By: Joe Strupp
Ask Charles Krauthammer what he thinks of covering a liberal Democrat like Barack Obama after eight years of George W. Bush, and the conservative columnist will tell you there is a definite upside. “It is a lot easier to be in opposition, it is easier to criticize,” he says. While he agreed with the former president’s policies and wishes John McCain had won, Krauthammer admits a certain eagerness in having someone in the White House with whom he will more than likely disagree.
“It is actually more challenging when the side you are ideologically attuned with is in power,” says Krauthammer, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who is syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group. “I take an ideological approach to politics that is different than most Democrats.”
Tony Blankley, the former editorial page editor of The Washington Times and current Creators Syndicate weekly columnist, agrees: “National Review was probably more fun to read during the [Jimmy] Carter years. You don’t feel the need to equivocate or apologize. It is easier to be in opposition.”
Krauthammer says that even when Bush was in power, he and other conservative columnists had a more difficult time because of what he believes is a pro-liberal media. “The media bias is so overwhelming, I don’t even complain about it,” he said. “It is always harder for a conservative, no matter who is in power.”
Columnist George Will, also with the Post Writers Group, says the ideological shift is not necessarily a big factor in his approach, although he adds, “I will be looking at Democrats with a kind of squint, because they get things wrong. If you are a conservative, you think Democrats are apt to make more mistakes.”
But Will notes that Obama is coming into office at a time when the country is in such disarray, it will be hard to judge him without taking the situation into account: “Conservatives can’t be absolutely confident about what we do next because we have not been in this pickle before.” Perhaps that’s one reason that in mid-January, Will hosted at his suburban Maryland home a dinner meeting ? a literal breaking of bread ? with Obama and several notable conservative pundits, almost all from the print (not TV) side.
The government’s financial rescue efforts may bring an urgency to the “right” arguments, Will claims. “The Bush administration has in the last four months changed the relationship between the government and the economy more than in the last 75 years,” he says. “The conservative’s job is to press for and express why we need an exit policy from all of this intervention.” He also says he does not need a Democrat in office to find opinion topics: “I don’t have a day that I don’t have anything to write about.”
Blankley adds, “for the opening of an administration, what does it mean to be in a honeymoon period? Whether you should criticize in areas where you disagree? I think conservatives are split, some want to give the benefit of the doubt.” He points to the somewhat subdued original reaction to Obama’s choice for Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, who had failed to pay income taxes years ago. “If this had happened two years ago, in the middle of an administration, they would have [immediately] called for him to step down.” The protest eventually did build.
Cal Thomas of Tribune Media Services says he approaches all new presidents with “a blank slate,” but knows he will have more to take on with Obama than Bush ? citing abortion, one of his longtime issues, as among the first: “I think it would be an enormous mistake if he strikes down the few remaining restrictions on abortion. It would be a mistake to immediately close Guantanamo,” which turned out to be one of Obama’s first acts.
Like Krauthammer, Thomas happily predicts more fodder for his columns. “It will give me more to write about, because I expect a lot to be done with which I don’t agree,” he says. “A car wreck gets more attention than one that arrives safely.” But he adds, “the Democrats have to guard against the same thing the Republicans did not, which is overreaching.”
Then there is Morton Kondracke, syndicated by United Features and a top editor at Roll Call as well as one of Fox News’ “Beltway Boys.” He claims to be a moderate, but often offers conservative views. Kondracke says Obama’s biggest problem has been not providing access to the more conservative and moderate columnists: “The Obama campaign has been much more closed to me than I think I deserve. From the beginning, when I tried to interview him, I couldn’t get the press office to respond to my requests. Clinton people would have little gatherings all the time to give their point of view or explain their policies.”
Kondracke’s comments came before Obama met with Will, Krauthammer and others at the mid-January sit-down. Kondracke wasn’t included, but those who were said it eased things slightly. “It gives you some better feel for the person,” says Krauthammer. “Now that you have laid eyes on him and experienced him for a few hours, you have a finer understanding.”
But Krauthammer adds that Bill Clinton had at least three such meetings with conservative scribes, and they didn’t greatly alter his view of the 42nd president.
Yet all of those who spoke with E&P said they understand the need to wish success to Obama ? or any new president ? and to recognize the historic element of the first black commander-in-chief. “I wish the first African-American president had been a Republican, and a conservative one,” says Thomas. “But I am very proud of my country.”
Blankley notes, “Americans want success, and Americans don’t want you jumping down the throat of the new president.” Adds Krauthammer, “I do approach it with the naive citizen view that we want him to succeed.”