Even for some purely political columnists, like Dana Milbank at the Post or Maureen Dowd at the Times, their ideological proclivity is secondary to their real purpose. Milbank is categorized by the Post as left-leaning, as presumably Dowd would be too. But like Dowd he is a career reporter who emphasizes humor, observation, and whimsy in his columns, often mocking Democrats as well as Republicans. When he weighs in on policy, like Dowd, he will tend to come down somewhere in the center-left—but readers do not look to Milbank or Dowd for the left’s viewpoint on the issues of the day. They read them, as one might also read a conservative like David Brooks, to be entertained.
And even among columnists who are more serious, substantive, and ideologically identifiable, their value is derived from what they cover and how they approach it. Bob Herbert and Nicholas Kristof at the Times are both liberal humanitarians. But Kristof draws attention to poverty and sexism in developing countries while Herbert shines a light on poverty, injustice, and racism in the United States. Both Kristof and Herbert are former reporters who approach their columns like reporters; their tactics are very different from those employed by, say, fellow liberal and Politico columnist Michael Kinsley, a razor sharp logician who has a law degree and a keen sense of irony.
A good opinion section will balance all these elements: columnists who specialize in argument and philosophy with those who do shoe leather reporting, columnists who cover different issues, columnists who are conservative in the sense that they believe in low taxes and oppose regulation and columnists who are conservative in the sense that they oppose abortion rights. It will also make sure that major elements of society—business and labor, scientists and clergy, young and old, urban and rural, academics, doctors, lawyers, blue collar workers, and, yes, even those despised civil servants—are represented, if not through the lived experience of one of the columnists then at least through a columnist who talks to them and attempts to understand and explain their views. These metrics cannot be easily categorized like “left-leaning” and “right-leaning” and they do not have organized movements to pressure the Post to represent them, but they are actually more important.