Pundit Watch: Paul Begala

Why do you argue?

These were the words that may have killed CNN's Crossfire, which was cancelled not long after. Jon Stewart's now-legendary appearance on that show took not only conservative bow-tied Tucker Carlson to task, but also spanked democratic strategist Paul Begala. Begala no doubt thought that he was going to have a very easy afternoon, that summer's day in 2004, what with Stewart being the only guest scheduled, and what with their politics running so parallel.

In this, Begala was wrong.

Stop. Stop hurting America.

The flop sweat that Begala sported on that episode has never really subsided, in any of his subsequent appearances. Despite his credentials—he and James Carville were instrumental in getting Bill Clinton elected in 1992, and Begala specifically has been a close confidant, supporter, and apologist for the Clinton family ever since—Begala had suddenly entered a Twilight Zone of political commentary. He was still a Democrat, still (mostly) a liberal, but somehow on the other side of the new Democratic politics: he wasn't part of the solution. He was part of the problem.

We need help from the media. And they're hurting us.

If you look at tape from that episode, Begala's demeanor was quickened. Panicked. He spoke faster and faster, tripping over his own words. He gesticulated wildly, as if trying to shake off this sudden monkey that he realized wasn't, in fact, going to dance. And Begala still shows some of that panic, here and there. He's regained composure, sure. He's retained his pundit status on CNN, and still makes the rounds, still writes his books, still has things to say. But his game—that's changed.

What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery. It seems as though Begala may have taken this accusation seriously. Or at least done some soul-searching, and come up with a new mode of commentary. He's still got the shiny-pate nerves here and there, but his is now a kinder, gentler perspective. Or maybe that's just what being a Clinton stalwart requires these days.

This all-embracing attitude was evident this on Tuesday, March 4, in his appearance on CNN in regards to the primaries in Ohio and Texas. Begala was part of a "balanced" line of four, avoiding the Crossfire seating chart so as to prove that it was, in fact, non-confrontational. There was Begala, the Clintonite; Jamal Simmons, who despite his heavy association with Clinton, was there speaking for the Obama supporters; Alex Castellanos, former media strategist for Romney (great job on that front, by the way); and Amy Holmes, the pretty face of Republican commentary. (Is it just me, or is everyone tired of nearly every Republican pundit being a minority? Is anyone buying the idea that old white men don't run the GOP?)

Begala, that night, was doing his best Democratic shuffle, trying to point out Obama's supposed weakness in real leadership, pounding on that point over and over again, but still giving him all the credit in the world (just in case). This is the new position of the Clinton Democrat: attack, but with generosity. Position yourself as the leader, even if you're behind. Offer, always, the opportunity for a team-up; so long as it's a Clinton team.

But there's a look to Begala these days that undercuts his authority, that might keep him as one on a panel of four instead of being worthy of the solitary spotlight, that reduces him to appearing with up-and-comers Simmons and Holmes, and also-rans like Castellanos. It's an eager but empty grin. A wavering glance from side to side. An evident and nagging worry that another Jon Stewart might appear at any moment and assert anew that the emperor pundit wears no clothes. -- Teague Bohlen

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Sean Cronin