Hillary Clinton, the presumptive frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, spent late Monday afternoon fundraising in New York City for an old friend.
The friend was Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana), who is facing a near-certain loss in Saturday’s runoff election against GOP challenger Bill Cassidy. To try to stave off defeat last month, Landrieu attempted to spearhead a bill through the Senate to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, the nearly 1,200-mile project that would transport oil from Canada to refineries in the U.S. and has triggered a rebellion among environmental activists who warn it could lead to spills and produce greater greenhouse-gas emissions.
Just a few hours later on Monday, Clinton was the keynote speaker at an annual dinner for an organization, the League of Conservation Voters, that has made its opposition to Keystone a priority. Its president called the pipeline “dirty and dangerous” in an opening speech.
“We’re going to kill that pipeline,” LCV President Gene Karpinski said to raucous applause.
Such an awkward two-step illustrates the thin line on which Clinton will walk as she mulls over what is considered a run for president.
Environmental concerns have become a growing issue for top Democratic donors, and the Keystone Pipeline has become something of a bellwether issue. At the LCV dinner, Clinton sat beside Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist who spent more than $70 million in the 2014 midterm election cycle to little avail.
For now, liberals and environmental activists are willing to give her a pass and some breathing room on the Keystone issue and on the environment in general. But they expect she will articulate a clearer position if and when she decides to run, and when the Obama administration has made something of a final decision on the pipeline — whether it’s through administrative approval or denial or a presidential veto of a bill from Congress.
“I don’t think she’ll speak out about it until the president makes a decision,” Karpinski told Fusion after Clinton’s speech. “I really don’t. I think she’s already said she wants to see the process unfold, and I don’t think she wants to interfere with that.”
But when asked if she should express her position on the issue after a final decision, Karpinski nodded his head and said, “Well, yeah, and let’s see what the president does.”
During a nearly 20-minute speech to the LCV on Monday night, Clinton avoided all mention of the topic, though she did present a full-throated endorsement of President Barack Obama on other environmental issues.
She also was ambiguous about her position on “fracking,” the controversial technique by which natural gas is gleaned, advocating its use if there are safeguards in place. “Fracking” is not a key issue for the LCV. Polls show it to be unpopular in places like New York, Clinton’s home state, but much more liked in swing states like Pennsylvania.
“Natural gas can play an important bridge role in the transition to a cleaner, greener economy,” Clinton said.
But despite admitting to some disagreements, activists in attendance were reluctant to criticize Clinton. They seem to realize that Clinton, the presumptive Democratic frontrunner with some flaws, would be better for them than any Republican alternative.
Caroline Niemczyk, a member of the board of directors of the Conservation Campaign, told Fusion she wasn’t bothered by Clinton’s conflicting messages on Keystone because she feels it has become too symbolic under the large umbrella of environmental causes.
“It’s very important to get a Democrat in there,” she said of the 2016 presidential election, opining that Republicans were still in the midst of a “civil war” in the party. “In the long run, they will be better.
Karpinski, meanwhile, pointed to the overall body of Clinton’s speech. She praised the Obama administration’s historic climate deal with China, while saying the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed carbon regulations must be “protected at all costs.” And she said the U.S. needs to reject a “false choice” between the economy and the environment.
She left the stage to a standing ovation. And Karpinsky, for one, said he wasn’t worried about any perceived discrepancies in her environmental interests.
“Look, the Clintons and Landrieus are long-time friends,” Karpinsky said of Clinton’s Monday two-step. “I’m sure that was planned a long time ago, beyond this day. It’s just a natural course of Democrats helping Democrats. It’s not relevant.”
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.