From the moment he took the job at Fox, Wolfson was besieged by angry Democrats. To some, going on enemy air, as a hired hand, was unconscionable. “Just reputationally, I wouldn’t go on Fox News,” says one prominent Washington journalist. “You know,” adds one high-ranking Obama staffer—“It’s Fox!” Others questioned Wolfson’s loyalty. After all, this is a man who, months earlier, was passionately devoted to Hillary Clinton, and who helped pioneer many of the current Republican lines of attack on Obama. This included Wolfson’s raising of William Ayers’s “political” relationship with Obama in conference calls back in April. It was important, Wolfson said, because “Bill Ayers is unrepentant of what he did.” Wolfson even played Obama during Hillary’s debate prep, quite effectively, it’s said. Now the same person was going to turn around and spin for Obama? Having attacked Obama so vigorously during the campaign, many Democrats feared, Wolfson would undermine instead of help Obama in his new job. Some also believed Wolfson was being used as a foil—bait, essentially, for Rove and company. Because Fox was widely perceived as pro-Hillary in the primaries, a few in the pro-Obama blogosphere even saw a conspiracy when Wolfson took the job: the first move in the “McCain ’08, Hillary ’12” game.
Wolfson, of course, dismisses the chatter. “People come up to me on the street—on the street!—and ask, ‘How can you be on Fox News? How can you talk to Rove?’ ” he says. Then he takes a page straight out of the professional-political-class textbook. “Well, I like Karl Rove. He’s smart. He’s funny.” He tugs on his Diet Coke, looking genuinely peeved. “Look, I’m under no illusions about what he and Bush have done to the country. I think Bush is the worst president since Hoover, and Karl has at least some responsibility for that. But on TV, he’s a good colleague.” (For the record, Rove returns the compliment, calling Wolfson warm and “fun to be around.” Robert Barnett, a power broker who is roughly the Washington equivalent of Howard Rubenstein, engineered both men’s Fox deals.)
On the loyalty question, Wolfson offers a Clintonian parse. Despite the fact that he defends the Democratic presidential nominee at almost every turn, he insists he is not on Fox to shill for him. Wolfson defines his job as “talking about the elections from the progressive perspective,” not distributing Obama-campaign talking points. “It’s analysis, not advocacy,” he says. “I am not a surrogate.” And Wolfson insists he is no Fox patsy: “Look, I am not the guy playing the Harlem Globetrotters. I am here to give as good as I get, hopefully better.”
Wolfson also rejects the idea that Fox favored Hillary during the primaries; he calls the network’s coverage of the Clinton campaign “comprehensive and fair.” The idea that Fox was nice to Hillary to sink Obama and pave the way for Clinton in 2012, he says, “is ridiculous.”
After taking the Fox job, Wolfson attempted to allay the Obama campaign’s fears by having a breakfast and a dinner with Obama strategist David Axelrod. He then made Democrats breathe a little easier when he published “A Clintonite in Denver”—a Washington Post op-ed column that could have been subheaded “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Barack Obama.”
For the most part, Wolfson has tended to place himself at a certain comfortable remove from the candidates on Fox by evaluating only their strategies. When he praises Obama, he mostly marvels at organizational ability, as if a campaign’s message were a MacGuffin for the message-delivery apparatus. If you follow his reasoning far enough, the McCain campaign is wrong because its war room is broken. “The Obama campaign gets up every day and asks themselves how they can make the case for change versus more of the same, just as they did yesterday, and they will do tomorrow,” he recently wrote. “The McCain campaign wakes up and figures out how to try to win the day.”
Some of Wolfson’s pro-Obama spin, however, has the vigor and elasticity of his Clinton-era work. On October 7 on Fox & Friends, Wolfson asserted that Obama had no idea about Ayers’s past when he socialized with him—a statement that would have greatly surprised the April-edition Wolfson. Also from the new Wolfson: “Oh, Senator McCain will try to make issues of Bill Ayers … McCain’s small-ball will not work.”
Wolfson’s early appearances on Fox News were closely watched by panicky bloggers, and not favorably reviewed: “Howard Wolfson is a disaster at standing up for Democrats,” stated an August review from News Hounds, a Fox News–obsessed Democratic blog: “Wolfson was just about as effective at bashing [Obama] as Rove was” was the verdict. But now, Democrats appear to be largely disarmed. “I don’t get a feeling that he holds his nose when he talks about Obama,” says Wolfson’s friend and The New Republic editor Franklin Foer. If anyone really questioned whether Wolfson would fully back Obama, Wolfson effectively put that notion to rest in an October 5 post on his New Republic blog, in which he declared that the presidential race “is over.”