April 17, 2008 8:39 a.m.

From TPM Reader JB, a former hill staffer …

You had a post late this morning about the conservative columnists granted Op-Ed space by The New York Times.

As a rule I don’t worry much about which columnists get regular columns in the major newspapers, though many people seem to get very exercised about this. There are a lot of columnists who get space simply because they’ve been around for a long time, and others who benefit from personal relationships with newpaper management. And, you know, big deal. It’s not as if Mel Kiper is out there rating prospects for major newspapers to draft (you know, the Times needs a conservative columnist, good motor, never takes a column off, good in the newsroom, etc. I guess that joke kind of depends on whether you know who Mel Kiper is).

Seriously, though, what is a conservative columnist these days. Specifically, how has the definition of “conservative” changed in the last few years? I’d argue that it’s changed quite a lot. At least part of the litmus test for whether one is a conservative involves one’s perspective on George Bush. By that standard, William Kristol is a conservative and I am not. By the pre-Bush standard, of course, I’d be considered more conservative than Kristol (even Kristol, a McCain supporter in 2000, was not viewed by some Republicans as the conservative he is now seen to be).

Kristol can be counted on to take the pro-administration position on most issues, and to a lot of people, that’s what conservatism is all about right now. Unfortunately (from my point of view) the equation of conservatism and support for the Bush administration is made not only by much of the GOP’s hard core but also by many voters now paying serious attention to politics for the first time — as well as the media.

Bill Buckley, as you’ll recall (anyway, I recall this, since Buckley was my first employer out of college), was one of a relatively small group of people whose work and writing helped keep conservatism in the 1970s from being permanently stigmatized as the ideology of Richard Nixon. There’s no one like that today. So when they need a conservative on the Op-Ed page, the Times goes for Kristol and the Washington Post for Michael Gerson. Of course I don’t like it, but the fact is that in the battle to decide the Republican Party’s identity, people like these won and people like me lost — lost, in fact, a long time ago.

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