Hillary Clinton won’t answer questions. So what?

Journalists are annoyed with her and she's slumping in the polls. But it is still smart for her to keep the media at bay, at least for now. Taking questions about touchy issues like the Clinton Foundation could just give more ammunition to opponents.

Pat Sullivan/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivers a speech at Texas Southern University in Houston on Thursday. As has been her custom on the 2016 campaign trail, she did not take questions at this event.

Conventional wisdom says that Hillary Clinton is hurting herself by declining to take reporters’ questions. Nonsense. Her approach to the media is both cynical and smart.

Her critics point to polls finding that more and more Americans regard her as not being honest and trustworthy. Yes – but so what?

During the height of the impeachment controversy of 1998, most Americans simultaneously doubted Bill Clinton’s truthfulness and liked his job performance. In 1999, pollster Frank Newport crunched the numbers,concluding that “across the first six years of the Clinton administration, the lower the public's assessment of Clinton's honesty and trustworthiness, the higher its approval levels of the job he was doing as president.”

Notwithstanding the popularity of Netflix's "House of Cards," it would be too much to say that voters actually want their leaders to lie and cheat. Bill Clinton got high marks because the country was enjoying a long stretch of peace and prosperity. And the nation’s economy just happened to peak at the same time as Clinton’s mendacity. People might not have liked his misleading statements about Monica Lewinsky and other matters, but they were willing to look the other way as long as the country seemed to be faring well.

One lesson for his spouse is that the fundamentals matter most. As the representative of the party holding the White House, the Democratic nominee will win in 2016 if the economy is soaring and international conflicts are under control. Conversely, the party’s candidate will sink if Americans face job losses at home and mortal danger overseas. That candidate will probably be Hillary Clinton; and in either scenario, talking to the press would not change the outcome.

Of course, the fundamentals could fall somewhere in the muddled middle, with a so-so economy and global troubles that fall just short of bloodshed.  In such cases, doubts about her honesty and trustworthiness might just be enough to tip the race one way or another.

Even so, it is still smart for her to keep the media at bay. Suppose that she started taking questions about the Clinton Foundation and other touchy subjects. Does anybody really think that she could put such issues to rest? Okay, stop laughing. She would merely be supplying more ammunition to opposition researchers, especially if subsequent revelations were to clash with what she said.

There is little downside to shunning reporters, at least for now. In the fall of 2016, few voters will remember what she wasn’t doing in the summer of 2015. Eventually, she may opt for what the Nixon staff called the "modified, limited hang-out" route. But she can afford to wait until she has a better idea of what her opponents have on her. And by that time, she can also start going after the other side’s credibility, just as Bill Clinton did so effectively 17 years ago.

True, journalists are annoyed with her, and her numbers are sagging in trial-heat polls. But again, so what? Journalists are seldom happy with presidential contenders, and on those rare occasions when they call a candidate a "truth-teller" (think Bruce Babbitt in 1988 and John McCain in 2000), that person is doomed. And if you think that poll numbers mean anything this early in campaign, have a word with President Giuliani.

Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.

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