02/26/2008 05:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Pandering Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

I had a "way homer" moment returning from the Clinton/Obama debate in Austin last week. Both candidates were questioned about their 2006 votes in favor of the Secure Fence Act. HRC got off an applause line by blaming the Bush Administration for how "absurd" the Fence had become. (In fact, the Fence, such as it is, has historically been nothing but absurd.) Clinton concluded that there is a "smart way to protect our borders, and there is a dumb way to protect our borders." (Hey, I agree. Clap clap!)

The moderator presented a reasonable retort, "Does that mean that you think your vote was wrong, or the implementation of it was wrong?" Not such a clear answer on that one:

"I think when both of us voted for this, we were voting for the possibility that where it was appropriate and made sense, it would be considered. But as with so much, the Bush administration has gone off the deep end, and they are unfortunately coming up with a plan that I think is counterproductive."

But what does this mean, exactly? That Clinton was for it before she was against it? Where have I heard that before? Obama, similarly eager to step away from the Fence, declared that he and Clinton "almost entirely agree" not only on how best to disavow their Fence Act vote, but also that the problem with the Secure Fence Act lay with the Bush Administration's failure to listen to local communities. (Boo Bush! Clap clap!) So, great. I hate the Secure Fence Act, they hate the Secure Fence Act, or at least how the Bush Administration messed it up. Clap.

But back to the moderator's question. If it's now obvious the Fence Act needs to be "reviewed," was their original vote wrong or not? Is the Secure Fence Act really just misunderstood? The Act was pretty specific about building "2 layers of reinforced fencing". The Act's very text specified exactly where the 2 layers of reinforced fencing were to be extended:

• from 10 miles west of the Tecate, California, port of entry to 10 miles east of the Tecate, California, port of entry;

• from 10 miles west of the Calexico, California, port of entry to 5 miles east of the Douglas, Arizona, port of entry

• from 5 miles west of the Columbus, New Mexico, port of entry to 10 miles east of El Paso, Texas;

• from 5 miles northwest of the Del Rio, Texas, port of entry to 5 miles southeast of the Eagle Pass, Texas, port of entry; and

• from 15 miles northwest of the Laredo, Texas, port of entry to the Brownsville, Texas, port of entry.

So, no, it's not credible that Clinton and Obama thought the Secure Fence Act could result in anything other than a farce. There is much for Bush to answer for, but - applause lines aside - he was against border fencing before he was for it.

All of this was niggling at me on the way home, but it took the weekend to ferment a bit. Were Obama and Clinton dissembling in 2006, or now? Did they both vote for a bill they disliked, and if so, is that a greater sin than a President signing a bill he didn't like? Is the eventual Democratic candidate really going to continue to be so dubious about the Secure Fence Act once they tack right for the general election?

Of course, I'm perhaps oversimplifying a bit. Both Senators Clinton and Obama (and President Bush, for that matter) knew that the Secure Fence Act was essentially meaningless without voting for appropriate funding, as was reported at the time. But why not simply say that to the attendees at the Austin debate? Because even a symbolic vote is bad if it creates the wrong symbol.

Yes, I realize that Obama and Clinton had to say the needful in Texas, where both are vying for the Latino vote. But does either candidate believe the Latino community to be so easily pandered? If Obama and Clinton are willing to enact bad laws only to disown their votes later, what other bad policies would they be willing to support as President for the sake of political expediency? Why should either candidate be taken at their word when they promise to "review" the law if elected? When Congress submits the Secure Fence: This Time We Mean It Act of 2009, is either Democratic candidate really going to expend the effort to fight it? Can the Latino vote really be secured with such empty promises? With such open contrast between word and action? So now that I think about it, I want my applause back.