NEW YORK — To his boss, Chris Matthews has become a statesman. His critics probably have other words.
The veteran MSNBC host raised his profile during the presidential campaign. His 5 p.m. Hardball show has seen viewership jump by 24 percent this year from 2011, 17 percent for the rerun two hours later.
Matthews symbolized MSNBC’s growing comfort in being a liberal alternative to Fox News Channel. He engaged in an uncomfortable on-air confrontation with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, seemed nearly apoplectic when President Obama flubbed his first debate and had to apologize for appearing grateful that Hurricane Sandy might have helped Obama’s re-election effort.
With Keith Olbermann out of sight, Matthews essentially replaced him as the commentator who most annoyed conservative viewers.
“During the run-up to the Iraq War, he just became really, really partisan and became even more so when MSNBC decided to become the anti-Fox,” said Geoff Dickens, who used to watch Matthews as a fan and now monitors him regularly as part of his job with the conservative Media Research Center.
Matthews is not afraid to say what he thinks. He’s a former newspaper columnist and one-time aide to a 1980s era Democrat, House Speaker Tip O’Neill. He seriously considered running for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania a few years back, where he probably would have been asked repeatedly to explain why he voted for George W. Bush in 2000.
He’s a motor-mouth infused with a love of politics that borders on the pathological.
“He’s as good as he’s ever been,” said Phil Griffin, MSNBC president. “He’s at a place in his life where he’s really comfortable in his own skin. He’s a statesman. He has so much knowledge and I think he understands it better.”
Iraq turned Matthews against Bush. He said war and peace, and civil rights, are the issues that drive him most and explain his enthusiasm for Obama.
Matthews seemed personally offended by efforts in individual states to tighten voter registration and identification laws. Republicans called it an attempt to curb voter fraud; Matthews said it was to suppress voters friendly to Obama.
He said Republicans would use welfare and other issues to subtly appeal to white voters still uncomfortable with a black president.
The issue drove his confrontation with Prebius, which occurred on Morning Joe during the GOP convention. Matthews challenged Prebius about playing the “race card” during the campaign and for references to Obama’s birth certificate. It devolved into a schoolyard insult match.