Charles Krauthammer: America’s top conservative columnist?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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“It’s a very odd thing,” Charles Krauthammer said responding to a question about having become arguably the most important conservative columnist in America. “I’m doing the very same thing that I’ve been doing for the last 25-30 years … [but] as they say, ‘after 30 years, I became an overnight sensation.”

This wasn’t mere flattery. In a 2009 Politico piece, Ben Smith called him “a central conservative voice” and New York Times columnist David Brooks referred to him as “the most important conservative columnist right now.” Considering the competition (including George Will, Bill Kristol and others), that is quite a compliment.

During a comprehensive and far-reaching interview with The Daily Caller on Friday, Krauthammer discussed (on camera) entitlement reform, the debate over raising debt ceiling, the 2012 GOP field, the liklihood of a Paul Ryan presidential campaign, and his love for baseball. But it was his status as perhaps the conservative opinion leader that most interested me.

Watch: Krauthammer discuss his status as America’s most influential conservative political commentator

“I’m sort of the last man standing,” he explained, arguing that much of his success was simply due to the fact that a lot of great conservative columnists have retired or passed away in recent years.

Whatever the case, as often happens, the rise of a new political leader (in this case, Barack Obama) also provided opportunities for new adversaries. And Krauthammer, who has been writing opinion columns for decades, has emerged as perhaps the most formidable intellectual adversary.

“The White House reads him and listens to him, even as they disagree with and occasionally mock his point of view,” said National Journal’s White House Correspondent, Marc Ambinder. “Krauthammer matters.”

He probably doesn’t reach the number of people as, say, a Rush Limbaugh. But while Limbaugh and other conservative talk show hosts serve an important function, Krauthammer’s role as a columnist making the intellectual case for (his brand of) conservatism is also vital.

Of course, Krauthammer’s status as an intellectually honest truth-teller sometimes causes problems with a conservative base that views criticism of conservatives and praise for Obama as a sign of weakness (or worse — apostasy). He attended the now-famous dinner with Obama and conservative pundits, but he tells me he hasn’t been invited back since. (Part of the reason may be that he publicly refused to attend an early Obama press conference — overturning George W. Bush’s executive order on stem cell research — for fear he would be used as a prop.)

But despite snubbing Obama and regularly criticizing his liberal policies (most recently, Obama’s notion of “leading from behind“), Krauthammer’s praise of the president’s speech at the Tucson Memorial Service following the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabby Giffords led Limbaugh to imply he was part of the “ruling class.”

And his criticism of Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell (he argued she was unelectable and that conservatives should follow “The [William F.] Buckley rule” and nominate the most conservative candidates who can win) — as well as his past comments about Sarah Palin — and his recent back-and-forth with Donald Trump — caused a rift with some grassroots conservatives.

Krauthammer admits that he gets “papal scrutiny for even an aside” he makes on television, but also said that all the criticism doesn’t bother him: “I had a pretty good life in medicine and I quit to do this … Why would I be doing this if it were not to advance the things I really believe in?”

Watch: Krauthammer discuss being attacked by his critics

In this regard, he may be the pundit version of Ronald Reagan — a man who had known success in his past life, and thus, did not need the affirmation of the crowds. As RealClearPolitics’ Washington Editor Carl Cannon told me, “agree with him or disagree with him, it just seems obvious that his motivations are on a higher plane.”

The story of his career is quite remarkable. A polymath, Krauthammer has come a long way since abandoning his career as a Harvard-trained psychiatrist in order to pursue political opinion writing. Ironically, his office today (located near The Palm in D.C.) is just across the street, overlooking the office he worked in when he joined The New Republic as editor back in 1981.

He also worked as a speechwriter for Walter Mondale. Explaining his evolution, he told me: “On foreign policy, the old [Democratic] party I knew … I thought was pretty tough.” On domestic issues, he was a Great Society liberal: “But then, by the early 1980s, empirical evidence began to come in on what The Great Society was doing…I am a former doctor. I’ve done a lot of science, I’m open to empirical evidence,” he said.

“He has an amazing gift for putting into words what people were thinking,” says former White House press secretary Dana Perino (Who’s new job at Crown Forum will include publishing Krauthammer’s first-ever book). “Once, I got a standing ovation at a speech to Republican women just for mentioning him.”

To the extent Krauthammer has become the leading conservative columnist, one might conclude that his ideas have prevailed within the conservative movement, whereas the non-interventionist ideas of his friend and fellow columnist George Will have not.  (This is lamentable to many conservatives.) During our conversation, Krauthammer praised Will as, “the most concise and incisive television commentator in the history of the medium,” and sought to explain their differing brands of conservatism: “George represents a certain point of view…I’d say he’s more of a Tory. And I guess I would say I’m more of…a sort of Democratist.”