Media jump on chance to invoke comparisons to Kerry over Clinton's driver's license response

››› ››› SARAH PAVLUS

Discussing Sen. Hillary Clinton's performance during the Democratic presidential debate, Chris Matthews claimed that Clinton made herself "look like a switcher" when responding to questions about her views on Gov. Eliot Spitzer's proposal to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. In fact, Clinton maintained that Spitzer's plan "ma[de] sense," explaining that "what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is fill the vacuum left by the failure of this administration to bring about comprehensive immigration reform" and claiming: "I believe we need to get back to comprehensive immigration reform because no state, no matter how well-intentioned, can fill this gap. There needs to be federal action on immigration reform." Matthews and other media figures invoked Sen. John Kerry's alleged "flip-flopping," suggesting that Clinton made inconsistent statements.

On the November 1 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe, while discussing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's (NY) performance in the October 30 Democratic presidential debate at Drexel University, host Joe Scarborough asked MSNBC host Chris Matthews: "Do you think she made her first big mistake the other night in the debate? Do you think she's going to pay for it?" Scarborough was referring to Clinton's statements regarding the proposal by New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer [D] to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. Matthews claimed that Clinton made herself "look like a switcher" when discussing the issue during the debate and added, "This is what killed [former Democratic presidential candidate George] McGovern. This is what killed every Democrat that I can think of." Scarborough responded, "And Chris ... we saw that in the last campaign in 2004, where [Sen.] John Kerry [MA] sometimes had trouble getting his footing on where he stood on the Iraq war." Matthews then stated: "Eighty-seven million [sic] for, eighty-seven against; I voted for and against it -- that became ... basically, the windsurfing Strauss waltz, which they used for the ad. It is certainly what McGovern was killed on back in '72. It's bad enough being a lefty, but when you look like you're a switcher."

The question posed to Clinton by the debate's co-moderator, NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert, was: "Senator Clinton, Governor of New York Eliot Spitzer has proposed giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. You told the Nashua, New Hampshire, editorial board it makes a lot of sense. Why does it make a lot of sense to give an illegal immigrant a driver's license?" Clinton responded by saying that Spitzer is trying to make the best of a bad situation created by "the failure of this administration to bring about comprehensive immigration reform," and saying that such reform is needed "because no state, no matter how well-intentioned, can fill this gap." She said:

CLINTON: Well, what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is fill the vacuum left by the failure of this administration to bring about comprehensive immigration reform. We know, in New York, we have several million at any one time who are in New York illegally. They are undocumented workers. They are driving on our roads. The possibility of them having an accident that harms themselves or others is just a matter of the odds -- it's probability. So what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is to fill the vacuum.

Moments later, after Sen. Chris Dodd (CT) responded to Russert's question, "Does anyone here believe an illegal immigrant should not have a driver's license?" Clinton said: "I just want to add: I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it." When Dodd then said that Clinton had in fact said she supported the policy, telling Clinton: "You said -- you said yes." Clinton replied, "No." Dodd said, "You thought it made sense to do it." Clinton then continued, "No, I didn't, Chris."

Later, when Russert specifically asked Clinton: "Do you support his [Spitzer's] plan?" Clinton replied: "You know, Tim, this is where everybody plays gotcha. It makes a lot of sense. What is the governor supposed to do? He is dealing with a serious problem. We have failed, and [President] George Bush has failed. Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No. But do I understand the sense of real desperation, trying to get a handle on this. Remember, in New York, we want to know who's in New York. We want people to come out of the shadows. He's making an honest effort to do it. We should have passed immigration reform."

On the October 31 edition of MSNBC's Countdown, Congressional Quarterly's Craig Crawford said of Clinton's statements on the driver's license issue: "I think what we find often with Senator Clinton, like her husband, is she's a policy wonk, Keith, and, unlike the media, policy wonks don't tend to think about these kinds of issues in black or white and yes or no and up and down. And it's more complicated than that, and many times that's where the real answers are, just complicated and longer. And that's what she was doing here. We do have this problem with not being able -- you can't manage what you can't measure, and the country doesn't know who these people are, these illegal immigrants or undocumented workers. And she is seeing the need to actually try to find ways to ... not document them, but actually measure them, know where they are. And that's all she was saying."

Similarly, in an October 31 post on his blog, Ezra Klein wrote:

[U]nlike everyone else, I thought it was a damn good answer. She did seek a couple sidesteps and refused to give a flat yes or no, but she defended her reasoning on the issue, accurately explained the forces and pressures behind Spitzer's decision, and refused to offer the truly craven evasive answer of a simple "no." When Dodd challenged her, and she struck back with, "well, if an illegal immigrant hits you in a car, how are you going to identify them," I thought it was one of the night's better moments.

From the October 30 Democratic presidential debate on MSNBC, which was co-moderated by NBC News anchor Brian Williams:

RUSSERT: Thank you, Brian.

Senator Clinton, Governor of New York Eliot Spitzer has proposed giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. You told the Nashua, New Hampshire, editorial board it makes a lot of sense. Why does it make a lot of sense to give an illegal immigrant a driver's license?

CLINTON: Well, what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is fill the vacuum left by the failure of this administration to bring about comprehensive immigration reform. We know, in New York, we have several million at any one time who are in New York illegally. They are undocumented workers. They are driving on our roads. The possibility of them having an accident that harms themselves or others is just a matter of the odds -- it's probability. So what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is to fill the vacuum.

I believe we need to get back to comprehensive immigration reform because no state, no matter how well-intentioned, can fill this gap. There needs to be federal action on immigration reform.

RUSSERT: Does anyone here believe an illegal immigrant should not have a driver's license?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (OH): Believe what?

RUSSERT: An illegal immigrant should not have a driver's license.

DODD: Well, this is a privilege. And look, I'm as forthright and progressive on immigration policy as anyone here, but we're dealing with a serious problem here, we need to have people come forward. The idea that we're going to extend this privilege here of a driver's license, I think, is troublesome. And I think the American people are reacting to it.

We need to deal with security on our borders; we need to deal with the attraction that draws people here; we need to deal fairly with those who are here -- but this is a privilege. Talk about health care, I have a different opinion. That affects the public health of all of us. But a license is a privilege, and that ought not to be extended, in my view.

CLINTON: Well --

WILLIAMS: Senator, let's --

CLINTON: I just want to add: I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it.

DODD: Now, wait. Wait.

CLINTON: And we have failed --

DODD: Wait a minute.

CLINTON: We have failed --

DODD: No, no, no. You said -- you said yes.

CLINTON: No --

DODD: You thought it made sense to do it.

CLINTON: No, I didn't, Chris. But the point is, what are we going to do with all these illegal immigrants who are driving on the roads?

DODD: Well, that's a legitimate issue. But driver's license goes too far --

CLINTON: Well --

DODD: -- in my view.

CLINTON: Well, you may say that, but what is the identification if somebody runs into you today who is an undocumented worker --

DODD: There's ways of dealing with that.

CLINTON: Well, but --

DODD: This is a privilege, not a right.

CLINTON: Well, what Governor Spitzer has agreed to do is to have three different licenses: one that provides identification for actually going onto airplanes and other kinds of security issues; another, which is an ordinary driver's license; and then, a special card that identifies the people who would be on the road. So, it's not the full privilege.

DODD: That's a bureaucratic nightmare.

RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, I just want to make sure what I heard. Do you, the New York Senator Hillary Clinton, support the New York governor's plan to give illegal immigrants a driver's license? You told the Nashua, New Hampshire, paper it made a lot of sense.

CLINTON: It --

RUSSERT: Do you support his plan?

CLINTON: You know, Tim, this is where everybody plays gotcha. It makes a lot of sense. What is the governor supposed to do? He is dealing with a serious problem. We have failed, and George Bush has failed. Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No. But do I understand the sense of real desperation, trying to get a handle on this. Remember, in New York, we want to know who's in New York. We want people to come out of the shadows. He's making an honest effort to do it. We should have passed immigration reform.

Scarborough and Matthews were not the only media figures to invoke Kerry's alleged "flip-flopping" when discussing Clinton's performance in the debate. For instance:

  • In his November 1 Washington Post "Media Notes" column, media critic Howard Kurtz wrote that the "image" of Clinton as "a triangulator. A trimmer. A carefully calculating pol who says what people want to hear ... could damage Clinton long after everyone has forgotten about her specific answer on MSNBC. Remember the Bush ad that showed John Kerry windsurfing left and right in a flip-flopping metaphor?"
  • During the October 31 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, while discussing Clinton's performance at the debate, Republican pollster Frank Luntz asserted: "[T]he worst thing that you can do in a Democratic presidential primary is to show inconsistencies. Democrats are very much afraid that they will recreate what happened in 2004 when John Kerry was defeated because he held different positions on the same issue."

From the November 1 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe:

SCARBOROUGH: Let's bring in Chris Matthews. He's the host of Hardball. He's also the author of the newly released Life's A Campaign: What Politics Has Taught Me About Friendship, Rivalry, Reputation and Success, and he's with us right now. Chris! My God, it is open season on Hillary Clinton. Do you think she made her first big mistake the other night in the debate? Do you think she's going to pay for it?

MATTHEWS: Well, she'll pay for it in the general election for sure, because she's now creating the template for the general. The big thing to do in politics if you want to help your opponents is not only take a position, which is unpopular with most voters -- which she did on the driver's licenses -- but make yourself look like a switcher: somebody that isn't going to stand for something, that's going to switch whenever it's convenient.

This is what killed McGovern. This is what killed every Democrat that I can think of. Not just be on the left, but be seen as a switcher, someone that is not reliable. And she did -- she managed to do both in about a minute.

SCARBOROUGH: And Chris, you saw -- we saw that in the last campaign in 2004, where John Kerry sometimes had trouble getting his footing on where he stood on the Iraq war.

MATTHEWS: Eighty-seven million [sic] for, eighty-seven against; I voted for and against it -- that became the -- basically, the windsurfing Strauss waltz, which they used for the ad. It is certainly what McGovern was killed on back in '72. It's bad enough being a lefty, but when you look like you're a switcher --

Now Hillary Clinton -- I've been doing this thing on the show -- I've been doing sort of short speech proposals for these people. And I'm going to do one for Hillary tonight to do her 180. It's what her husband should have done on Monica when he got caught: switch. Finally admit you're wrong. Kill it. Do not drag this thing out for a year and a half. If she keeps this position, she will lose.

You cannot take the position of papering over illegality. American citizenship is real. It's not a question of a document. It's not a question of papering over something. You're either a citizen; you're either in this country legally or you're not. When people say, "undocumented worker," you know they're already BS-ing you. And if she keeps that up, she's going to lose.

From the October 31 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes:

SEAN HANNITY (co-host): Frank, let me put these two together here, because I was very fascinated to me that the early attacks didn't work, but it almost became a preview of what would happen later in the debate. In that particular instance, on Social Security, the archives issue, she's had a blue ribbon commission on one, the Charlie Rangel tax increase, and then, of course, this big debacle on immigration. They almost predicted this uncertainty, this flip-flopping, this vacillating on hers. So it seems that they really were preparing the audience for what was to come.

LUNTZ: Well, what was happening was, as the debate went along, she was being held more and more accountable for what she had done, for what she had said. And the worst thing that you can do in a Democratic presidential primary is to show inconsistencies. Democrats are very much afraid that they will recreate what happened in 2004 when John Kerry was defeated because he held different positions on the same issue.

And the fact is, Senator Clinton, up until this point, had the perfect response, but she was never challenged. The Republicans took her on, but that was in a Republican debate. For the first time, the Democrats challenged her.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.