The Middle Man

From our September print issue:

As a journalist, I've worked for both the George Soros-funded Washington Independent and the libertarian Reason magazine. I've mostly covered Republicans and conservatives, but I've also paid plenty of attention to liberals to know what they wanted to read about. I have shared a stage with Van Jones and appeared at events sponsored by conservative manufacturing magnates the Koch brothers. I called Sarah Palin's decision to attack a biographer who moved next door "despicable" and also defended Rand Paul from the charge that his debate-class problems with the Civil Rights Act meant that he was a racist.

I have gotten on everybody's nerves.

An important fact about Washington -- and one of the reasons activists outside the Beltway have so much contempt for the city -- is that close contact with partisan types ameliorates their partisanship. That's not to say that political activists don't stand up for their beliefs. They do. They just have trouble picking fights with people they know -- and they tend to stick to their own.

When you've spent as much time as I have ping-ponging from one end of the ideological spectrum to the other, you come to the conclusion that you have two options. One: You can make a Prisoner Number 6 escape from one of these worlds, burning everything as you flee, and hope to snag a contract for a tell-all book with a punny title when you've safely reached the other side. Two: You can try to get along with everybody.

I took the second route.

It was easier than it sounds. Flitting between two ideological camps wasn't so tough in 2007 and 2008, when Republicans lacked faith in their own leaders and Democrats -- well, when have Democrats ever had faith in their leaders? In those years, any conservative who'd defend the Bush administration was announcing to the rest of us that he (usually a he, for some reason) was a shill, a dupe, a hack unwilling to recognize just how badly his president had wrecked his movement and his country.

Building trust with conservatives in those days meant meeting them halfway when it came to their shame. If I wanted to get along with a Republican staffer at an annual crabs-and-beer party on the banks of the Potomac, I would ask him how he felt about his job. His answer? Obviously, he felt terrible. Maybe his boss would survive but probably didn't deserve to. And anyway, George W. Bush had betrayed conservatism and tainted it for a generation by blowing up the deficit to post-World War II record levels, miring us in an Asian land war, and kick-starting the debate over Social Security privatization in a manner that made the goal less attainable than ever before. Now let's stop talking about this and open more crabs.

Getting people to talk to me like this didn't require any kind of a ruse. I agreed with them. It was easy to agree with the many conservatives who wanted to build whatever they saw as a "decent right," a movement free of scandal and conspiracy theories that didn't have to apologize for its record. After the 2008 election, when they finally lost control of all but one lever of power (the courts are the exception, but they move too slowly and undemocratically to instill real pride), they were re-energized and blissful. I'd strike up a conversation about the latest prediction of the "end of conservatism" or bring up the subject of the stimulus bill; they'd open right up and foresee the Obama administration's doom.

Liberals were easy to get along with, too, because they basically sought the same thing when they spoke to people who traveled outside their tribe -- skepticism, shot-calling, and intel about their political foes. I didn't fully understand this until I joined JournoList, an off-the-record e-mail group founded by Prospect alum Ezra Klein. The list had been around for two years, but I was only asked to join after I had moved from Reason to the Independent -- the Soros-funded mag -- and had garnered sufficiently liberal credentials so that I no longer seemed like some kind of libertarian interloper.

Meanwhile, I was still bouncing between the two ideological camps. In the morning I'd head to an off-the-record conservative meeting or a Republican event and find out what the right was up to. When I got a break, I'd dive into a JournoList thread and find out what the left was buzzing about. Then I'd climb back out and fraternize with the right. If it sounds exhausting, it wasn't. Liberals and conservatives were talking about many of the same topics.

Then in April, I moved from the liberal Independent to the no-ideology-please-we're-journalists Washington Post. At the end of June, someone sent excerpts of my old JournoList e-mails -- snippets of the times I said cruel things about some of the people I was covering -- to Washington gossip sites. I resigned, and for a good three or four hours I really wondered if it were going to be possible for me to keep doing that minuet between D.C.'s liberal and conservative worlds.

Well, what do you know? It is. And I think I know why. It might be hard for Washingtonians to understand -- or even respect -- ideologically pixilated journalists. But it's harder for me to imagine taking one side and gluing myself to it. You go to enough panels on the Future of the Left and How It Is Doomed (2006) or the Future of the Right and Why It Will Never Recover (2008), and you learn a few things.

First: You never want to be the true believer defending everything your party or movement does, whether it's George W. Bush's record on homeownership rates or the idea that John Edwards was ever qualified to hold office.

Second: You need to have your B.S. scanned and verified. Congressional majorities die when the parties become overconfident in their ideas and more concerned about self-protection than the policies they're passing. Most ideologues, pundits, and think-tankers like to talk to skeptics. And if they don't like to, they either learn to do it anyway -- or relish browbeating people who don't agree with them.

Third: Even though most of Washington seems to thrive on the agony and ecstasy of rooting for one team, it can be fun to stake out some space in the middle. But, as I learned, the fun also requires some tempering and discipline.

And, finally if you are going to have to have a career crisis, you might as well have it over a failure to be tactful enough. That's a tic everyone in this town can identify with.

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