WASHINGTON — During a quarter-century in the public eye, there’s been one constant in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s persona: She’s the brainy policy wonk who relishes thick briefing books.
Yet as her presidential campaign enters its fifth month and commands a large platform to show off that detailed knowledge, she has been reluctant to engage or take a stand on some big issues of the day — and even the occasional small one.
Does she support the trans-Pacific trade deal? Under certain circumstances. Reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act that separated commercial and investment banks? She’s going to talk about it — at some point. Building the Keystone XL pipeline? She said weighing in wouldn’t be responsible given her previous involvement on the issue. A carbon tax? The revolving door between Wall Street and regulators? Nothing. And nothing.
Some policy positions have emerged. Most notably, Clinton on Monday unveiled her long-awaited plan to curb student debt and make college more affordable during a New Hampshire town hall-style gathering on Monday. The proposal didn’t go as far as similar ones offered by other Democratic candidates who advocate “debt-free” higher education — but it was still warmly embraced by liberal groups that had been growing impatient waiting for details on the issue.
There’s little immediate political incentive for Clinton to take a stand on some of these issues while facing a weak primary field. She enjoys the most support in polls of Democrats, has high marks from liberals in surveys, and remains by far the best-funded candidate in her party.
But she may eventually pay a price for her ill-defined positions, critics say. The activists and leaders in the Democratic base who track these issues could become bored by her campaign and, at worst, turned off.
“The American people are tired of seeing vague answers,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, a group pressing Clinton to answer some of the questions listed above. “They are tired of seeing small change. They want to see a system that works for working-class and middle-class America.”
The Clinton campaign is taking an incremental approach to the missing pieces in her policy portfolio. There’s a certain order, campaign officials say, to how the issues should be unveiled. On Tuesday, for example, Clinton listened to stories of drug addiction in Keene, N.H., and promised to announce a policy in the future.
Perhaps the most-watched part of the Clinton portfolio is how she would regulate the big banks. It’s an area where liberals are particularly skeptical of Clinton, given her eight years as a senator from New York representing Wall Street, her vast cadre of donors from the banking industry, and her habit of hiring from large financial institutions.
One of the biggest questions is whether she would rebuild a regulatory wall between commercial and investment banking, a position that banks oppose but many Democrats view as essential to curbing the power of the largest financial institutions. She wouldn’t provide a clear answer when a reporter asked after an event in South Carolina.
“We have a ‘too big to fail’ problem still, and we have to figure out the best way to address it,” Clinton said. “And I will be talking more about that.” (Her staff has said she has an answer but isn’t ready to give it yet.)
She has talked about other areas of Wall Street reform during two major addresses, but liberals remain unsatisfied with the lack of detail.
“We have not seen enough in either the breadth or specifics that we would want to see to be confident that the set of reforms she is proposing would really solve the problems she has identified,” said Felicia Wong, president of the Roosevelt Institute, a Washington think tank.
The notion that voters will have to take a wait-and-see approach to Clinton’s views on key issues was abundantly clear last month when her top policy adviser, Jake Sullivan, punted on so many topics during a briefing with reporters that he finally said, “I feel like I’m an absolute broken record.”
‘The American people are tired of seeing vague answers . . . They want to see a system that works.’
In that case, Sullivan had been asked about Clinton’s views on taxing carbon emissions, a policy that Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said might be enacted if Democrats retake the Senate and Clinton wins in 2016.
Sullivan promised that Clinton would “begin to lay down where [she] is” on the issue in coming weeks. Clinton did indeed unveil a detailed energy plan. It was silent on the carbon tax.
Democratic leaders have tried to lock down Clinton on issues. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts used her speech at Netroots Nation to call on Clinton, along with every other presidential candidate, to support new legislation aimed at shutting a revolving door of staff between Wall Street banks and Washington regulators.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont signed on to the bill as a cosponsor. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley came out in support.
Clinton has said nothing. A campaign official said a response is coming.
In a more typical primary, debates help flush out candidate views on issues, or highlight their repeated nonanswers on a national stage.
The Democratic National Committee has said there will be six debates, with only four prior to the Iowa caucuses. The first one is scheduled for mid-October. So far, Clinton has sat for only a handful of interviews with journalists, another place where candidates are pressed on issues.
In a July 7 interview on CNN, reporter Brianna Keilar tried to get a firm answer from Clinton on taxes, explaining that Sanders had proposed raising taxes and asking whether she would do the same. Clinton deflected: “I will be laying out my own economic policies.”
Keilar tried again: “Are — is raising taxes on the table?”
Clinton’s response: “I’m going to put out my policies.”
On Monday, 34 days later, an answer came: Clinton would hike taxes on the rich to pay for her $350 billion student loan and college affordability program.
The campaign is quick to point out that Clinton has taken a variety of specific positions, such as her call for police to wear body cameras and the need for automatic voter registration, and she has offered a sweeping immigration plan. In other areas, Clinton has said just enough to satisfy groups — for now. For example, she said that she is for “defending and enhancing” Social Security, but has yet to release specifics.
“She’ll have to say more,” said Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, a Washington-based nonprofit that supports a more robust program. “She can’t get away with just one phrase. I’m satisfied in the moment. I do anticipate and I do urge her to build on that.”
Even where Clinton has taken a firm stand, actions by her campaign or supporters can undermine the message. Nowhere is that more clear than on campaign finance reform, the first concrete proposal that Clinton unveiled on her first full day of campaigning in Iowa in April.
“We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it,” Clinton said at the Kirkwood Community College campus in Monticello.
A few months later, a super PAC supporting Clinton’s campaign accepted $1 million from a pair of nonprofits that do not reveal donors.Annie Linskey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.