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Why Clinton Can Campaign In Listen-Only Mode

Little has changed since 1993: The media is casting Hillary Clinton as not being transparent, and she is not eager to engage with reporters.

In her first month as a candidate, Hillary Clinton has been aggressively pressed by reporters to answer questions about her State Department e-mails, her family’s charitable foundation and her positions on issues like trade and Iraq.

Clinton says she would like to take questions from voters, not the media. And she wants to talk about income inequality, reducing the influence of wealthy donors in the political process, immigration reform and other subjects of her choosing, instead of the media's.

The two sides reached a compromise last week, with Clinton taking a few questions during stops in Iowa and New Hampshire but avoiding one-on-one interviews with the press or a full-blown press conference.

But Clinton vs. the media is likely to remain a major dynamic in the 2016 race. Here are four reasons why:

1. Clinton really doesn’t need to answer every question right now

Politicians tend to court the media when it suits their needs. Clinton is known for bad relations with the press, but that’s an incomplete story. During the tail end of her 2008 campaign, trailing Barack Obama, she regularly did press conferences and spoke to the media often, using those opportunities to argue the race was not over and to highlight what she viewed as flaws in Obama’s record. (I interviewed Clinton in March 2008, and she made both cases to me.)

When she was secretary of state, Clinton also spoke regularly to the press to advocate the administration’s agenda abroad. Her aides speak favorably about some of the reporters who covered her at State.

Clinton did a slew of interviews last year as part of the roll-out of her book, generating the kind of media attention that was designed to increase sales.

Now, she is a candidate with an overwhelming advantage in the Democratic primary and with polls showing her leading potential GOP opponents in a general election. She has little incentive to talk to the press or, for that matter, everyday voters. Taking questions not only creates the potential for gaffes, but diverts attention from the messages Clinton wants to deliver and have covered.

(In Iowa, some Democratic activists have complained that Clinton's invitation-only events also prevent them from asking her questions about controversial issues like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 12-nation trade deal that Clinton has not yet taken a position on.)

In this regard, Clinton’s Republican opponents, who are bashing her for not taking questions, are ignoring an obvious political reality: they need the press, Clinton does not. Carly Fiorina desperately needs to gain attention so she can raise money and attempt to become a plausible GOP candidate, and interviews are an obvious way to raise her profile.

Many of the Republican candidates, particularly Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, do many of their media appearances on Fox News and conservative talk radio, which serve the political purpose of helping them reach Republican voters who are deciding which candidate to support.

Clinton is expected to conduct more interviews in June, after she holds her big campaign kick-off event. But it’s still unlikely during the primary process she will be talking to the press as often as the Republican candidates.

2. Battles of the Past

Lots of politicians feud with the press. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, another 2016 candidate, has memorably battled on-camera with reporters. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has eviscerated the media for what he calls unfair coverage of the so-called Bridgegate scandal. President Obama often complains about how the press covers process over substance.

Hillary and Bill Clinton though have a longer, deeper history of tensions with the media. Their allies have said (and the Clintons have implied) that the Whitewater controversy was covered unfairly by the press in 1990's, that the media favored Obama over her during the 2008 campaign, and that the controversy over her use of a private e-mail account as secretary of state has been overhyped.

“Since the 1990s, the Clintons have been caught in a cycle of escalation with the political press. The press investigates some possible wrongdoing from the Clintons. The Clintons perceive the investigation to be grossly unfair, and in response stonewall and restrict press access. The press sees this obstruction as suspicious and investigates harder. The Clintons stonewall harder, the press investigates harder, and the cycle continues,” Jonathan Ladd, a government professor at Georgetown University, wrote recently.

He added, “Some politicians in similar circumstances figure out how counterproductive the whole thing is and de-escalate. But not the Clintons. Since the amount of coverage is driven by this arms race, not the offense that started it all, it is not surprising that when these investigations finally end, we often discover that the original wrongdoing is disappointingly trivial.”

3. Campaign Messaging Has Changed

“Candidates and politicians are increasingly trying to present their messages on their own terms, either through politically friendly news outlets or their own social media channels. More and more, the mainstream political press is being cut out of the election process, raising questions about the value of being a reporter on the bus, on the plane, or ‘in the bubble’ with a presidential candidate,” wrote Peter Hamby, a political reporter at CNN, in a paper published by Harvard University in 2013.

Hamby, who had covered the general election campaign of Mitt Romney, described a situation in which the reporters who covered Romney in 2012 were frustrated by an inability to talk to the candidate, while Romney’s aides criticized the press coverage as being focused on trivial matters.

In some ways, this dynamic has always existed: reporters often focus on the “horse race” of a campaign, namely who is winning, while candidates prefer to talk about policy issues and try to bypass the press to do that.

That tension has increased with the advent of technology, giving candidates a better ability than ever to control their messages. Clinton is using Twitter, Facebook and online videos much as Obama is doing at the White House, to the consternation of journalists who argue the president is denying them access to more events than previous administrations.

Not doing interviews has not prevented Clinton from getting praise from liberals in the early weeks of her campaign for advocating policies like immigration reform. And her poll numbers remain very strong among Democrats.

“The press tends to justify its presence on the campaign trail — in Iowa, with Hillary Clinton — under one rule, and actualizes it under another,” says Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University. “It justifies its presence by seeing itself as a representative of the public, asking the questions the public would ask, converting access into information the public needs."

But he added, "It actualizes its presence by pushing back against the campaign team's attempt to control the message and sculpt every detail of the candidate's appearance. The goal is to disrupt, and avoid being treated as a pass through.”

The gap between the priorities of the press and Clinton is large for another reason: many of her policy proposals are not surprising or particularly new. President Obama has already presented many of them during his tenure.

America’s two political parties are increasingly unified on policy and divided from one another. The Democratic nominee, no matter who that person is, is almost certain to support Obamacare, higher taxes on the rich and greater efforts to limit climate change.

The Republican nominee is likely to oppose these ideas. It’s not clear a two-year campaign is needed to illustrate these differences.

“It's hard to care about daily campaign BS when the R/D differences on health care/energy/taxes/spending/judges/war are so huge and obvious,” said Michael Grunwald, a reporter at Politico, in a Twitter message.

He added, “I wonder how much the coverage of the campaign will manage to obscure that basic and boring structural truth.”

4. Differing Agendas

Candidates generally want the attention on them to reflect their policies or positions, especially on issues where they have an advantage with most voters. That desire is often in direct conflict with news organizations, particularly when there are outstanding questions about an issue the candidate would rather ignore.

In the early stages of her campaign, Clinton has taken an unusual approach: essentially no person that her campaign team has not pre-approved can ask Clinton questions. In Cedar Falls, Iowa, where Clinton appeared last week, residents of the town complained that they could not attend her small event either, as Clinton aides opened it mostly to small business owners and local officials.

Clinton is expected to hold bigger events and take more questions from whoever attends after this initial early phrase of her campaign.

But the disconnect between the reporters and the candidate may remain. Clinton, in her two days in Iowa last week, talked about two important ideas: the notion that college should be made “debt-free” if possible and that regulations should be softened on small and community banks. The press questions at her availability in Iowa were about her e-mail, friendship with the controversial Sidney Blumenthal and the millions she has made giving speeches.

It's likely over the next 19 months Clinton will be able to communicate her policy ideas, and the media will be able to very carefully probe her record.

But the Clinton campaign could illustrate if the tensions Hamby described in 2012 are a permanent change in America's political culture or if press and candidates like Clinton can establish a less-contentious relationship.