Women supporting an economic agenda they hope will galvanize women voters in 2014 and 2016.
To be president, Clinton is going to have to turn out women to vote Democratic like never before, and soft-pedaling an issue like paid family leave won’t cut it.
Clinton’s answers on marijuana legalization were also unsatisfying. While she did support the legalization of medical marijuana, she claimed there is only "anecdotal evidence" for its benefits and insisted the issue needs more study – and that’s really not true. She was on firmer ground saying she wants to let the states lead the way on legalizing the recreational use of the drug; I don’t think anyone expected her to say legalize it everywhere.
But she might have used the question to talk about the disparate impact of marijuana laws on black people, who are much more likely to go to jail than white users. Reforming marijuana laws has gained urgency not because we’re a nation of stoners, but because even people who don’t use the drug think its discriminatory legal impact is more damaging than its potential abuse. Clinton should have at least acknowledged that criminal justice problem.
Finally, and maybe most understandably, she dodged a question about whether she agreed with Sen. Jay Rockefeller “that some of the political opposition to President Obama could have something to do with the color of his skin.” Clinton danced around the uncomfortable issue, until Amanpour pushed her:
AMANPOUR: Do you think some of that is latent racism, vestiges of racism, as some people have said?
CLINTON: Well, I know that -- I don't want to -- I don't want to say that I verify that, because that would be generalizing too broadly. I believe that there are people who have trouble with ethnicity, with race, with gender, with sexual orientation, you name it. And therefore, they are not developing a reasoned opinion -- even if it's an opinion in opposition, but they are a reacting on a visceral stereotypical basis. And that's unfortunate.
So technically, that was a yes, but it was a passive yes, a very qualified yes, an “I don’t want to say yes” yes. Certainly she doesn’t think all opposition to the president is racially driven – nor does he – but acknowledging that electing our first black president surfaced an enormous amount of ancient American racism is almost a precondition for moving forward politically in this country. It would also go a long way toward healing some of the wounds of the bitter 2008 primary where many African-Americans believed she and her husband played at the edge of white racial politicking in trying to defeat Obama.
It may seem unfair to nitpick Clinton’s performance on a night when she vanquished Fox – to the extent that commenters on the network’s website trashed Baier and Van Susteren for asking softball questions. But vanquishing Fox – temporarily; they’ll be back at her today – is less important than at least occasionally placing herself at the vanguard of social change, not merely ratifying what’s already been accomplished.
One answer in which she did that was on guns, where she stood up to NRA bullies. “We cannot let a minority of people -- and that's what it is, it is a minority of people -- hold a viewpoint that terrorizes the majority of people,” she told the town hall. It may have been her best moment of the night. Another was calling for automatic voter registration when young people turn 18. We’ll see if Clinton decides to do more of that if and when she actually decides to run.