How Hillary Clinton Gets Around Answering Questions About Fast-Track

Sorry, reporters.

At her official campaign kickoff rally on Saturday, Hillary Clinton continued to brand herself as an economic populist while also being the most likely to beat a Republican in the general election.

But Clinton has had a tough time mapping out the specifics of that populism, particularly in relation to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. At a news conference after an event in Concord, New Hampshire on Monday, multiple reporters tried to get Clinton to come down for or against trade promotion authority (TPA), also known as "fast-track," which would make Congress pass trade agreements such as the TPP on an up-or-down vote without amendments.

With some fancy rhetorical footwork, Clinton was able to give them some fairly long-winded answers without saying much of anything. When asked if she thought the fast-track authority is appropriate, Clinton pointed out that Congress would not be passing the deal sight unseen. While the actual text of the TPP is not yet public, members of Congress and select others have access to the details.

"The TPA is a process issue. The issue for me is, what's in the deal?" Clinton said Monday. "I will wait and see what the deal is, and then I will tell you what I think about it."

That is not a very satisfying answer for more progressive members of Clinton's party. Labor unions and environmental groups bitterly oppose the trade deal and TPA, and liberal House Democrats were able to scuttle a vote Friday that would have allowed fast-track to move forward.

Clinton does not have much to lose by pleading ignorance about the details of the deal—which, to be fair, have not been finalized. If she were to come out against fast-track, as her Democratic opponents Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley have, she risks alienating more moderate Democrats and the White House while opening herself up to yet another line of attack from Republicans.

Another reporter asked Clinton if she believes the president should have fast-track authority. And, like any seasoned politician, Clinton successfully answered a yes-or-no question with an extended nonanswer, with some tautological rhetoric mixed in.

"If [Obama] wants to get fast-track authority, then he's going to have to try to figure out how to use the vote on Friday, to get some changes, to get fast track authority," Clinton said. "There's always room to maneuver, and I think this is one of those times."

The only problem is, if the White House had its druthers, the public would not be able to see the details of the deal until Congress had made it far easier to pass through without opposition. So under that timeline, Clinton weighing in on the details would be a foregone conclusion.

O'Malley—who has said he opposed the White House's fast-track authority—quickly set to work responding to Clinton's answers.

"For the thousands of American workers whose jobs are on the line with TPP, fast-track is not a 'process' issue, it's a straightforward vote on their future and their livelihood," Lis Smith, O'Malley's deputy campaign manager, said in a statement. "Governor O'Malley believes we must stop the fast-track vote in Congress now because TPP will be a bad deal for America's middle class. Now is a time for leadership, not political dodges."

Until Congressional Democrats reckon with the White House—which could happen as soon as this week—Clinton will have to continue walking the tightrope of vaguely criticizing the trade deal process and siding with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi while not upsetting the White House too much. And until then, Sanders and O'Malley will have some free political leverage of their own.