Politics / February 20, 2024

Are Democrats Over That Ezra Klein Piece Yet?

A major pundit, unmoored from political reality, suggests Democrats need a brokered convention to replace Biden. Liberals freak out. Stop it!

Joan Walsh
When this guy’s wrong, he’s really wrong.(Chris Saucedo / Getty)

I respect and admire Ezra Klein. From a blogger at The American Prospect to a founder of Vox Media to a prominent columnist at The New York Times, he’s had a magical career. I can use his name here in a headline and assume most Nation readers will recognize it. He is often right. But when he’s wrong, he’s deeply wrong.

He was deeply wrong last Friday, with a 4,000-word stem-winder, “Democrats Have a Better Option Than Biden,” laying out why Democrats must replace President Joe Biden as their presidential nominee because he is showing signs of age on the campaign trail—not as president, mind you, but as a candidate. Klein isn’t suggesting new folks jump into this year’s primaries; it’s too late (he’s right about that). Rather, they should pick the nominee at… wait for it… a brokered convention in Chicago, which Klein argues would dominate the news, showcase the Democrats’ deep bench of leaders, and broadcast their commitment to democracy, with which Donald Trump’s coronation in Milwaukee that same month would be an obvious, negative contrast.

Even back when he was part of the “Juicebox mafia”—a condescending term I never used—Klein was an old young man, wise beyond his years and confident of it too. Now, he’s an old middle-aged man, hankering for a political past he doesn’t remember but yearns for nonetheless: the brokered convention! He knows the last one, Chicago 1968, was a disaster, but the 1860 convention that chose Abraham Lincoln is his model. He quotes Senator Charles Sumner, who welcomed the delegates “whose duty it will be to organize victory.”

“To organize victory.” Klein savors that line, understandably. But it doesn’t sound a whole lot like democracy.

Democrats are going through a primary, even if it’s a faux-primary: Yes, Dean Phillips is a joke, Marianne Williamson dropped out, and delusional RFK Jr. decided an independent candidacy backed by Trump donors was the better idea. But it’s a primary, nonetheless; everyone was free to run. The idea that Dem power brokers muscled folks out of the race is as dumb as it was in 2016, when the same was said about Hillary Clinton. Ambitious Democratic politicians sized up the odds both cycles, and concluded they couldn’t win. Senator Bernie Sanders sized it up differently in 2016, and almost won.

(If anyone has examples of Biden operatives muscling out strong Democrats who wanted to run this year, please contact me. Or Klein, since he has a bigger platform.)

So: Biden will have gotten through these not-challenging primaries, will be heading to the convention in Chicago, and… something, someone?… will convince him not to run. Klein suggests “Barack Obama, Chuck Schumer, Mike Donilon, Ron Klain, Nancy Pelosi, Anita Dunn.” Oh, right: The Democratic power brokers people didn’t want picking the nominee in 2016 will force out the incumbent president who won the primaries in 2020 and 2024. Sounds good.

That will send it into a free-for-all at the Chicago brokered convention. Klein wasn’t born yet at the time of the 1968 Chicago convention. I was only 9, but my father watched it incessantly, knowing that the battles between anti-war protesters, establishment Democrats, and Mayor Daley’s goon squad would elect Richard Nixon. He was right.

Meanwhile, if Biden should suddenly falter in the summer? Democrats already have a backup: the woman who was a US senator, California’s attorney general, and San Francisco’s first female district attorney, and is now his vice president. Surely, Kamala Harris would succeed him, whether in July 2024 or 2026. But no, that’s not the assumption.

And that gives the game away: Pundits who think Biden should step aside never say he should hand the reins to Harris. Ever since her presidential campaign ran aground at the end of 2019, she has been denigrated as a terrible politician and an insufficient successor to Biden. She has made her mistakes, but she has also been subject to the racist and sexist scrutiny that explains why we’ve never had a Black female vice president before—and may never have a female president in my lifetime.

To be fair, Klein devotes several paragraphs to what he calls “the Kamala Harris problem.” Ouch; he should have revisited W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk before using the word “problem.” But he does acknowledge Harris as a potential Biden successor, and praises her as having done a better job than most pundits give her credit for.

And then he pivots: “Still, it is the party’s job to organize victory. If Harris cannot convince delegates that she has the best shot at victory, she should not and probably would not be chosen,” he writes. “And I don’t think that would rip the party apart.” I can almost reduce my disagreement with Klein to that one sentence. I truly believe, and have often written, that it would indeed rip the party apart. Black women organized to get Biden to choose a Black woman running mate in 2020. Not all of them favored Harris, but you best believe they favor her now. If an open convention chose, say, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (who I think is objectively terrific), I don’t want to be in Chicago for that.

Recently, I was at a prominent liberal event where a prominent white male liberal told me, and others around us, that it would be no problem if the Democrats chose someone like Whitmer, or California Governor Gavin Newsom, and shunted aside Harris, because “the Blacks” don’t even like Harris. Again I prayed, God give me the self-confidence of an affluent white man. (Also, as Seth Meyers suggested in another context, if you’re white, it’s creepy to talk about “the Blacks,” unless you’re referring to the nice family named Black who live across the street. And then definitely invite the Blacks to your barbecue!)

Klein is an exceedingly smart guy and knowledgeable about politics, to an extent. But he also can show an odd, intellectual detachment at times, and this is one of those times. Another time I remember well: When he flipped out about the glitchy rollout of the Obamacare website, acting like it heralded doom for not merely the Affordable Care Act but liberalism itself. I feel slightly petty for bringing up a disagreement we had almost 11 years ago, but I’d feel dishonest if I didn’t, so thoroughly did it shape my reaction to this piece.

I wound up in the unenviable position of seeming to argue that liberal journalists shouldn’t write about the genuine problems with the ACA rollout. I did not say that. I argued that they shouldn’t freak out about it. And I think I was right. As of 2023, 40 million Americans had obtained health insurance under the ACA. Thanks, Obama!

That’s relevant in this case, too. Klein and all other other “Biden must go” pundits act like they are the only ones concerned about his age—and those of us who think, barring disaster, we should stick with him are putting fingers in our ears and going “la la la la” (or scarfing Xanax). We are not. We’re concerned. We’re writing pieces about how he has to confront the age issue, and other issues, directly. We have added up the various risks and benefits of Biden-Harris 2024, and concluded that it’s less risky to run the incumbent. We could turn out to be wrong, but we’re neither stupid nor feckless.

Finally, let me give my friend Josh Marshall, the founder of Talking Points Memo, the last words here. An ugly fight over Harris isn’t the only risk of a convention designed “to organize victory.” As Marshall puts it: “Is early-21st-century America really ready for a party nominee literally chosen by a few thousand party insiders and activists? I have real doubts about that. Will the convention not become a forum for litigating highly divisive issues like Gaza, Medicare for All and the broader contest between progressives and establishment-oriented liberals?”

It will indeed. Such a convention could be almost as divisive as Chicago ’68, except Mayor Brandon Johnson would not authorize his police force to beat up the hippies.

I’ve spent way too many words on an idea I consider hugely ill-advised. Sigh. Such is the power of a leading New York Times columnist—power that could be used in so much more constructive ways.

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Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh, a national affairs correspondent for The Nation, is a coproducer of The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show and the author of What’s the Matter With White People? Finding Our Way in the Next America. Her new book (with Nick Hanauer and Donald Cohen) is Corporate Bullsh*t: Exposing the Lies and Half-Truths That Protect Profit, Power and Wealth In America.

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