Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

Answering the Tough Questions

It's a start. A small one.

Hillary Clinton answered six questions in five minutes during a campaign stop in Iowa, making no news and giving prepackaged statements we've heard many times before.

She has to do a lot better than that. Neither the press -- nor her Republican opponents -- will let Clinton get away with a campaign strategy that continues to isolate her from meaningful media encounters.

The Washington Post has a clock on its website counting the time since Clinton last answered a press question. (The total was 40,150 minutes before the Iowa session.)

The New York Times is running a new feature on its politics blog First Draft: "Questions we would have asked Mrs. Clinton had we had the opportunity." It even asked readers to submit their own suggestions.

Republicans have joined the fun. Carly Fiorina, a long-shot candidate for the GOP nomination, boasts that she's been interviewed more than 30 times and answered "over 300 questions" while Clinton maintained radio silence.

Sure, journalists can be self-absorbed, and it's certainly true that the voting public does not seem all that bothered by Clinton's duck-and-cover routine. But as time goes on, another question inevitably emerges: "What is she afraid of?"

Is Hillary so fragile, so unsteady on her feet, that she has to be shielded from anything resembling a real live reporter with a microphone in her hand? And what does that say about Clinton's ability to handle the rigors of the campaign trail -- let alone the White House?

David Axelrod, the Democratic strategist who helped engineer Barack Obama's victory over Clinton in 2008, fears she's making a "terrible mistake." Interviewed on NBC's "Meet the Press," Axelrod said: "I think she has to get out there, she has to answer questions. And she has to do it routinely so it's not a major news event when she takes a few questions from the news media."

In one sense, Clinton is just following the strategy pioneered by Obama, who has learned that social media provides him with countless ways to connect with voters that do not involve potentially risky confrontations with determined and knowledgeable journalists.

In effect, the White House has created the OBN: the Obama Broadcasting Network. It uses a wide range of platforms -- Flickr and Facebook, Instagram and YouTube -- to control the images and messages the public sees and hears, unfiltered by independent media scrutiny. Just this week, the president added another outlet to the OBN: his first personal Twitter account.

Clinton announced her candidacy using a highly produced video distributed directly through social networks, without a reporter in sight. The Clinton Broadcasting Network is just getting started.

But there's another plausible explanation for her strategy: She's not very good at campaigning and never has been. When she did sit for a real interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer last year, she complained of being "dead broke" when she left the White House -- just as she and her husband were about to rake in mega-millions on speeches and book deals.

If Team Hillary already had concerns about the perils of live broadcasting, last week only reinforced their anxiety. There was Jeb Bush taking four full days to clarify his answer to a question about the Iraq War from Fox's Megyn Kelly. And Marco Rubio looked flushed and flustered as another Fox anchor, Chris Wallace, pressed him on the same issue.

You can be sure that if either Bush or Rubio gets the Republican nomination, those clips will show up in Democratic ads, but fellow Republicans have already pounced. As Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal put it, "Whoever we nominate as a Republican Party has got to be ready to answer the tough questions."

Bush, who last ran for office in 2002, has looked particularly rusty on the trail. In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, he opposed gay marriage on the grounds that it did not support a committed, "child-centered family system."

That answer might play well with religious conservatives, but the rest of us, who see gay couples raising children every day, know it is nonsense.

Bush and Rubio are hardly alone in their stumbles. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul got so agitated when pressed by a female reporter on CNBC that he actually put his finger to his lips and told her to "shh."

Deflecting or evading the media is not a trivial matter. Jindal is right. All candidates, in both parties, have "to be ready to answer the tough questions."

Those who fail that test don't deserve to be president.

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