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Clinton's Answers on Immigration Grant License to Criticize

Clinton barnstorming in Amana, Iowa yesterday. (Reuters).

MUSCATINE, IOWA--Immigration continues to roil the Democratic presidential race.

A week after Hillary Clinton stumbled over a question about whether she favored giving drivers licenses to illegal aliens, she and her campaign are still dealing with the aftermath -- and her rivals show no sign of letting her slip away from the subject. Clinton is still approaching the issue as one that holds potentially great peril for her should she become the Democratic nominee next year.

Clinton unintentionally helped fuel the controversy with her Democratic rivals on Tuesday when she did an interview with CNN's Candy Crowley. She provided a lengthy and inconclusive answer to the same question she was asked at the Philadelphia debate a week ago, bringing a swift rebuke from Barack Obama's campaign.

That came hours after Obama himself dismissed comments earlier in the week by former President Bill Clinton, who compared the criticism of his wife over the immigration issue to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks on John F. Kerry in 2004.

Let's start with Clinton's CNN interview, which came one week after she was asked whether she supports New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's proposal to give illegal immigrants drivers licenses. Crowley asked her question this way: "If I wrote a story that said: 'Absent a broad illegal immigration bill, Hillary Clinton agrees about giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants,' is that correct?"

Clinton responded this way: "No. What I have said is that I support what governors are trying to do. And governors are on the front lines because of the failures to get comprehensive immigration reform. There are already eight states that issues driver's licenses without any verification of citizenship. That is a decision that the governors and legislatures and the people of those states have made."

As Clinton continued, Crowley interjected to say, "But you see why people think that you are not answering the question." Clinton then responded by saying, "Well, but I think that if you go back and look at the complexity of this issue, I don't think a lot of these hard questions lend themselves to raising your hand. And I know that that's easier in a 30-second context to try to do."

Her opponents said after the debate that what Clinton was asked was a relatively straightforward question that could be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." But the candidate's husband doesn't see it that way. He was in Nevada earlier this week and lit into his wife's critics.

"I had the feeling that at the end of that last debate we were about to get into cutesy land again," Clinton told a union audience on Monday. He compared the attacks on his wife by Obama, John Edwards and Chris Dodd to the television commercials aired against Kerry in 2004 and GOP ads targeting former Georgia senator Max Cleland in the 2002 campaign.

The former president's comments drew widespread, though private, reaction from strategists in rival campaigns, who argued that he had dramatically exaggerated the criticism his wife had received and had stretched credulity with his Swift Boat analogy.

A senior Clinton aide was quoted as saying the former president's remarks were neither helpful to his wife's candidacy nor was he speaking for the campaign. Another official later tried to distance the campaign from the suggestion that officials were trying to distance the candidate from her husband.

Obama told the Associated Press Tuesday that he was "stunned" by the former president's comments. He said what prompted the criticism at the debate was Clinton's apparent contradiction during the debate -- seemingly answering both yes and no on the question of the drivers licenses. "How you would then draw an analogy to distorting somebody's military record is a reach," he said.

Shortly after Clinton appeared on CNN, Obama spokesman Bill Burton issued an even tougher rebuke of the Democratic front-runner. "It's absurd to compare a simple yes or no question about immigration that Senator Clinton still won't answer seven days after the debate to the despicable Republican attacks against John Kerry and Max Cleland's patriotism," he said. "Senator Obama believes that to truly stand up to the Republican attack machine, we have to be honest and straightforward about where we stand on the major issues facing America."

During a town hall meeting in Iowa on Tuesday, Clinton got a question about the issue from who woman who wanted to know what she would do about the problem as president. Clinton spent more than six minutes outlining her views in support of comprehensive immigration reform and at one point said, "We've turned it into a great political football and people are scoring all kinds of political points."

At that point she appeared to be critical of conservatives who have fought against comprehensive reform, which she argued is the only practical way to solve the problem of porous borders and deal with the 12 million undocumented workers here in the country. She said those who have advocated rounding everybody up and deporting them would effectively turn the United States into a "police state" that would be intolerable.

Clinton's long answer to the immigration question during Tuesday's town hall meeting underscored why she does not want to deal with the issue in 30-second ads, debate lightning rounds or yes-or-no answers. The issue is complex, as those who have tried to craft a legislative solution have learned painfully, and politically charged. But there is no sanctuary on immigration for candidates along the campaign trail this year. John McCain learned that last spring and Clinton is coming to terms with that reality now.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  November 7, 2007; 2:05 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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