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Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes on the leftward slipping of Politico.com

Monday, January 17, 2011
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HH: Joined now by Fred Barnes, Weekly Standard executive editor and Fox News all-star. Hello, Fred.

FB: Hi, Hugh, glad you’re back.

HH: I am glad to be back. Fred, I wrote a piece about Politico.com on Saturday. Did you have a chance…

FB: I read it. I did read it. I agreed with it.

HH: Well, do you think we are alone? Or does everyone inside the Beltway kind of know that Politico’s gone left?

FB: Well, that’s a good question, and I don’t know the answer to that. It had occurred to me. I hadn’t written it or said it, and I’d never heard anybody say that to me. But when I read your column, it certainly rang true.

HH: Let me play for you a little bit of my conversation with John Harris, editor of Politico from last hour.

HH: Have you heard from others besides me that they believe Politico has been pulled left?

JH: I have not.

HH: You’ve not heard from anyone?

JH: I have not. I have heard from a bunch of people who sent your blog post or your column the other day on, Hugh.

HH: And no one else, though?

JH: So you’ve got an audience of followers. That’s why I take your views seriously.

HH: But I’m just curious. I’m the only one out there who said John, when you publish a headline that says, “Retreads still drive GOP agenda”, on the same day you publish another headline that says, “Administration reunites Clinton centrists,”…

JH: Well, you’re just comparing apples and oranges, Hugh.

HH: Fred, am I comparing apples and oranges?

FB: No, I don’t think so. And look, I like Politico, and I would exempt any drift to the left certainly Mike Allen, as you do, calling him a force of nature…

HH: Yes.

FB: …which I think he is. Jonathan Martin’s another one who, these happen to be two Politico writers who are among their main people who are both people I know. But one of the things, when I read Politico every day, I think you know, you would think that Republicans lost on November 2nd.

HH: Yeah.

FB: …and not Democrats. I mean, they really, a friend of mine on Capitol Hill says, almost every day, he said well, that’s more Politico typical wedge-driving. They’re always trying to drive a wedge between Republicans and, whether it’s the Tea Party people, or it’s between Paul Ryan and the freshmen coming in, or it’s between John Boehner and the freshmen or something, it’s this wedge-driving over and over again. And they don’t do it, they certainly don’t do it with Democrats to the same degree. And so there have…look, I had noticed it. I hadn’t written it and said it on TV or on the radio that they seem to be drifting to the left, or at least buying into the Beltway analysis on politics to some extent. But when I read your column, Hugh, I thought there it is. I emailed it to a lot of people as a result, because I thought it was correct.

HH: Oh, you’re the one. Okay, now Fred, let me ask you…

FB: No, there are two of us.

HH: There are two of us. Let me ask you about Joe Scarborough. I’ll bet you that we agree – wonderful guy, has decent center-right credentials, he was a good conservative Congressman, but he has gone Beltway on us in a way that, you know, reflects being at MSNBC every day.

FB: You know, and what do they want on MSNBC? This is my view. They want to have a token conservative there, but they just don’t want him to sound conservative. It’s like a columnist who liberal papers want. They want to have a conservative, but they don’t want him to write conservative columns. What they want is, and this is what I think they want, whether they know it or not from Joe Scarborough, they want him to be the conservative who criticizes other conservatives.

HH: Yeah. It’s a niche that CNN uses Dave Frum for, that Politico uses, and MSNBC uses Joe Scarborough for. If they want a conservative, you go out, and you want traffic, let’s nominate somebody. I’d throw…you can’t do it, I can’t do it. We’re out of this conversation, because I am at Townhall, you’re at Weekly Standard. But you would throw as much money at Mark Steyn as you could to get him to write your conservative column on Politico, wouldn’t you?

FB: Sure. Oh, and you talk about increasing your hits online, or your circulation of your print copy, he’d be terrific. You know, it’s always…look, I love David Brooks. He worked for the Weekly Standard, he’s a good friend of mine. But he’s not, he’s certainly not a movement conservative to say the least. And so he’s on PBS debating with Mark Shields. He’s the conservative. You know, sometimes they would have Dave Gergen as the conservative.

HH: Yeah, I know. That was funny. I love that. Or you would go get someone like Victor Davis Hanson. It’s not like we don’t know who you could get. So my question is why doesn’t anyone that’s perceived as left-leaning, like Politico, and way left leaning like MSNBC or CNN, why don’t they do that?

FB: Because they don’t want somebody, just because their view of the world, and I would ascribe this to MSNBC, I don’t know yet about Politico, because I think this is a fairly recent phenomenon that they seem to have drifted to the left, only in the last few months.

HH: Yeah.

FB: And look, I go to Politico, I read it every day, I’ll read many, many of the columns, and I like it. So let me just say that. But the instinct in Washington, for instance, Hugh, if you wanted, if you called up, I’d bet if you called up the Washington Post today, and you said look, I’m just fed up with these mealy-mouthed House Republicans who haven’t done squat since they won the House on November 2nd, and I’d like to write a column really attacking them, your column would be there the next day.

HH: Ching ching, $400 dollars headed my way. You betcha.

FB: Yeah, yeah.

HH: That’s what you get for being a bad conservative.

FB: And that’s the way it works.

HH: Let me ask you about what Scarborough…

FB: Look, my colleague, Bill Kristol, was a columnist for the New York Times for one year.

HH: Yeah.

FB: And they wouldn’t renew his contract. And in my view, the reason they didn’t is he was a conservative who wrote conservative columns.

HH: Yeah.

FB: Every week. He wrote one a week. They were conservative columns. And that’s not what they wanted.

HH: Now let me get to the very greatest sin of the Scarborough column, and the greatest problem I had talking to John Harris. Joe Scarborough writes, “No one should give a free pass to talk show hosts and their political guests who have spent the last several years spreading hate speech in search of big ratings, political contributions, and book sales. As I have said for years,” Joe writes, “such hateful words have consequences,” clearly implying Tucson is the result of broadcast hate speech. I asked John that, and John said well, I don’t agree with the term hate speech, but there, and I’m paraphrasing here, we’ll get the exact quote later, there’s a lot of extreme stuff out there. This is a specificity-free slander, Fred Barnes. They never point. And when in the past people have pointed to different things allegedly said by Rush, he didn’t say them, or Beck. I don’t know if Beck says them or not. But I don’t understand how any responsible editor can let a columnist write something like this. Would you?

FB: No, but then, you know, I’m in a different business. We have a conservative magazine, and we don’t spend a lot of time attacking other conservatives, among other things. But that’s a perfect column that they would like from Joe Scarborough. That’s what you want from him. You want him insinuating or whatever, but attacking other conservatives. Look, the other thing, and I don’t know whether it’s a sin at Politico, but it is certainly a sin of the mainstream media, they act like any tough criticism, anything that might be not civil in our political discourse, began with the election of Barack Obama. And they seem to forget that in a much harsher terms, and much more threatening terms, and in much more violent sounding terms, was the language used against George W. Bush for nearly eight years.

HH: And that whole argument, and in fact, I read to John Harris…his bio, Fred, over at Politico, writes, “We have assembled a team of reporters and editors who will wake up each day looking for fresh ways to attack the best political stories on Capitol Hill.” I mean, that’s hate speech in the world of some of the crazies out there now. But it’s not.

FB: It is. Look…

HH: It’s metaphor.

FB: We have a lot of great reporters…

HH: Yeah.

FB: …at Politico, and the truth is, they shouldn’t let this happen to them, because one of the things you said in your column, which I agreed with, was that you, and I think countless others and myself, were looking for Politico to be something different – to write about politics in a straight way that didn’t tilt ideologically, or in any sort of biased way for one part or the other, just great political reporting. And the truth is, they have had a lot of that. It’s just in recent months, they’ve sort of drifted off into…and look, the undertow in Washington is always to the left.

HH: Yup.

FB: Never to the right. And I think they’ve suffered some from that.

HH: Let me ask you while we have time as well. Have you had a chance to read Ryan Lizza’s piece on Darrell Issa in the new New Yorker?

FB: I haven’t read it yet. I have a copy right here. I printed it out for myself. What about it?

HH: It is very interesting how Darrell Issa’s staff is trying to set him up as a favorite of Beltway media, and eschewing the people on the right who are out in the hinterlands, and bloggers, et cetera. And I think to myself, if the Republican party falls for this, they will lose, Fred, if they fall for the lure of the Beltway approval.

FB: Well, look, it is very powerful. We see it happen all the time. There’s this…years ago, the American Spectator started writing about strange new respect…

HH: (laughing) I remember that.

FB: Strange new respect is what you get when you’re a conservative who moves to the left when you’re in Washington.

HH: Yeah.

FB: And it happened, Alan Simpson was a good example, and you can think of an awful lot of them. Conservatives who move to the left, then all of a sudden the accolades in Washington come pouring in.

HH: Yeah, when you grow in office.

FB: Grow in office. That’s another way of putting it, yes.

HH: Fred Barnes, always a pleasure, www.weeklystandard.com. Thank you, Fred.

End of interview.

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