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Who Is Charles Krauthammer?

Charles Krauthammer has long been recognized as one of America’s most astute and authoritative political columnists, acknowledged as a cut above the majority of his scrivening colleagues. And yet there is something cryptic and elusive about him, like the coy Waldo in the famous puzzle. Perhaps he resents being put in boxes and wishes to preserve his independence of judgment, or his unpredictability. Still, one detects a growing tendency to pronounce upon critical affairs without sufficient grounding in the penetralia of things along with a positional inconsistency that renders him at times maddeningly unlocatable, like a slippery electron in a split-screen experiment.

In other words, it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine where he can be reliably found on the ideological scale. Is he a conservative, a centrist, a “situational libertarian,” or all of these at different times? Is he a fiscal conservative like Terry Corcoran and, simultaneously, a social liberal like Alan Dershowitz? He is certainly far to the right of the New York Times, as any thinking person must be, but then he writes for the ultra-liberal Washington Post. Does he share a secret sympathy with choice portions of its editorial line or is he the paper’s resident conservative, whose purpose is to impart a semblance of impartiality?

Despite his apparent conservative credentials, Krauthammer had already become somewhat problematic after his stunning denunciation of the intrepid Geert Wilders at National Review Online. This is a great enigma since, extrapolating from his earlier track record as a sober and insightful observer of the world’s combustible transactions, Krauthammer might have been expected to give the Dutch parliamentarian his seal of approval. But to slander Wilders — a vigorous critic of political correctness, a courageous defender of democratic rights, and a man dedicated to resisting the Islamic cannibalizing of Western civilization — as “extreme, radical and wrong” is clearly beyond the pale. So gratuitous a condemnation seems especially mean-spirited when one recalls that Wilders is living under an Islamic death fatwa for speaking his mind. The stigma lies more with the American journalist than the Dutch politician.

And when Krauthammer proceeds to dismiss “Islamism” as merely “an ideology of a small minority,” he loses credibility, revealing a state of denial more plausibly associated with America’s coastal elites, public intellectuals, academic limpets, and media dilettantes like Paul Krugman, Peter Beinart, Thomas Friedman, David Remnick et al. Andrew Bostom takes Krauthammer roundly to task for his “fundamental ignorance of mainstream, classical Islamic Law” and for his “uninformed, incoherent musings on Geert Wilders and Islam.” Diana West, too, in The Death of the Grown-Up, castigates Krauthammer for going “all mushy on us,” passing off as “Islamist” what is plainly part of “Islam as a whole, as a historical continuum, as the theology of what we know as terrorism, as a rationale for dhimmi repression.” How someone as presumably knowledgeable as Krauthammer could become on this matter a charter member of the middlebrow illiterati is troubling.

Then there is Krauthammer’s recent suggestion that the Republican Party should not attempt to defund ObamaCare but let it flounder of its own accord, thus depriving the Democrats of the opportunity to blame the other side of the aisle for its demise. Such advice is myopic and self-defeating. As Bryan Preston pointed out here at Pajamas, once massive social policies are implemented, they “take root and create dependencies,” becoming “so entrenched that [they] can’t be killed off without significant pain for the American people.” AllahPundit at Hot Air delivers the same message: “if you want to kill a bad entitlement, kill it quickly before expectations calcify.” This is sound advice which, we might have assumed, would surely have occurred to a supposed “fiscal conservative” like Krauthammer. Though it didn’t take long for Krauthammer to reverse course. Suddenly, we learn that since ObamaCare is “the biggest budget buster in the history of the welfare state” and is based on an array of “phony” numbers, then “everything begins with repeal.” There’s quite a bit of zigzagging going on here. One expects more from the best, or at least, from someone who has built a stellar reputation over the years.

It doesn’t stop there. We also discover that from his viewscape, Barack Obama is the “new comeback kid.” According to Krauthammer in a Washington Post column, following the president’s “shellacking” in the November 2 congressional elections, “Obama fashioned out of thin air his return to relevance, an even more impressive achievement” than Bill Clinton’s adroit triangulating. Admittedly, Krauthammer is justly critical of the Republicans who gave Obama a free pass on hundreds of billions of superfluous spending and sprinkled his path “with rose petals.” And yet when the noted columnist tells us that “Obama’s repositioning to the center was first symbolized by his joint appearance with Clinton,” he does not mention in this context that Obama literally turned his back and left that famous press conference to Clinton’s better management, thus presenting a most unpresidential image of weakness and irresponsibility. Obama’s “repositioning” was not so much toward the center as toward the exit.

Krauthammer believes that “the president is a very smart man,” but one may have to modulate this gesture of cerebral anointment. What Krauthammer is apparently getting at is that Obama is street smart and a canny manipulator. What he does not say is that Obama is neither well educated — he has little knowledge of history or economics and zero understanding of foreign affairs — nor does he seem capable of sustained reflection. Krauthammer is right to target the president’s “vanity” but, unless I am seriously mistaken, he tends to give Obama rather more than his due.

For example, Krauthammer opines that Obama’s “string of lame-duck successes” — Stimulus II, repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the START treaty — “is a singular political achievement,” and that “the great Republican ascendancy of 2010 lasted less than two months.” But in a subsequent WaPo article, Krauthammer rightly observes that a new spirit of “constitutionalism” is a “promising first step to a conservative future,” which would appear to imply that the Republican ascendancy is not over but has just begun. “Sneering” Democrats are given the back of his hand; yet those he calls “non-suicidal liberals” are still “[d]emeaningly, and somewhat unfairly … having to prove their fealty to the flag.” Since liberals are for the most part affiliated with the Democratic Party, it would make some sense to suggest that the best way to prove their fealty to the flag is to leave the party.

On the whole, the value of Krauthammer’s general deposition is that it serves as a warning to Republicans not to take Obama lightly or to underestimate the conniving shrewdness of the Democratic left. But even in his more balanced columns, a latent current of misplaced respect for a divisive and destructive president willy-nilly tends to emerge. This seems at times like something more than the cautionary esteem of a redoubtable opponent; it smacks of a kind of selective bemusement masked by an aura of Olympian detachment.

A lauded political analyst from whom much is anticipated, a man of presumed conservative principles, an eminence by consensus, he now occasionally prattles away in fluent liberalspeak, attacking a patriot like Geert Wilders and, in practical effect, inflating the “achievements” of a schismatic like Barack Obama. This looks a lot like cognitive dissonance or a species of intellectual vagrancy. Who knows, maybe he has started to mellow and is no longer the Critter Gitter he used to be.

Or is he, as I suggested above, simply sui generis — one can never be sure where on the radar screen of current events his columnar blip will next appear. He clearly leans toward the conservative standpoint on the major questions of foreign policy and the Constitution; yet on social issues such as abortion, energy taxes, and stealth jihad he seems sympathetic to the liberal perspective. True, he opposes the Cordoba mosque project as a violation of “hallowed ground”; on the other hand, as we have seen, he trashes Wilders who has spoken passionately against the Cordoba mosque. What gives? The same man who came out strongly in Israel’s defense during the 2006 “Lebanon War,” backed by the conservative right, also supported Ariel Sharon’s disastrous “disengagement” from Gaza in 2005, which was naturally encouraged by the liberal-left.

How does he juggle what resembles a set of incompatibles? To use a metaphor from Bridge, it is as if Krauthammer is playing a tenace hand, holding two nonconsecutive high cards in a suit, but with no intention of “finessing underneath” the missing “honor.” There is no doubt that he plays a powerful game. But regrettably, one misses both the level of consistency one would infer from so formidable a player and the willingness to grapple with the terminal implications of that game.