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Robert Costa: I’m Not On the "Conservative Team"

The National Review reporter talks about his dominating shutdown coverage

FlickrGage Skidmore

The most important news in the country over the past few weeks has been driven by a cohort of Republican politicians, activists, and operatives, and that means that the most important reporter in the country over the past few weeks has been National Review’s Robert Costa. For decades, the premium in conservative journalism has been on opinion-mongering. Costa defies this trend, working sources, focusing on scoops and objective analysis, and rarely, if ever, betraying a political lean. (He declines to share his views publicly.) At the same time, his status as Washington editor of the conservative movement’s flagship publication has helped give him unparalleled access. All in all, he has driven observers’ understanding of Capitol Hill Republicans—who will determine the fate of the government shutdown and potential debt default—more than any other journalist. Costa chatted with me this morning over the phone as he walked to the Russell Senate Office Building.

Marc Tracy: I’m gonna do that thing and say I read Playbook today, and, happy birthday.

Robert Costa: Thank you very much.

MT: When’s the last time you’ve had a few hours to yourself? 

RC: It’s been a couple weeks.

MT: Do you enjoy the rush? Or do you kind of want it to end?

RC: Oh, this is the best time. As a journalist, you want to be in the action, you want the story to be hot, and so I was frankly bored in much of August and September, as the early talks began and there was little progress to write about. Once this shutdown started, it’s become a fascinating story to chronicle. And so much of the story is my beat, which is covering inside the conservative movement, inside the Republican Party. For me, it’s been not just a two-week story, but a three-, four-month story. Cause I was in Iowa with Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, in Des Moines, back in August when they first started floated tying funding the government to defunding Obamacare. I really saw up close how it was becoming a cause on the right. And it was something I knew from the start, when Cruz told it to me himself in Des Moines that this was something I had to take seriously as a reporter—this wasn’t something to roll an eye at, or think it was another blip on the conservative radar.

MT: What has been your single favorite moment to cover in this whole saga?

RC: I would point to a collection of moments all connected to one subject, and that’s Speaker John Boehner. To me, there’s no better subject right now in politics than the complicated political life of Boehner. I’ve done everything from go to Pete’s Diner where he eats every morning at 6:30 a.m. and chat briefly with him to covering his House Republican conference meetings in a windowless room in the basement of the Capitol to talking with his aides and allies. Watching Boehner grapple with his power—his fragile power—has been a colorful story.

MT: A magazine editor would have a reporter write a profile over a month and come out with a single, 6,000-word piece. You’re doing minute-to-minute updates, but something like a profile arguably emerges.

RC: I grew up loving narrative political nonfiction. But I’ve tried to adapt to the times. As much as I’d like to write a long magazine profile on Boehner—and I likely will, for National Review—that’s not enough for our readers and for me. I have to find a way to share fresh information in a literary way. Usually that’s Twitter. Sometimes it’s blog posts. Sometimes it’s longer articles at But I think the era of just writing a magazine piece—I’ve written cover stories for National Review, I love writing 4- or 5,000-word pieces, that process is unique, but I know from being a political junkie myself and having a lot of readers and Twitter followers who are also junkies that they want information that’s not just dry and sporadic. They want the story unfolding before their eyes.

MT: The general consensus is that you’re killing it, and based on other reporters I’ve talked to about you, the prime reason for this is that you’re a good reporter. But do you think being the National Review Washington editor helps you get scoops on the Republican side that reporters at The New York Times or other nominally neutral outlets, to say nothing of a liberal outlet, wouldn’t get?

RC: Of course, and that’s obvious, and I’ve known that from the start. But it’s how I’ve developed that access. My job is connecting the dots with all these sources I have on the right. It gives me the ability to understand the language of conservatism. When I cover Tea Party activists and conservative House members, it’s not like I’m a reporter going into a zoo and raising my eyebrows at the scene and filing some color piece. I’m really taking seriously the ways conservatives think, use power, and practice politics, and reporting that straight.

MT: National Review was founded as a movement publication, and I’d imagine it still thinks of itself that way. Is part of your job to further the movement?

RC: I have a beat, and I manage our team of reporters in Washington: That’s my job. And I give Rich Lowry, our editor, a lot of credit for enabling me to be a reporter through-and-through without any asterisk attached. From the start in ’09, I said I wanted to report, and he’s encouraged me. I’ve never written an editorial or column for National Review. It sets me apart from some other conservative journalists. Do I have my own opinions about politics? Of course I do, just like anyone else. But I shelve them and try to stick to reporting and analysis.

MT: People see the National Review affiliation and a couple things happen. People assume you endorse the positions of the Republicans you report on [to the extent that last night, on Twitter, Josh Marshall took care to distinguish that “Not Costa, but what he’s reporting here, [is] truly insane”]. You took flack for retweeting various Republican congressmen, and you responded, “I’m reporting—people should see this is what they’re saying.” Beyond that, how have you dealt with this misperception?

RC: I really don’t think about stuff like that. I try to report and share what I know. If you worked at Car and Driver magazine, it doesn’t mean you necessarily love cars, but you have the best car-industry sources and you know what’s coming around the bend in terms of next year’s models. That’s how I look at covering conservatism. It’s one of the best stories in American politics, and what better way to cover it than working at National Review?

MT: Your colleague Jonathan Strong reported recently that the Republican leadership was worried about leaks to National Review. Do you think your reporting has helped or hurt House Republicans over the past couple weeks?

RC: I think it’s opened up a world in a little way that’s usually closed. It rattles some Congressional aides—they don’t like to hear about what’s happening in the room on Twitter, sometimes as it’s happening.

MT: Do you ever get pushback from the politicians themselves?

RC: I get pushback every day. One of my things is I always try to develop members themselves as sources. I don’t like to work always through aides—I think that’s sometimes a problem on Capitol Hill.

MT: Why’s it better to have the members?

RC: They’re the ones in the room. They don’t come out of a press secretary mindset, where they phrase everything so that it sounds like spin. They’re sometimes the most candid sources. 

MT: Every time there’s a magazine profile of a conservative who says something they shouldn’t have said—Ted Cruz in GQ, Rand Paul in TNR are recent examples—conservatives ask, “Why did they give a liberal reporter access?” and one answer is that the reporters who tend to do these types of stories tend to be liberal. Why do you think this is the case?

RC: I have no idea. I think there is some good reporting on the right. I’m just not a media critic. I think it’s an important debate. Broadly speaking, I think conservative outlets could do a better job. That’s not to say they’re doing a horrible job. If you look at the last two to three years, there’s great reporting at places like The Daily Caller, The Washington Examiner, The Weekly Standard, even The Wall Street Journal editorial page—interesting reporting, solid reporters, great reporters like David Drucker and John McCormack. I think the story is better than a lot of people believe. The only thing I don’t buy into, especially on the right, is this team mentality—that there’s some kind of vague, conservative team that everyone’s playing for. I’ve never bought into that. I think you can have your conservative opinions but still cover things objectively. There’s some kind of sense—and I’m not thinking of any particular outlet—that there’s a conservative team, and if you go against the team, it causes problems.

MT: Are there any prominent politicians who have Twitter feeds that almost nobody knows about? That they never tweet from but use to follow people?

RC: Absolutely. 100 percent they do. I can’t reveal names.

MT: Loaded question: How do you plan to spend Thanksgiving this year?

RC: Well, if we have a six-week extension of the debt limit, I’ll likely be on the third floor of the Capitol hanging out with Jonathan Strong and Politico’s Jake Sherman listening to Phish and complaining about the continuing fiscal impasse.

MT: You gonna catch any shows this fall?

RC: Jake Sherman and I were talking this morning about how this standoff affects our fall tour plans. Things are up in the air. My work is my priority. But I tell you, I’m really trying to make some shows.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.