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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during a community forum on healthcare, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015, at Moulton Elementary School in Des Moines, Iowa. Clinton broke her longstanding silence over the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, telling voters at a campaign stop in Iowa on Tuesday that she opposes the project. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Charlie Neibergall/The Associated Press

Hillary Clinton has had years to think about her position on the Keystone XL pipeline. But it was only on Tuesday that she finally found a way to oppose it – in cautious language that has almost nothing to do with the pipeline itself and everything to do with internal Democratic Party politics and her sputtering presidential run.

Sample her awkward declaration and see if you can tell what she really thinks about the long-delayed project to move oil from Canada's oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. "I think it is imperative that we look at the Keystone pipeline for what I believe it is: a distraction from the important work we have to do to combat climate change and, unfortunately from my perspective, one that interferes with our ability to move forward."

That's the eager-to-please, afraid-to-commit Ms. Clinton we know – and perhaps even the one the American people want to elect, after they've had their fling with bolder candidates who readily embrace positions that might bother someone, somewhere.

Story continues below advertisement

Ms. Clinton is a fence-sitter of the first order, and it has served her well – as it did her husband and chief adviser before her. But Keystone XL has tested the wisdom of her balancing act. She is now opposed to Keystone, not because a pipeline is a global warming threat (it isn't) but because it has become a "distraction" from the real global warming issues. She has managed to be honest and cynical at the same time.

She knows that oil has to come from somewhere, and Alberta is far from the worst choice. If the oil is going to travel anyway, pipelines are cleaner and safer than trains. There are polls that tell her two-thirds of American voters support the project. She's savvy enough to know how soft and skewed that support really is, but the pipeline will bring skilled construction jobs, and unions have pushed her to back the project.

But as the presidential race heats up, the Clinton campaign is vulnerable. Her reputation for evasiveness contrasts unfavourably with other plain-speaking contenders. And supporting this lightning-rod of a pipeline would make her a target of increasingly vocal party activists. The big donors in the environmental movement, meanwhile, skew heavily Democratic. The more they turned Keystone into the No. 1 symbol of climate change, the more Ms. Clinton had to find a way to play along. Group hug!

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