It's early fall, and political operative Howard Wolfson, late of the Hillary Clinton campaign, is doing his job: debating former Bush strategist Karl Rove on Fox News. It is his job in the most literal of senses. Since July, Wolfson has been working as a paid Fox News contributor, which makes him the most prominent Democrat ever placed on the conservative channel's payroll. The topic is the ways in which Sarah Palin and Joe Biden can screw up the vice-presidential debate. The program's rabidly right-wing host, Sean Hannity, brings up the Rick Lazio episode (in the 2000 Senate race, Lazio strode over to Hillary Clinton's podium and demanded she sign a no-soft-money pledge he was carrying, a move that became a case study in how a man should not treat a woman in a debate). Hannity says that the whole incident was, in retrospect, "not a big deal." Rove lets loose a cascade of appreciative guffaws. Then it's Wolfson's turn: "He menaced her! What are you talking about?" There's something Pavlovian in the intensity of his outrage, and yet he starts to crack a self-aware smile as he goes on. "It was a terrible moment in American politics! It was frightening!" Now Hannity is giggling, too. And then something precious happens, a Kodak moment of punditry. Karl Rove--the architect of Bush's career, Turd Blossom, sworn enemy of Hillary Clinton--that Karl Rove leans over and gives Wolfson a paternal, pitying pat on the back. "Ha-ha, Howard," titters Hannity, now completely overcome with mirth. "Still on message!"
There exists in Washington, of course, a kind of permanent political class, a collection of White House and congressional staffers, campaign operatives, journalists, and pundits who toil in their chosen professions year after year, candidate after candidate, administration after administration. These people aren't without their political beliefs, but above all they are professionals. They may tear into each other by day, or from one campaign to the next, but in the shape of their lives they are more alike than they are different. They eat at the same restaurants, go to the same parties, and send their kids to the same schools. They have a job to do--fight for their candidate, write the story--and they do it. It's not personal; it's business. With some regularity, they even swap roles: Operative becomes pundit, pundit becomes politician, and around it goes. Howard Wolfson is a particularly nimble and skillful member of the permanent political class. And that, in a phrase, is the answer to the question: What is Hillary Clinton's former chief spin master doing on Fox News spinning for Barack Obama?