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First Read: Hillary Clinton's Keystone Problem

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: File photo of U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Clinton speaking at a campaign event in Des Moines
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa, in this June 14, 2015 file photo. Clinton has raised about $45 million since she entered the 2016 race in April, her campaign said on July 1, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young/FilesJIM YOUNG / Reuters

Hillary ducks another issue -- Keystone

Hillary Clinton still hasn’t taken a position on the TPP trade agreement (even though she helped lay the foundation for it as secretary of state). And now you can add another issue to that list: the Keystone XL pipeline. “This is President Obama’s decision and I am not going to second guess him, because I was in a position to set this in motion and I do not think that would be the right thing to do,” she told a questioner at a New Hampshire town hall. “So I want to wait and see what he and Secretary Kerry decide. If it's undecided when I become president, I will answer your question.” Campaign Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri added in statement, per NBC’s Kristen Welker: “[G]iven her former role as Sec state and having been part of the Keystone process, she believes that weighing in now could be disruptive to the process and not responsible to do.” In fairness to Clinton, Obama hasn’t made up his mind on this issue, either -- it’s a thorny subject given the competing environmental, labor, and Canadian concerns. And as we’ve said before, Keystone also is an overrated issue. (With relatively low oil prices, it’s hard to remember the last time we’ve heard a politician bring up Keystone.)

An implementer, not a visionary

But not taking a position on Keystone has allowed Hillary’s Democratic rivals to pounce. “It is hard for me to understand how one can be concerned about climate change but not vigorously oppose the Keystone pipeline,” Bernie Sanders said yesterday from the left. It also adds to the perception that Hillary simply ducks on tough issues -- Keystone, TPP, even the drivers licenses from the 2008 campaign. But maybe the fairest critique here of Clinton is that she isn’t a visionary politician. With a few exceptions so far (like on immigration, tax policy), she has taken President Obama’s finished/unfinished agenda and run with it. For many Democrats, that’s exactly what they’re looking for in succeeding Obama -- keep the current president’s policies in place, keep Republicans out of the White House, put more liberal justices on the Supreme Court,. But for Democrats who are looking for more? Well, that helps to explain the enthusiasm around Bernie Sanders, as well as the perception that there is something “off” with the Clinton campaign.

Yet Hillary doesn’t duck on Planned Parenthood

But here is an issue that Hillary Clinton DIDN’T duck: the Planned Parenthood videos. “I have seen pictures from them and obviously find them disturbing,” she told the New Hampshire Union Leader in a one-on-one interview. “One, Planned Parenthood for more than a century has done a lot of really good work for women: cancer screenings, family planning, all kinds of health services. And this raises not questions about Planned Parenthood so much as it raises questions about the whole process, that is, not just involving Planned Parenthood, but many institutions in our country. “And if there’s going to be any kind of congressional inquiry, it should look at everything and not just one (organization).” But what does Clinton mean here? What process? The fetal-tissue science? Organizations that perform abortions and are involved in the fetal-tissue business? Here's what the Clinton campaign told us: "She means that if Congress is concerned that PPFA is selling fetal tissue as opposed to having transportation costs covered as imagined in the law - then Congress should look into it. But it should look at the issue broadly, not as a PPFA hunting expedition. "

Jeb Bush’s challenging issue terrain

As we’ve said before, Jeb Bush has had a good last few weeks in his bid for the presidency -- the overseas trip, the announcement, the money, even all of the focus on Donald Trump. But our recent NBC-Marist polls of Iowa and New Hampshire underscore one of Bush’s biggest challenges: winning over Republicans who disagree with him on the issues. Indeed, our polls found that these GOP voters are LESS LIKELY to back a politician who supports Common Core (like Bush does), and are LESS LIKELY to vote for a candidate who supports a pathway to citizenship or legal status (as Bush does) for undocumented immigrants. When you look at the numbers below, GOP voters in Iowa and New Hampshire don’t distinguish between citizenship and legal status at all. So it’s possible that Jeb’s distinction won’t help him with the GOP base, but could hurt him with Latino voters.

Among Iowa Republicans:

  • Common Core supporter: 46% less likely, 42% more likely
  • Pathway to citizenship supporter: 56% less likely, 31% more likely
  • Pathway to legal status supporter: 56% less likely, 31% more likely
  • Repealing Obamacare supporter: 69% more likely, 25% less likely
  • TPP supporter: 36% more likely, 38% less likely

Among New Hampshire Republicans:

  • Common Core supporter: 46% less likely, 36% more likely
  • Pathway to citizenship supporter: 63% less likely, 23% more likely
  • Pathway to legal status supporter: 63% less likely, 23% more likely
  • Repealing Obamacare supporter: 67% more likely, 24% less likely
  • TPP supporter: 37% more likely, 37% less likely

“An undisciplined politician who wasn’t willing to do what it took to win”

We wrote about Rand Paul largely missing in action from the GOP presidential conversation two weeks ago. And now Politico has a detailed look at his campaign troubles. “Interviews with more than a dozen sources close to the Kentucky senator, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, painted a picture of an underfunded and understaffed campaign beaten down by low morale,” Politico says. “They described an operation that pitted a cerebral chief strategist against an intense campaign manager who once got into a physical altercation with the candidate’s bodyguard. And they portrayed an undisciplined politician who wasn’t willing to do what it took to win — a man who obsessed over trivial matters like flight times, peppered aides with demands for more time off from campaigning and once chose to go on a spring-break jaunt rather than woo a powerful donor.” Beyond the GOP’s newfound focus on national security and foreign policy, Paul’s biggest problem might be that he is resistant to do the little things that successful presidential candidates have to do. That’s fine if you’re running the kind of symbolic presidential campaign his dad ran. But it’s not if you’re trying to win…

“I’m the one person … who will say you do have the right to be left alone, and that we really don’t want President Obama collecting all of our phone records”

In response to this criticism, Paul told the Boston Globe that he still stands out from the rest of the GOP field. “I think the Live-Free-or-Die attitude, the leave-me-alone attitude resonates well up here,” he said. “I’m the one person up here who will say you do have the right to be left alone and that we really don’t want President Obama collecting all of our phone records.”

GOP House member attempts to oust Boehner from being speaker

Finally, don’t miss this Capitol Hill story from last night. NBC News: “A House Republican often at odds with John Boehner launched a bid Tuesday to kick the speaker of the house out of his job — an almost unheard-of rebellion but one that has been simmering for months. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina, filed a motion to ‘vacate the chair’ — a parliamentary maneuver that could be used to depose Boehner, R-Ohio. The motion accuses Boehner of having ‘endeavored to consolidate power and centralize decision-making, bypassing the majority of the 435 Members of Congress and the people they represent,’ and of using ‘the power of the office to punish Members who vote according to their conscience instead of the will of the Speaker.’”

On the trail

Christie campaigns in New Hampshire… Huckabee speaks to the AFL-CIO in Silver Spring, MD… Perry gives a Wall Street reform speech in NYC… And Bernie Sanders holds a town hall in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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