MSNBC, by contrast, saw its flourishing during the Bush administration. Starting with Keith Olbermann, who founded Countdown in 2003 after a broadcasting career spent mostly at ESPN, the network assembled a lineup of prime-time personalities largely from far outside the Beltway, most of whom had done no time in the political media and barely identified as “liberals,” much less “Democrats.” The network rode the same tide as the rising political blogs and online activist communities, and it was the repeated traumas of the Bush administration, and none of the typical D.C. “horse race” romanticism that characterized the West Wing crowd, that galvanized and defined it.
Erstwhile Hill hacks like Mr. O’Donnell and Chris Matthews were still needed, of course, to report on palace intrigue and teach the true believers how the system actually works. In 2005, for example, Mr. O’Donnell somehow got wind of the fact that Karl Rove had been subpoenaed by a grand jury for being a source of the Plamegate leaks; three paragraphs about the scoop he sent to his friend Arianna Huffington ended up being the Huffington Post’s first big traffic jolt. At the same time, Mr. O’Donnell was probably more immersed in the West Wing world–where the libertarian Republican presidential candidate (played by Alan Alda) he’d concocted was fast becoming a writer’s room favorite to “win” the show’s upcoming “election”–than the real one, in which the bloody failure of basic essential government services and functions was becoming a sort of Bush administration trademark. A few months later, he recalled a writer’s room argument with a female cast member over economics to a columnist at the conservative Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
“I tried to make it easy for her. I said, ‘Here’s my position: My position is, slavery is better than death. Employment is better than slavery. Exploitative wages are better than nothing. And that a fair wage and justice is the ideal.’ And she can’t accept that. She can’t accept any sentence that isn’t about the fair wage and the ideal. Literally and truly. She’s a very, very smart woman. She couldn’t process what I was talking about. She couldn’t process that one penny is better than zero. There are children in the world who would be lucky–lucky–to be employed 12 hours a day in exploitative child labor situations where they are making 10 cents a day. Unfortunately, I think respect for the market seems to be something that I have not seen anyone derive outside education.”
Such sentiments (along with his legislative record undermining the Clinton universal health care plan) notwithstanding, Mr. O’Donnell bafflingly insists on using the term “socialist” whenever asked to identify his place on the ideological spectrum. He spent most of the election season skewering the progressive faction of the Democratic party for undermining the Obama agenda, and when bloggers like Salon’s Glenn Greenwald took note of it, he mocked them. “Glenn, unlike you, I am not a progressive,” went a milder-than-usual dressing-down. “I am not a liberal who is so afraid of the word that I had to change my name to progressive. Liberals amuse me. I am a socialist. I live to the extreme left, the extreme left of you mere liberals, O.K.?”
Perhaps because of this supposed kinship, though, Mr. O’Donnell reserves his most bizarre and strident attacks for bona fide leftists, like former Florida congressman Alan Grayson, who appeared on The Last Word in December to voice opposition to the Obama administration’s compromise extending the Bush tax cuts another two years.
“Congressman!” the host demanded, “if you were to succeed at this, and kill this bill, do you know which bracket would actually get the biggest tax increase?
“However,” he went on, “I know this about my country. Liberals are 20 percent of the electorate. Conservatives are 41 percent of the electorate. … The only way, the only way you have a Chairman Barney Frank, there’s only one way–that’s by electing Blue Dogs.”
“Yes,” Mr. Grayson replied. “The people who have dividend income–”
“Wrong!” Mr. O’Donnell launched into another dressing-down for which he would later apologize on Twitter. “Congressman Grayson, it’s the bottom tax bracket, not the top tax bracket, the bottom tax bracket would go from 10 percent to 15 percent. That is a 50 percent increase in the bottom tax bracket. [yelling] You are wrong, sir! You are wrong! In dollar terms the money is at the top end, but in percentage terms the money is at the bottom–“
As it happened, Mr. O’Donnell was wrong, on his terms as well as those of any sane debate, but Mr. Grayson did not seem terribly offended, even when Mr. O’Donnell excoriated him to “be an adult about this,” at which point he laughed a little, threw up his hands and rolled his eyes. He made a final appeal to his host. “Come on–this is supposed to be the intelligent network!”