The increasing ratings of Countdown With Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, and the enormous popularity of his Edward R. Murrow-esque “Special Comments,” have led to a bunch of recent articles about how he’s the new big thing in cable punditry, the first truly successful liberal pundit on TV, the liberal counterpart of O’Reilly. I’m not completely convinced, and here’s why: I’m not sure his popularity will outlast the Bush administration. Not because he’ll be out of material, exactly. Even if Barack Obama becomes president, there will be plenty of things to be outraged about. The problem is, I’m not sure if he will be outraged, because Olbermann has never struck me as having particularly strong convictions. He just doesn’t like President Bush and more generally what the Republican party became in the ’90s, with the Clinton impeachment and all that. Well, most Americans don’t; that’s why Bush is unpopular and the Republicans were voted out of control of Congress. But what happens if, come 2009, there’s a President that Olbermann likes?
Well, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald noticed that Olbermann not only forgives Barack Obama for the same things he criticized President Bush for, but actually seemed to go out of his way to praise Obama. Olbermann did a “special comment” earlier this year about Bush’s demand for a bill legalizing his controversial (and, let’s face it, probably illegal) wiretapping and immunizing the telecom companies who helped do it. But now that Obama supports a bill that will give Bush most of what he asked for on this issue, Olbermann said last night:
But not cowering to the left, not going along with the conventional, the new conventional thinking on the FISA bill, that’s something altogether different, isn’t it?
Olbermann likes Obama, which is fine. I like Obama. But if that’s a sign of how he’ll act if Obama becomes President, then we can’t expect much of interest from Olbermann come 2009. The Daily Show, by comparison, has shown itself much more willing to make fun of politicians Jon Stewart likes — both Obama and John McCain, who has been on the show often and whom both Stewart and Colbert admire very much — and seems well-positioned to find material long into the next decade. Olbermann, not so much.
Of course, Olbermann’s counterparts on Fox News went even further into Bush-worship than Olbermann ever has into praise of Obama; starting in 2001 Bush became a cult figure in the conservative movement that led to hagiographic Fox profiles and books by Fox contributors like Fred Barnes’ “Rebel-in-Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush.” So how did these guys manage to keep it going even during the years when Republicans controlled all branches of government? Simple: Fox News contributors, and Rush Limbaugh, and all the rest, are politically conservative. Even when they love whoever’s in power, they can advocate their conservative views and rail against enemies (feminists, professors, Hollywood) that are out to destroy them.
The difference between Olbermann and these guys, and why I don’t buy him being a liberal icon, is that Olbermann isn’t exactly a liberal. If you watch his show, you’ll notice that he rarely advocates policy views that can be considered liberal; he rarely seems to advocate policies at all. O’Reilly or Limbaugh will go on the air and tell us that things should be this way; some of the things they want may be kind of appalling, but at least they can tell us what they want. Olbermann is almost like an apolitical commentator who was pushed into advocacy by his dislike of Bush and the modern Republican movement. He is against the Bush administration’s ideas about war, executive power, and torture. These are, in my opinion, common-sense positions, but they are not liberal positions. You often hear people talk as if anyone who opposes the Bush administration is automatically a liberal, but that would mean that 75% of Americans are liberals.
Olbermann became famous because of a weird gap on cable news: after 9/11 and the increased success of Fox News, networks decided that they all had to get more conservative pundits, leading to a situation where the only commentators you ever saw on TV were proud conservatives, reporters who were desperate not to show political bias one way or the other, and the occasional milquetoast Alan Colmes-esque “liberal” who spent most of his time hatin’ on liberals. So as the U.S. became more and more anti-Bush, there was exactly one cable news show that was as consistently and openly anti-Bush as Fox News’s shows were consistently and openly pro-Bush, and that was Olbermann’s show. It was not only the only refuge for liberals, it was the only refuge for people who weren’t liberals but were just disgusted with the Bush administration.
But take away the Bush administration, and what does Olbermann really believe? I don’t know. I’m not even saying that as a knock on him. Many if not most people do not have strong feelings on every single political issue. There are many, many political issues that I either cannot make up my mind on or don’t have very strong feelings about. Olbermann comes off as a guy who knows that Bush has gone too far, has some other opinions and likes and dislikes, but does not have a coherent set of policy preferences that he can advocate. Phil Donahue’s short-lived show on MSNBC — which actually got some of the better ratings on that network but was canceled because his opposition to the Iraq war freaked NBC out — was an actual “liberal” pundit show because Donahue is an actual liberal, who would spend the show telling you that policy X is better than policy Y. That just doesn’t seem to be true of Olbermann, and without Bush, he seems lost.
If Obama becomes President, or even if McCain becomes President and governs less extremely than Bush, then Olbermann may not even know what he thinks of most of their policies, and his show will get really bland really fast. It’s already starting to happen. If he can’t bring himself to slam Obama over the same thing he was slamming Bush over a few months ago, then I just don’t see his show as consistently influential. Say what you will about Limbaugh, but no matter who is in power, he always has somebody to hate. But who’s Olbermann going to hate next year?