WASHINGTON – John Edwards on Sunday said he opposes a new program in New York to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, but the Democratic presidential candidate offered much the same plan for establishing a licensing system as his chief rival and party primary frontrunner, Hillary Clinton.
The former North Carolina senator, who unequivocally supported issuing driver's licenses to illegals when he was running for vice president in 2004, said that it should be up to the states to decide whether to issue licenses to illegals. However, once a national comprehensive immigration reform plan is passed into law, any illegal who gets on the path to citizenship should be permitted to obtain a license, he said.
"I believe that, first of all we have to have comprehensive immigration reform and for anybody in this country who is making an effort and on the path to obtaining American citizenship, yes, they should have a driver's license. If they're not making any effort to become an American citizen, and we have a system for doing that, my own personal view is, no, I would not give them a driver's license," Edwards said on ABC's "This Week."
Edwards, who landed some solid blows on Clinton during last week's Democratic primary candidate debate, added that unlike his opponent, he does not support the licensing plan by New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer.
"I am against the plan," he said.
Spitzer's program offers a three-tiered system that marks driver's licenses belonging to illegal aliens so that they can't be used at federally-required security checkpoints like airport lines. When asked at the debate about her position on the proposal, Clinton said she supported Spitzer for what he was trying to do, but then said she didn't say it should be done.
"I heard her say two different things. I don't know what she's calling for. I mean she said the first time she was asked she said one thing and then when Senator Dodd said something, she said something different. That's what I heard," Edwards said.
Asked about his switch since 2004, Edwards said he had been primarily concerned about the dangers of people driving who hadn’t had any training. But he said, now, that concern fits into the bigger picture of establishing a rule of law in the United States that allows illegals to get driver's licenses once they get on the path to earning citizenship.
Asked about Edwards' response, Clinton spokesman Jay Carson called it "just another desperate though mostly incomprehensible attack. It sure sounds a lot like yes and no."
On the campaign trail on Sunday, the New York senator acknowledged that she should have been clearer about her position, but still left room for interpretation about whether she backs Spitzer's plan.
"Unfortunately because the Bush administration has failed ... to bring about reform, governors are holding the bag. ... Therefore, I broadly support what governors like Spitzer are trying to do. I don’t pretend to know all the details. But I think it’s understandable that states are trying to fill a vacuum left by federal government. That is not an answer. I don’t want to see 50 states policies on immigration," Clinton told voters in Clinton, Iowa.
"When I’m president, we’ll get comprehensive reform, secure our borders, track people once they’re here, crack down on employers who hire illegal workers. Giving more help to local communities to deal with consequences. But finally, I do not believe we can resolve this problem unless we bring people out of the shadows" and give them a path to citizenship, she continued.
While Clinton's seemingly conflicting answers at the debate left her vulnerable to considerable criticism in the days that followed, some Iowa Democrats on Saturday offered some unsolicited support to Clinton for suggesting that driver's licenses for illegal immigrants will make the roads safer.
One woman piped up as Clinton was about to leave the Polk County Democratic Party headquarters, yelling, "All that grief they were giving you about illegal immigrants and driver's licenses, there are two of us in Des Moines who have been hit by those unlicensed drivers. It's not a privilege, its a protection."
Another man then shouted out: "More than two!"
Clinton responded, "At some point we've got to solve this problem. Because we're seeing all sorts of consequences. So thank you for being a witness to that. Thank you."
FOX News' Aaron Bruns contributed to this report.