Conservative Pundits Switch To Offense Now that George W. Bush has gone from "President" to "former President," media partisans find themselves switching sides of the court. Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg says that being out of power is "simply a lot more fun."
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Conservative Pundits Switch To Offense

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Conservative Pundits Switch To Offense

Conservative Pundits Switch To Offense

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A changing of the guard here in Washington yesterday, and not just a Democrat in the White House for the first time in eight years, but expanded Democratic majorities on both sides of Capitol Hill. And while the Republican Party might be in some disarray, some conservative commentators revel in the switch from defense to offense. Columnist Jonah Goldberg says there is, quote, real benefit to being out in the wilderness. He told USA Today, it's simply a lot more fun to be out of power. So, what role do you think media partisans ought to play, and is it easier to snipe from the sidelines? Our phone number, 800-989-8255; email us, You can just click on Talk of the Nation when you get there. Jonah Goldberg, editor at large of the National Review Online, a columnist also for the Los Angeles Times, with us by phone from Washington, D.C. Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. JONAH GOLDBERG (Editor at Large, National Review Online): Hey, great to be here.

CONAN: And is it really more fun to be out of power? Or are you just taking your electoral lemons and making lemonade?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, no, I'm quite serious about that. I mean, it is more fun. In fact, I don't know many columnists who think otherwise unless they define what it means to be a columnist by the quality of the cocktail parties they get invited to and the joy of being able to visit the president in the Oval Office. But as a writer and as a critic and all of the rest, it's just a lot easier and a lot more fun to be outside taking potshots, as it were, shooting from the peanut gallery or asking pointed questions than it is to be defending the hard work that is governing. Now, let me just say the fun is not necessarily the highest value in what we do. It may be more fun, but I would still rather have competent, good conservatives in government than competent, good liberals in government. But as a consolation prize, it's just a lot easier. I think the one thing that - whatever the merits of the specific arguments and all the rest, the one thing I think that both left and right can agree on, perhaps for different reasons, is that it's been pretty hard work defending the Bush administration over the last eight years.

CONAN: I suspect that may be right, yeah.

Mr. GOLDBERG: And it's going to be, you know - even though I think there's going to be a lot of institutional headwind against, you know, criticizing people who criticize Barack Obama, and I don't think we're going to hear, dissent of the highest form of patriotism, nearly as much as we used to - it is nonetheless going to be a lot easier to be asking sort of backseat-driver questions about what, you know, the Democrats are doing than it is to defend the sometimes very difficult decisions that the Republicans made, some of which were just bad decisions, over the last eight years.

CONAN: So, this is on the principle that it's a lot easier to pan a movie than to praise it.

Mr. GOLDBERG: I think that's right. It's also - and it's a heck of a lot easier to criticize a movie than to make one...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's a...

Mr. GOLDBERG: Which is the joy of being a columnist to begin with. But I think that - and it's also - it's important - there's a sociological thing here, too. The conservative movement was born in the wilderness. We have it in our DNA to sort of stand - you know, William F. Buckley put it, to stand before history yelling, stop. The modern conservative movement was born with Barry Goldwater's defeat. What - Ronald Reagan was in the wilderness for over a decade as a politician, you know, calling attention to the wrong direction that we were going in. The conservative movement is very good at making these arguments, and frankly, I think the Republicans - I don't take any great pride being a Republican; I take considerable pride in being a conservative. You know, the Republicans - whatever the merits of the Democrats, the Republicans deserved to be punished at the polls because they'd really lost their way, and a lot of conservatives like me are very much looking forward to the internal debates and fights about how they get our affairs back in order.

CONAN: What about the tone of the debate, though? George Bush deplored the tone - he may not have done a great deal to improve it - but nevertheless, deplored the tone in Washington D.C. We have, going back to the Clinton administration, well, the terrible sniping that goes on - what was it? - the politics of personal destruction that sometimes gets cited in Washington, D.C. Can people disagree and still be civil?

Mr. GOLDBERG: I think so. I certainly hope so. And I think it's worth pointing out - because I'm not sure a lot of people appreciate it - while there was real - and I indict myself in this - while there was real and sincere gut-level Clinton hatred, out there and I don't think there's anyone who can dispute that there was real and sincere gut-level Bush hatred, there is not a lot of Obama hatred on the right. There's a lot of Obama criticism, and I'm personally willing to lead that chorus, or at least be part of that chorus, but I don't know - I just don't - I haven't met a lot of conservatives or Republicans who have anything like an emotional, visceral dislike for the man. And that - who knows? That may change. But we may disagree with his policies and all of the rest, but I think there's a real sense this is a pretty decent guy and he's got a hard job ahead of them. You know, I think The Onion headline had it sort of right, you know, when they said you know, America gives the hardest job in the world to black man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOLDBERG: There's a certain sense that, my God, this guy has got a lot of, you know, a lot of problems in front of him to deal with, and conservatives are Americans, too, and they take that stuff seriously. So, I'm hoping - you know, I think there are a lot of conservatives, after having to endure so much of the vitriol that has come from the left about Bush over the last eight years, I think there is perhaps even more eagerness on the right to - or at least equal eagerness on the right to - sort of get beyond a lot of the really bilious and poisonous sort of interparty debate that we've had over the last few years.


KEN RUDIN: Well, yeah, Jonah, I agree with you completely. I mean, part of it was that the Clintons love to egg on the right. I mean, Hillary Clinton would talk about the vast right-wing conspiracy, and George Bush, obviously, coming off his 2000 election, was just, you know, controversial to begin with. I always felt that Newt Gingrich was happiest when he was in the minority party, and then when he became speaker, he had to defend things that were just more difficult. I also wonder what Keith Olbermann, people like Keith Olbermann, are going to have to deal with, because he is in the obverse situation you're in; he's going to have to defend or at least he won't have that Bush target that he'd love to pick on every night.

Mr. GOLDBERG: I think that's right, and I think there are going to be a lot of people who - and I think Olbermann is probably a perfect an example of it - who can't let go. You know, you see this push, you know, John Conyers wants to have truth and reconciliation or war-crimes tribunals and all that kind of stuff. And you know - but some investigations are probably inevitable and probably necessary and all of the rest, but when on the rare occasions I have tuned into Keith Olbermann of late, you really get the sense that he cannot let go of his anger over the last eight years. Whether it's justified or not is another debate. And I think that's going to turn - if that crowd, if that sliver of the Democratic Party and the net roots(ph) and stuff can't let go and is admired in the past, I think it's going to hurt the image of their larger cause.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Our guests, of course, Political Junkie Ken Rudin and Jonah Goldberg, who's editor at large of National Review Online and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Clifton with us, Clifton calling from Phoenix.

CLIFTON (Caller): Yes, hello.


CLIFTON: I just had two points. My first is that it seems like - yeah, I know there are people out there that sort of make their career out of, you know, putting everyone at each other's throats, you know, in a partisan way. But it seems like, you know, that the people that actually support that, you know, the rest of us consumers, are less inclined to, you know, start cheering them on when we've got so many economic troubles and other troubles around the world. You know, things are going great, you know, everyone, you know, has all this free time and they can go out and really, you know, stick it to the liberals or the conservatives. But when, you know, everyone is out of jobs and we, you know, we realize we have to unite in order to get things done, it's really something that sort of falls by wayside.

CONAN: And in time of war as well. Jonah Goldberg, I think he has a point.

Mr. GOLDBERG: No, I do, too. I think the patience for some of the -you know, I think there's a merit to some of the culture-war fights and all the rest. The patience for that stuff as a political reality I think is going to be very, very short. And I think Barack Obama has signaled, as Ken was saying, has signaled time and again that he doesn't want to have those fights and he is trying to sort of be a national figure that transcends a lot of that stuff. And I think that's smart politically, and sort of someone has to make the first move to get in to the ticky-tacky stuff, and I don't know who's sort of eager to do that.

CONAN: Clifton, thanks.

CLIFTON: You're welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Sam in Cambridge, Massachusetts: Your conservative guest ignores one important fact. It'll be more fun for conservatives in the opposition because an Obama office will be much more respectful of engaging them in a truthful discussion and answering them seriously compared with the Bush administration's disrespect and ignoring of their opposition's queries. Well, that remains to be seen. But nevertheless, there's a point to be made there, too.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Yes. I mean, fine. I also think this is getting us back to the sort of, you know, blame Bush for - you know, Bush deserves all of the hatred he received and it's his fault for, you know, making us so mad at him, and that's an argument that I'm weary of and I'm not sure is worth having.

CONAN: Would you be surprised, Jonah Goldberg, if - this is total speculation on my part and don't read anything into this - but if something like a former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, were run into some serious troubles over the dismissal of U.S. attorneys and if that might not be something that might satisfy, to some degree, that anger you were talking about from some in the Democratic Party?

Mr. GOLDBERG: It might. Look, I mean, in politics, you know, the Democrats - there are some people in the Democratic Party who are basically werewolves, right? And they have to feed on something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOLDBERG: And maybe, you know, Alberto Gonzales would, as a political reality, make a lot of sense insofar there are not a lot of conservatives who would lift that lot of fingers to defend Alberto Gonzales. He was not a particularly popular person on the right and was not considered - was not held in a very esteem. But if it's something that goes to the heart of, you know, sort of wanting to have war-crimes prosecutions against Dick Cheney and all that kind of stuff, then the Pandora's Box gets opened and we go, I think, right back to square one.

CONAN: We're talking with Jonah Goldberg of the National Review Online and the Los Angeles Times; of course, Political Junkie Ken Rudin with us as well. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's go to Frank, Frank with us from Keene in New Hampshire.

FRANK (Caller): Yes. My belief is that there's a whole industry out there who has a - making a living on the idea of attacking the left and liberals. Nobody has mentioned Rush Loudmouth(ph), who has been around for how many years, just making it a daily proposition to attack the left. Nobody has made any reference to the fact that Bill Clinton was impeached for a sexual peccadillo, not for killing a whole nation of people. It's as though - when you listen to Goldberg and company, it's as though, oh, somehow the left only has a vendetta, but the right is completely without sin. It's not the case at all. I read the sort of dialectical acuity of Mr. Goldberg everyday in our King Sentinel, every third day or so, and there's nothing impartial about his views whatsoever. I think he might first of all look into himself.

Secondly, I would say that the genius of Obama is that he had said, enough of the gamesmanship in American politics. If the right hates the left and the left hates the right automatically, and there's some kind of great rewards for this, some stakes at this, we're never going to get anything done. So, when Sarah Palin said he palled around with terrorists, he didn't bother answering her. He had a preacher, who was against gays and against the proposition - and for the proposition to end gay marriage in California. He did that. He's big enough to say, even in my own constituency, my country comes first.

Edmund Burke, who was the father of conservatism, supported the American Revolution but opposed the French Revolution. Why? Because he said it, why, it's because of what the Republicans and the conservatives in Congress are going to have to do now. They're not going to pass to be automatically opposed to everything Obama presents, but on any particular bill or any particular situation, they will oppose him and do so on principle, not because they hate him merely because he's a Democrat...

CONAN: Just what...

FRANK: And until they get back to the roots of conservatism - which was not Goldwater, it was Edmund Burke, "Reflections on the Revolution in France." Until they get back to the idea that this isn't just a long-lasting ideological struggle, but as a matter of fact, liberalism and conservatism applies to whatever situation is being tested at the time.

CONAN: Frank, just to point out, President Clinton was not impeached for a sexual peccadillo, but for lying about it under oath. But in any case, there's a lot in there. Let's turn to Jonah Goldberg. And let's take out the last part; do you think Republicans and conservatives are going to be reflexively opposed to anything that President Obama, a very popular right now President Obama, proposes? And do you think that that's going to be a bad thing if they're not.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, not at all. I don't think there's any evidence of that. Let me say for the record, I completely concede that there is on the right a sort of permanent protest, anti-left machinery. And some of the work they do is perfectly fine by me. There's also a similar machine on the left. That's part of the democracy. And I never dispute it otherwise. In terms of the Republicans supporting Obama, you know, you have the leader of the Republicans in the Senate who drew his forthright line in the sand saying, the stimulus bill can be no more than $1 trillion. That is a Republican Party that is largely going along with what Barack Obama is trying to do. Timothy Geithner, who I actually think should be denied confirmation, is getting support for most of the Senate Republicans because they want to give Barack Obama his treasury Secretary, given the political climate.

I think, so far, the evidence is that the Republicans have been very conciliatory and supportive as a - you know, it's certainly as far as the loyal opposition should towards Barack Obama. And I think that's ultimate good. You only have one president at a time. And so far, I think he has done a pretty good job of, you know, in terms of the transition and all of the rest and saying the right things. I don't like the way Barack Obama talks about ideology, and you know, he basically says the people who disagree - you know, he basically says ideas that differ from his own are ideological and he's just about common sense, and I think that is a preemptive way to frame the debate so that people who disagree with him are seen as beyond the pale. I don't like the way he does that.

But so far, you know, that's been his rhetoric. The reality of what he has been doing has been pretty inclusive. I thought it was a brilliant thing for him to go to George Will's house and have dinner with some of my colleagues. And so far, I'm perfectly willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and many conservatives are actually looking forward to the fact that his biggest fights may well, in fact, be with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and that crowd.

CONAN: The leaders of the House and Senate respectively. Jonah Goldberg, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Mr. GOLDBERG: It's great to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: We should point out Jonah Goldberg, unable to join us in the studio today because of his dedication to family values. He had to inherit a little child care today. So, that's why he joins us from his home here in Washington, D.C. He is, of course, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and editor at large of the National Review Online. Ken Rudin, our Political Junkie, you can read his Political Junkie blog - I think he's still writing that - at Thanks as always, Ken.

RUDIN: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Tomorrow, a special broadcast Talk of the World; we'll talk with those of you in our worldwide audience. What role should the U.S. now play in the world, policeman or partner? We hope you'll join us tomorrow, Talk of the World from NPR News, and this is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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