NEW YORK (AP) — Joe Scarborough must be doing something right to be attacked by both Paul Krugman and Mark Levin in the same month.
His MSNBC program, "Morning Joe," has passed its fifth anniversary with a wider influence in politics than its relatively small audience would suggest. Scarborough and his co-host, Mika Brzezinski, are also more successfully navigating internal politics.
Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida, is staking out a wide middle ground between the liberal columnist Krugman and conservative radio host Levin. Since Mitt Romney's election defeat, he has stepped up an effort to convince his party to broaden its appeal. "I'm a different type of Republican, a Republican who likes to win," he said.
He recalled an appearance by GOP communications expert Nicolle Wallace on his show last summer, where she said, "I get so tired of people asking me whether we should be the moderate party or the conservative party. I just want us to stop being the stupid party."
"That's how I feel," he said. "It's really not so much about ideology as it is about good governance and tone."
He believes it's telling that Republican presidential candidates have lost four of five popular votes since 1996, the year Fox News Channel began. While Republicans now have what they long wished for, a booming infrastructure of media outlets that appeal to them, being encased in a bubble of like-minded thinkers is ultimately risky.
MSNBC President Phil Griffin said he feels that "Morning Joe" has "kept a freshness to it" since the election. "I feel like the discussions are in some way sharper and crisper," he said.
Not everyone is happy with Scarborough, particularly Republicans who doubt his fealty to the party's ideals. Levin was angered by Scarborough's criticism of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for the senator's role in the gun control debate. Levin said Scarborough was "just a rambling, marble-mouth buffoon with that ditz sitting next" to him.
The conservative media watchdog site NewsBusters was miffed at Scarborough's criticism of the Conservative Political Action Conference for failing to invite New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as a speaker.
"If Scarborough were a true conservative, wouldn't he be doing more to bash President Obama's reckless spending? ... No, Scarborough is comfortable with the path of least resistance, playing nice with his liberal bosses at MSNBC as the network's pet 'conservative,'" wrote the website's Jeffrey Meyer.
Yet Scarborough said he's noticed the amount of criticism he gets from fellow Republicans seems to be decreasing.
"Republicans realize that Joe was right about Romney," said GOP political consultant Mark McKinnon. "And many of them are recognizing that the party needs to grow and evolve in the direction that Scarborough has been advocating."
Scarborough last month participated in a televised debate on economics moderated by Charlie Rose with The New York Times columnist Krugman. Scarborough was driven over to the taping by an aide who told him, "You know, this guy did win the Nobel Prize in economics. This might not be the smartest thing in the world."
"This is not exactly, 'Go get 'em, Rocky,'" Scarborough said, laughing at the memory.
That's vintage Scarborough — humor and a healthy dollop of self-regard. Somehow Krugman, as big a favorite as one could imagine in an encounter like this, seemed almost to admit defeat afterward. He called the debate his "Denver moment," a reference to Obama's poor first debate performance last fall. He said he was unready for Scarborough's "misleading factoids and diversionary stuff" and general "slipperiness."
With its serious, often extended, discussions about politics and policy, "Morning Joe" has established a niche in large part because of its absence elsewhere. It has the type of guests that used to be regulars on network morning shows before their increased focus on crime stories and lighter topics.
The show averaged 426,000 viewers during the first three months of 2013, according to the Nielsen company. That's well shy of the network shows (usually in the 5 million to 6 million range each day for "Good Morning America" and "Today") and cable's "Fox & Friends," which had 1.1 million viewers during the same period. MSNBC said "Morning Joe" does particularly well among the type of power players who run the country.
"'Morning Joe' has become the most influential show in politics," McKinnon said. "Anyone who is anyone in politics, or cares about politics these days, is plugged into the program most mornings. They created a format that is substantive, informative and entertaining."
Two years ago, it was nearly relocated to CBS News. NBC News management had signed off on letting everyone on the show out of their contracts to take over mornings on CBS.
Scarborough recalled a time he called Jim Bell, then executive producer of the "Today" show, and Bell came to the phone saying, "How's the guy on the least-watched and most talked-about morning show?"
"I said, 'Fine, Jim, how's the guy who works on the most-watched and least talked-about morning show?'" he said. "I think if you gave the 'Today' show the chance to still have that distinction they would take it in a second because being talked-about is not all that it is cracked up to be."
While the exchange was likely little more than locker room trash talking, Scarborough and Brzezinski found it typified an attitude among some people at NBC News who weren't quite comfortable with their show's opinionated format. "We didn't really feel like we were at home here," Brzezinski said. It was telling they were being allowed to go without a fight.
Both hosts were intrigued at the thought of reaching a bigger audience at CBS, and their producer, Chris Licht, ultimately jumped. Brzezinski, a former CBS News reporter, wondered if they'd have the same freedom.
Then Steve Burke, chief executive officer of NBC Universal, called Scarborough upstairs, wondering why he was being asked to approve giving away a show he and his friends watched every day. He urged them to stay, that things will work out, and it would be the best decision they'd ever made.
"He was right," Scarborough said. "Because we get to do everything we want here."
Scarborough has been approached about getting back into politics, and it's telling that he doesn't dismiss out of hand reports that he might want to run for president someday. At the same time, he's well aware there are few jobs that will give him the influence (and money), he has now.
"He and Mika have created something very fresh and different," Griffin said. "I think that would be a hard thing to walk away from."
EDITOR'S NOTE — David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)ap.org or on Twitter (at)dbauder.
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