“I was a Kool-Aid-drinking Democrat,” Kirsten Powers recalls wryly.
That was in her 20s and early 30s, when she was an operator on the rise — first in the Clinton administration, when she handled media strategy for the U.S. trade representative, and later in New York City, where she threw herself into the state’s electoral politics. Her self-identity was built around being a loyal team player, with all the pressures and camaraderie that came with it. She thrived in the game of us vs. them, viewed her ideological opponents as “stupid and evil,” she says, and woke up every morning determined to beat them.
She doesn’t recall knowing a single conservative during those years.
But her career didn’t kick into high gear until she took that identity — the bright-eyed, sharp-tongued, gamely combative liberal activist — to a place where her brand stood out in bold relief. For the past eight years, Powers has made her name by being a prominent liberal pundit on Fox News — albeit one with less-than-orthodox liberal views. She’s on her own team now.
And it can be a lonely place.
As the political world turns to the 2016 presidential race, Powers and other pundits move closer to the center of the media universe — primed to tell Americans what they should think about each candidate, each issue, each news blip of the day. Powers, 47, often finds herself tasked with presenting a dissenting view on Fox. But nearly as often as she stands with Democrats — challenging Bill O’Reilly point by point when he blasts President Obama as weak on foreign policy, for instance — she takes her own party to task.
In a new book, Powers has harsh words for left-wing activists, whom she accuses of strategically shutting down political debate. A bestseller in e-book form with the hyperbolic title “The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech,” it has become a favorite of conservatives while drawing side-eye from her Democratic compatriots — among whom she counts several close friends.
She “has been someone who is willing to take a contrarian view,” says Jamal Simmons, a longtime buddy and former co-worker on the trade representative’s staff. Powers and Simmons, who has been a commentator on CNN and MSNBC, don’t talk politics much anymore.
For Powers’s liberal friends, following her arguments can seem like tracing a winding river, marked by unexpected tributaries and confusing crosscurrents. She supports same-sex marriage but defends those who oppose marriage equality because of “a sincere belief often grounded in a Christian worldview.” She is a Christian herself, but she also chided small-business owners who, in the name of faith, balk at making wedding cakes or providing flowers for gay weddings. Jesus would bake the cake, she says. She opposes abortion rights but supported the Affordable Care Act. She would like immigrants who are in the country illegally to have amnesty. She opposed the Iraq war.
Some liberal activists doubt her allegiance to progressive causes and call her a turncoat, while conservative commenters on her Facebook page love to tease her. One posted: “You’ve lost that liberal feelin’ . . . Whoa that liberal feelin’.”
Powers describes the reaction to her commentary bluntly, the way she describes everything: “I’m perpetually confused. Just the fact that I’m on Fox News means that somehow I’m not a liberal? I can’t figure out if it’s just ignorance or if there’s something more nefarious about it. Wouldn’t you determine whether I’m a liberal based on what my views are?”
An Alaska native, Powers grew up around frontier women who fished, hunted and rode snow machines just like the guys. She learned the art of debate around the family dinner table in Fairbanks, where her parents were professors and among the few liberals in town. They often discussed politics, and Powers was taught to defend her views — “a necessary survival skill, as our family was surrounded by people who believed liberalism was the root of all evil,” she wrote in her book.
After graduating from the University of Maryland, she settled in Washington and joined the Clinton administration. After a private-sector stint in the communications shop of AOL, she moved to New York to try her hand at political consulting.
A friend encouraged her to do television. Powers, who disliked public speaking, was reluctant. But after her father died suddenly in 2004, she accepted TV bookings just to get herself out of the house.
It turned out that she was good at it. The top brass at Fox certainly thought so. Roger Ailes, the news channel’s chairman and chief executive, called her into his office, she recalls, and asked, “Do you want to do this full time?”
Two unrelated things happened then that shifted her worldview. Working closely with the conservative pundits at Fox caused Powers to drop her belief that right-wing thinkers were anti-intellectual. And she started dating a man who was a Christian. Formerly an atheist, she began to go to church. An article she wrote about her conversion became Christianity Today magazine’s most-read Web story in 2013, e-mailed all around in evangelical circles.
Powers says she remains a political liberal, though she began to write about her faith more often and was one of the first pundits to focus on the case of Kermit Gosnell, the abortion provider convicted of first-degree murder. Powers opposes late-term abortions but says she is not focused on overturning Roe v. Wade.
These, then, are the questions that Powers finds herself fielding, from friends and viewers alike: How has this liberal absorbed the conservative influences that have come into her life? Have they changed her politics? Is she a closet conservative? Can she be both a liberal and a faithful Christian?
She has lost pals, on the left and right, who cannot countenance being associated with someone who disagrees with them on politics or policy. She tells her perplexed friends on both sides of the aisle: “You guys know you’re just alike, right?”
A typical week for Powers goes like this: On Monday, her USA Today column published. On Tuesday, she sparred with O’Reilly. (She’s a weekly guest on his show, where he will good-naturedly bark at her: “Okay, Powers, tell me where I’m wrong.”) On Wednesday, she was a guest on another Fox show and took to the radio waves to promote her book. On Thursday and Friday, she was in New York for the taping of “Outnumbered,” a news-and-analysis chat fest patterned after “The View,” where she is often the only liberal pundit sitting around the white sectional in Fox’s ground-floor studio.
On a recent Friday, Powers was tucked between Charles Payne, the host of Fox Business Network’s “Making Money with Charles Payne” and Andrea Tantaros, a conservative political analyst. (Payne was serving as the panel’s “#OneLuckyGuy,” a rotating spot reserved for a man on the otherwise female show.)
First topic: Had Hillary Rodham Clinton been unfairly tarnished by e-mails sent to her by longtime friend Sidney Blumenthal touting his business partners?
Powers, unsurprisingly, was the sole panelist arguing there wasn’t enough proof to call this one a scandal yet.
“Do you want this sort of dark cloud over the White House?” Payne bellowed at her. “You don’t have to prove it.”
Powers jabbed back: “Of course we need proof. Is it correlation or causation?”
She is often the lone dissenting voice on the show. Yet on commercial breaks, she and her fellow panelists relaxed and nodded their heads to the pop music piped into the studio. Makeup artists breezed in to apply more powder to shiny foreheads. It was all very cordial.
Switching gears, the panel took up a new study that found that “good-looking men can get away with more.” Everyone agreed this was not news. A co-host asked Powers whether the study was proof that “women like bad boys.”
“You grow out of it,” says Powers, who was divorced a couple of years ago after a brief marriage. She doesn’t mention her ex-boyfriend, Anthony Weiner. Long after their romance transitioned into a friendship, Powers felt betrayed when he lied to the public — and to her personally — about a string of lewd text messages he sent to young women, and she published an essay calling for his resignation.
Instead, Powers turned to Tantaros, who is also single. “You like bad boys?” she asked. They laugh, and as a commercial starts, Tantaros gives Powers some of her almonds to munch on. Seeing this, you’d never guess that the two women have been a fixture of the media blogosphere for their epic on-air fights, such as the time Tantaros faulted President Obama for inflaming racial tension in Ferguson, Mo., and Powers called Tantaros’s thinking “outrageous” — both pointing angrily at each other, chopping the air to emphasize their conflicting viewpoints.
After the show, Powers rushed to her black car, heading off to catch an Acela train back to Washington. On the ride, she sipped a green juice and explained that she and Tantaros “see debating as an intellectual exercise and don’t take it personally.”
Fox has become famous, in some corners, for the kinds of debates that Powers specializes in, a liberal thinker pitted against a conservative panel or host, with the tensions allowed to rise to a dynamic moment of drama. It has been good for the network’s ratings, according to media critics, but some liberal observers have qualms about Powers’s role.
“Yes, it is beneficial and good to have someone at the table to point out instances of conservative misinformation,” said Angelo Carusone, executive vice president of Media Matters for America, the liberal watchdog that spends much of its energy jousting with Fox. But more often, he argued, “she is reinforcing” the conservative views of Fox’s other opinionators. (Powers, in turn, has accused Media Matters of trying to silence any journalists critical of Democrats.)
Sally Kohn, a liberal activist and former Fox contributor who is friendly with Powers, said she had a harder time dealing with the “soul searching” that comes for “any liberal who goes into a conservative environment.”
“Are you doing more harm than good?” Kohn asked. “We all sit around and ponder that, and it becomes a question especially when you are criticizing your own side. . . . There is a theatrics to all of this.”
“I’m just being honest,” Powers says, trying again to explain her contradictions.
In a culture of rabid partisans, she likes to think she owns herself. In that way, she is like the roughly 25 percent of U.S. voters who harbor a balance of conservative and liberal beliefs, according to the Pew Research Center.
On Monday through Friday, she may be in the arena at Fox, but she takes Saturdays as a kind of sabbath, avoiding work and trying to connect with friends. Those relationships have become more precious as she has lost friends who disagree with her. While Powers focused for four months on writing her book last year, she spent a lot of time solo.
“It was extra awful,” she says. “It’s the loneliest thing I’ve ever done.”
She began to turn over the idea of loneliness in her mind, in the same way that she wrestles with political questions before landing on her views.
Soon, she was deep into research on loneliness. She read a paragraph in the Christian magazine Relevant that stuck with her: “I love and am drawn to ambitious people. I’m challenged by them. I’m inspired by them. But being drawn to ambitious people can really lead to a lonely life. We’re all off pursuing our dreams and passions and miss the deep connection we’re created for.”
She has an idea that her next book might be an apolitical take on modern loneliness.
“I’d like to do something that is not controversial,” Powers says.
She seems to mean it.