Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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A Tough Question for 2016 Candidates

They'll get criticized if they avoid the press. But they'll also take flak if they answer questions the wrong way, as Bush and Rubio have on Iraq.

Several developments over the past week in the presidential race seem worthy of note. Hillary Clinton is coming under increasing fire from journalists and opponents for not answering many questions from the media, while former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio probably are regretting answering any at all.

National Journal piece in late April laid out eight questions Clinton had answered from reporters, noting that she had gone out of her way to avoid the press. A more liberal count of 13 was later cited by NPR, but it was a bit more inclusive, including such penetrating questions as, "How are you liking Iowa?"

Clinton was on the receiving end of friendly fire on the subject, with David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Obama, telling Chuck Todd on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday that he thought the presumptive Democratic nominee was making a "terrible mistake" not answering more. Todd pointed out that her husband, former President Bill Clinton, answered 39 during that same period. The suggestion is that by not responding to questions, not putting herself out there, she is playing into the meme that the Clintons are arrogant, following a different set of rules than everyone else.

On the other side of the fence, Bush and Rubio are probably thinking that they might have been better off showing a little more arrogance and aloofness, by not asking questions. Both fumbled, Bush repeatedly, on questions about whether they would have chosen to invade Iraq in 2003 if they knew then what they know now. The irony is that both stepped in the same pile of excrement attempting to answer queries not from the hostile liberal media, but from Fox News, whose hosts in the respective interviews were Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace. Both were just doing their jobs in a pretty straightforward way, not trying to lure the GOP candidates into traps but not tossing softballs either.

The point is not to absolve Clinton for not answering questions or to criticize Bush and Rubio for having done so, but to just observe that every time candidates make themselves available for a press question, they expose themselves to a potential mistake. It takes time for a candidate to get mentally into this high-stakes, no safety-net game. It is true that it has been a while since Clinton and Bush have put themselves out there for a campaign (seven years for Clinton, 13 years for Bush) and that Rubio has never had every word parsed to the extent that they are today, but every potential presidential contender should have carefully thought out responses to the 50 or so most potentially problematic questions. The odds of getting an original and unanticipated tough question are quite small. So Clinton is erring on the too-careful side while Bush and Rubio err on the insufficiently careful end of the spectrum. The best place is in the middle, allowing a moderate degree of exposure but being carefully prepared to deal with most any tough question. Of course at this point, only journalists and political aficionados are paying attention; normal people won't focus on this contest until this fall.

The other surprising development is that Bush exposed, to many of us, an unanticipated weakness. It was well-understood that Bush was facing stiff ideological headwinds, running in a party that has become significantly more conservative than when Bush held office, from 1999-2007. His problems include the immigration and education issues (specifically the Common Core curriculum), as well as "brother" and dynasty questions. But the widely held expectation was that he was already a presidential level performer who could play at this level. Now Bush and Rubio, who has enjoyed being the flavor of the last month, are showing that they haven't completely nailed playing on this skill level, reinforcing the flatness of this field. At this point, Bush and Rubio each have no better chance of winning the nomination than do Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has displayed similar problems, or Sen. Ted Cruz and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Sen. Rand Paul has to demonstrate that certain positions, on foreign policy and other issues, don't limit his potential to expand his support enough to win a nomination.

Every week that goes by, we see underscored just how wide open this race is, how flat the field is, and why this GOP nomination contest is going to go a very long distance. We also see why Hillary Clinton's low-risk strategy may incur frequent and short-term pain but, in terms of nailing down the nomination, has a long-term gain.